Reflections from Star North Americans with Champion George Szabo

The expert shares his tips, tricks and reflections on a well-fought podium finish. 

Quantum’s own George Szabo and Guy Avellon were crowned Star North American Champions at the early June regatta hosted by Royal Vancouver Yacht Club. The 30-boat fleet sailed a total of six races over three days on English Bay. A number of Quantum regulars competed, and the collaboration among teams was a key component in everyone’s performance. “The top Quantum teams were working together daily, comparing settings as each got faster and faster,” recalls Szabo. Post-regatta, Szabo shares his thoughts on the regatta and the Star Class.

Quantum: What were the conditions you experienced at North Americans? And how did you trim/tune to achieve optimal performance?

George: We went into the regatta expecting 10-12 knots and flat water, as I had seen in the past there. To get ready for that, we had worked on a flat-water setup with flatter sails: the 57 main with a P-2C combination. It was looking good in practice in San Diego. When we got to the regatta, the flat water was there, but the wind was certainly lighter. During the tune-up day, we tried several combinations of sails and tuning, and we quickly found that the flat setup was not going to work well in the light air we were seeing, so we did a 180 on our plan and went with the Fuller 50 main with the P-16 jib.

Quantum: Can you give us a few tips for the types of conditions that worked well for you at the North Americans?

George: Really, we focused on two things before the regatta: getting every detail of this new-to-us used boat that we bought in the fall figured out and getting our race rig and spare rig tuned and ready to go at base numbers. Getting the boat ready was a headache in itself – it took me six attempts at the DMV to get the boat and the trailer registered.

As for sailing, we got on the water knowing that our entire fix list (one page, typed a month in advance) was complete, and there was nothing left to do during the event other than sail. We were super fortunate to have great tuning partners from our fleet line up with us to make all of us faster. We studied the current, and the more and more we looked at it, it was always the same. Go left. So our daily strategy on the start line was a question of how far towards the favored boat-end of the line could we start without giving up too much advantage of the left side of the course. Fortunately that one paid off, and we often found ourselves in the top at the first mark or close enough in contention that we would be able to grind down many of the sailors in front of us as the race went on.

Quantum: From reports, it looks like conditions were anything but expected at this regatta, especially on the last day. How did you adjust on the fly?

George: Strangely, the last day seemed normal enough for Vancouver. The PRO Jeff Johnson had been actively looking for solutions to move the race course away from the favored beach for months, but considering that the racing area was literally in a mooring field for tankers and that his options were severely limited each day on where he could put the course, this was actually a superb location. When I had raced previously in the NAs here, we watched with envy Ross MacDonald's race-winning strategy of sailing to the shoal until he ran aground and then abruptly tacked − keeping himself and the crew on the leeward side until they were free. Frightening, but quick! This year, we could see bird legs as they were standing in the water on the shoal and a few birds swimming. How close could we go? Some tacked away when the dogs began barking at them on the beach. I think only one competitor hit hard this year, with the crew out of the boat and knee deep in the water trying to push the boat off the shoal.

If there was a weird thing in that last race it was the convergence and divergence of the wind. As we sailed towards the finish line, we just had to maintain our position (within a few places) to win the regatta without having to sail another race. As we went down the run, mostly all the way on starboard and then planning a late gybe to the finish layline, the breeze began to die. The current was strong with the wind, and there was a swine-line of no wind in front of us. Carl Buchan was leading and we were in second. Carl, Star World Champion and Olympic gold medalist, said we should reach up and get up-current of the finish line in case the wind died. That sounded reasonable, so we followed him. One boat sailed low of us to take the race win, but we still salvaged a 3rd that race — not our throw out! Unfortunately, there was one competitor who thought they could take that same low passing road, but when they hardened up to the finish, the wind was too light and the current too strong, so they tacked back and forth and back and forth and again and again and painfully finished last.

Quantum: The Star Class always attracts a super competitive fleet. What tactics do you use off the start in the first leg of the race to keep your competition in check and maintain boat speed?

George: People ask and some have closely looked at the Star Class skippers to see what they are doing differently to be better. The funny part is that, over and over, we see we are simply focusing on the small and simple things to make us better: getting out to the race course early, knowing our rig tune and steps, having a simple plan to get off the line, having a plan for gear changes, and a plan for weather. The class has no exact answers, just attention to detail.

Quantum: Star sailing is physical. Do you have advice on downwind pumping, managing the wave set, windward heel, and staying sharp over multiple races and days?

George: At 52, I’m not the youngster that can do all of those things at the level that the younger, bigger, and stronger Finn sailors can. I need to rely on my speed and tactics to go faster. Typically, mightier air plays into my strengths, so this regatta was easier on that part for my crew Guy Avellon and me.

Quantum: How do you communicate with your crew to make sure you’re working together in those dynamic situations?

George: Guy has been sailing Stars for many years now. He is absolutely super and fantastic to put up with me every day. I’ve sailed this boat for decades with some amazing crews. Iverson, Strube, Magnus, and Kleen for starters − I am forgetting 20 more awesome friends here. Guy is the recipient of all of their knowledge, and he is so patient with me as I share each tidbit. Guy began as a big-boat sailor and had come around to get the small boat feeling. It is not easy, especially on a run with waves setting up differently day-to-day and event-to-event. Fortunately, Guy has a competitive spirit honed as a track athlete in college.

As for communication, it changes day-to-day. Sometimes we just shoot the sheet and have a good time out there. Other times, Guy has a head that turns 180 degrees like an owl, and I get the play-by-play on how our speed is compared to a competitor on our weather hull. It is difficult to be a Star crew − they nearly need a snorkel to sail upwind, and they have a tougher time seeing shifts and marks when their head is only one foot above the water.

On the run, it’s the opposite, and at the start their information is always key − watching for sharks, calling time, distance to line, and so on. I’m lost without him there.

Quantum’s One Design experts are ready to support you, whether your next regatta is a national championship or a local weeknight race series. Reach out to your local loft for sails, service, or simply to chat!

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The Discussion