Duffer’s Diary 2 - The Frostbite Series

In the first Duffer’s Diary I introduced some practical examples of basic racing situations - like DNF (Did Not Finish) and DNS (Did Not Start) - and attempted to dispel some of the mystique surrounding racing for the newcomer. This diary covers the 2010 Frostbite Series and starts to dig deeper, once again drawing on my experiences of starting to race in order to give real-life illustrations of some of the lesser-known situations that can occur.

My thanks to those who have been complimentary and encouraging about the first Duffer’s Diary and to those (now) experienced racers who have shared with me, in confidence, tales of their own early days on the tricky slopes of this particular learning curve. These stories have reminded me that there is (or may be) light at the end of the channel and I pass this confidence on to other novice racers - was it Nelson who said “never give up, never surrender” or was it that bloke in Galaxy Quest? Either way, its good advice. As ever, my gratitude goes out to the galley crews and my desperate thanks to all those in the safety boats.

Frostbite 1 - DNLH

Replaced by Winter Woolley and Humbug 3, which in turn gets cancelled. Poor diarymanship skills meant I had missed the start of that series (Dec 26th) so I scored myself a Did Not Leave Home. Instead I downloaded a copy of the ISAF Racing Rules of Sailing (www.sailing.org). I spend the morning absorbing the contents of this 153 page document. After lunch I peruse the Starcross Sailing Instructions (under Racing on the website).

Frostbite 2 - RIA

Replaced by Winter Woolley 3 and Humbug, which in turn gets cancelled due to the Return of the Ice Age and the fact that there were no entries in the Sledge and Sleigh classes. Competitors are reminded that huskies should be kept on a lead until all cats have launched. This will be indicated by the OOD, who will lean out of a race tower window and howl twice.

Frostbite 3 - SMART

Replaced by Winter Woolley and Humbug 3. The SMART goals formula (Specific Measurable Achievable Recordable Timetableable) is something I came across in a sailing book and is apparently used by a variety of sports people trying to improve their performance. I exonerate my second DNLH of the series by setting myself some SMART goals as follows.

(1) Buy my own Laser by the end of the Frostbite series.
(2) Record more finishes than DNFs etc in the Frostbite series.
(3) Not to come last in every race of the Spring series.

Frostbite 4 & 5 - A Week Next Tuesday

This is a bit embarrassing. The first race of the day goes pretty smoothly and whilst I should have used the larger sail in such light winds (it has a small hole in it, chewed by mice looking for nesting materials), I did complete the course. OK I came in last but my adjusted time shows me just 2 minutes and 2 seconds behind the next boat. I take this as a positive omen for my New Sailing Year and head off to the clubhouse for a bacon roll and some excellent parsnip soup to fortify myself for the next race.

This is the embarrassing bit. I still find the start a little confusing, and an apparent failure in both the lights and the horn at the start of the first race made me even more circumspect than usual. So I stick to my current starting strategy, ie to pick a couple of the top sailors and to lurk in their wake, taking my cue from them. I start the race in probably my best position ever, crossing the line just seconds behind the top boats. This is the moment that the wind chooses to drop completely leaving a whole bunch of boats becalmed on the start line and drifting into buoy 29. I’m half a dozen lengths further down the line than them and so manage to avoid the melee. Slowly they start to move again and the field spreads out towards the first mark. I’m puzzled as I seem to be falling further and further behind, barely making progress at all as I close haul along the first leg. Everyone else rounds the first mark and I’m not even half way there. I don’t understand why they’re moving and I’m not. I can’t see much difference in what they’re doing.

It’s cold, I’m barely moving and I’m keeping a sharp eye on the mooring buoys in the Salmon Pool in case I start to drift into them on the tide (something which happened a couple of times last summer, with amusing results). I stand up in the boat so I can fight the cold by jiggling about a bit. At some point I notice the very faintest signs of a death roll. A thought...I let the sail out (I had been block-to-block trying to catch what wind I thought there was) and the boat picks up speed. A slow realisation. The NE wind that died at the start must have returned as a southerly and I had been close-hauled with the wind astern. At last I’m moving but as I finally round the first mark I can hear the hooter welcoming in the first boats to finish.

By the time I’m halfway across the beat to buoy 25 everyone else has finished and the safety boat is hauling in the Salmon Pool buoy. Its a bit demoralising when you realise that everyone else is in the clubhouse finishing up the soup whilst you are shivering across the half-way point. The safety boat comes up behind me and I can clearly hear the race box on the VHF: “Ask 37 if he intends to finish the course, which we estimate will be some time a week on Tuesday.” I apply seaman-like common sense and evaluate the situation carefully: finishing the course will get me one more point than a DNF; I am cold and shivering; I alone am keeping the safety boat and race box crews on duty; the parsnip soup will not last forever. “I think I’ll call it a day,” I call to the safety boat. “Have you got a line?”

