Sunday, October 30, 2016

A Family Goes Racing J/70s In San Francisco

J/70 sailing San Francisco (San Francisco, CA)- The husband and wife team of Tracy and Christy Usher bought their J/70 sailboat CHRISTINE ROBIN one year ago setting their sights on sailing in the 2016 Alcatel World Championships in San Francisco, just six months from their first major regatta. Here, Christy tells their story and explains why buying the J/70 was the best decision they ever made.

“My first year sailing in the J/70 Class has been one of the most exhilarating and by far one of the best years of my life—culminating just recently with the Alcatel J/70 World Championship hosted by the St. Francis Yacht Club (StFYC). Almost exactly one year ago to the start of the Worlds, my husband Tracy and I bought our J/70 sailboat. Buying the J/70 has proven to be the best decision we’ve made together.

My husband and I had been looking for the right sailboat for us as a family for over a decade. Tracy had been content competing on the Laser Master circuit, so for many years we sailed Lasers “together separately.” He sailed the Laser Standard Masters while I sailed in the Laser Radial Masters. As much as I enjoyed sailing in the Laser Class, I aspired for a sailboat we could race and sail together.

J/70 with UshersOur first introduction to the J/70 was in Newport, RI, in Fall 2012. StFYC sent a team that included my husband and Peter Vessella to the New York Yacht Club (NYYC) for a regatta, which was to be sailed in J/Boats’ latest speedster, the J/70. Peter Vessella was rightfully and quickly smitten with the boat and purchased one soon after.

It wasn’t until a couple of years later after seeing several J/70s on display at the Monaco Yacht Club that I started to take notice of this sporty, sleek, and fast-looking yacht. The next time Tracy mentioned Peter Vessella’s J/70 program, Running Wild, I suggested we consider getting a J/70 of our own, and the rest is history.

We took delivery of our boat in September 2015, which my husband named Christine Robin (my first and middle names), splashed and christened her for the first time in Sausalito, and then spent the winter months getting her race ready. By spring we were off to the races—literally. The National Offshore One Design (NOOD) regatta in San Diego was our first major regatta, followed by the J/70 North Americans in Texas, and Long Beach Race Week in Southern California. Some epic summer sailing on the San Francisco Bay followed, including the Pacific Coast Champs, Summer Keel, and Rolex Big Boat Series, all of which would culminate with the World Championships the end of September. We had set our sights on sailing well at the Worlds, which would be hosted by StFYC, and we knew we had a lot to learn in a short amount of time to make our little boat go fast.

Teamwork makes the dream work. Buoyed by a great team of talented sailors, my husband Tracy Usher and I participated in the Corinthian class of the 2016 J/70 Worlds. Mike Bishop and Jon Andron joined Tracy and I as trimmer and bowman respectively.

J/70 with Ushers sailingMike was the staple of our J/70 program. He kept his composure on the boat all season long while the rest of us each lost it at one time or another, cursing like pirates, and sometimes at each other. Mike always remained so calm and focused onboard, and he dedicated so much of his personal time to training with us—I can’t thank him enough.

Jon was so very gracious and flexible switching positions with me from mainsail trimmer to bowman. Half way through the season we came to the realization that due to my size, I wouldn’t be able to douse the spinnaker in the big breeze on the Bay: Instead of me pulling the spinnaker in the boat, the spinnaker was pulling me off the boat! Jon now gets a lot more wet and cold sitting first on the rail as bowman, but has taken it all in stride. “Just another sail on Moonlight Bay,” he often jokes after a massive wave breaks over on him on the bow.

Sailboat racing is an emotional and physical test on so many levels. Sharing that intensity as a team is both the biggest reward and the biggest challenge. Crew bonds are the best. You become family in so many ways, sharing a closeness literally and figuratively that compares to nothing else. Those good times and great laughs we had all season long as a team will stay with me always.

