“This year’s Key West Race Week was also the venue for the J80 Midwinter Championships; it is hard to think of a better venue for a championship in January! Peter Craig and his team from Premiere Racing always make the event a World class event with top level race management on the water and great shore side activities after wards.
On the Sunday evening I participated as a member of the tactician’s panel representing division three (J80 class and PHRF 1 and 2 fleets) with Ed Baird as moderator, Ed does a great job keeping everyone engaged and the ideas and conversation flowing and as a result the interaction with the audience was highly effective with great insight and thoughts from the panel and questions from the audience.
For the fourth year I sailed with Vayu 2 as Tactician and Jib trimmer. Vayu 2 is a J/80 chartered from J World Annapolis by Ron Buzil of Chicago, helmed by Jahn Tihansky (Jahn Owns J/World Annapolis and is the Offshore coach for the US Naval academy) and TJ Voght from Atlanta. TJ and Jahn go a long way back together as they owned a J/24 together in Tampa back in 1979. I have coached Ron’s Benetau 40.7 team in Chicago for the last 14 years. Our regular spinnaker trimmer Nigel Brownett from Long Beach was not able to make the event and TJ filled in for him.
Fourteen J80’s were originally registered, by start time we were down to 12 boats but we were still the second largest fleet and had great representation of fleets from Annapolis, Long Beach, New York, Chicago, Florida and Rhode Island and featured many talented teams, some of them included former J80 NA Champs John Stork Jr. and team on Rumour , Bill & Shannon Lockwood and there team from New Jersey on Shenanigans, last year’s 3rd place North Americans ( at Block Island Race Week) finisher Gary Panariello and team on Courageous , perennial top finisher Chris & Liz Chadwick on Church Key and top West coast finisher Bob and Cheryl Hayward from Long Beach, CA on Blue Jay.
With the J80 North Americans and World Championships both scheduled for Annapolis in September the event was a perfect way for teams to get revved up for the road to the World Championships, other stops on the J80 winter tour include Charleston Race Week & the Annapolis NOOD with Key West being the kick starter.
Key West always presents a variety of conditions – flatter water and light air all the way to big waves and 25 knots with everything in between as the frontal systems roll down from the North, so the sails and tuning have to be flexible to every day’s different weather pattern change.
On Vayu 2 we strictly followed the tuning guide and took a lot of time prior to the regatta making sure we had the rake and pre bend exactly right, the mast butt in the correct place for the 3. 5 inches of pre bend and a tuning matrix set up so we knew the number of turns up and down from base setting.
Every day when we returned to the dock we were sure to go back to base setting so we knew our starting point, when on the water we were sure to watch the leeward upper and Intermediate shrouds for visual clues of power – if 10 knots and above we needed to seem them snug as per the tuning guide, if under 10 knots then they needed to be looser for power with a ½ to 3/ 4 quarter inch of side sag in the mast for power. This visual clue proves an excellent visual for how good the tuning is, coupled with the helms feedback on power and feel.
In the variety of wind and seas conditions that we experienced one key element we found was critical was playing the vang upwind in the puffs and lulls , on the rail we would call the lull and how long it would last for – “ light spot, last’s for 4 to 6 lengths , followed by a slow build” , on receipt of this we would ease the vang and backstay, ease the mainsheet , pull the traveler up and ease the Jib slightly. Depending on the nature of the puff – a slow build would require just an adjustment on the backstay, if a big build we would be sure to tighten the vang to help flatten the lower part of the Main and take pressure of the mainsheet and traveler to in turn make them easier to play. Easing the vang in the lulls is the critical element though as the J80 will suffer badly if the vang is on tight in any lull.
The first day of the series was the lightest with winds from the SW with the priority being velocity over angle and trying to connect the bands of Zephyrs and stay away from the other boats not only in our fleet but in the other fleets as well to maintain clear air both upwind and downwind. This day essentially was your team against the race course, these are days I personally really enjoy as it is pure strategic sailing while balancing the tactical needs.
Tuesday, Wednesday & Thursday the wind freshened and went to a pre frontal NNW / NW with building chop, occasionally going North, port tack into the waves was much harder on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday so we found it better to have the Jib lead one hole forward on that tack for power and the lead in the normal setting on the other one for the easier tack where we could trim the Jib harder. With the lead one hole forward we found that we could ease the Jib sheet for power while still retaining the form shape in the leech of the sail effectively.