RESULT: I score 10 and 12 for a last place and a DNF. LESSONS LEARNT: Wind direction can change. Lighter winds are harder to read. NOTE TO SELF: Where is the wind? POSITIVES: Actually finished the first race I competed in this year - surely a good omen.

Frostbite 6 & 7 - The Racing Day

00:30 Bridgwater Motorway Service Station. I’m heading home from a friend’s 50th birthday party near Shepton Mallet. Yesterday I bought a Laser sailing dinghy. My first ever boat. It feels like Christmas aged 8. I’m so keen to race it today I’ve declined the invitation to stay over for a night of debauchery after the party and I’m drinking coffee (in what is probably the worst service station in the world) to carry me through the homeward leg. If you want to keep sailing, I have discovered, there are times you have to be ruthless.

02:00 Home. Check that my sailing bag is packed and then off to bed.

06:00 In my bed. Aaaargh! What the **** is that?

07:55 In my bed. Oh right, it was my alarm. 7:55??? I’m meant to be leaving ten minutes ago. Panic.

09:00 Leaving home. I calmed down a bit when I looked out of the window and then checked the weather stations on the estuary: there’s no wind at all. It’s no good going on an empty stomach and the idea of no coffee is laughable. My partner Di is my sailing muse. She comes from a sailing family and it was she who suggested a week’s dinghy sailing course in Plymouth Sound for our summer holiday in August 2008. It was this which sparked my love affair with sailing. Today she decides to come and watch my maiden voyage in my new boat Merlarkey.

A few people give their Lasers a name, but I detect that there’s a certain commitment to a cold hard accuracy among Laser sailors and hence most refer to their boats by number. To them it’s just a lean mean racing machine and it has a serial number. By way of ironic comment, I considered for a while naming my boat “7 of 9, Tertiary Adjunct of Unimatrix zero-zero-one” after one of the Borg out of Star Trek Voyager. This had some drawbacks. One, it would cost a lot in lettering. Two, in order to fit it all on the transom I would have to use very small letters thus rendering the name practically unreadable. Three, can you buy stick-on commas? So I have fallen back on the early favourite Merlarkey. It’s a word that encapsulates for me the whole sport of sailing. Changing the spelling allows me to incorporate the French word for the sea. Penetrating? Pretentious? Humourous? Just the right sort of thing to sew seeds of doubt in the minds of the number-crunchers around me. It might just give me an edge...

09:30 SYC. We arrive at the moment the first race of the day is due to start. As we had guessed, the start has been postponed due to lack of wind but now there is some wind, everyone is ready to go and there’s a crowd around the course map. Looks like things are about to happen. Do I still have time to get the boat on the water? As we hurry across the clubhouse decking and into the crowd we are pounced on by the press gangs. Someone asks Di if she could crew in a safety boat, and as I reel in surprise when she instantly says yes, another comes from the other side. “Have you ever been in the race box?” It’s all a blur. “But, but, my new boat....” I stammer, but my protests are drowned out as they drag me up the steps to the race tower.

09:48 The Race Tower. Bill simultaneously presses a button on the lights-and-horn-control-box and touches a picture of a button on the Race Manager computer screen. That’s it, that’s all it takes to let slip the dogs of race. The whole sequence is automatic from then on. We sit back in the race box and carefully watch the boats jostling for prime position on the start line.

11:10 The race ends as the last boat crosses the line. For the last 30 minutes we have endured the smell of bacon cooking, wafting in through the window, unable to move as the tyranny of the Race Manager programme demands that we click each racer home. The new starting line is the queue for the galley. I have orders for 4 bacon rolls from the safety boats. By the time they have picked up the marks and come back in there is no bacon left in the galley. I am in the doghouse. And I live with one of the disgruntled crew...

RESULT: I score 16 for not being in the race, my worst score of the series.  LESSONS LEARNT: Arrive late at your peril. NOTE TO SELF: Being in the Race Box is excellent, I will do it again. POSITIVES: There were sausage rolls and two types of pasty.

12.19 SYC Quay. There is not a minute to be lost. I rig Merlarkey at top speed and with three pairs of helping hands and before I know it I am down the slipway and into the water...

