Sunday, October 2, 2016

The ALCATEL J/70 World Championship Update

J/70s sailing off start at Worlds in San Francisco
(San Francisco, CA)- World Championship regattas always generate high-level competition, but when you stack 68 of the world’s most popular One Design boats on San Francisco Bay in a crisp, late-September breezes, you can bet your last shackle that the competition will be ferocious. Such was the case at the start of the 2016 Alcatel J/70 Worlds, hosted by St. Francis Yacht Club, as the fleet of top-shelf competitors experienced classic early fall conditions that tested racers’ big-fleet skills.

Day One
“You’re not going to win the regatta in the first race but you could lose it,” said Paul Cayard, a Volvo Ocean Race winner, who is serving as tactician aboard Carlo Alberini’s Calvi Network. “[At first] you’re just trying to get a couple of good races in. [Then], as the regatta proceeds…you may [eventually] have to start making a more aggressive game plan.”

J/70s sailing Worlds in San Francisco BayWhile the morning started with a one-hour shoreside postponement to allow the sea breeze to fill in on the Berkeley Circle racecourse, everyone clearly had first blood in mind once the starting guns began sounding in 15-18 knots of wind, with puffs in the low 20s. There were two general recalls before the Race Committee added the motivation of a black flag: Cross the line early and disqualification is mandatory.

The bulk of the fleet concentrated on the right side of the line, a move that suited skipper Chris Kostanecki and his crew aboard Jennifer (USA 370) just fine, as Kostanecki split with the herd and aimed left, finding clear lanes. As boats to the right-hand side of the course battled for scraps, Jennifer enjoyed a fast ride to the windward mark, which they rounded first, creating a commanding lead that they carried across the finish.

“We nailed the start,” said Kostanecki, three minutes after crossing the line in this talent-rife class, which includes former J/70 World Champions Tim Healy (2014) and Julian Fernandez Neckelmann (2015), as well as former America’s Cup winners and Olympic champions. “The weather end of the line was favored, and we went left. It was our game plan and we [stuck with] it.”

Unfortunately, for Jennifer, the Race Committee deemed that Kostanecki and 15 other skippers were on course side before the start, resulting in 16 disqualifications. After the Race Committee sorted out black-flag rulings, Jud Smith’s Africa (USA 179) took first place, followed by Joel Ronning’s Catapult (USA 187) and Julian Fernandez Neckelmann’s Flojito y Cooperando (MEX 384).

J/70s sail off start at WorldsThe Race Committee— lead by Principal Race Officer Mark Foster— quickly began race two’s countdown, with the less-menacing U flag usurping race one’s black-flag guillotine. Jennifer’s start was clearly noticed by her competitors, and the left side of the line became expensive real estate as the clock wound down. A signal sounded, sails sheeted on hard, and 68 polished teams began battling 1.8 nautical miles of uphill sailing.

While Cayard wisely predicted that a new world champion wouldn’t be minted in the first race, this didn’t stop Calvi Network (ITA 456) from dropping the hammer on race two. Come the final downhill run, Calvi Network’s distinctive logoed spinnaker was easy to spot, thanks to the generous lead that she enjoyed over Claudia Rossi’s Petite Terrible (ITA 853) and Kostanecki’s Jennifer.

“We started on the right side of the course, and we controlled the right side,” said Cayard, minutes after exchanging a round of celebratory high-fives with his skipper and crew. “We kept the boat upright on the run, and we had some great steering.” While a bullet was fresh in mind, Cayard— a consummate professional— downplayed their result, given that the team scored 23rd in race one, putting them in 7th place overall. “It’s a long series,” said Cayard, his mind clearly focusing on the next four days.

After two races, Smith’s Africa is in 1st place with six points, followed by Ronning’s Catapult (who also carries six points) and Neckelmann’s Flojito y Cooperando, who finished their day with 15 points. This sets the stage for a massive battle between these three teams as their tacticians—Victor Diaz, John Kostecki and Bill Hardesty, respectively—seek the podium’s top step.

