There are several ways to approach the problems of tuning and racing the small cruising yacht, and the only certain method of choosing between them is trial and error. Although the following represents my approach, each suggestion should be carefully evaluated in practice.
Perhaps the most important equipment aboard is the crew. Since the majority of MORC races requires less than a day, I usually take two crew. For distance races, I add another so that we can set watches. I try to invite people who already know each other and get along well. It’s important that they be enthusiastic. It’s easy to get depressed after losing the lead, and an optimistic crew can really shake you out of it and help get the boat going again. Of course the skipper can engender this kind of enthusiasm by making the crew comfortable and at ease. I try not to shout or belittle anyone on board; nothing will kill a crew faster than shouting at them.
One of the things that makes a major difference in the speed of a cruising boat is the condition of the bottom. Before leaving the mooring the bottom should be freshly cleaned. I use a piece of burlap; it has just enough abrasive qualities. Quite often a launchman or local children can be hired for the task. If you use this method, be sure to check for neglected spots – they make a difference. Also check the centerboard trunk; the growth inside can be knocked off with a screwdriver.
The bottom should be given a light going over with wet and dry sandpaper several times during the season, and especially after a new coat of paint. The frequency of repainting, of course, depends the sort of waters sailed in. Around August 10th I put my boat along side a dock about two hours after high tide. As the tide goes out, she grounds and leans against the dock. I then go in the water and wipe off all the slime and use a little wet and dry paper as the tide retreats. Once the water has left the keel, I paint on Vineland with a large, good brush. There is just enough time between tides, and the paint is dry and hard when it comes in. Curiously enough, I get a better paint job this way than when I paint in the boat yard in the spring. It may be because there is no dust.
You won’t find a lot of gadgets on my boat; I prefer to keep things simple. I like to steer from the weather side in heavy weather, and I keep a long hiking stick for this purpose. The weight on the weather side helps on a boat 21 feet long, and the view of the weather is much better. A year ago I installed a full-width, ball bearing mainsheet traveler. This makes a tremendous difference in heavy weather. Ideally, the mainsheet is left cleated and the main played in and out with the traveler line coupled to a drum. I had mine coupled to a 1:1 ratio drum under the after deck, but it did not move in and out very easily or fast enough. This summer I’m going to skip the drum and play the main through blocks let athwartship, as is done on the high-performance one-designs such as the FD and Tempest.
Another important weapon is a very sensitive masthead fly. I make mine myself from the tail feathers of a bird, three poppet beads, and a long bicycle spoke (see sketch). Don’t use wing feathers, they are too curved. This fly costs about ten cents and is lighter than anything available commercially. My masthead fly is not counterbalanced – contrary to popular practice. In light airs when you need it most, with the chop and motorboats bobbing you around, the fly will be sensitive only if it a feather and not counterbalanced. I prefer a white feather against the sky; it’s also easier to see at night. Yarn should be used on the side stays and backstays.
Be very conscious of weight distribution. Keep the ends of your boat light. Don’t stow anything in the lazarette or bow, and remove all unnecessary junk. One common mistake among inexperienced cruising boat competitors is to see everyone sitting in the cockpit or, even worse, on the fantail. If they could only see their boat’s profile with their bow out and their stern dragging. Trim is crucial even in large ocean racers. Upwind in my boat we sit only in the forward third of the cockpit, and the third man sits up on the side deck next to the aft end of the cabin trunk. The only time we are in the cockpit is before the wind in a heavy blow. When changing headsails, send someone small and fast forward, and only one man to clip on. If you need someone to call the jib, sit him by the main shrouds, not on the bow. I move my crew in and out in light airs, just like in a dinghy.
On the morning of the race everyone ought to arrive at least 15 minutes before the estimated time of departure. Allow plenty of time to motor or sail to the start, plus a half hour for milling around, scratch sheet, etc. On the way out I take in 28 turns on the backstay, the boat has been relaxing all week. My side shrouds are not particularly tight, and the lowers are loose. Headstay and backstay should be tight. Once in the starting area, check the line. If it is very fair – allowing equal opportunity along its entire length – I try to get the windward berth and climb out to weather right after the start. When you are the small boat in your division, starting down the line is quite likely to get you run over, and after one blanket you get handed back from boat to boat.
Similarly on the beat, try to make the big babies go through your lee rather than letting them through to weather. Before a start in heavy weather you might try putting the opposition off balance by keeping the jib lowered on deck. At about three minutes before the start, raise it and go. If your rivals wish to change jibs on what you’re flying, it will be too late. Another sure fire gambit is full use of the five minute rule on engines; you can use it up to the prep time for your class.
