The world championship is one tough regatta for good reason. At least half of the fleet have the ability to win a race and much of fleet has a chance to win the regatta. How do the Hamlins, Bergstroms, Barkers, Upton-Browns etc, consistently place in the top of the fleet and often fight for the championship? The answer is varied according to team, whether it is exceptional speed, good pointing, excellent experience, fleet management, proper preparation, but they all have one thing in common. They all start well and have good first beats, ensuring that they round the first mark in the top twenty of the fleet, more often in the top ten. From there on the race is not that difficult, but that first beat is damn hard, and I guarantee that all of their hearts are pumping when the starting guns goes off.
I don’t claim to be in the same class with these guys, but found myself to be in their way and ahead of them in many of the 1997 worlds races. This article will try to give some insight into that crucial start and first beat in order to help the US Team win the worlds in Hyannis.
A three to four minute gate with over 80 boats! A scary notion. If you gate first and the wind lifts, you start in 80th. If you gate last and the wind heads, you start in 80th. So where do you start and why. As is any sailboat race it helps to get out to the course early and figure out what the wind is doing. Then you can determine if the wind should head or lift. Even if you think it is a lifting breeze, it is difficult and scary to wait three minutes and start last, while all the fast guys have blasted through the gate.
Rarely does the first gater, last gater or pathfinder win the race. The winner usually comes out of the middle somewhere. In Gilleleje it seemed that the preferred place to start was about 15-25 boats up the gate. This way you are getting out early and racing your own race, but you are starting a little more to the middle, which is a little more conservative. The 1997 World champion, never won a race, but his worst finish was a tenth. See Mike Mills article about early gating in (issue of tank talk), he has a theory of the wind bending around the fleet so there is more velocity on the ends and the wind is less disturbed. I think he is right and that is why you see more people gating early. Of course it would make sense to gate late as well, but those fast guys have already been jetting up the course for three minutes. It is very hard to wait.
We would try to decide where we would want to gate, and then be flexible as we went up the line on port before the start. Another big consideration is traffic! We would happily go up the line a little further if we could have a nice hole to start in. I knew we were fast and had good pointing, we just had to get off the line cleanly and in clear air.
The First Minute
Middle Beat (2-12 Minutes)
If you kept your lane off the line and the wind has stayed relatively steady, you should now be in that top 30 boats. Those boats that didn’t keep their lane are hating it and somewhere behind you. At this point my advice is, no matter which way you are going, keep going. Only tack unless you have a very good reason. We absolutely killed some people by hanging all the way to the layline. I know the fundamentals say to avoid the laylines, but if you can get there first or soon after, you are in good shape. All of the boats in the cone formed by the laylines are in dirty air. The best place is really clear air three of four lanes below the layline. Wind shifts are definitely important and it is essential to stay in phase, but clear air and speed is key against the world’s fastest sailors. Stay in clear air and don’t tack too much. I was cringing at every tack we made, because those fast guys are in the groove and trucking. At this point in the race, you should be concentrating on Speed! Go super fast, for now is the time to grind people down and get into the top ten. Avoid altercations with other boats, you must keep your fast lane. We ducked a couple of port tackers so that we would not have to deal with them.
The Cone at the Top
This is tough because the clear air and lanes are becoming limited. The decisions you make here can mean a top ten rounding or a mid fleet rounding. This may be obvious, but get your butt around that mark in that top group. You can see the mark right there, you can see the leader, you can see the pack, now get yourself to round ahead of the pack! Sounds easy huh? How do you do it? Well I don’t really know.
Be lucky, fast and daring. We made the port layline pay several times. Part of the reason for that was that we would gate early and keep going close to the port layline. I was determined to stay in clear air, so if someone tacked in front of us, we would go out further. It is scary coming in on port, but if you are in the top group, you don’t have to worry about spinnakers, and most of the starboard tackers are overstanding. In one race we tacked below a couple of starboard tackers, that rolled us, but then we rounded right after them in 10th or so. Stay in clear air, but don’t overstand. We got killed a couple of times by overstanding on the Starboard layline.
The worlds best sailors are the worlds best sailors for good reason. They are all well prepared, very fast and smart. Get your boathandling down and your speed up and then you can hang with these guys. A worlds start with over 80 boats is an adrenalin rush. Don’t get too keyed up and make sure you get off the line with a little room on either side with good speed and point. Keep your lanes open up the beat and keep going fast. Stay away from traffic and try to foresee what will happen before it does. At the top of the beat figure out how to beat the pack to the mark. Then set your chute and when you are hooked up and half way down the reach, ask your helm if you can look back for a moment. When you get permission, the sight of 80 spinnakers following you, will bring a smile to your face. Now don’t let them catch you!
Editor’s Note: Allan Johnson sailed the 1997 World Championship with Ali Meller, finishing 7th.