Adapting to the conditions – Ben Ainslie blog
Wednesday 17, 2013 • blog
The racing here in Naples gets underway for real on Thursday but most of the teams have been afloat practicing for much of the week. With course marks and committee boats out on the water, at times it’s difficult to tell practicing from the real thing, certainly the racing can be as tight. It might seem strange to those that follow the AC World Series that we do quite so much practicing, but the fact is that this is still a relatively new format of racing and for some us, the light winds that are forecast present a new and different challenge.
For us at J.P.Morgan BAR, we’ve only competed in two events, both of them in San Francisco and both in pretty breezy conditions. So every practice session we can squeeze in makes a big difference to us. In addition, the weather for the rest of the week in Naples puts us in territory that we have little experience of in the AC45s. In up to 12 knots of true wind we will be using the big gennakers downwind as opposed to the code zeros that we used in the breezier conditions in San Francisco. We’ve only used this sail a couple of times in practice and still have a lot to learn.
The gennakers present a number of key differences for us as a crew, in particular handling. Unlike most boats that get harder to sail as the wind increases, the AC45s are almost the opposite. The gennakers are much larger than the code zeros and are therefore trickier to gybe. When the breeze gets towards the upper limit for these sails they do become a handful. We’ve had little experience of this so we’ve still yet to get our systems sorted on board.
Add to this the forecast sea breezes of around 10 knots or maybe a little more and we’re into the top end of these sails making it just about as difficult as it gets for the crew.
But there are other issues to get used to in these conditions. The larger, fuller gennakers also mean that we sail much deeper on the downwind legs than with the code zeros, so from my point of view I need to get to grips with a new set of gybing angles as well as knowing how to steer the boat through the gybe in order to keep the power on and accelerate efficiently out the other side. These may be subtle details, but some of the longstanding teams are much more familiar with this, so in a way we’re still playing catch up.
Then there’s the issue of judging the right angle into the bottom gate. Again, the bigger sails give you less freedom to steer where you need to, if you over stand the lay line into the gate it can be very difficult to sail high to get around the mark. Another area that requires a good deal of practice is the reaching start. Compared to a conventional upwind start these reaching starts are really difficult to get right and are so critical. If you get buried at the start you might get back to 2nd or 3rd with some good racing but you won’t win.
The trouble is that you have to have clear air at the start and that means being spot on the line as the gun goes. Any distance back and you run a serious risk of being blanketed by others. The new technology also means that the lines are very accurately monitored too so there is nowhere to hide. If you do get buried you can’t tack out into clear air either like you can in a conventional start, so these starts are absolutely critical.
Already we are seeing teams experimenting with different strategies for dealing with this, we certainly are. Assessing which end of the line will be best in certain conditions as well as refining how to ‘pull the trigger’ as we say and time the precise moment when we put on full power are just two examples.
I guess the irony here is that while these starts may be new to this kind of racing, reaching starts are what thousands of club and amateur sailors have to deal with every weekend. Practice makes perfect whichever end of the scale you are at.