Monday, August 20, 2007

Nationals Debrief - Slalom

And finally some notes on slalom. First off - we were lucky with the conditions, as they were pretty consistent for Crissy Field standards. I was able to be competitive for the whole series of races on a 24" Roberts with a 7.2 Sailworks NXsl. Others did switch around their gear a bit; I don't know if it's because their stuff isn't as rangy, or whether they just wanted to optimize; my setup felt right the whole time, though.

Usually, slalom starts are biased towards the pin a little bit; that's supposed to reduce congestion at the boat (as people would try to be above others and roll over them on the way to the first mark). Since the first leg was a bit of a tight reach (especially in the finals when the ebb had slacked and it was starting to flood a little), it seems like the best starts were to be had in the middle of the line (with a bit of upwind advantage over the people at the pin, but with enough distance to the boat to avoid its windshadow and to avoid being pushed up by leeward boards with right of way).

The second reach, however, was *very* deep. So taking the first mark high was not necessarily a winning strategy, especially at the beginning when it was pretty light and you couldn't really get enough power to really fly that deep off the breeze. In the finals series, the first mark was moved down a bit - which was very welcome because it (a) reduced the too-deep angle for the second reach and (b) made up for the flood making the first leg even more of a squeeze.

In the qualifying heats, I had no problems getting pretty good starts; in the finals, with more people pushing hard and 13 boards in the race, the rather short start line made starting a bit more precarious. Add to that the fact that at the first mark it was flooding a bit now, and you really didn't want to be stuck to leeward of the line, pinching to make the mark and getting rolled by those above you.

The course was pretty short; each heat took between 2 and 3 minutes for the leaders, and the reaches were too short to do a lot of passing. Good starts and aggressive jibes, as well as fast acceleration out of the jibes, were thus the critical success factors (more so than big time straight-line speed on the reaches). This favored lighter, nimble sailors (like David Wells and Jason Voss), as well as really solid and aggressive jibers like Bill Weir. Seth, while not exactly a fly-weight, is certainly nimble and aggressive, plus he tended to run bigger boards than most to optimize acceleration out of the jibes, and that certainly paid off for him.

Waterstate was interesting, too. In the qualifying series, the first mark was right at an eddy line, so there was a bit of cross chop right in the jibe zone. Add to that the disturbance in the water from the press boat maneuvering to stay just to windward of the mark, and you had some 'interesting' water to jibe in. The second and fourth marks had typical Crissy ebb chop, while the third jibe was in pretty smooth water. In the finals, the picture changed a bit with the tide changing over; the first mark was now pretty flat (plus speeds were lower as we were pinching a bit with the flood pushing us down), but the second mark was all of a sudden experiencing some really strange cross chop with an eddy line close by (I stuffed the nose of my board into that in the last heat when I was trying to squeeze by David Wells on the inside of the jibe, resulting in a tremendous wipeout for me).

With an OCS in the first finals heat, and a big wipeout in the last, there are certainly some lessons to be learned from this one. Given how I was set up, and how the course worked, however, I don't think I'd change anything about my approach. While I had great straight-line speed on just about anyone in the fleet, the short reaches didn't really afford me an opportunity to take full advantage of that. My jibe exits tend to be a little slower than those of lighter sailors (or sailors who ran bigger boards). That left starts and aggressive positioning in the jibes as the key factors, and I tried to maximize those. In that first heat, I hit the line 1 second prematurely - so it was a matter of relative positioning (as I had left myself not quite enough room to maneuver in this first heat with the top of the fleet), but the general approach of pushing hard at the start was certainly valid.

Similarly, I was able to hold off a number of lighter sailors in several heats by positioning my jibes to close the door on them, protecting my position, and was able to pick up several positions by attacking those in front of me who left the door open. The fact that in that last heat I crashed while attacking is the risk you take trying to win a heat as opposed to just placing.
While you could argue that sometimes you just have to be conservative to protect your position, I've found that when I try to jibe conservatively, it often results in being too tentative - which often leads if not to outright crashes than at least baubled jibes that allow others to pass.

One thing for me to change, however (other than continuing to work on my jibes) would be to go with a slightly larger slalom board. While this would marginally decrease straight line speed, it should do a lot for acceleration on jibe exit, as well as make me more impervious to holes and adverse current (very important for a heavier sailor).

Racing downwind slalom is a blast. While the heats are short, they're definitely intense. The round robin fleet format allowed everyone a fair amount of racing - definitely an improvement from double-eliminations, which tend to result in the majority of sailors being eliminated early and getting very little racing in. For downwind slalom to be fun, though, the conditions have to be right. We were lucky to get enough breeze to have fun, exciting races.

The pros race slalom on large gear in light air these days, as a way to guarantee a contest. While I get their motivation (it's much easier to sell a slalom contest to spectators and sponsors, since it's easy to follow what's going on and you don't have to worry about setting different courses when it's getting light), as a competitor, I'd have to say that the prospect of racing slalom in 12-14 knots is just not very exciting. Sure, you're still going pretty fast, but the raw adrenaline rush of 'real' slalom (i.e., high wind slalom in 20+ knots) is just not there. As a racer, you're then stuck with moderately exciting sailing, but without the tactical challenge you can have in course racing in those conditions.

I'm curious to see how this will develop at the amateur level; in the Gorge, we're all basically racing 2 boards and 4 sails, just like the pros - it's just that we distribute that over one Formula and one Slalom setup, as opposed to two sets of slalom gear, giving us more range and variety for only marginally more money (as the large slalom stuff isn't really that much cheaper than formula gear).

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