Published in Sailing Anarchy
We knew before the day started that this year's Marseille coastal race was going to be a little different to the past couple years. For one, the course was slightly different, starting in the "Rade Nord" (north course), and also going back out around the Iles Pomegues before the finish instead of around the corner and into the bay. For two, the past two years the Mistral has clearly been in at the start. This year it was definitely coming by the middle of the race, but we weren't sure about the first up down. As it turned out, it ended up getting below 9 knots during the bottom of the run, and well above 25 on the beat home.
We got a nice start just down from the boat with Container just to leeward. Synergy, Azzura, Gladiator, and Audi All4One went right. Container, Bribon, and Ran to the left of us. Perfectly split fleet, and both sides went nearly to their respective laylines. The right came in nicely, so much so that none of those boats had the option for the left side of the windward mark gate, which was well favored in the big righty (they were too overstood). Audi All4One had sort of played the middle and so just lead us around the left windward gate. We won our side and kept the boat closest to us in the regatta behind us, which was in fact only good for a 5th. After the left gate, we sailed a very nice run to the bottom gate to close on the leaders.
Ado, Tom, and Ed had gone out in the morning in the chase boat to check the current and look around to make sure they were familiar with some of the headlands. "Walking the course" seems like overkill until that one time the split second familiarity saves a point, or in the case of a MedCup coastal race, 1.5 points! There was some current to think about, there were some rocks to verify that you really could scrape the hull on the rock without hitting the bottom, and there were some ranges to see: what will the land behind the finish boat be when we are coming around the top of the island in 20-25 and trying to decide whether we can carry the A3? But that's later.
The million-dollar question was how much to essentially overstand offshore to nail the approach to both the middle scoring gate, and also the very bottom mark at La Cassidaigne.
We took a step down out of line into the point at the end of the first island, thinking there would be current relief and some compression there which would be enough of a gain to justify temporarily being slightly inshore of the group around us (only about 2 minutes of port). Great aerial photo of just a couple minutes before the gybe here. For a little while it looked ok, and maybe if we had stayed on starboard from there it would have been. Soon after the island the leaders gybed onto port and we gybed with them. Container and Bribon continued offshore, Bribon much further than Container where in fact they passed them, for a time.
I did get a little nervous seeing them out there, because in my mind the longer the leg and the more weather-routing-type thinking involved, the more the odds favor Marcel van Triest's vast knowledge and experience. Certainly this was one of those times.
Then there was the whole boat speed element. I don't think I'm giving away any secrets to say that our Botin Partners boat and our Quantum Sails setup goes very well upwind, across the range. There is simply no free lunch however, and that inevitably means there are likely to be other boats, which might be slightly faster going the other direction. Today there were huge puffs and lulls, huge shifts, and most importantly, a few big waves, sometimes lined up well, sometimes quite confused. There's a real trick on the A2 to catching the waves by heating up enough to go fast, but not so much that you simply tip over. If your boat doesn't have to heat quite as far to accelerate enough to catch a wave (say because its keel is slightly narrower), you won't have to sheet the sail in quite so far, so it will stay slightly twister, and the looser setup will allow you to steer around more to catch that one extra wave.
For a little while all the midfleet boats were very close, Container was maybe 4 lengths to leeward and abeam with Bribon just in front of them, and Ran was just a few lengths to windward and a few lengths back from us. The puffs were filling in big dark lines from between the gaps in the land, sometimes lines that you could ride for quite a while, sometimes fanning out and requiring an immediate gybe. I imagine on Container they were hiking for their life and saying their air was maybe one boat length clear of ours for a short time…and we were aiming below the scoring gate. So when do you gybe out? When do you go out where you know there is more pressure – your notes from the past 3 years make it quite clear that the low approach to the scoring gate is very strong. How much are you willing to risk half way through the race? Enough to have to drop the kite for 30 seconds and rehoist it while turning the scoring gate rubber boat to get back offshore?
In hindsight, that would have been the play. Stay down in pressure planing the whole time, planning to have to drop the A2 as you nipped up around the scoring gate and gybed back to starboard to set the A4, go for way too long on starboard, and come in below the next mark to carry the kite a little longer until the TWA to the bottom mark was about 110.
I'm not sure I could have sold that to Ado and Ed, even if I had had the whatever-they-call-thems-here-in-France to do it myself.
After a 13 mile run, Azzura, Synergy, and Container had slipped out in front just a little and we rounded overlapped with Ran and Bribon. All4One had stopped and backed down to get the 1.5 meter poisson off their rudder – not kidding! Ran dropped at the mark, and Bribon and we continued with the kite a little longer. Ah, that one wave…
OK now you have an hour and a half beat. Again, not a big deal to a guy who holds records for racing across the Atlantic. And again, a reason to worry that he's offshore of you. Of course, there would be much flatter water and huge righties along the cliffs. It seemed like we had gone only a little further on port than Container and Bribon, but when we came back together they had made a decent gain. I think Bribon might even have caught up to Container again at that point, but I'm not sure. The fleet was also split on which headsail. Bribon and Synergy had a 4 (short hoist), ours, Containers, Rans, and Azzuras were a little bigger. So was All4Ones but at that point it didn't seem that important.