J/70 crew positions and duties are somewhat formulaic, though with four positions and lots to do there are a variety of ways to delegate who does what. Size me up in person and you might rightly conclude I have limited strength to offer, and indeed this true. I often get asked about my role on the boat, especially from other female sailors who would like to sail on the J/70 but find themselves overlooked in favor of stronger, typically male counterparts. Often, though, having at least one lightweight crewmember is an advantage. I trim the main downwind, which is by far the most fun job on the boat; having the throttle on a ripping reach is the best assignment any sailor could ask for! I also play the backstay, “jump” the jib sheets for final trim, adjust the traveller, and finish packing the spinnaker in the bag after we have rounded the downwind mark.

J/70s sailing San FranciscoTo give ourselves the best chance of being competitive, and perhaps even take home the Corinthian World Championship title at the J/70 Worlds, we splurged on a lot of high-level training and coaching sessions with some of the best pro sailors in the business, including Willem Van Waay, Victor Diaz de Leon, and Steve Bourdow. With Victor trimming the main, we cut across the Bay like a knife through butter in over 25 knots. That day with Victor was one I will never forget because our boat reached speeds we hadn’t imagined were possible. Experiencing just how far the boat could be pushed gave us a “no fear” attitude to “breeze on” conditions, which served us well on those windy reaches during the World Championships.

Steve has an uncanny ability for comparisons when it comes to sail trim and rig set up, and his daily debriefs during the Worlds were invaluable to our team. We were also lucky enough to have Willem with us for several training sessions. Over the course of the summer, he completely overhauled everything about our program, including sails, rig, settings, markings, lines—I mean everything! And after extracting and stripping everything non-essential or “cute” off our boat (including my missing flip-flop) he had us doing Zambookas (jibe set drills) in our sleep.

In the days prior to racing, during hull and sail measurement and inspection, the anticipation in the air at StFYC was palpable. I was excited to see how the top Italian teams would pace against some of the top teams we had been sailing with all season.

Joel Ronning’s Catapult had unrivaled speed at the Pacific Coast Championships in July and Julian Fernandez Neckelmann’s Flojito y Cooperando had been on an impressive winning streak all year long, winning every regatta they entered, with the exception of Key West Race Week. At Key West, Carlo Alberini’s Calvi Network won the regatta with five bullets in 10 races.

How Claudia Rossi’s formidable Petite Terrible would stack up seemed like a complete wild card since neither Catapult nor Flojito had lined up with them yet. It was a sailing soap opera of sorts and I couldn’t wait for the racing to get started!

It was clear at the end of the first day of racing that any of five top teams seemed worthy of the World Champion title. The 2016 Alcatel Worlds was going to be nothing short of a nail biter, and even with a throw-out, every race and every point, was going to count.

What is great about the J/70 Class is that it “brings together the sailing legends with the weekend warriors,” said Karlo Hmeljat, main trimmer on Calvi Network. I couldn’t agree more. From what I’ve seen so far, the professional sailors enhance the racing both on and off the water. Nonetheless, there is a clear distinction between the professional and Corinthian (or amateur) sailors, and I am more concerned that some teams that clearly belong in the former (pro) category somehow qualify for the latter (Corinthian) classification.

It was very inspiring for me to meet so many incredibly talented and skilled top female sailors. Meeting the current European J/70 Champion Claudia Rossi of Petite Terrible, former North American J/70 Champion Heather Gregg of Muse, and Irene Bezzi, a former champion J/70 mainsail trimmer and coach with Calvi Network, as well as Laser Master Champion Guilia Albuzio, was one of the highlights of the regatta for me. These women have style and strength, and I admire them greatly as role models on and off the water.

It was a surreal experience to find myself sailing on the San Francisco Bay with the world’s top professional and Corinthian J/70 teams. After following these teams for many months, not only to see them here sailing on my home waters but also to find myself on the same starting line and sailing the same racecourse with them was an indescribable experience and the privilege of a lifetime. And just when things couldn’t get more surreal, a helicopter packed with photographers hovered over our race course on day four.

 “It was a gathering of eagles. You could not have gone anywhere on the planet that week and found a comparable assemblage of talent,” StFYC Commodore Kimball Livingston told Sail Couture.

