Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Catalina Island Race Part 1

Billy's Transpac Blog II-1.

Awake with a start (did I scream?). Whoa, where am I? Somebody pulling on my foot. Tense the stomach muscles, try to see. Pitch black. "We're jibing!" Oh. ok. yes. I am on board Psyche. Again. In my cave, where I was sleeping the sleep of the dead as the rest of the crew spinnakered down the backside of Catalina Island toward a head on collision with the "parking lot" at the East end. There is something so wonderful about getting a headfull of sleep while your smart friends sail the boat at breakneck speed, giving quarter to no one. I lie back down, relaxing for 5 sec till I remember where I put my glasses and my headlamp. Ok. Let's go. Still fully dressed, I inch myself backward out of my womb-tube, up to the 10PM rendezvous with China Point.

This is the middle of perhaps my favorite installment of my favorite race, the around Catalina Island Whitney race. We've already rounded the west end, second in class, barely ahead of a CF 37 who we had battled all the way and finally in an anticlimactic joke, squeaked ahead of.

Psyche again. Tuning up for the Transpac. We are the only Cal 40 in the fleet today, which is sad, because you never really know how you are doing (handicap times "adjust" your elapsed time each mile into a "corrected time" and which you can use to estimate how you are doing. You know how many minutes per mile you get from each boat, but that that knowledge makes it very difficult to translate answer the question "how are we doing?").

But we are just out for practice, right? Well, uh, not really. We don't want those bastards to beat us. So Don Burdge took the helm for the start. A well-set line and an upwind start, and despite a not very well thought out strategy, we hit the line on starboard tack (wind over our starboard bow) with good speed. There is a wonderful feeling right after a good start; you entertain the notion you can beat the entire fleet, and now and then you do. But today, we soon realized that the two other competitive boats in our class, a Catalina 42, and the CF 37 could point much closer to the wind than we. The Catalina to leeward was slowly converging with us, closer and closer. "Don, you've got to head up, they're going to hit us (and because they had the right of way, we'd have to do a double turn, which would put us in the tank). Don: "let's tack." We do. The other boat, the CF37 is right there sailing on starboard tack. We're sailing on a course that would run us up her rail, and through her cabin. "Slack the main, we'll duck them". We head down, and come as close to her stern as we can. So, wham-bam, both boats are now ahead of us. Sail fast, Don. We sail in to the break wall, tack out on starboard toward Angel's gate, the entrance to the big blue sea, and both boats cross well ahead of us on port tack. They tack on our wind, and now we are stuck here, with lousy wind and already behind. Pull in the main tighter, we've got to do something to point with these guys. But no matter what we do, they keep making more water to windward, and leaving us in the mist.

By the time we get to Angel's gate, our two competitors are a bit ahead of us, and well to windward, far enough away that our wind is clean. Small consolation. Don steering. The rest of us quiet, contemplating a long sail around Catalina with no boat near us. Beautiful, flat sea, though, with a 9 knot westerly. Ideal sailing conditions.
Now, we were outside Angel's gate heading on a course half way up the west end of Catalina. We had more space, more time. We started to relax. Ok, let's watch this bucket, and see what makes her go fast. Lighten up on the pinching to windward. Loosen up the reins a bit, and see if we can make Psyche just go faster. Watch the knot meter, and the "true wind speed." 10 knots of wind means we should be going 5.5, 11 kts of wind should take us over 6. 12 knots should put us in the high 6's. My turn to steer.

I LOVE to steer Psyche to windward. I may not be as good as my brothers, and I'm definitely not as good as my dad was in his day, but I LOVE it. It is such a wonderful dance. Such a full-blown meditation. It is like Yoga, but fun. It is a little operant conditioning puzzle. A "Skinner box" is a puzzle that an experimental cat has to solve by finding the latch with it's randomly exploring paw, and then having the presence of mind to realize what its paw did to get out of the box, so that next time it can get out faster. We are similarly trying to get Psyche out of the slow box, and if we do, try to realize how we did it. We all guess and talk and compromise and try stuff. The main trim, the jib trim, the halyard tension, the main mast bend. All kinds of things.