Tuesday was particularly challenging as there were rain squalls and complex cloud systems and a 90 degree wind shift in the middle of the day - the rain clouds brought more wind and large shifts followed by big light spots. In the gusty pre Frontal conditions we found we had to ease the mainsheet out a little quickly as the Traveler would not suffice on an initial basis, in this instance the Jib was eased as well to keep the slot consistent and the boat tracking straight. If the Jib is kept in all the pressure will go to the bow and blow the boat sideways. The value of playing the Jib cannot be overstated – easing slightly in a puff ( as the apparent wind shifts aft toward the true wind) , easing in a lull or light spot for power and easing it together with the Main in a big puff to keep the boat tracking. To this end I found myself occasionally “French Hiking” (made famous by the French 12 meter sailors from the America’s Cup’s in Newport) of half facing inboard to play the sheet while hiking out fully with the lower body, it is not comfortable at all but being a long-time J/24 sailor I am not used to rail comfort anyway so no difference! It was however effective in the conditions where the Jib demanded to be played all the time otherwise the boat would come to a stop in a square wave.
I found the North sails weather service to be excellent all week and also an excellent learning tool as there is an in-depth discussion of cloud formations and what to look for in the sky. There was much value on sailing to the ridge of the cloud to get the downdraft and lift and avoid the middle of the cloud where there is updraft, the exception to this was with the rain clouds. Along these lines I encourage teams to keep copies of the weather forecasts, compare them with the notes gleaned from the race course and from that one can start to develop trends in what to look for on the race course.
These three days were very shifty with the wind oscillating 15 degrees or sometimes more, the priority was to be on the closest tack to the mark and consolidate on other boats by taking opportunities to tack and cross whenever the opportunity presented itself.
Having kept notes on the event since the first Key West in January, 1988 (it’s a lot of notes!) the general consensus was to sail toward the shore for both more velocity and an easier port tack into the waves when you made the trek across to the mark just shy of the port tack layline, there was also a geographical left shift at the top of the beat so it was important to tack shy of port tack lay line in expectation of a lift later on.
If there is one trait that can serve one consistently well as a tactician it is patience, as very often the situation does not look good and a knee jerk reaction to a situation rarely works, along these lines we waited until the wind would come back to median or got ourselves into a wind line and then tacked, it does not always work but very often it can bale you out of a situation that is less than ideal and mitigate the potential damage an adverse shift can do!
On the downwind legs it was important to keep a firm luff on the spinnaker as there was some cross chop and also to be aggressive with crew weight fore and aft – forward in the light spots – particularly out of lighter air Jibes to prevent the transom from sinking and aft in the puffs to promote a plane.
When planing was possible we would get the weight aft, unroll the Jib and utilize it as a staysail, pull the backstay on to firm the luff of the spinnaker and ease the vang to promote twist in the sail and provide a wider steering groove for playing the waves, to this end we had three marks on the vang for light, medium and heavy air.
In a big light spot the jib was rolled up, the weight moved well forward and the backstay eased right off. In my position my weight position varied a lot depending on the wind and waves - in lighter air i always find value in standing up to see the wind and doing constant “ Sanity Checks” as Mike Ingham calls it – looking around and scanning nonstop at the highest point on the cabin top in front of the mast while hop scotching from side to side to balance the boat in puffs and lulls, then getting the weight low for any chop before standing up again, in medium air I would alternate going forward in the lulls to standing on the balls of my feet and pressing against the lifeline , when we could plane I would go to the back of the boat , call puffs and pump the mainsail if needed.
We constantly looked out for crab pots as we had heard stories of some teams on the other circles hitting them, as our designated “weight Rover” – in a lull I would go to leeward and tighten the leeward spinnaker sheet as that has the potential to lasso a crab pot, we also were careful to make the sure the spinnaker pole tack line was in the cradle of the bow pulpit and tightened up as that could also catch a pot.
Friday was the passage of the cold front with the wind out of the NE with gusts up to 22 knots and some big waves, the fleet enjoyed one great final race and then it was back to the dock and on to the awards ceremony and team dinners to wrap up the week.
Key West was another fantastic week -a big thank you to Peter Craig and Premiere Racing for putting on another world class Key West Race week , we are already looking forward to next year’s regatta! For more J/80 Midwinters sailing and scoring information