Some of the world-class tacticians included: John Kostecki (Catapult), the only sailor to have ever won an Olympic medal, the America’s Cup and the Volvo Ocean Race, 11-time World Champion, Olympic Silver medalist, two-time Rolex US Rolex Yachtsman of the Year, winner of Volvo Ocean Race and America’s Cup; Bill Hardesty (Flojito y Cooperando) former US Sailing Rolex Yachtsman of the Year winner, Melges World Champion, Match Race World Champion and Paul Cayard (Calvi Network) former US Sailing Rolex Yachtsman of the Year, 7-time America’s Cup competitor, first American to win the Whitbread Round the World Race, two-time Olympian, US Sailing Hall of Fame inductee and Rolex Yachtsman of the year. These in addition to a bevy of former J/70 world, European and national champions.

The racing conditions during the Worlds were challenging for our team. The breeze and the infamous tides that enter and exit through the narrow opening at the Golden Gate were different and difficult to predict every day. For better or worse, there was a wide range of wind conditions. In most races we saw up to 25 knots of breeze, but some races were sailed in less than 10 knots.

Sailing in a large fleet of nearly 70 sailboats posed additional tactical challenges with respect to managing our position relative to the rest of the fleet on the upwind and downwind legs, as well, as navigating often crowded mark roundings.

Getting a clear lane off the starting line was critical. The fleet was aggressive on the line from the very first day and as a result, the race committee didn’t hesitate to deploy various penalty flags throughout the week to discourage boats from being over early. With only one race discard for the entire regatta, avoiding a penalty at the start was critical for all of the competitors but especially the top teams vying for the title.

“We set the race course in the East Bay, in the Olympic Circle, out of the shipping lanes and out of the worst of the tides, but over the week of racing we gave the competitors the full gamut of conditions: Warm mild days in the beginning of the week and toward the end they got the full San Francisco bear. By the time the regatta was over, they knew they had sailed on San Francisco Bay,” said Livingston.

The racecourse was located on the Berkeley Circle some six nautical miles from the St. Francis Yacht Club. Either by tow or by sail, it was a long way home at the end of the day.

Congratulations to the new J/70 World Champion Joel Ronning, owner and driver of Catapult, their friendly coach “Fuzz,” and the rest of the team for raising the bar and showing us their world-class speed and consistency on the race course. It is a well-deserved win after their yearlong training effort on the San Francisco Bay.

Taking home the top Corinthian honor was Ullman Sails Newport Beach’s USA-32 skippered by Shawn Bennett. Bennet together with his crew of Craig Healy, Jon Perkins and Eric Baumhoff claimed the World Championship Corinthian title.  Racing against the highly competitive professional sailing teams, USA-32 finished ahead of 53 boats and 15th overall in the open division.

“It’s easily the best regatta we’ve ever done and we’ve done a lot [of regattas],” Simon Ling of Great Britain’s Team RAF Benevolent Fund told Sail Couture. “The venue, the race organization, the hosting by StFYC, all together was excellent, a winning recipe.”

For me, sailboat racing is about more than sailboat racing. After a day on the water, the highlight for me is often hanging out with all the sailors while we try to figure out how to make our boats go faster tomorrow. The StFYC provided the perfect post-racing atmosphere during the Worlds including a California wine tasting, hot toddies at the World’s Fair outdoor carnival, and Aperol Spritz cocktails on Italian night while we all dreamt of sailing in Porto Cervo, Italy, where the J/70 Worlds will be held in 2017.

Sailboat racing is dopamine, regattas are a rush, and a weeklong high comes with a great crash. These weeks following the end of the J/70 Alcatel Worlds and our 2016 sailing season have been tough for me. I miss that collective passion for sailing buzzing between my fellow competitors, coaches, and teammates. Set in the iconic City by the Bay, the Worlds delivered more than results. It was about friendships, family, and memories fueled by wind, water, and teamwork that keep us all coming back regatta after regatta. I think all of the J/70 sailors left a little piece of their heart in San Francisco. I know I did.”