Journaling: ILCA North Americans

Published on July 29th, 2021

Al Sargent shares some of his notes from the 2021 ILCA / Laser North Americans to help others learn from his experiences and mistakes. Al ended up 16th overall in the ILCA 6 (Laser Radial) fleet, racing mostly against sailors half his age on the windy San Francisco city front. Beyond any specific tips mentioned, hopefully this provides other sailors with an example of journaling a regatta to reflect on one’s performance in order to improve.

Al Sargent

Physically the ILCA / Laser North Americans was one of the hardest regattas I’ve done, even though I trained pretty hard. Each day of racing involved about 13 miles, a half marathon, of upwind sailing where your heart rate is maxed out, your quads burning, and you’re constantly trimming your sail in and out to keep the boat sailing fast.

That said, I’m glad I did the regatta. Some memorable times, especially tacking up the San Francisco city front in 20 knots, weaving through boats, and not making a single foul. I’m glad I was able to do reasonably well given a couple of injuries: numbness in my left hand from carpal tunnel, and a sore right elbow. And I learned about where I need to improve my physical conditioning and nutrition.

Hats off to the other Laser District 24 sailors who survived this regatta, including Julian, Andrew, Tor, Josh, Hailey, Spencer, Emilio, my son Ethan, David, Walt, Toshi, Arthur, Alec, Tracy, Nick, Caleb, Talia, Michel, Cooper, Henry, Alexander, and Heidi (apologies if I missed anyone), just getting out there and doing the equivalent of 2 marathons in 4 days is pretty badass!

With that, here are some of my notes. More than other regattas, this one put a premium on boat, body, and mind simply working well over the course of four windy days. So I’ll kick off with fitness, nutrition, and gear before other aspects.

Fitness – What worked
• Lots of biking beforehand. While I can always use more cardio endurance, I was able to hang reasonably well on the upwind legs. Quads, though sore, weren’t horrible. Knees and ankles were fine.
• Management of numbness in my left hand due to carpal tunnel and ulnar (elbow) nerve blockage. While it was bad at times, I was able to get through the regatta thanks to a brace I wore at night, a wrist brace I wore on the water, and lots of stretching of the wrist.
• Hips. I had hip pain in the fall, and now don’t, thanks to lots of stretching of my hip flexors and glutes.

Fitness – What didn’t work
• Overall endurance: I made more mistakes, as I got tired. Basic stuff. I failed to cover on the last leg of the last race one day, when I was in first. I capsized during a tack, right in front of the StFYC clubhouse, while in 6th or so during day 3, dropping me back a few places. The following race, when in 8th or so, I capsized on a basic upturn, recovered, then mistakenly started sailing upwind, losing even more boats. I was in 11th overall after 2 days, then fell back to 16th.
• Arms: At times my arms were like jello. This meant less gear shifting on puffy cityfront legs, where I’d sit on the rail with a flat sail for half a minute, waiting for a puff, rather than powering up and hiking.
• Core: I should have done more situps and leg lifts. This manifested in day 3, when I didn’t lean out fast enough on an upturn downwind, caught my boom tip on a wave, and capsized. This is something I’ve done hundreds of times without an issue in practice, and it was only about 20 knots… not extreme conditions. Endurance = consistency = fewer mistakes.

Fitness – What to do differently
• Get an operation on my left wrist and elbow to fix nerve blockage.
• Figure out why the right elbow pain, and treat. Once I get right elbow fixed and can do long rides again, do the Headlands-to-Sutro Tower loop, 40 miles, 4000 vertical feet.
• Start doing rowing machine to build arm strength and endurance.

Nutrition – What worked
• Maurten sports drink. When I had the Maurten packets for the first two days, my results were better. The stuff is expensive, though. I used a 48-ounce water bottle from REI, stored in the back of my cockpit, with 3 Maurten packets added. This is in line with their guidance.
• Drinking plenty of Hammer HEED (high energy electrolyte drink). Doing this beat back the cramps I’ve had in the past. One 16 ounce bottle with breakfast, then another 16 ounce bottle while rigging up.
• Hammer Recoverite in the afternoons after sailing.
• Hammer Perpeteum seems like a decent, lower-cost substitute for Maurten.
• Gu gummies for additional calories between races.
• One Rx bar as backup in case I felt hungry.

