Sunday, February 27, 2011

Florida Laser Masters Week is Heating Up and Attracting International Sailors

Davis Island Yacht Club, Tampa, Florida

The Florida Laser Masters Week is rapidly becoming great winter training for international sailors. Three regattas with seven days of racing over a nine day period, sunny, warm weather, and two great tourist destinations provide superb conditions for sailing and relaxing. Not to mention, regattas are held at accommodating and welcoming host clubs, boat charters are affordable, and an international airport is located in every city. Essentially, international Masters sailors are learning fast that the third week of February is providing a well-organized structure for a solid block of training and racing, adding valuable time on the water to their winter plans. This is proving to be a winning formula for many sailors.

Competition is heating up with an influx of sailors from Denmark, Germany, Mexico, Chile, Canada, and the Dominican Republic added to the usual crowd of Americans traveling from all parts of the country. Hot Apprentice Masters are also joining the fleet, including a few Olympic contenders. Most notable was Matias Del Solar from Chile, who is one of the best Laser sailors in the world and ranked 9th in the ISAF world rankings. Eric Oetgen from Savanna, Georgia, is a three-time Finn Olympic contender; Mark Mendelblatt is another notable newbie who didn’t attend this year but sailed the Masters Atlantic Coast Championship last year; and Ernesto Rodriguez, the winner of the Florida Masters regatta.

Matais Del Solar Masters Midwinters first place overall

Florida Masters Week consists of three regattas, the Florida Masters, Midweek Madness, and the Masters Midwinters East regattas. There is an overall winner to the week, but the major prizes are awarded for winning the Florida Masters and the Midwinters. Like a few of the competitors who decided to skip the Midweek Madness, I needed to be in Clearwater to do some coaching and only competed in the weekend events.

My schedule this winter has been really hectic with a new coaching job that took me to Australia for a month and kept me busy during January for the Miami Olympic Classes Regatta, and I wasn't able to get in the on-the-water training that I wanted. I've still been hitting the gym hard, and have been feeling quite good about my level of fitness. Basically, fitness is what held together my week, and although I was sore from the change in routine and return to the boat, I managed to have decent regattas.

The first regatta of the series, the Florida Masters Regatta, proved to be challenging for me because of the windy conditions. I'm still slightly too small to be really fast upwind in the breeze, but I had some great races nonetheless. Racing in the ocean in 25 knot winds and huge seas really shook the cobwebs out. The first race along with many others, I misjudged the current and a last minute left hand shift meant a few of us started on port tack late ducking the fleet. Within a minute I tacked back to starboard on a huge right shift. I was in phase and the fleet was out of phase, and just like that I had a commanding lead and went on to an easy victory. The rest of the series was not so easy. My main competition are some of the younger Apprentice guys who are proving to be really fast. Ernesto Rodriquez was really quick in the breeze upwind but I could still take him on the downinds. But when the race committee wisely decided to race the second day inside in the choppy and more confined tidal Inter Costal waterway, there was no hiding from the more powerful sailors upwind, and the runs were shortened with the swift moving current. One race Ernesto misread the course and finished after one lap instead of doing the second circuit and he still beat me. I ended up second overall and first Master. I was really pleased to receive a print of a watercolor by Michelle Davis, an enthusiastic Masters sailor and ornithologist from Miami. The print depicted a Laser surfing a wave, with very meticulously painted Florida fish and birds surrounding the boat (no sharks!).

an awesome and treasured trophy

Davis Island Yacht Club in Tampa hosted the Masters Midwinters East. DIYC is a modern and attractive club located on a hook enclosing an old seaplane basin, with a large percentage of membership very active in racing. I was looking forward to sailing here, and to the lighter wind forecasted for the weekend. The forecast did not disappoint but surprisingly, and kudos to the race committee, we only sailed one non-hiking race. The race committee waited out the doldrums and we sailed late as the afternoon breeze pumped in, watching the sunset as we dragged our boats up the short beach.

