Thursday, June 23, 2011

Race Courses - Thinking Outside the Box

Last January, I took over as Chairman of the Race Committee at my local club. I had been vigorously proposing changes in racing (or supporting those proposed by others) for the last four years and had encountered considerable friction among club racers along the way. A few changes were made, but the process felt like dragging blocks of stone up the Pharaoh’s ramps. Imagine my surprise this year when not only was my offer to become chairman accepted, but others greased the wheels for moving new ideas along.

I was told that I was a good candidate to help reinvigorate our increasingly anemic local racing (a problem shared by many, many local clubs these days). I was told I was able “to think outside the box.”

A short digression:

I have always found the overused phrase “thinking outside the box” irritating. Usually is it used to talk about thinking which moves from a small box to another box only slightly larger. Most people seldom go further than that.

Really creative people say, “What box?” For them, thinking and boxes have nothing to do with each other. I wish I were more like them. When it comes to sailboat racing courses however, the best I can do is to take some things from different boxes and put them together in a larger box. Sounds like a job in the shipping department to me. It may seem pretty pedestrian, but where would the world be if we couldn’t move boxes around?

One of our RC tasks was to find a way to make two divergent groups of racers happy when all fleets sail together on Sundays. The sloop rigged boats like our tried and true, traditional format of two 40 minute races in an afternoon. The Laser sailors come from backgrounds of high school / college racing and frostbiting where the pace is quicker, courses are shorter, and five or more races are run in a day. Sunfish sailors also prefer shorter courses and more races.

At our lake, we don’t have a large enough sailing area or enough manpower and power boats to run separate courses simultaneously, but a major goal was to get away from the “separate, but equal” feeling that the fleets were developing. Our challenge was how to run two completely different kinds of racing using the same marks and the same committee boat.

I offered two solutions that passed for “thinking outside the box.” The first was a trapezoid course which I lifted from a box labeled “standard practices for Laser regattas.” My original contribution was merely to suggest a more rectangular trapezoid and a finish line using the same RC boat used for the start line.

The standard trapezoid course works best for two fleets of similar speed having races of more or less equal duration. The first fleet sails the outer loop while the second fleet sails a windward-leeward-windward on the right side (inner loop) before reaching to the marks on the left and then sailing a leeward and reach to the finish. But with a little creative misunderstanding of the standard course, I looked at the diagram and saw a long course by sailing the traditional outer loop and a shorter windward-leeward course using only the marks on the right side of the course. This seems to solve our long course-short course issue, and separates the fleets for much of the time. We have not tried this yet, but I have high hopes.

The second solution was to take the trapezoid and just make it into a box. By putting the marks on the corners and a start-finish line in the middle of the right side, the windward-leeward course on the right could have a more desirable upwind finish. A little more fleet interference was possible, but both fleets get the upwind finish that they seem to prefer. Placing the start and finish lines on opposite sides of the committee boat reduces the interference significantly. (This idea came directly from a couple of other boxes I’ve seen along the way.)

We used this box course a couple of weekends ago, and it was a big hit. The sloop rigged boats were as satisfied as usual with their course, and the separation between fleets was so successful that we Laser sailors felt like we were the only fleet sailing. And, unlike Sundays in previous years, we got in many more than the two standard races.

So, what is working so far is not so much thinking OUTSIDE the box, but thinking OF the box. For multi-fleet racing, placing one windward-leeward box next to another windward-leeward box opens up many possibilities. Similarly, an additional re-labeled starting line box adjacent to and mirror imaged from the first (using the same committee boat) can separate traffic and allow starting fleets with less waiting time. Just rearranging familiar boxes presents many different opportunities. It’s not terribly creative, but sailing isn’t rocket science. It turns out that boxes are very useful in the shipping department!



  1. Good Article About Race Courses - Thinking Outside the Box

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  2. interesting blog. It would be great if you can provide more details about it. Thanks you

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  3. I'll try pack them in a box next time then ;)