Day Two
San Francisco has a storied reputation as a world-class venue during the summer and early fall, and the second day did not disappoint.

A marine layer and 10 knots of westerly breeze greeted racers at the docks, but by the time the fleet arrived at the Berkeley Circle, pockets of blue sky and gathering airs created visually stunning optics. The Race Committee quickly started the first of the day’s three races, as they well understood that the morning’s flat waters would grow steep and sharp once the afternoon’s ebb tide arrived.

J/70s sailing fast at Worlds in San FranciscoPied Piper (USA 380) enjoyed a fantastic start, which they leveraged into a thin-but-comfortable lead at the first mark rounding, and Gannon Troutman, the team’s brilliant 13-year-old skipper, made sure to press this advantage hard as a scrum of boats battled for position in his wake. A flurry of crew movement produced a fine A-sail set, and Pied Piper launched off toward the leeward gate. Flash forward thirty minutes, and Troutman was still leading the hunt as Pied Piper whistled across the finish line to a round of crew celebrations.

“It was hard in the chop, but it got easier in the flatter water,” said an elated Gannon, seconds after beating many of the world’s best One Design sailors. A great start was an obvious key to Pied Piper’s success, but the team managed to stretch their lead considerably from the windward mark to the first gate by sailing low and fast through the building chop. When queried about his team’s three smartest strategic and tactical moves, Gannon wasted no words: “The start, a later gybe on the first downwind leg, and sailing conservative.”

Stronger airs and a gathering ebb tide conspired to kick up bigger seas, which would only intensify as the afternoon continued. The next countdown commenced, headsails unfurled, and 68 boats hit the line at pace with the race committee citing only two boats for being over early.

Most of the fleet opted for left side of the line and a starboard tack start, but within minutes defending world champion Julian Fernandez Neckelmann (MEX) and his Flojito Y Cooperando (MEX 384) teammates found their own lane and began making big gains on the fleet; by the top of the second windward leg they enjoyed a 1:15 lead over Claudia Rossi’s Petite Terrible (ITA 853), who rounded in second. Come the finish, Neckelmann and his tactician, San Diego-native Bill Hardesty, had stretched this lead by another 42 seconds to take a decisive win.

Consistency is key at any big-fleet regatta, and Neckelmann and company clearly demonstrated they have unlocked the Berkeley Circle’s secrets in moderate-to-heavy conditions by repeating their stunning performance on the day’s final race, commanding every mark rounding and delivering a finish that few eyes witnessed, as the bulk of the fleet was far astern, skirmishing for points and finishing slots.

“There’s still two days to go,” said Neckelmann, who looked happy but was clearly conscious of the remaining races—and other brilliant sailors—that still separate him from winning back-to-back J/70 World Championship titles.

While Flojito Y Cooperando exemplified textbook A-sail sets and gybes, plenty of other teams learned the Bay’s lessons the hard way as shrouds kissed the brine and more than one crew watched valuable sand bleed through the metaphoric hourglass as they fought to retrieve their water-logged kite. Still, broad smiles and happy faces could be seen aboard all boats, irrespective of their finishing positions.

“It was windy at the top mark, but we’re having a great time!” said Heather Gregg, skipper of MUSE (USA 95) and the 2014 J/70 Corinthian World Champion, moments after she and her all-Corinthian crew crossed the finishing line in the day’s final race. “It’s tough sailing in such a big fleet— you make a few mistakes and you’re shot out of the back. But we have a great team and we’re having fun!”

J/70s sailing fast down reachDay Three
Mother Nature had some surprises in store for the sailors on the third day of racing.  For starters, it was split personality conditions that tested each boat's light air and heavy-air skills, as well as their patience as conditions played tricks on racers and the Race Committee alike. While the breeze varied, consistency proved its importance as several teams stayed fast, irrespective of the breeze and its meandering moods.

