The first slalom heat saw the whole fleet late for the start - Bruce got to the line first, at about four seconds late. I managed to mistime the start to badly, I wound up going over the line at something like 10 seconds after the horn, buried in something like 12th place in a tight knot of sailors. In the mayhem at the first mark, I had to go really wide, which didn't help too much. Through the two lap course (each lap including a 'free leg from the last jibe up to the layline for the starting pin, adding an element of upwind performance and tactics to the race), I managed to claw my way back up to 7th - not bad considering I ended up swimming at one jibe to avoid hitting a sailor who had crashed right in front of me.
For the second heat, I was determined not to repeat my bad start. Apparently, everyone else felt the same, as the whole pack was moving aggressively toward the line. At five seconds, I found myself close to the boat (upwind) end of the mark with a sailor above me and the whole pack slightly back and below. I tried bleeding a little speed, but the sailor above kept pushing, so I went for it hoping I'd be OK. Darren blew another horn, but as I looked back I saw no flag; instead of going back 'just in case' I decided to go for it, not knowing whether I'd been over early. I had a great race, rounding the first mark in 2nd right after Bruce and keeping that position throughout the heat. Clean air really helps, especially when it gets flukey - as the race progressed, we gained more and more distance on the fleet, as the packs kept having to pump hard out of the turns. Unfortunately, it turned out that I was over early (by about a board length, Darren told me later). Bummer, but it sure was a fun race.
The third heat saw bigger and bigger holes on the course; Stefan decided to run the course on his Formula gear because of this. I got a clean start and rounded the first mark in 2nd behind Bruce, right ahead of Doug. I kept that spot throughout the first lap until the free upwind leg - when out of nowhere Stefan emerged pointing straight for the pin we needed to round, while I was getting pushed downwind by a header. Bruce avoided being passed and opened up some distance on the downwind portion; I followed Stefan into the three-jibe reaching part of the course and managed to squeeze by him around the second jibe mark (Formula boards take up a lot of real estate on a slalom course...), but the gap I opened up on the last reaching leg and with the faster jibe around #3 was not enough as on the upwind leg, I had to pump through a hole while he just motored straight up to the pin again - I missed him by less than a board length. Given what he had to do to hang on to his big gear through the slalom course, he'd certainly earned that one.
Since it got a little flukey for slalom, Darren switched to Formula - a good decision. We had four excellent, very powered up Formula races. On the first heat, I got a good start on the pin end (again the course was pretty port favored, so there were only a handful of startboard starters). I had great speed and angle and was able to hold my position against Bruce. He called a pretty aggressive layline for the upwind mark, which seemed too dodgy to me, so I went a little further to put some in the bank. That paid off, as we hit a huge header on the approach to the mark, which meant he had to double tack while I could round the mark in first. As I headed off the wind, I saw the breeze on the inside near the Oregon shore all filled in, so I decided to stay on starboard and try to get down to the leeward mark that way. Bruce, apparently deciding that he had a better shot of passing me by looking for more breeze in the channel, jibed after rounding the mark. My call paid off, as I rode a good puff all the way down the course, jibed on the layline, and rounded the bottom mark with a healthy gap at least five seconds before Bruce. I held that position around the windward mark, having slightly better speed but lower angle upwind. Then it was decision time - another ride on the inside, or play for better breeze in the channel? I decided to stay on the inside, having had to work through a little hole on the approach to the mark. Looking back, I saw Bruce rounding just as a big gust came down the middle of the course, which caused him to jibe and ride the glory puff down the channel. I considered covering him, but didn't because there was a big hole between me and him, virtually guaranteeing he'd catch me. As I made my way down, a big hole opened up on the inside, and I lost enough time pumping through that and out of my jibe that Bruce easily beat me to the leeward mark and into the finish reach, so I came in second.
The next three Formula heats saw increasing winds at the top of the course (albeit too inconsistent at the bottom end of the course to switch back to slalom). I had three more solid starts but wasn't able to sneak by Bruce again, finishing second in all of them.
Lessons for the day:
- Slalom starts are hugely important - and the difference between being over early and being late enough to get buried in the pack is a matter of just a few seconds.
- Leaders make their own luck - the further up front you are in a slalom race, the less you're affected by holes, as you're only pumping out of holes, whereas in the pack you're also battling the turbulence and wakes created by the rest of the sailors.
- Don't let up even after a bad start - while it's hard to pass people on a slalom course, it's certainly possible, especially with the free upwind leg.
- Don't underestimate the power of Formula gear in a reaching format - while I had tons of speed and faster jibing on Stefan, he was able to take advantage of his ability to power through the lulls and get boatloads of angle on the free leg. Maybe there's something to the ever-increasing width (and thus planing power) of slalom boards; it's not just about how fast you can go and how hard you can carve your jibes, but also about whether you can keep your speed in the holes.
- Races aren't over until you're through the finish line. I had a flawless 3/4 of a race in the first formula heat, but Bruce still got me by making a smart tactical call for the last downwind leg. I'll need to figure out my downwind tactics a bit better if I want to ever score a bullett.
- The range of our modern gear is amazing. We were formula racing in well over 20 knots, with gusts quite a bit higher than that at the top of the course. It was FUN. We were slalom racing in mostly 20+ knots, with some pretty furry gusts, but also some pretty significant lulls. Again, it was FUN.
- I love slalom sailing. It's pretty close to flying, exhilarating, exciting. On a race course, though, I'd rather get blown off the water on Formula gear than race slalom in shifty, inconsistent conditions. I don't mind the gusts, that's all great - you just go faster; the lulls, however, are a different story, as pumping out of a jibe in a pack with inconsistent winds can be pretty tough. Time to start thinking about a wider board.
Results and photos should be up soon on the VMG Gorge Cup site (thanks Scotia!)