12.23 Merlarkey. I have brought a leftover can of lager from last night’s party with which to name and launch Merlarkey, a libation for Neptune. In a tearing hurry, trying not to lose control the boat as it picks up speed after launching, I shake the can and crack it, spraying the foredeck. Half way through this procedure I have to make a dive for the tiller, lower the rudder and tie off its downhaul, and pull the sheet it until there’s no slack left in it. In short, I have to get control of the boat. At some point I drop the can into the cockpit and, once I have regained my composure, I notice that the cockpit filling up with lager. And more lager is running in from the deck. My sailing gear and some of my cordage is going to smell like a pub the morning after. But we’re under way at last, me and my new boat. A moment of joy, and then I ruthlessly set my course for the starting line. Later I will regret the loutish exuberance that has me crush the can.

12.29 River Exe Estuary. I’m out with the fleet jockeying for a starting position but notice that in my haste I didn’t tie off the outhaul. It’s dangling down from the middle of the boom and when I tack it threatens to get tangled up in the sheet. It’s also swimming in the lager. I am gradually developing a sense for disasters in the making. Tangled cords lead to jammed cords lead to a stuck sail leads to...capsize!. I have to tie off the outhaul but I have to keep one hand on the tiller. Surprisingly I manage to do this but I don’t finish the job until the moment the rest of the fleet crosses the starting line. We’re off, but I’m as much as a minute behind already.

13.34 The Finishing Line. An uneventful race. I lose another minute against the leader and eventually come in last 2.24 behind the next boat, but its been a nice sail in a gentle wind on a lovely morning on the beautiful Exe. Due to me not checking the cockpit drain plug properly, a certain amount of water has joined the lager in the cockpit and I’m sailing with my feet sitting in a kind of  shandy. The can is the only baler I have and I have crushed it. So it can remove about four egg cups of water at a time. I spend the long steady uneventful runs slowly reducing the level in the cockpit. It’s a delicate balancing act - I want to stay near the front of the boat for the trim and jerky movements can induce some rolling. The challenge is to maintain course, balance, trim, whilst slowly and smoothly baling the boat with a crushed lager can. I relax into a smooth rhythm; life is good. Funnily enough, on the runs I gain a little on the fleet. And then when we round the mark and start to beat back up the wind I lose it all and more immediately. These guys have my number.

RESULT: 4 for coming in last, which will turn out to be my best score of the series.  LESSONS LEARNT: Sometimes just being there works. NOTE TO SELF: Achieved SMART Goal 1. POSITIVES: 4!!!!!!

Frostbite 8 - Equipment Failure

There’s something about beating up through wind against tide that I just haven’t got. Today its blowing a NW 4 and cutting up rough. As has happened before, I’m not far behind the fleet as we approach the first mark but as soon as we round it and start to beat toward the Salmon Pool I quickly lose ground. The water is pretty choppy, the boat is bouncing up on the waves and smacking down into the troughs and I just can’t seem to hold on to any speed. By the time I round the Salmon Pool mark the rest of the Laser fleet is, er, some lengths ahead of me.

I carry on but there’s something profoundly miserable about the familiarity of the situation. As I round the last mark and head towards the line at the end of my first lap I find myself, for the first time, tempted to quit the race. Suddenly something happens to the sheet. The eye on the boom that holds the forward sheet block has broken off and the sheet now runs diagonally up to the boom from the front of the cockpit. When I tack, its impossible not to get tangled in the sheet. This is manageable here by the western shore where the wind is lighter, but I fear for the consequences out on the other side in the full force of the wind. I decide to retire once I have crossed the line and completed the lap.

Once ashore I can see that it was a rivet  that broke - my first equipment failure on my new boat! In the galley I order a slice of an excellent lemon drizzle cake to celebrate this rite of passage.

RESULT: Only my second DNF of the series.  LESSONS LEARNT: Sheet happens. NOTE TO SELF: I need a rivet gun. POSITIVES: Limped in under my own wind.

Frostbite 9 & 10 - Shock

This is going to be difficult for some of my readers, but: sometimes people are more important than racing. The appropriate signal is a white flag, waved.

Frostbite 11 - The Capsize

This one is a bit of a blur. In fact it was a bit of a blur even whilst it was happening. It was a NW force 4 with strong gusts and I wasn’t the only one to spend time in the water. But I did spend quite a bit of time there. The safety boats were excellent and later the galley crew pressed all manner of hot food, cake and drink on me to make sure I was OK, so thanks to all.

I turned up early and Andy helped me repair my boom (riveting is a new thing for me). I installed my new outhaul and improvised a downhaul (I’d left the new and the old ones at home). But what I had trouble with was the sheet.

The inexperienced Laser sailor can easily fall foul of a ‘sheet bind’. When you’re tacking/gybing and there’s not enough tension on the sheet it can get caught on the corner of the transom as it comes across. The first sign of this having happened is that the boat starts to capsize. Sometimes you can recover by diving to the corner and releasing it and sometimes you can’t. At least once I didn’t and at that moment sheet is one of the words that comes easily to mind.