Nutrition – What didn’t work
• Running out of Maurten halfway through the regatta. I had ordered some beforehand, but it didn’t arrive in time.

Equipment – What worked
• Refitting every single fitting on my boat. Took everything off, scraped off old caulking, and re-bedded with caulking. It was a great feeling to come in every day and have a dry stern plug fitting. Not just no water, a dry plug.
• Carbon spars. The amount of vang top Radial sailors put on is insane. Having carbon spars lets you apply that level of tension.
• Elastomer for my water bottle holder. Applied more tension than shock cord and kept everything in place.
• Writing out all the courses, and a course diagram, so it was clear what to do, even when exhausted.
• Tearing a half-width strip of Goat Tape, and wrapping it across the base and middle section of each of my pinkie, ring, and middle fingers, of each hand. Then gloves on. Four days of hard sailing and not a single blister.
• Core layers: rash guard, then 2.5mm wetsuit vest, then 4mm Rooster Supertherm top, all tucked inside Rooster hiking pants so that nothing would ride up on windy reaches.

Equipment – What didn’t work
• Inspection port. The one bit of moisture is under the inspection port. This despite using Vaseline on the threads. Maybe I should just caulk in the inspection port?
• Keep a closer eye on your rudder angle. On the last day, it was up a bit at the end. Not sure if this happened when pulling the boat out, or was the case all day.

Starts – What worked
• Prestart, I’d check out the rocks at the point to see how close I could get, and if there was anything just below the surface. Then I’d check out the gate favor, and form my gate strategy.
• Technique to get an “inside linesight”: when midline, slowly sail on port tack towards the committee boat, specifically the flag marking the line. As you get closer and closer, note which landmark the pin lines up with. That’s your “on the line” linesight. Do it again while aiming one boatlength below the flag (typically the stern of the RC boat); this is your “safe” linesight. One boatlength behind at the boat end will be half a boatlength down mid-line (due to trigonometry).
• Pre-start, I went upwind to fine-tune outhaul, cunningham, and vang, so I could carry as power I as could in the sailplan, keeping boat flat while hiking hard and telltales at 45 degree angle. Then I’d ease vang to B2B and go downwind, knowing that my settings were locked in.
• Started midline every time. There were a few reasons for this. First, the race committee did a good job in skewing the line relative to the current conditions. So for instance, boat-favored when it was flooding hard. Second, big shifts could come through, such as righties when you were sailing into shore, or lefties when you were going out in the ebb. Being in the middle was a good hedge against big shifts. Third, the ODP sailors would often cluster up at the boat end, and only 1-2 boats would emerge unscathed. Fourth, there was lots of line sag mid-line, and I was able to start a full 1-2 boatlengths ahead of other boats around me. Fifth, starting midline meant that I’d typically get to the shore around the point, and not risk running out of wind in the cove.
• Good last 90-seconds routine: find a marshmallow (someone who looked slow) at 90 seconds, and luff next to them. The entire time, keep an eye out for your linesight as you creep forward with the front row. At 60 seconds, be sure to lock in the boat to windward of you, so their bow couldn’t swing below you and take your hole. At 30 seconds, start creeping to windward to build your hole — in this fleet, everyone was locked into their slot by this time. At 20 seconds, vang on to D2 or D3, and start moving a bit faster, ahead of the front row, while keeping an eye out for your linesight; this gives you the jump on the boats around you. Sheet in and go when all the boats around you do the same, no later than 4 seconds to go.
• Good recovery: on day one, I capsized at 60 seconds to go. I got the boat up, immediately tacked to port, ducked 20 boats sheeting in, then tacked again at the committee boat, into clear air. Thankfully, a righty came in that I rode almost all the way to the beach, helping me get a 4th in that race.

