Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Laser Midwinters Recap - Great Progress and More Work Needed

The final day of the Laser Midwinters at Clearwater Beach saw us running two races in a light, southerly 5 knot breeze. The lighter conditions and bumpy sea state gave us a new challenge, and very different conditions from the northerly winds we raced in during the first three days. It reminded me of the typical conditions found in Newport Beach, California - underpowered and bumpy. Also, the north-flowing current added two challenges to the day. It reduced the wind pressure upwind, and it was swirling, producing "lanes" of stronger and weaker current. This played havoc with normal tactics and made it frustrating for the fleet.

I was challenged finding any decent speed upwind. The good sailors have developed a special feel for these conditions, and know how to set up the vang, outhaul, and mainsheet, and can sail high with good speed. Sailing low to gain speed wasn't an option because the boatspeed wasn't faster, and it ended up being just simply sailing lower with no significant gain. I spent more time focused on what the top guys were doing and trying to develop the proper feel. I ended up scoring in the 30's in the two races which were more points then I totaled for the first three days of racing- painful! This dropped me from 13th to 25th place in the final overall standings.

All in all, I felt it was an outstanding week for my Laser sailing. In the first three days of the four day event (with the exception of the first race), I rounded the top mark no worse than 6th and was leading in one of the races. My downwinds are improving and on my second upwind legs, I either gained on other boats or held my own. My upwind speed was good with the exception of the last day. Also, my Laser starting technique is still evolving and was an improvement from the last regatta. Most importantly, I have more confidence coming from this event and more resolve to improve in the areas where I have weaknesses.

To celebrate my successful regatta I went for an hour run after the awards presentation on Clearwater Beach, as the sun set.


Saturday, February 20, 2010

A Black Flag Day

Race number six, the first Gold fleet race, produced 14 Black Flag starters. While the race committee flew the black flag after two general recalls, I was caught among this group of sailors and had to sit out the race for being called over the start line early. I had notable company, including Paul Goodison, who captured his second black flag for the regatta.

There are a number of strategies to choose from when approaching a Black Flag start. The safe approach is to place yourself in the middle of a group of boats and make sure the committee can't see you or your sail number. If you feel the fleet is holding back, then you can be more aggressive and push the line while others are afraid to (this is what caught out Goodison today). I decided to combine the two approaches. I made a late port tack approach and found a gap with 20 seconds to go into the middle of a grouping near the pin end. I got my bow lined up with my fellow competitors and pulled the trigger at the gun. Unfortunately the group I chose were all over the line when I cozied up to them with 20 seconds to the start.

The second race, a 16th place, was a solid performance that has kept me in 13th place overall, two points out of the top ten. Again, I was well placed at the first windward mark, just ducking behind Goodison to round in 6th. While I slid back on the run he charged to the front, eventually winning the race. The difference between his technique and mine is subtle but effective - something I need to build on.

more downwind work needed

Tomorrow is the final day and the forecast is for 10 knots of breeze from the east - perfect laser conditions.


Friday, February 19, 2010

8th Place Overall and Top American Qualifier

As forecasted, the winds were light for the second day of the Laser Midwinters in Clearwater, Florida. Temperatures are still a little chilly, but should be warming up for the weekend, which everyone is certainly ready for. The 90-boat fleet has completed five races, which marks the end of the qualifying series where the top half of the fleet race the final two days as the Gold fleet.

Did I mention it was cold in Clearwater

I'm really excited about how I've been sailing for the past two days! Today, another two finishes in the top ten (7th & 3rd) puts me in 8th place overall and the top American qualifier sailing in the Gold Fleet. I have found upwind speed in the light winds and the leftover choppy swell. I needed the speed to dig out of a poor start in the second race, in spite of which I had a great first beat. I benefitted from hooking into two shifts to round in 4th place right behind the current regatta leader and Swedish Olympian, Rasmus Myrgren.

Regatta Leader Rasmus Myrgren from Sweden
Photo by Chris Love (Sail Groove)

The Swedish are coming (or have arrived)! Three Swedes competed in the medal race (for the top 10 finishers) at the Rolex Miami OCR and currently, they have four sailors in the top ten here- this is no accident. They have been group training intensely since November, putting a lot of work in and pushing each other as a team. I've been fortunate enough to put in a lot of hours with their team as well, which has certainly improved my game.

Feeling connected to the Swedish team is only one experience from the past few days that brings me back to how I used to feel as a competitor years ago, training with the German and Polish teams in the Finn. Today was all about building on confidence, and physically experiencing entirely another mindset. You can see this happening with the other top sailors, and the last two days were one of the first times I was able to again experience this feeling of strong confidence racing the Laser. For me, it's all a process of re-learning lessons both physical and mental, and I'm excited that I have this potential.