Winds of 5-10 knots and a flood tide awaited sailors as they began the downwind run to the Berkeley Circle, which is located some 7 nautical miles northeast of St. Francis Yacht Club. With a stronger left-hand component to the breeze than previous days, the Race Committee set the windward mark due east from Alcatraz Island, allowing boats to catch a fast, tide-powered ride to the leeward gate, a procession that was lead by Joel Ronning’s Catapult (USA 187), with hometown hero John Kostecki calling tactics. The breeze slowly built as the fleet swapped their kites for their headsails and Trey Sheehan’s Hooligan: Flat Stanley (USA 389) and Jack Franco’s 3 Ball JT (USA 3) hotly pursued Catapult.

Flash forward to the finishing line, and Catapult strutted to a clean win sailing wing-on-wing, followed by Hooligan: Flat Stanley and Claudia Rossi’s always-fast Petite Terrible (ITA 853). “It felt great to get in a fairly light-air race,” said Ronning, immediately ex post facto. “I’ve got a fabulous crew, and they knew what to do! I listened to [Kostecki], and we kept the boat going fast.”

J70 Grateful Dead sailing San FranciscoWhile Ronning made his win sound simple, there was nothing straightforward about what unfurled next. The Race Committee started their countdowns for race two, the starting gun sounded, the boats launched off into gathering airs before popping their kites at the offset mark, and—with Jud Smith’s Africa (USA 179), Catapult, and Petite Terrible hammering for the leeward gate—the race was abandoned due to a course that was no longer square to the wind.

Principal Race Officer Mark Foster personally apologized to the fleet for this abandonment, but the racers themselves were to blame for the next two starts, which resulted in general recalls as the outgoing tide flushed boats over the line in advance of the clock. The Race Committee noted—via VHF channel 69—that 40-some boats were OCS in the second general-recall start, and that they would be conducting the next start under the dreaded U flag, meaning that anyone deemed OCS would be disqualified.

The message was received, and the next start was noticeably more conservative. The gun fired and the fleet pounded uphill in 18-22 knot airs and some of the afternoon ebb’s strongest waters, which churned up the Berkeley Circle’s infamous washboard.

This nasty chop didn’t stop Africa, Tim Healy’s Sail Newport (USA 2), Mauricio Santa Cruz’s Bruschetta (BRA 403), Catapult and Petite Terrible from finding the windward mark ahead of the pack. Spinnakers were hoisted, afterburners lit, and Africa, Catapult, and Petite Terrible began replaying the abandoned race, along with added pressure from Sail Newport and Bruschetta.

J/70's sailing Worlds on San Francisco  BayFurther astern, however, teams began flashing their keels at the sun. Ander Belausteguigoitia, who is sailing aboard Bala (MEX 680) explained heavy-air broach-recovery: “First you let go of all sails and controls, and if it’s not coming back, you have to pop the halyard about halfway, but you have to be careful it doesn’t go in to the water. The spinnaker is still in the air, and before it goes into the water you have to re-hoist it.” Get it right and the race can be salvaged; blow this delicate timing and your crew can expect a lengthy shrimping session.

While other boats were perfecting their recovery tactics, Africa took the bullet, followed by Sail Newport, Catapult and Petite Terrible. “The guys did a good job, they stepped it up and gave me a good one,” said an elated Smith, just after finishing. When queried about the team’s preference between the two vastly different sets of conditions experienced on Day Three, Smith smiled and admitted, “I like 6 knots, but the crew likes the heavy stuff!”

After seven races, Ms. Rossi’s Petite Terrible is topping the leaderboard, followed by Catapult and Africa. It’s probably the first time a woman skipper has led a fleet filled with multiple Olympic medallists, America’s Cup champions and multiple World, European and National Champions!  Can she take the heat of the battle and persevere against some of the world’s most brilliant tacticians? Time will tell.  Sailing photo credits- Chris Ray/ Sharon Green/  For more information about ALCATEL  For more ALCATEL J/70 World Championship sailing information