ZEKE: Well, that's the first thing we maybe weren't quite doing right and that makes a lot of sense as to why we didn't feel all that special in the pointing department. So, on our boat, we had a lot of discussions about jib lead positioning. We found that when the breeze was in the mid-teens, we liked the jib car 2 holes back from "base" because it would flatten the sail up top, but left a little bit of "punch" in the bottom of the jib to power through the waves. But once the breeze was up in the 20's, we felt better moving the car back to 4 or 5 holes back from "base." What visuals can I use to know that my jib car is in the right place, and how much is based on the feel of the helm or "return" on the main?
MIKE: My easiest visual guideline for the jib car position is how the front of the jib's foot sits on the deck. I look for the "Big Foot" sticker area of the jib to be on or just inside the toe rail when the jib is trimmed correctly for the condition, the heel of the boat, and how much the main is eased. Our goal in trimming the jib was that it be in as tight as possible as long as the top jib telltale wasn't stalling and the main wasn't luffing when it was eased. If we eased the main to keep the boat upright, we'd ease the jib to match. When all of this is correct, the foot of the jib in the area around the "Big Foot" sticker should be on or just inside the toe rail. If it was trending outside the toe rail, we'd move the car back. If it was trending well inside the toe rail, we'd move the car forward. This is a pretty good rule of thumb for the jib car position in almost any condition. In addition, I also use the feel of the helm. If the boat wants to turn up and I want to trim the jib tighter to balance it out but the top jib leech telltale is stalling, I'll move the jib car back to be able to trim the sail tighter without the top telltale stalling. I try to sail with a pretty neutral helm in all conditions.
ZEKE: That's a great tip and one I can easily remember. As you know, and as predicted, CORK gave us big wind and big waves. At times, we were sailing in 3-4 foot waves that were fairly square and close together. In other boats I race regularly, I would be steering aggressively through this type of wave condition to try to minimize the slamming of the bow and keep the boat moving through the water as smoothly as possible. But in the J/22, I found that when I moved the tiller too much, it was quite difficult to maintain a steady level of heel and a balanced helm. And isn't that what it's all about? Tell me how you find the balance between maintaining steady heel and helm, and steering the boat through the waves as smoothly as possible.
MIKE: You are certainly right about the sailing conditions at CORK. It was breezy and wavy, so having a solid game plan for those conditions really helped our team. I was lucky enough to have Todd Hiller do the bow for me. As anyone who has sailed in the J/22 class the past 20+ years knows, Todd is an extraordinary sailor. His main job going upwind was to call the breeze and waves. He was spot on for the whole event and this was a game-changing asset for almost everything I had to do. When I heard there was a puff or a lull coming, I could preemptively adjust the controls to be set for it and keep the heel of the boat constant. Even more importantly, when Todd called the waves, he was descriptive, calling flat spots, waves, chop, and big waves. When I heard flat spot and I could see it in my field of view, I'd pinch to keep the boat flat. When I heard waves, I knew I had to drive normally to keep the boat at full speed. When I heard chop or big waves, I'd wait until I could see them and then make a split-second decision to either put the bow down and power through them or try to steer around them, working the sails in conjunction. If the waves looked organized, I'd try to steer around them, which at times required a lot of tiller movement to stop from slamming (remember: up the front, down the back). I'd also trim the main pretty aggressively to keep the heel constant. If the waves looked disorganized, I'd ease the main and jib a little to keep the heel constant and simply power through the waves. Of course, there's a lot going on in the back of the boat, and everything isn't going to be perfect all the time. The ultimate goal is to keep the boat flat and up to speed. For that, I mostly use a combination of tiller and main trim because I have only two hands.
ZEKE: That is a great point about how important teamwork and communication are in being successful in sailboat racing. It makes a lot of sense that having great information from your bow person (who is a top flight skipper in his own right) helps you keep the boat going fast. Certainly an important aspect for any team to work on is communication and it sounds like it really helped make your job a little bit easier.
So my next thoughts are on overall game plans and how you guys worked through your strategies. I think the fleet was very fortunate to have a top quality race management team, led by David Sprague, and they did an absolutely stellar job setting a course and a starting line totally square to the breeze. On such a long course with a very long starting line, it is very difficult to decide on the game plan for the first beat. My team was always focused on picking the side of the course where we thought had the most pressure and then starting at the end that would get us to that side of the course the fastest. We did NOT want to go in the middle, though we ended up there more often than we wanted. How did your team decide which side of the course you wanted to go to and where to start? Did you ever change your game plan based on the start you ended up with?
MIKE: I don't think our overall process was much different from yours. Generally the decision of where to go rested on the shoulders of my trimmer, Luke Lawrence, and wow, did he impress! Luke really was dialed into what was going on around us which allowed me to focus on spending my time and energy making the boat go fast. Luke was correct about the side to go to almost every time, which really made the rest of the jobs easier. That said, it sounds like our strategy was very similar to yours. We'd look up the course at 4-5 minutes before the start and decide which side had more pressure. If we weren't expecting a shift, we'd plan to head that way. Knowing that it was important to stay out of the middle, we went to our chosen side as fast as we could for almost every one of our races. We were a bit less conservative at the start than you were depending on how confident we were about the side. If we were very confident, our goal was to win the same side of the line as the side of the course that we wanted to head to. If we were less confident, we'd start near the boat so that the option to tack was still open if we didn't like how things were unfolding.
I also have to reiterate what you said about the fantastic job that David Sprague and the Race Committee did. It was one of the best jobs I've seen in quite a while. They set very square lines, moved marks when needed, and had almost no downtime between races. There's not much more you can ask for.