Thursday, February 18, 2010

Two Top Finishes on Day 1 of Laser Midwinters

We sailed three races today at the 2010 Laser Midwinters on the Gulf of Mexico off of Clearwater Beach, Florida. A chilly 15-knot northerly kicked up big swell and nasty chop. It was a long day, but the race committee ran three well-laid courses for the Laser, Laser Radial, and the Laser 4.7 classes. The fleets are split into blue and yellow groups for two days of the qualifying series, after which the top 50% are grouped into the Gold Fleet and the bottom half go into the Silver fleet.

2010 Laser Mid Winters Clearwater Beach Florida - day 1
Photo Credit Chris Love (SailGroove)

My score of 20, 3, 6 has me in 15th place and well positioned to qualify for the gold fleet. The highlight was my 3rd place in race two where I lead at the first windward mark. I was closely pursued by Clay Johnson and Nick Thompson, the runaway winner of the Rolex Miami OCR. On the first run they passed but for the next three legs I was able to maintain the same distance to them and kept a comfortable gap to the pursuing pack. The key to my successful race was winning the leeward (pin) end start. With a foul current pushing us down into the leeward mark, I was able to squeeze by after dueling with Charlie Buckingham. Once clear of the line, I had the fleet tucked away, and four minutes later tacked and had the whole fleet in my window in a nice left hand lift.

Today was a big confidence builder. In the first race I was uncertain about my speed and took a bigger risk on the first beat looking for a big shift. After the first mark I saw that I was pacing well with the fleet and with the good sailors that were around me. In hindsight, I could have finished in the top ten if I played a more conservative beat. I'll keep this new lesson in mind for tomorrow's racing.

Cameron Cullman
Photo Credit Chris Love (SailGroove)

Tomorrow's forecast calls for less wind (6-8 knots) from the northeast, which should mean very challenging offshore conditions.


Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Ramping up for the Laser Mid Winters East

I spent the last week in chilly Clearwater, Florida training with some top US and international sailors, many who also competed in the Rolex Miami OCR. The one notable exception is Paul Goodison from Great Britain, the 2008 Olympic gold medalist and 2009 Laser World and European Championships (he's actually won 5 European Championships in a row). He didn't compete in the RMOCR, but he is coming back from a well-deserved break, and with his coach is now preparing for the 2010 European season.

Paul Goodison 2008 Olympic Gold Medalist - Laser

The US team has had a dedicated coach for the past week as do the Canadian, Swedish, British and Austrian sailors. In all there are about thirty sailors working with coaches. The coaches work out a daily plan based on what the sailors need/want to accomplish given the conditions. They typically spend the first hour working separately with their designated sailors, warming up with boat handling drills around a windward-leeward course. Next, they'll do an hour of speed testing. Finally, all the teams meet for an hour of short races. Not having a coach or being on the national team, I have been adopted by all the teams and been allowed to play along. Being "adopted" has taken the span of a few training camps to accomplish, and came as my abilities and confidence grew.

When I first got to Florida in November, I joined the US Sailing Team Laser training camp in Clearwater. At that time I felt more like a speed bump while I learned the drills. At my second training camp in Miami, I became less of an obstacle, but didn't finish well in most of the drills or practice races. Near the end of that camp I decided to upgrade to a new boat and magically, it brought me into the fray. I even won a few drills and practice races. It gave me more confidence, and at the same time, raised the level of the other sailors' respect for my ability.

The great thing about training and sailing with these young guns is how accepting they have been about having me train with them. Some of it may be that their coaches are closer to my era and have clued them in to my background. However, I'd like to think it is due to the respect and camaraderie I've earned by proving that I can hang with them on the water. Although I've come a long way, I still have a long way to go yet if I want to actually race head-to-head with these sailors.

We're expecting more chilly conditions for tomorrow's start and will post daily reports.
Entry List

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Old Guys Rule-the 2010 Laser Masters Midwinters

I had the pleasure of competing in the 2010 Laser Masters Midwinters at the Martin County US Sailing Center this past (three day) weekend. The racing for the 60-boat fleet was held on the Indian River Lagoon, which forms part of the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway. We saw the full spectrum of conditions from 30 knots and square waves the first day, 15-18 knots the second day, and 5-6 knots the final day. Regardless of the strength and direction of the wind, you could count on massive and unpredictable shifts and gusts (or puffs) which made the racing extremely challenging.

I was eager to rejoin the Masters racing after spending the past couple of months sailing with the top Laser sailors and competing in the Rolex Miami OCR the week before. I knew the atmosphere would be more laid back but no less competitive, since the current Masters National Champion, Peter Vessella, would be attending, as was Brett Davis the 2009 Midwinter Champion.

