Some notes on the course at the Nationals, and what that meant for tactics given the conditions on the different days. The diagram to the left roughly shows how things were laid out, with the course set off Crissy Field (the start line was just above the St. Francis, and the WW mark outside and upwind from Anita Rock). We ran the same configuration for all course races - Start, A to port, B to port, A to port, B to port, A to port, downwind finish; that's a LONG course - it took the leaders anywhere from 25 to 30 or so minutes per heat.
Generally, the outside (i.e., North side) of the course was favored going upwind; when it was ebbing, you got both the current and the extra breeze working in your favor; when it was flooding, you got the breeze outside, as well as a bit of a lift. Since that's a well-known bias at Crissy, PRO John Craig set the start with a fair bit of starboard bias and made it fairly short to discourage port starting. I did a few port starts, and had to pretty much duck the whole fleet, working to clear the boat end of the start line - it still was worth it for me, though, to get over to the right faster, and to get clear air (more on that later).
While the course was long, once you were around the first time, it wasn't super tactical. Going into shore on the upwind legs wasn't really an option, so it tended to be a parade. Usually, someone in the leader's group would get a good tight rounding at the bottom mark and grind like crazy, resulting in following sailors getting gassed, and the whole fleet getting knocked down by dirty air. As a result, the upwind legs created little opportunity for passing. Only on the ebb could you potentially foot below people and get them through raw speed; on the flood, you'd get knocked down too much. As further risk to footing, there was always the potential that you'd get too far into the shipping lane and would be made to tack by a chase boat to keep you out of the way of oncoming container ships.
Downwind presented a bit more of a tactical opportunity; you could either go for playing the inside in the hopes of a good header (since you often get southerly gusts off the shore), or you could go for more pressure on the outside. Both had their risks - you could find yourself stuck in light air near shore, or you could be forced to jibe prematurely outside to get out of the way of freighters.
The whole layout very much rewarded good angle, both upwind and down. Upwind, good angle gave you options, as you stayed clear of the obstructions (shore for the starboard starters; then the shipping lane as you were banging the corner outside). It further allowed you to sail more directly into the flood for those races where that was a factor, resulting in a more favorable composite vector. Downwind, it allowed you to take risks going inside; passing someone by rolling them was risky, as they could head you up into the light air and shallow water by the beach.
The current, of course, was a major issue. With a strong flood, laying the windward mark had a huge element of chance - if you hit a header or hole on approaching the mark, the ebb would convert what looked like a safe layline into tacking practice. And since the current wasn't uniform across the course (on a strong ebb, there's usually a bit of a flood eddie on the inside; near slack, you can find all kinds of strange currents), local knowledge payed off handsomely for the top Bay sailors who call this place home. I remembered some of the lessons learned many years ago when racing here regularly, but I also had to relearn some of them pretty painfully.
Lastly, the waterstate is a tremendous factor at this venue. Crissy Field is famous for its voodoo chop. On a strong ebb, you've got big, pitched swell (with cross-swell at the eddie lines) teaming up with the innumerable boat/ferry/freighter wakes and reverberation off the seawall down by the start. On a flood, you can have flat water and washboard chop, with sudden cross chop coming at you out of nowhere. Compared to the Gorge, for a given wind strength, that results in generally much rougher and less predictable water. As a result, it's much harder to keep your foils flying.
That was a lesson I learned the hard way on the first day of racing. I was comfortably powered on my 9.9 - in the Gorge, that translates into racing on a 68cm fin. I was on my 70, though, since I simply couldn't get enough power to point otherwise. So in the puffs, I got stood up by a too-lifty fin, and in the lulls (or when I couldn't keep things flowing b/c I was working through the voodoo chop) I'd lose the drive from the fin. On the second day, I switched from my R16 to a Finworks formula fin, and it made a huge difference; I got better angle without losing significant amounts of speed, and the fin just had more range and tracked better and more predicably - that was both a matter of the foil and the softer flex.
Ultimately, the critical success factors for the regatta were
- good angle (more so than good boat speed), which kept options open,
- conservative laylines,
- covering following sailors (critical for the leaders, as tacking off wasn't really an option for those following),
- a setup with a huge amount of range, especially from your fin (due to the rough water and variable wind)
So for me, there are two areas of focus that I'm coming away with after this event:
- Fins - I'll be working with Dave Lassila of Finworks on rangier Formula fins. My current setup (all R16's) is very much Gorge optimized.
- Conditioning - I tend to be fine for one or two day of racing, but at some point my body runs out of steam. At the Gorge Challenge, the last few slalom heats on Saturday were pretty much just about holding on for me, and during Nationals, my body was very much feeling the strain. I don't live in the Gorge or the Bay Area, so I won't be able to simply up my amount of time on the water. That's why I decided to step up my conditioning and work with the folks at Bellingham Athletic Club; these 8 days of racing (with the only break being the long drive from the Gorge to San Francisco on Monday) clearly showed that to be the right direction.