Wednesday, July 13, 2011

San Francisco Laser Masters Clinic - Local Knowledge Can Be Deadly

After winning the One Ton Cup as tactician years ago in San Francisco, I wrote an article for a national sailing magazine titled "Local Knowledge Can Be Deadly." The title was a play on the commonly heard comments from local sailors after big championship regattas, such as, "Its never like this here." Even though I was a "local" Bay sailor having grown up with the Bay tides and breezes, I prepared for the One Ton Cup with a fresh approach. I also used this strategy when I coached Luke Lawrence to his Finn Junior World title last September. The same approach was again effective this past week, when I ran a clinic for 14 local and non-local Laser Masters sailors that focused on mastering the tides, and addressed the areas that have the greatest effect in securing a top result.

To really understand the currents in San Francisco Bay, you have to go further than what the tide book says and what is available online. The nuances are what make the biggest difference. Having the confidence that comes from knowing what the tide is doing means you can concentrate on the windshifts and tactics, and not find yourself doing things that the top locals would never do.

Organized by the International Sailing Academy (ISA) and hosted by the St. Francis Yacht Club, Vaughn Harrison and I ran the five-day clinic. Instead of organizing the clinic in the normal way with lots of boat handling drills, I decided we needed to change things up. We spent 90% of the time racing or practicing starts on what will be the two course areas for the World Championship. This enabled us to quickly get to the core issue of playing the tides, learning the wind shifts, working on starting well and choosing the proper laylines in the strong currents.

Besides getting familiar with the currents and course, I gave my students the tools to go beyond what the tide book says. It required increased observations while practicing and being diligent at checking the various government buoys that litter the course area. The students learned how to calibrate the timing of the tide and how best to use that knowledge.

There are two Worlds courses: the city front course and the Alcatraz island course. Both require different tactics. The city front course brings into play the land effect of the wind shifts and current flow. There may be times when the fleet will want to hug the shoreline to get current relief and/or a favorable windshift. Making the break for the rounding marks is a tough decision; going early means fighting an adverse current to make the mark. Hit it right and the payoff can be big. The Alcatraz course is more definitive about which way is favored, because it splits the two major shipping channels. This puts a premium on starting well at one end or the other in the outgoing tide. During the incoming tide, playing the middle is the best strategy for the most current relief.

To illustrate the fact that the tide book isn't always exact, for the five days we sailed, the flood tide was an hour early on the city front but was right on schedule at in the middle of the bay at Alcatraz. If we solely relied on the tide book we would have missed a major change on the city front course. It is critical to observe first hand what is happening the week before the regatta to really be prepared.

Another unique approach I took with this clinic was to split the group when we practiced starts. One group would run through a practice start and the other would observe. This allowed the sailors to really see how the current was affecting the fleet's starting. It also lead to a breakthrough moment for one the the Grand Masters: he confided in me that he finally realized he need to be more aggressive at the starts. He was able to successfully apply this during the week, getting consistently great starts! Another comment from a Southern California student who had sailed on the bay numerous times before, was how he always felt like he was always missing something. Now he has command of the tides, and most importantly knows what to look for so he can sail with confidence.

San Francisco Bay is unique given the high volume of water that flows through the relatively small gap of the Golden Gate Bridge. Coupled with the windshifts caused by the city front and the ever present fog, it makes for a very different and challenging race venue. The sailors who participated at the clinic now have a good idea of what the Bay has in store for them, and are entering the Laser Masters World Championships confidently.

Unfortunately, I won't be able to compete at the Masters Worlds. It's disappointing not to race on my home waters, but my Olympic coaching job takes precedence. I will be coaching the Australian Sailing Team's Finn sailor at a major event, the Pre-Olympic regatta in Weymouth, UK, which is at the same time. However, I'm glad I could be involved in the event in a small way by helping solve the San Francisco tide puzzle for a few competitors and giving them confidence going into the racing.

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