The first capsize involved a Salmon Pool mooring buoy - not for the first time. As I went over the sheet looped over the buoy. The wind pushed the boat away and the sheet was stuck there. I undid the stopper knot and ran the sheet out of its blocks so I was no longer looped, but still the rope wouldn’t come away from the buoy. It took a safety boat to free me and then they had to hold me head to wind whilst I ran the sheet back through its blocks and retied the stopper knot.

Amazingly I hadn’t missed my start. I ran down to buoy 27 and started to prowl the line. With a couple of minutes to go I was hit by a strong gust that whipped the sheet out of my hand. The sail swung out across the beam and the sheet ran right out of all its blocks - the stopper knot had given way. Surely I must have tied it properly...? The horn sounded and the rest of the fleet charged over the line leaving me stopped on the line. How to get the boom back over the boat so I could re-thread the sheet? What I came up with was to pull on the vang to bring the boat round head to wind. This worked to some extent but it took the help of a safety boat (attracted by some frantic waving!) to actually bring me into position. For the second time I re-rigged the sheet.

With the boat back under control I found myself half way across the estuary with my fleet disappearing into the distance. I decided that the wind was too strong for me and that I would head for the castle where I might be able to noodle around for a while, sheltered from the worst of the north-westerly and out of the way of the racing, before heading back in to the club. Perhaps a bit of tacking practice would be useful?

My first ‘tack’ left me in irons and when I got out of that I found I was in a sheet bind. I avoided the capsize after a desperate lunge towards the starboard quarter and set off on a new course, close-hauled. But now the sheet wouldn’t move, in or out. Releasing the sheet bind had somehow caused the sheet to take a turn around the far end of the boom. It must have been whipped up by the wind. I was stuck on that point of sail and I couldn’t reach the end of the boom to release the sheet. Looking back I wonder why I didn’t simply bear up until I was in irons again, but at the time that simple solution escaped me and the next gust had me in the water again.

RESULT: 5 points is good, but the DNFs have overtaken the positions.  LESSONS LEARNT: Sheet is still happening. NOTE TO SELF: There seems no end in sight to the things that can be forgotten or the things that can foul up or to the way in which they can foul up. POSITIVES: No sense of panic.

Frostbite 12 - Cancellation

There’s no wind at all, not a breath. Its a lovely morning and the Laser fleet spends an enjoyable hour or so comparing rigs and visiting the galley. Other fleets are probably doing the same thing. A consensus arises that no one would use a sheet like mine even for a year’s supply of bacon butties. Eventually the race is cancelled and as the party breaks up the wind starts to fill in. This is the kind of thing I mean by merlarkey. Palaver is another word that springs to mind. When I get home I console myself by ordering some new cordage on the internet. A new sheet in fact.

NOTE TO SELF: There are now not enough races left for my positions to overtake my DNFs. I’m out of time and will fail to hit SMART Goal 2.

Frostbite 13 - NSL

Suffice to say that my naive tactical awareness was easily outmanoeuvred by a light wind, a strong tide and the rest of the fleet.

But what I didn’t understand, and probably still don’t, was the procedures that govern the shortening of a race. As I crossed the line at the end of my first lap the race tower was signalling with the flashing orange beacon and all the fleet lights were on. Reading the sailing instructions had paid off. I knew this meant that an abandonment had been called, a shortening of the course. The mistake I made was to think this meant I was now starting my last lap. So off I sail on in a falling wind, slower and slower round the course with the tide having more and more impact. The light starts to fade and I’m the last sail out. A safety boat prowls in the vicinity, waiting to take in the last marker. Back on land I hear the crew complain of being cold and I pretend I’m busy about Merlarkey and that I’m blissfully ignorant of their plight or its cause.

How it works is this, although you might be wise not to take my word for it. You need to hear the two toots on the horn that accompanies the switching on of the beacon and the fleet lights for the fleets that are affected. At that moment you need to know whether you are on the same lap as the leading boat. If you are, then you sail on and finish the lap. If you are not then you are NSL - Not on the Same Lap. This is a bit like being offside in football. You are now out of the race and free to make a dash for the galley (where I understand they offer a very fine bacon butty).

RESULT: 11 for an NSL.  LESSONS LEARNT: If you see the abandonment signals are on as you approach the line, the implication is that you missed the double-toot. Which means you probably don’t know whether you were on the same lap as the leader at that moment. The best policy is therefore to cross the line before coming in. NOTE TO SELF: Must revise the sailing instructions. POSITIVES: Completed the course.