Race training not only sharpens your sailing skills but produces an addictive buzz, as Caroline Strainig finds out when she enrols with Eastsail.
There were yachts within a few metres of us on both sides and about another 20 or so within 200 metres.
The start line for the Cruising Yacht Club of Australia Wednesday afternoon twilight was just ahead. The tension on our Sydney 36 was palpable as we tried to time our run to the line. None of us wanted to stuff this up.
“Fifty seconds, 40, 30 . . .” the countdown seemed to happen almost in slow motion as we headed for the line with sheets eased, willing the seconds away. Would we be too early? Finally, the forward hand gestured “go for it”, the helmsman yelled “heading up” and the headsail winch hand started grinding with all his strength and the mainsheet hand pulling on furiously. “Blaaaaah!” screamed the starting horn. We were off.
“What am I doing here?” I thought to myself, as I glanced around at the melee of yachts, heart racing. “I'm a cruiser, not a racer!”
The reason I was there in the cockpit on that day had seemed logical when I first thought of it: doing a ready-to-race course to improve my basic sailing skills. Everyone assured me that there is nothing like racing to hone your trimming and helming and eradicate ?lazy? cruising habits. I had also decided twilight racing would be a good way to escape the editorial desk on a regular basis and needed to learn some basic racing craft because my previous racing experience was limited to a handful of outings.
My timing couldn't have been better. Sydney sail-training school Eastsail had a ready-to-race course starting the next day and could squeeze me in. Before I even had time to pause and reflect on the rashness of this voyage “on the dark side” I found myself sitting in the Eastsail office with five like-minded sailors being inducted into the mysteries of racing.
Based at Rushcutters Bay just a couple of doors down from the Cruising Yacht Club of Australia, Eastsail is a RYA-accredited sailing school and Sydney's largest. They offer the full range of traditional training courses, such as Yachtmaster, but also some more specialist ones. The ready-to-race course is a recent addition, held twice a year prior to the start of the summer and winter racing seasons. It comprises four three-hour sessions. Day one is theory, day two a race, day three an on-water practice session and day four another race.
We were privileged to have one of the best sailing instructors in the business, Dayne Sharp, an Australian sailing coach for the Sydney and Athens Olympics.
The theory session
Racing, I quickly discovered, has a lot more to it than just tacking around the start line waiting for the gun then heading off in the direction of the first mark. Here are some of the things that stuck in my mind from our whistlestop theory session.
* Make sure you know the rules and buy a book that explains these rules in plain English so you understand them fully. It's too late when you're in a close situation with another boat to be unsure about who has right of way.
* Do your research. Check the sailing instructions, draw up a list of marks of the course, make sure you know where they are, and also which race flags will be used. It helps to do a summary in large print, whack it in a waterproof sleeve and tape it next to the companionway where it is visible to all crew members.
* Find out which end of the start line is favoured in terms of wind direction and course to the first mark.
* Take the time and trouble to work out your start line transits. This basically means lining up the start buoy and committee boat and an extension of this line with something on land in either direction, so when you are closing on the line you know exactly where it is.
* For windward work (generally the first leg) before you start, check your rhumbline to the first mark and work out your laylines and compass bearings on each tack. Keep a constant check on the bearings when heading to windward so you spot any knocks or lifts (a knock heading you away from the mark and a lift heading you towards it). Off the wind, compass bearings are still important but generally you are heading almost straight for the next mark, and only varying the course slightly to head up in the lulls and down in the gusts.
* Be aware of tidal and land influence. You can get wind shifts near land and obviously want to stay out of the tide where it is strongest if possible if not in your favour.
* Gear your tactics for your level of sailing and look hard for clean air. There's no point in scaring yourself silly in the middle of a dozen boats all pushing one another up to windward if you could have started half a dozen boat lengths farther away in clean air.
* Make sure everyone has a role and sticks to it. On-deck action at times might look frenetic, but it is organised chaos if everyone knows what he or she should be doing.
Our first race
With our heads stuffed full of barely digested knowledge, we headed out the next afternoon to experience life in the fast lane, in this case a Cruising Yacht Club of Australia Wednesday evening twilight race. Within 15 minutes of getting on our Eastsail Sydney 36, we crossed the line. After the excitement of the start (as described above) things quickly settled down, and we started to relax and enjoy ourselves. A couple of fluffed tacks cost us some time, but overall we went well, and were delighted to finish ninth in Division B.
I was tactician for this race and although I didn't have any real input, it did make me think things through and look at the ramifications of decisions, looking at other yachts, where to tack to achieve clean air and reading the wind lines.
The following Tuesday was a practice session and the session I enjoyed the most. Despite strong winds gusting above 20 knots, we had an absolute ball. Without the pressure of a race, we each practised three starts in each of six different roles: tactician, helm, forward hand, headsail sheet hand and mainsail sheet hand. Dayne would not allow us to sail along the start line if early, because in a race there would be other boats all around, so we had to try to time our run precisely, and luff up, or fall away and do a zig-zag if early.
The final race
The next day was our second twilight race. Again we nailed the start, but some green helming in the very gusty conditions and a couple of less than perfect tacks let us down.
I feel more comfortable behind the wheel rather than sitting to the side of it, which is preferable when helming to windward in stronger winds for visibility and to get your weight up on the high side. Having so many eyes on you also makes you self-conscious, inhibiting your natural feel.
We made another mistake by letting a boat pass us to windward when we should have forced them to go around us to leeward. Dayne told a story about how the same thing had happened to him in a race recently; he'd headed up twice to stop another yacht passing upwind, turned his back for a couple of seconds thinking job done, but realised he had been sold a dummy move and “they had us!”.
In the final wash-up we came 12th, which wasn't too bad given Dayne had done less and we had done more, learning from our mistakes. We would have had to knock eight minutes off our time to win, and I can honestly say than even with a gun crew there was no way that would have happened.
I would recommend the course to anyone contemplating twilight racing or serious about improving their trimming skills. The racing environment is a little “blokey”, polite as the males are we females are not as strong on the winches and women are in the minority on the Sydney racing scene, but I learned a lot and wouldn't have missed it for quids. The other five all said they benefited greatly and one was even thinking of doing the course again when he had more experience. My only suggestion would be to put the first on-water practice session before the first race.
And the one thing I will always remember? Dayne's single most important piece of advice: “Get our there and sail. Just sail.”
NEXT READY-TO-RACE COURSE
Eastsail's ready-to-race course is held on two consecutive weekends instead of mid-week evenings. Would-be participants should have a reasonable level of competency and have done at least some racing. The cost is $425 per person.
Ready-to-race courses are held by a number of other sailing schools. Enquire at your local sailing school or surf the web.