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Up ] [ Ben Pickford's 2000 Masters Report ] Cancun Champs ]

A personal record of the event by D5 sailor Ben Pickford, of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada

Photograph by kind permission of Jeff Martin, ILCA

 Part 1: Oh no, not 50!

I thought turning 30 years old was bad, but I can't believe that I will  become 50 in March. So when I heard that the Worlds Masters Laser  Championship would be in Cancun, Mexico in March, I thought I deserved a  special birthday present, 'a thrill of a lifetime.' And it was no effort at  all to convince my wife to travel south, be my coach, and soak up the sun  and warmth.  Unlike the Senior Worlds Laser Championship which runs a week earlier  in Cancun and requires competitors to qualify from their country, the  Masters is open to anyone 35 years and older. New Lasers can be chartered,  but one brings his own lines and blocks. Each Masters age category is sailed  in separate fleets: 35-44, 45-54, 55-64, radial and there were 46 entries in  my age group.

 When I spoke to Mark Lammens about my plans and that I would welcome any tips, he said build a hiking bench and hike. When I said that I would  review some of the theory in articles I had, he said fine, but practice  hiking. When I mentioned that I was buying a compass to install on the  Laser to sail the wind shifts better, he said OK, but spend time hiking this winter.  So I built the hiking bench. My wife noted that I constructed it quickly while the shelves that she wanted have not been built. I put the  hiking bench in front of the TV to train and 60 seconds was all that I could manage. Obviously, much of my hiking in the boat is done by holding onto  the mainsheet which must explain why my shoulders often hurt. To hike just using my leg and stomach muscles is a challenge and I'm surprised that I feel so weak because I thought the bulging muscles around my waist would give me good hiking strength. I can't convince my wife to make the hiking bench a permanent feature in front of the TV in our family room so half my workout with the hiking bench is dragging it in and out of the garage.  Hiking is certainly not the part of competitive sailing that attracts me to the sport and so I'm thinking that I should compete in the America's Cup where hiking is illegal.

 webMaster Comments

Welcome to laser sailing, Ben!  Although it did not blow much last year in D5, if you are fit, it pays off in spades when the wind comes.  Just work at it every day, do a couple of seconds more each day and within a year you will be hiking straight legged for the whole beat.



Part II: The View From Behind

It was a wonderful experience to sail on the Caribbean Sea at a Worlds Masters Laser regatta. To witness 145 boats of one class stretched out as they sailed from the beach to the starting line was a sight I've never seen before. 145 boats going every which way at the starting line as we waited for the start of the first fleet, to be surrounded by 45 boats on the windward leg and to be able to see another 50 boats sailing in the fleet ahead and another 50 boats in fleets behind is wonderful. Add the beautiful blue waters of the Caribbean, sunny skies, warm spray and it was fantastic to be there.  HOWEVER; my one year experience in a Laser obviously did not prepare me for the level of competition, particularly in strong winds.  I don't think  I've ever had so many baths in my 35 year sailing career as only the first day was sailed in a nice breeze with all the other races sailed in whitecap conditions(20 mph +).  



In Melbourne for the 1999 Worlds we had 245 masters starting in four 60-70 boat fleets six minutes apart.  Some races it was impossible to get a transit, let alone see the other end of the line until the other fleet was gone, by which time there was not enough time to check out the favoured end.  Fortunately Jeff Martin who is normally PRO for the champs sets an even line so its not too much of a gamble.  You can even use it to your advantage.

The Start:  The first step was to get to the starting line which was 2-3 miles from the beach. For those of you familiar with Redberry Lake, it was like sailing out to the islands to begin your race. There were several races that I did not start so when I looked out from the beach to the starting area, I could barely see the sails. The wind  almost always blew from the land so it was a long run to the starting area. My experience sailing a Laser in strong winds and big waves on a run was minimal so I capsized a few times just getting to the start.  I participated in the practice race which helped me get used to the starting procedure as the timing sequence and colour of flags were different from what we use at our regattas. There were 4 fleets each with their own fleet colour.