The Masters regattas have the feel of a party; friends coming back together not just to enjoy the racing, but also each other's company. It is a welcoming group whether you are a veteran returning to the class or a newbie who never sailed a Laser before. The celebration is also about doing something we love at an age when we're expected to be winding down. The first day, without hesitation, the committee ran three races in 20-30 knot winds and big waves that rivaled the fiercest San Francisco Bay conditions. Nobody complained, and even with a fair number of swimmers (myself included), everyone survived and had many war stories to relive at that night's dinner and no doubt at future regattas.

The regatta turned into a three way battle between myself, Peter Vessella (both representing St Francis Yacht Club), and Peter Shope representing Sail Newport. Going into the last race in a dying breeze, I managed to eke out a 3-point lead. I was able to keep Peter behind me with a loose cover although my 9th place finish equaled my worst race throw out. This meant I came up one point short of victory.

The big lesson for the week was keeping better track of points. Specifically, I needed to be more aware of the throw-out situation going into the last race. Up the last beat, Peter trailed and sailed to the opposite side of the course from me. I had to decide if I should cover him or stick to sailing my race to finish well. I sailed a couple of headers to keep him in check and lost three boats approaching the finish line to a 15 degree shift. I should have recognized this sooner and focused on covering my closest competitors rather than trying to keep Peter back.

Peter Vessella 2010 Laser masters Midwinter Champion

The Principal Race Officer had the quote of the regatta. He said, "It was great not being considered "grandpa" by the competitors." My take on the difference between the The Rolex Miami OCR and the Laser Masters Mid Winters was - Old Guys Rule!

Full results: results

Monday, February 1, 2010

Lesson Learned 2010 Rolex Miami OCR

After resting a bit after racing, I started thinking about how my result at the 2010 Rolex Miami OCR compares to my result at last year's regatta. The 104 Laser competitors were the overall largest fleet at the 2010 event. The fleet was 70% larger than the average of all the other Olympic class fleets, and was laced deep with talented sailors. On top of that, the wind shifts proved to be very difficult to master for all except Nick Thompson from Great Britain, who ran away with the series scoring six wins in ten races.

Paige Railey (USA Radial) and Nick Thompson (GBR Laser)
Olympic sailing power couple and RMORC winners

Clay Johnson, a strong contender to be the US Laser representative at the 2012 Olympics aptly describes what the on course conditions were like.

"In the first race, I had a great start near the pin and continued to the left. After a few minutes I got headed and took a good opportunity to tack and cross the fleet. I was in the top five group looking great as we crossed everyone from the right. As we continued across, the breeze lightened up a little and our angle began to cave. I looked over my shoulder and saw guys that I had crossed before looking great with pressure and a nice lift further left. So I hitched out to the left trying to get some of that. But things went downhill from there. When I got there the breeze was gone and then the right came in huge. I was left struggling to get back and ended up rounding the mark in the 30s. ........I tried to fight back throughout the race, but 12th to last place were so close that there wasn't much room on the course. I limped into the finish line in a miserable 40th place. ...It doesn't make things easier that every boat in the fleet is a rockstar, so any mistake you make will be jumped upon by others." http://www.claysails.com/

As I mentioned in my first post, my focus was on performance and not results. However, the results do show an improvement from last year where I finished in the 75th percentile (47th/63 boats) and this year finished in the 58th percentile (60th/104 boats).

As for my performance, I am quite satisfied and now have many things to work on to get to the next level. I can build on most aspects of my racing, including starts, speed, tactics, and fitness.

Starts: Good consistent starts make a huge difference, and this has not changed in 30 years. However, the technique has changed and the depth of excellent starters is bigger. I had one clean start leading to a 6th place finish. In the past, if I had more than one bad start at a regatta, it meant that I usually wasn't going to win. More than two bad starts lead to a really bad regatta.

Speed: My upwind speed in light to moderate wind was satisfactory. The feel is quickly coming back and every day I got more consistent and gained more confidence. Downwind was satisfactory at best and very inconsistent. I'm interested to see how long it takes to get my downwind speed up to world standard.

Fitness: I'll be back at the gym hitting it hard tomorrow. I saw a lot of sailors at the gym after racing each day either cooling down on the stationary bikes, stretching, or doing a weight workout. In a breeze I have some work to do to hang with these guys. It could be a long process but it will only happen in the gym, on the road bike and plenty of heavy air training.

Tactics: Only by improving in the above three areas will the tactics start to become a bigger factor. Most of this regatta I spent "back on my heels" and was left scrambling moments after the start trying to find a clean lane. It was hard to get into the flow and make the right decisions from playing catch up right from the start. The last two racing days in the Silver fleet I was able to focus more on the tactics and was getting back into the more subtle aspects of big fleet tactics.

After spending the day watching the medal races I celebrated a successful week with a 40 mile bike ride.

Laser Results http://www.ussailing.org/Rolex/2010/laser/laser.html