Last autumn in the Winkle Cup Race at Centerport, I could see that the classes above us were having a devil of a time getting across the starting line in light airs and foul current. As the class ahead of us was getting ready to go I could see many of them were not even going to make the line. So I turned on the engine, ducked under their sterns and motored full blast, sails shaking, over to the newly favored end, and had my crew drop anchor just short of the line. Engine off. The five minute gun sounded. As we came up on out start, my crew raised the anchor with 15 seconds to go, and we ghosted across a little behind the gun. We then tacked inshore as soon as we could to get out of the current.
Needless to say, our entire division was beaten by the current before the start. In tidal waters in pays to get inshore in a foul current. Of course everybody knows this, but few go far enough. It is even possible to get into a counter current or a back eddy, and it’s then your boat looks like magic.
Obviously the centerboard boats can afford to be more daring than their full-keel brethren. But although my boat is a centerboard, I give my crew briefing on what to do if we hit. One man is on the bow kneeling, looking for dark patches (boulders). I have the jib sheet in my hand directly from the winch. If we should hit, I put the helm down immediately, back the jib a little, and the crew raises the board. Then hopefully I release the jib and we head for deeper water. If this fails, put both crew on the leeward shrouds, heel the boat ever and back the jib to windward.
The skipper’s approach to any race must be flexible. He must be relaxed and ready for anything. This attitude is essential when deciding which sails to use and, when the decision is made, getting them changed quickly. Big distances can be gained simply by being able to change up or down quickly. One of the biggest mistakes made by the cruising gang is not changing up quickly enough in a dying wind. Send your lightest crew to snap on the new jib while on a new tack or at a time when the fleet can’t see him. If possible, your competitors shouldn't’t know you’re changing until you have doused the old one. By the time the others get theirs changed you will have 100 yards or more on them.
We were once close reaching back from Stratford Shoal at sundown with a dangerous rival about a mile ahead and to leeward. The wind was fairing and it was time to set a chute. Since it was getting dark, I held off setting the chute for about 15 minutes and until it got dark. My rival didn't’t realize that we has set it and we passed him (a larger boat) before the finish.
Of course, sometimes it simply isn’t possible to change sail because of the situation. In the Douglaston-Captains Island Race we got caught in an increasing wind (to 35 mph) when I thought it was going to diminish. I was carrying a number one genoa and full main. With hot boats all around me I couldn’t take time out to go to the number two jib, so we roller reefed to the number lower batten pocket and eventually doused the main altogether. I was surprised to see how well she went on with just the big genoa. When the breeze eased a little, we raised the reefed main and finally shook it out altogether.
There are several general rules concerning fast upwind and downwind sailing, and most don’t need restatement here. But there are some points that ought to be mentioned. First, don’t sail the weather leg with the spinnaker halyard snapped on the pulpit. The windage spoils the flow of air on the jib. Downwind in light airs under spinnaker, I put the least experienced man on the helm and tell him to steer on a landmark, compass course or a chute up ahead. I keep after him to really steer straight and generally handle the spinnaker sheets myself. Again off the wind, gains can be made by carrying the chute to very limit when approaching the leeward mark. If you are shorthanded, trim the genoa and cleat it on the appropriate side while still dead before the wind, before dousing the chute and rounding.
Any sailor who wants to excel ought to sail a wide variety of boats. There is something to be learned from each class. Skippers of the small planing dinghies have an advantage when steering an ocean racer before a large sea and wind. They know how to best position the hull for the oncoming wave and how to stay with the wave for maximum surfing. A good downwind helmsman is worth three crew in a race like the Transpac. Conversely, a small boat sailor can learn a lot while crewing on big ocean racers.
I have sailed on Huey Long’s Ondine , and her magnificent equipment and her sensitive, quick helm really make you feel like a king when steering her before big waves. Another skipper I like to sail with is Bob Derecktor. He has so many original ideas, gadgets and ways of doing things that it’s a real shot in the arm to sail with him. Both he and Huey Long are real driving skippers who push the entire race.
If a cruising-boat sailor is really keen to improve his ability, I suggest frostbiting. The competition is really terrific because it is made up of the best and most devoted sailors from many classes. Here in western Long Island Sound we get a chance to sail against the giants, and it can an inspiring as well as a humbling experience. You come out of frostbiting all tuned up like a shot out of a canon. Your starts are more precise, and you’re all geared up. It might take another cruising skipper a month and a half to get to the same pitch.
Finally, let me again say that I believe there is more than one correct way of doing something, and the above should not be taken as the only right approach. The most important thing is for a sailor to have an open mind. Good skippers and crews are very sensitive to their environment and adjust their boat and sails to changing conditions for maximum speed.
I hope some of the suggestions I have put forth here will stimulate new thinking in your yachting experience.