 The starting line was between two boats which both always flew red flags. Six minutes before the start, the fleet colour flag went up. Five minutes before the start, the P flag went up, not the blue flag. One minute before the start, the P flag came down. At the start, the horn blew and the class colour flag came down. The starting line was long and the line was usually slightly favoured to the port end. This helped to spread out the fleet along the line and reduced the number of Lasers nipping at the huge RC boat at the starboard end. I found that I had room to use my usual strategy of sailing down the line on port tack one minute before the start. I usually timed my tack to starboard depending on wind strength, position of the other boats, and which end is favoured. I was pleasantly surprised to find that there was room to do this and I usually found a good place to start my starboard approach to the line. Problems soon developed however, after the starting horn as boats below me started to sail higher than I could, and I had on several occasions boats that seemed to be well to windward 15 seconds before the start come down to my area fast for the start, spurt out ahead, and take my wind. Some of the Laser sailors were very aggressive at hitting the line on time and at maximum speed.  


Sailing by the lee is more stable that a very broad reach or dead run.  It is surprising how far by the lee you can sail in a strong wind.

One trick if the line is long enough and the fleet is spread out is to come through the front rank with about ten seconds to go, bear off a bit down the line and across the front of the other boats then harden up and away you go. You will be in front, be sailing faster and hopefully not OCR as long as the line has its normal sag.  This works well in light to medium airs when it takes longer to get the boat up to speed.



The Windward Leg:  I found it difficult to maintain my lane off the line and I soon had to endure dirty air and I started to slip back in the fleet. So then I looked for an opportunity to tack to port in search of clean air. When I could tack and stay clear, I usually had to go behind a parade of boats and as a result, I am sure I lost 30 places in the first five minutes.  The windward mark was to be 1.1 nautical miles from the starting line and it seemed at least that far away. This meant there was a huge area for boats  to sail in and so they quickly dispersed, and it was not too difficult to find clear air. The course was an inner and outer trapezoid which the fleets rotated through which kept the fleets separate on the course until the last leg to the finish. It amazed me how far ahead some of the better sailors could get on the first windward leg. They know how to make the boats go fast which explains the harsh handicap the Laser has in comparison the the Laser II.  This is the first regatta where I have heard boats on starboard tell a boat on port tack to cross over in front rather than insisting on their starboard rights. Obviously, they did not want the boat to tack on their lee and cause them problems. I even had boats on port and slightly ahead ask if they could cross over. However, some of the gentlemanly behaviour seemed to disappear at the windward mark. There was a current and so boats that could easily make the mark on the lay line farther away soon discovered they had to make another short tack to port to get around the mark. I heard lots of shouting in many languages and recognized some Dutch profanity (I'm  half Dutch).   Needless to say, one had to hike till it hurt and then hike for a long time more. I found myself hiking straight legged for awhile and then hiking in a more curled position and alternating back and forth. After a few  races, I felt that I was sailing better by feel and not needing to watch the tell tales on the sail all the time. I noticed some of the sailors could tack very fast in the strong winds while I felt that I was usually going to capsize as the boat heeled so much after I came about and the end of the boom seemed to catch in the waves. (I had the boom vang on tight pulling the boom down and low.) 

Clear wind is the secret going up the first beat. If you are in the thick of it, sometimes the person giving you all the bad air will himself tack off so don't despair immediately.

Once you get to be with the pack, the strategy of approaching the windward mark becomes quite important.   At the fist mark a good strategy versus a poor one can be worth 20 places. You don't want to be in the line of starboard boats but then again you don't want to be the port boat in the photo below waiting for a hole.  Make sure you understand the currents if you are on the sea.

permission to use this photo requested

You need to adjust the vang all the time on the beat, as the wind strength varies.  Next year you will be allowed more modern fittings which should allow an easy quick release of the vang before you tack.   