But I'm steering, and I make a little discovery. The new jib, like most jibs today, has a little window in the front of it, where two ribbons are attached, one on the windward side, and one on the leeward side of the sail. Both ribbons are supposed to stream straight backward. If you sail too close to the wind, you create a stall on the windward side, and that ribbon stops flowing straight back and flutters straight up. You are pinching the boat too close to the wind, and need to ease her back to port, away from the wind. By contrast, if the leeward ribbon is fluttering up instead of straight, you are heading too far away from the wind, stalling the sail, and wasting precious distance to leeward. Head up man, you're reaching! So everyone knows that the ideal is supposed to be both ribbons straight. But today, I began to realize that this wasn't the case with Psyche and this jib. I found that she would go much faster, if I headed just a tad to leeward of the straight-streaming optimum. In this little groove, I found that the leeward ribbon streams for the forward three fourths of its length, but right at the end it flutters up, like the tail of a cat that is about to attack. I began to chase this little groove (it's not easy, cause the boat tends to go a bit wherever it wants to like a horse that is mainly under your control, but not completely), and when I caught that little groove, the boat started going distinctly faster. 10 knots of breeze was getting us over 6.0 knots, most of the time, now.

Ok, good in theory, but how are we doing with our competition? Well, we are out in the ocean. We see them way to windward, but we can't really tell whether we are gaining or losing. Time to pull out the bearing compass.

Psyche has a REALLY cool bearing compass. I don't know how, but it is much steadier, and way more accurate than any I've seen. You look at a boat across this little compass, and you get a magnetic readout of the direction of that boat TO THE NEAREST DEGREE! This is really something. I've no idea how it works so well, but we "took a fix" on the Catalina 42 and the CF 37. Within 10 minutes we could clearly see that the CF37 was falling behind! The Catalina 42 was too, but much slower, maybe wishful thinking.

So we all cheered up, knowing that out here with room to breath we were "outfooting" our two competitors. This doesn't really tell you whether you are going to get to the west end before them, though, because we all knew they were pointing closer to the wind.

For some reason, I think of that sail across the Catalina channel as a little like life. Sometimes, we sail our lives, entirely too aware of how we compare to others. Sometimes, maybe even often, we get so caught up in comparing ourselves that we forget that each of us is a unique boat, that can only be sailed well by turning attention inward. Comparison with others is essential, but it is best done loosely, and at intervals.

Now there is another aspect of racing a boat fast to windward, and life too, that we call "local knowledge". If you know the territory, even though you might not be as bright or promising as your competitor, you just might come out ok. Look at this map of Catalina Island.

You are looking at the western part of the island. This is where I grew up. I learned to sail under Arrow Point. My favorite upwind race-course, bar none, starts at Howlands Cove and runs up to the west end. From a very early age, I learned that as you come in toward Arrow Point, the wind freshens and changes direction. The wind in the channel comes from the west (upper red arrow), but in under the point, it bends WAY around, almost all the way from the North. This means we can go faster and point MUCH closer to the west end than our competitors out in the channel.

So, our new-found groove, combined with our local knowledge had us quite cheerful as we sailed in under Arrow point. True to form, Arrow point gave us the wind shift we expected, and freshened. We tacked back into the westerly wind of the channel, and after 15 minutes we crossed six boat lengths in front of the CF 37. And tacked on him!

So, our local knowledge and enhanced focus on our own boat won the battle. It was a huge take-home message, that we already knew, of course, but the reminder was clear.

But now we were in close quarters with the CF again. We started a tacking duel. We were trying to spoil his wind, and he was trying to tack out from under our cover. Oh, what fun this is. Sooooo much more fun than lagging the fleet and just sailing the course. We all had our adrenaline pumping.

But we were losing ground on every tack. I was steering still, but I just couldn't find the secret to keeping the boat moving through the tack. You start your tack by heading the boat into the wind, the crew lets go of the jib just after it loses all its wind, then as you pass through the eye of the wind, and the sail flops over to the other side, the crew grinds the sheet (the line that holds the sail to the deck) in as fast as they can. Lots of ways to make it go better, but I'll tell you about them another time.

Finally the CF crossed in front of us, and then tacked on us to spoil our wind! There we were, just before the west end, trailing these guys after all. We followed them out on port tack, the penultimate before the west end. Irritated. Why are we so slow in close quarters? Hmmm…. Could it be that we didn't learn our lessons from the channel? Are we going to have to follow this guy all the way to the east end?

But then we began to realize something. The CF37 was going too far out on port tack! Let's tack now! We did, and then he did, and we laid the west end and beat him after all!

The final life lesson then, is watch out for good luck!

Next installment in a few days!


just b said...

It's so wonderful to see you on the blog-o-sphere! We just love following your adventures! BethAnne

Anonymous said...

hey bill, good job again on your blog!
i got your email, which is great, but also i like the blogspot blog.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for keeping me on your bloglist. Love the website. Hope to be out there with you guys soon for a tune up.

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Continue the good work!

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