Harken Derm

Team Racing: “Intense” is a bit of an understatement

Published on August 29th, 2013

By Lee Morrison, Noroton Yacht Club
Each August, the New York Yacht Club holds the Invitational Team Race Regatta for the Morgan Cup in Newport RI. Quick reactions, precise tactics, and amazing boat handling make labeling the Morgan Cup “intense” is a bit of an understatement.

This event pits some of the best sailors in the country, including collegiate all-Americans and Olympians, in evenly matched Sonars and lets them duke it out in 15 minute races – 87 of them in 3 days. The best part about sailing in an event such as this is that there are always new things to be learned. Here’s one for the books: “Ace in the hole”.

A team has an “Ace in the hole” when one boat on the team is in 5th and in control of an “enemy” in last place. If your team has the “Ace” and at the same time your team also has a boat in first, then your team is winning the race. Like all sport, when your team is winning, things are good. But, if you are the Ace being controlled by the enemy, things can get brutal.

We were sailing downwind with chute up in 10-15 knots of beautiful Newport sea breeze. But, unlike those that go to sea for relaxation, in team racing you don’t go straight for very long. I’m focused on trimming the chute; gybing, luffing, diving, when seemingly out of nowhere comes a boat from leeward, without a spinnaker, luffing us hard.

The enemy did it in a controlled deliberate way giving us just enough room and time to keep clear. It’s chaos on our boat: pole to the headstay, hastily trimming luffing sails while simultaneously holding on because the cockpit sole is now heeled 25 degrees to leeward. But Windward must keep clear of Leeward – the rules are clearly understood.

There is some yelling as each skipper pushes the rule’s boundary pertaining to the inches of proximity between the boats. But, counter to some perceptions of team racing, the yelling isn’t malicious. It’s deliberate and direct. The leeward boat wants control not contact. We are the enemy’s “Ace in the hole” and it’s our opponent’s job to keep us in last. As an added bonus, they disrupt our boat handling, increasing the gap between us and our only salvation – a teammate that would come back to help us.

But, sometimes the best defense is a good offense. We’re 50 yards from the leeward mark and have a chute up – the enemy doesn’t. How hard can this be? It takes a few seconds but we get the boat back under control and headed for the next mark. The chute is barely full and we’re rolling into a gybe. It’s not unexpected. We need to get the enemy to our right and then gybe back to starboard tack to take control.

Of course, the enemy understands this as well, and without spinnaker is still more maneuverable. So, before we can gybe they, in team race lingo, “give us a bump” – another hard luff. This time, however, we never quite got the pole back on the mast and the boat is again practically head to wind, heeled, sails luffing, and we’re stalled headed the wrong way. Not malicious, but effective. As it worked out in this race we got lucky. Another boat on the enemy team made a mistake and fouled, giving our team a winning 1-2 combo with us in a distant 6.

Team racing in the Morgan is competitive sailing at its most exciting best: fast paced and close action with frequent position changes. It’s not for everyone. With 18 boats, 6 teams compete simultaneously in three separate races. When things are rolling, there are only 3 minutes between starts. Paying attention is a prerequisite.

There is also simplicity to team racing that is very appealing. The boats are supplied which means you hop aboard when it’s your team’s turn to race and take a break when its not. And, most important to how the game is played today, there are volunteer umpires that make sure that, by and far, disputes stay on the water.

There are no age restrictions in the Morgan, but the majority of participants are young – typically a few years out of college. The exact demographic to which our sport needs to provide more continuity. Thank you to the NYYC for providing the organization and equipment needed to those of us that enjoy sailing in small boats and competing simply through basic boat handling, tactics, and physical skill.

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