The Dreaded Run:  We had a practice race the day before the series began and my troubles  with the run were soon exposed. I must have tipped 3 times before I retired exhausted. It was necessary to swim the boat into the wind each time before righting it so it wouldn't capsize again. In one race, I was 25th after the first windward leg but I  capsized and of course finished at the end of the fleet. In another race, I lost my cap on one of my capsizes and I was praying I still had some protection left in the sun screen that I put on my naked head. I could feel the solar flares bouncing off my head and I had to sail home after the race with my  lifejacket pulled high and over my head  to give me some protection. I was feeling a little discouraged about my performance but re-read an article that I had brought on the run. Sailing with the centerboard farther down, pulling the sail in a little from perpendicular, and most importantly having  my hand on the mainsheet close to the mainsheet block and giving it a good tug whenever I heeled too much to windward seemed to make a difference.  It worked if I concentrated completely, and I sailed the last four races without capsizing on the run.  I did capsize going out to the start and once after the race, but I felt that I was learning.  One of my capsizes occurred on a planing reach when I was careless and I fell out of the boat without holding onto the mainsheet. The boat drifted fast and I could not swim fast enough with my lifejacket on to catch it. The end of the boom was pointed to the sky so some of the sail was catching wind and helping to drift the boat. One of the rescue boats had to pick me up and return me to my boat and then I retired. Maybe seasoned Laser sailors know to hold onto the mainsheet no matter what, but for me it was a lesson to remember, particularly if I'm by myself or in cold water.  In a couple of races after I had been in the drink so often, there was nothing else to do but retire to the beach, have a drink in the shade, and watch the wonderful sights on the beach. Life is not so bad then. After capsizing a great many times during the practice race, I decided to stay put  on the beach with a few other sailors when I saw the strong winds on Day 2.  I can say that I was a little psyched out after feeling I had little control over the boat on the run. I sailed or swam at the pleasure of Neptune.  I obviously need to practice the run in windy conditions so I will be challenging the Laser sailors at my club to a 'Run of Terror.' We will sail a run of 1.5 to 2 miles during whitecap conditions and the person finishing the course first will have bragging rights. The presence of a rescue boat may be important if someone loses contact with their boat during a capsize or becomes exhausted. One of these years we will have strong winds at Jackfish Lake and the waves will be huge (for lakes) so we need to learn. I saw many sailors much older then myself sail the run with no problem so I know it can be done.

You need to free off the vang so the mast is straight, free off the outhaul - again much easier next year - and sail with a fair amount of twist and a baggy sail.  For stability pull in the main a bit and put some board down as Ben suggests.  I'm told that the key to fast downwind speed is strong pumping and as you pump lean aft, and try to make the boat squirt forwards on to the face of the wave. You should sail on the edge all the time you can to get the feel and balance for the boat downwind. Don't worry about the occasional capsize, it just means you are going fast.  As you surf down the wave bear away by the lee and then harden up and come back along the face of the wave if necessary. 

The great thing about sailing by the lee is that you can stake your claim to the inside position at the bottom mark.  I found that it generally paid to ignore the location of the bottom mark and just sail as fast as you can and as much as you can by the lee.  About 3/4 the way down the run you can harden up on to a broad reach and zoom in on a screaming plane going faster than the boats that stayed on a dead run.  The catch here is that you have to gybe at or just before the bottom mark.  The other strategy is to gybe about 2/3 the way down then sail by the lee again, but you will be coming into the mark on port, so watch out. 

If you submarine don't forget the quickest way to clear the water out is with your foot pushing the water against the aft bulkhead.


The Finish:  Every time I crossed the finish line it was with a sense of accomplishment. While there were usually only several of us at the back of  my fleet, one of the other fleets sailing the other course joined up with us at the leeward mark so things got to be very hectic for the last short beat to the finish line. It was particularly wild at the finishing line of the first race as the line was short and the Mexican rescue boats had been given bottled water to give us when we finished. So in one boat, they were happily extending water bottles to us while sitting right on the line as two fleets tried to cross over. It was chaotic. Unfortunately after the day's races were over, we had to beat home at least three miles in strong winds. I was usually ready to collapse on the beautiful fine white sandy beaches of Cancun. The Regatta was obviously a challenge, but well worth the experience  and I would certainly like to compete again. It is wonderful to see all these mature sailors enjoying the competition and I know that I can get better with practice. My results were 36, 39, dns, dns, 43, 42, 37, dnf, dnf, 37, 34, finishing 42/46.

The 2001 worlds Laser Masters championships are going to be in Ireland, and then the year after, it will be in the USA--either on the east coast or west coast. They believe these sites will provide good strong winds. The comment was made that Laser sailors in Australia, New Zealand, and Europe have to sail in stronger winds than sailors in N.A. 

Hope to see you at regattas this summer.

Ben Pickford










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