We kept in touch with our group while watching Container sail some very nice shifts to get into the lead and extend. Now it was Bribon and Synergy with us chasing, and Ran in on the cliffs. In the righties they were 15 degrees ahead of crosswind at a significant range, maybe more than a mile. Bit late for the math but suffice it to say if those held they'd be launched.
Meanwhile, Audi All4One was quietly committing to a one-tack beat out in more pressure and slightly better current. I talked to Philippe Mourniac after the race and, after he took me through their ca sentait mal! story about the smelly fish, he said they never got the lefties they were expecting out there, but they had very nice steady pressure. Back to Ran. In the really big righties, they weren't so far off abeam to windward of us. Of course, the flip side there is in the lefty lulls, they were pointed nearly down at our stern.
We hiked. We called puffs. We tacked and got tacked on. We took bearings on the boats around us occasionally, but they really didn't mean much in 30 deg shifts. We talked about when to cross from the middle to the left of the narrowing between the Calanques and the Illes because that's what you have to do, even when the right is working. We even had a think about shooting through the one gap that allows you to get offshore from half way up, which we could have done once Container and the others were committed on the inside of the island.
That would have made for a good story, at least for us, as at that point All4One was still behind us offshore, even in the lefty.
Ado patiently picked some beautiful places to tack in the fanning puffs – where waiting 3 seconds too long can put you on the wrong side of a fan and mean you're sailing a header the whole time instead of wrapping around the outside on the good side. If you slap your right hand down on the desk with your fingers spread just a little, and imagine your middle finger being the mean wind direction with the wind blowing away from you, look at how lifted you are on starboard on your ring and little fingers, and how – if you go a little too far past your middle finger to your index before you tack – you are actually quite headed. It can better to be perfectly placed on a bad direction fan than badly placed on a perfect one. For you So-Cal 12 degree phasing seabreeze types, like I grew up with in Ventura, this takes a little getting used to…
Meanwhile, Audi All4One was carefully plotting to make sure they didn't overstand the Illes Pomegues in the lefties they were expecting. I had started taking bearings on them about a third of the way into the bay on port, and we were still just a little ahead of crosswind even with our TWD lifting a touch (which means the number on the mast is a bit pessimistic since when we tack it will shift "our way"). Container was launched, and Azzura was somewhat comfortably second, more so with every minute the chasing group was running out of time and passing lanes. The wind was down a bit and now our bigger sail, which was costing us the easy squirts to .5 knots over target which Bribon and Synergy enjoyed in the big lifts when it was puffy and they could open their J4s so the main didn't blow up, well now that bigger jib was helping us sneak by first Synergy in a very close cross, and a little later Bribon in a leebow.
And here comes Audi All4One, the karma balancing before our eyes for them about the fish, to cross us by a length and tack on us. We had a couple exchanges with them and tried to put them just thin on the last rock if they wanted to keep the right. I said to Ado "decent chance they'll call for water", since the boats make a bit of leeway and we were only just making it ourselves a half length up and 3/4 back. If they had, we would have said "you tack", and held our breath while we ducked them and hoped the hull didn't scrape on the leeshore rock. They didn't but there was one more chance for us.
And here is why i don't envy Ado: he knew the right thing was to have the A3 ready to hoist, round the last rock and hoist and send it for the last 8 minutes, shoot through All4One, and if we had to drop right at the end to make it up to the pin so be it. (sound familiar?) We were well ahead of them in the setup so I'm not sure they could have matched – only they know. But imagine how heartbreaking it would have been if we had a slight bobble with all that, didn't pass Audi, and let Synergy and Bribon slip by as well? Then, instead of being 1.5 points out of the lead going into the last race, we'd be having to protect our second place in the Marseille Trophy instead. As it stands, our midfleet today was good enough to guarantee we're on the podium, and we need a 7th or better for the silver.
Container sailed a fantastic race. Not flawless, I don't think one boat could claim that today. But that's not the goal. The goal in a long volatile race, or in a series, is to make fewer mistakes than your competition. They can certainly enjoy their beers tonight knowing they achieved that and a well-deserved first MedCup win.
Do we wish we had gone right the first beat like we talked about as a strategy? Well, we thought we were a little lifted off the line and the guys we were racing against for the series were to leeward of us. Maybe to the boats that went right it was an obvious call, or maybe they tacked because they weren't going to live on our hip for much longer. It would have been a big call to go with them and leave Container alone that early in the race. Do we wish we had done x,y,z,1,2,3,un,deux,trios? You bet. But it's only really fair to assess the decisions you made with the information which was available at the time. It's important to ask if there was info on the table we didn't consider, communicate, or weigh appropriately – but even that last one is quite subjective.
What would I do differently if I could do the race over? I'd hike just a little harder. I'd say a few less things that maybe didn't need to be said and were more unsettling than helpful. I'd be a little stronger on the things i felt pretty strongly about, but only just a little. And I'd at least finish close enough behind Container that I could give them a proper wave of congratulations at the finish.–KH