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It's All About that Backstay

As the 2021 summer season kicks off, Quantum Portland's Carter White recaps a few lessons learned at Canandaigua Yacht Club’s J Daze regatta.

I just returned from calling tactics on the J/24 Ice Cube at Canandaigua Yacht Club’s J Daze regatta in the Finger Lakes region of New York State. I spent many summers on Skaneateles Lake when I was younger and four years on Seneca Lake sailing for Hobart and William Smith Colleges. These lakes are narrow and oriented north-south. When I saw west winds forecasted for the regatta, I was both pleased and worried. We would have wind, yes, but the sailing would be challenging, with large shifts and huge pressure differences every few seconds.  

For the race weekend, we had 4 knots to 12 knots out of the west, with an occasional larger gust on Sunday. On each leg, the shifts were between 15 degrees and 45 degrees, and the pressure varied by 6 knots every few minutes. Two boats could sail upwind within a boat length of each other, yet be 30 degrees apart and 4 knots apart in speed.

After the first day, we were winning by a large margin. We had two mediocre races on the second day, and ended up finishing in second place by one point. In all, there were only six points separating the top six finishers, which showed the strength of the top teams and the inconsistent race conditions. After this challenging weekend, our crew had four major takeaways.

1. Have Options at the Start

If the wind or currents change during the start, you want flexibility to change where you start. Look for open space on the line and any space developing behind the line. Starting where there are fewer boats gives you the option to tack or go straight. If you find yourself too close to other boats at the start, decide quickly which tack you want to be on right off the start. If you want to be on starboard tack first, stay close to the boat windward of you. This gives you plenty of room to leeward to put your bow down and accelerate off the start. A good acceleration is key to holding your lane on starboard tack off the line. If there is a large left hand shift during the start, then push towards the boat to leeward of you and leave a hole to windward so that you can tack into that space. If you get enough speed, you’ll hopefully be able to tack and cross the boats to the right of you if they’re slow. Worst case is that you all tack at the same time or you need to duck a boat or two. This will be worth it, as you will be on the lifted tack first and sailing less distance. 

2. Sail the Lifted Tack

Sailing the lifted tack applies both upwind and downwind. By sailing the lifted tack or jibe, you’ll sail the shortest distance. Figure out quickly which tack or gybe is closer to the mark, and sail on that heading as often as possible.

3. Set Up for the Lower Wind Range

Make sure your rig is tuned for the lower wind range. It’s easier to depower the boat in the puffs than it is to add power when you need it in lighter air. The Quantum Tuning Guide base is 4 knots to 8 knots, which is where we set up the first day for mostly light wind. On the second day, the wind picked up a bit, and we sailed at base and one step up from base. Refer to the Quantum J/24 Tuning Guide to learn about these steps and tuning your rig.

4. It’s All About that Backstay

If you’ve ever heard the song ‘All About that Bass,’ now you’ve got it stuck in your head, too! The backstay is your gas pedal and helps drive the boat, allowing the skipper to use less rudder and the keel to do its magic. All of this keeps the boat going fast.

When the wind changes frequently, the skipper needs to keep the boat at a consistent heel angle. On a J/24 that angle is close to flat or 5 degrees to 8 degrees heel at most. Communication and coordination from the crew calling the wind are essential. As a crew member calls a puff or, even more importantly, a lull, the skipper should prepare for the change in velocity with a backstay adjustment. Much like braking before turning in a car and accelerating out of the turn, the skipper can put on backstay just before a puff to keep the boat flat, keeping more keel in the water and using that lateral pressure to propel the boat forward. If no change is made to depower the boat and the boat heels over, the keel has less lateral pressure and the boat slides sideways instead of forward. Conversely, if a skipper doesn’t release the backstay when a lull materializes after a puff, the boat won’t have enough power and may even heel to windward, causing loss of flow over the keel, which stalls the foils and slows the boat.  

To adjust the backstay effectively in these conditions, make sure it is neither too tight or too loose for the base condition or median wind range. This allows you to use the full range of what is available: loose in lightest wind and tight in the gusts. If you’re too tight from the get-go, you won’t be able to power up the boat; too loose and you’ll bottom out the bridle and end up unable to depower. You should be adjusting your backstay tension on the turnbuckles along with the turns on the shrouds (See our tuning guide for details).

In the end, patience is important in conditions like these. Remember that everyone is frustrated and experiencing the same challenges. Don’t get discouraged, but instead have fun, laugh at the conditions or yourself, and learn something for the next time. 

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