Many of us have gone to a three-day regatta that turned into a two-day event because of weather. How many have showed up for a two-day regatta that was actually three days long? I did just that. I showed up a day late and still won the Masters division and placed third overall!

first place Midwinters Master division

There is no excuse that I can give about showing up on the wrong day that doesn’t begin with dumb and ends with ____ (you can add any ending you want). I skipped the midweek regatta, and had it in my head that the racing was on Wednesday and Thursday with Friday as a travel day for the Masters Midwinters East. I was wrong. The only thing I can say is that it was a good thing I decided to drop my boat off Friday afternoon at 3:30pm for what I thought was a Saturday start.

It had been a windless day anyway, so I decided not to practice before the regatta and instead get a few housekeeping chores done before Sunday’s drive north after the regatta. I got my van washed and detailed, took it to get the oil changed, and was booking flights for coaching in Europe this spring. I had a nice leisurely lunch. It was really quite a relaxing day. And now I was going to drop my boat off and be ready for the regatta the next day. As I turned the corner and saw a few boats out on the water, I didn’t think much anything of it. I saw Davis Island Yacht Club and didn’t notice any boats on the beach. I look back and see a lot of boats on the water AND they were all bunched around an anchored sailboat. Oops!

I have always wanted to show up to a regatta, quickly rig, and just make it to the start line as the gun went off - just to see what it was like, and just because it would be “cool.” As I drove in I assessed the situation. No one was still on the club beach except one guy who was a random member. The wind must have just filled in because the committee looked like they hadn’t set the course, so they must not have raced the first race yet. I asked the guy and he confirmed my analysis. But the wind was good enough to get something going soon. Could I, should I, do I try and make it? Hell yes!

The boat was on top of my van in full covers, but fortunately I raced last week and it was ready to plug and play. I drove up onto the lawn, undid the quick straps, rotated the boat off the racks and down onto the lawn. Covers off, put the mast sections together, boom, mainsheet, sail, centerboard, rudder, tiller and tiller extension, lines, and life jacket. It all went together very quickly. I asked myself next if I should get dressed or sail in my shorts and t-shirt? I looked out and saw the fleet in a starting sequence, in the last minute, all lined up. Maybe they would have a second race but it was 4pm already. I decided to throw on my hikers and grab my boots and hope for the second race, with this being my throw out. I looked up - It must have been a general recall, because they were sailing back to the boat. I grabbed someone’s trolley and launched. I pushed off the beach and looked up – no battens, shit! I pulled them out but was too rushed and forgot to load them. I was only ten meters off the beach but I can’t race without battens and headed, back, another 3 minutes wasted.

The wind was building and I semi-planed to the course. I put my boots on without losing the plane. It was a balancing act. I didn’t see any flags, and the boats were milling around so it looked good, but it was still is about a half mile to the boat. The race was on. I closed on the line where the boats were lining up, but where were they in the sequence? As I arrived at the committee boat, the one-minute horn sounded. I lined up in the middle, although the leeward end looked favored but I couldn’t get there in time. Gun fired and we were off. I got a good start but my speed was off. After a minute I noticed my traveler was not pulled tight and was suspended a foot in the air. I pulled it on while others were tacking and going right. I had no idea which way to go, so I decided to keep going. My motto is if you don’t know the shift, keep going. It worked and I ended up left, got into the lead group and rounded in 3rd. Matais was launched; his older brother, “JP” was equally launched in second (and they were taunting each other around the course, it was very funny). I was in a tight pack and finished 5th after dropping two boats at the final leeward mark before the short reach to the finish. It felt like a win nonetheless.

As it turned out, the Masters Midwinters East was a two-day regatta. On Sunday, the wind didn’t show, and the race committee wisely let us pack up at noon, and fired up the barbeque.

The Masters racing is heating up with more international sailors attending and world-class talent using the regattas as part of their Olympic training. Having said that, the fun factor is still high, especially when the “water” boat gives you the option of an ice cold Bud or Bud Light.

Join us next week at the Laser Masters Clinic in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico!

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