Starts- What to do differently
• I probably could have been higher up on the line. There were times I couldn’t see my linesight, so even though I was ahead of the line sag, I was still leaving some distance unclaimed. This is backed up by the fact that there were races where the ODP sailors who started at the boat were way ahead, 3-4 boatlengths, shortly after the gun.

Upwind – What worked
• In 15-18 knots, keep about 2″ of camber on the outhaul but tight vang (D3). When the breeze really comes in hard, like 20+ knots, pull outhaul on so it’s barely touching the boom.
• Going up the shore, being ready to duck (clear mainsheet when you had a wide lane) so that you could stay in phase.
• Sensing puffs — a “bzzz” on the mainsail in the gust, without heel, meant that you were in a header.
• As you were heading out from the shore on port, watching boats on the shore to see if they were gaining due to less current, or suffering due to less wind. And then, when they dropped into you, that was your signal to take the next rightie across.
• On starboard, headed into shore, when pinned from tacking, I’d say, “in 10 seconds, I WILL need room.” Then I’d count down, “five, four, three, two, one, SEAROOM!”. This gave the other boats plenty of notice.
• Getting close to shore on starboard, maybe 1-2 boatlengths from the seawall, around where the waves were bouncing off, is where to tack.
• Only going close to the StFYC clubhouse when there was plenty of breeze, typically in a big righty.
• Going up the H Beam Beach was generally quick, even when there was temporarily less wind for 30 seconds or so before a lefty rolled in.
• Once, was able to transition to “hard right” to “play the left” strategy, when on starboard tack, about mid-course, I saw an ODP sailor scoot out from under me while we were both lifted… a pretty clear sign that there was better current closer to shore.
• Ranging on the weather mark as you came in from the right corner. A lot of boats overstood on the first race of the last day because their layline angles were off.
• When coming into weather mark on port, duck behind all the starboard tackers, even if they might have overstood. Don’t be greedy. There’s plenty of time to make up ground on the downwind leg.
• Treat the final beat, which was well offshore, as current-neutral. So, get into phase and look for where the next puff was coming from. Often there’d be a 20-30 shift from one side or the other.

Upwind – What didn’t work
• The “late ebb switching to flood” condition continues to be challenging. Once, I led the fleet to the right corner, a big leftie came in, and I was 12th or so. A couple of days later, in the last race of the series, I was leading on the left side, and was looking top 5 or so until a big rightie came in and led to 15 boats getting ahead of me (my worst race). I think the thing to do here is hedge: get a good start, and position in the middle of the fleet as it heads generally right.
• Converting good starts into good weather mark positions. There were a lot of fast, smart sailors in this event. This is probably a function of strength, converting into hiking endurance and gear shifting, which impacted speed. My tactics were generally good when we were going up the beach.

Reaching – What worked
• Our reaches were at the bottom of a downwind leg. Just prior to the reaching leg, I’d pull on the outhaul halfway from max ease, and ease the vang a half-inch. On the reach, I’d sail for several seconds, and assess the power in my sail. If underpowered, and no big puff coming down, I’d blow the outhaul to max ease and pull on some vang — easy to do if you’re not hiking. But if it was windy, I’d often have the right amount of power in the sail. (Conversely, it’s impossible to pull on more outhaul when you’re already max hiked on a reach trying to keep the boat flat.)
• If overpowered on the first reach, I was able to pull on outhaul and ease vang in the several seconds between bearing away and jibing.

Reaching – What to do differently
• We need to do more reaching practices at ACSC (Alameda Community Sailing Center). There’s a lot of potential for big distance gains on a reach…

Downwind – What worked
• Worked low BTL (by the lee) when nothing to surf, then would upturn to BR (broad reach) in the wave sets. This worked well given the wave skew — waves were westerly, and wind was southwesterly. This had the advantage of working north where there’d usually be strong sustained winds.
• Generally, by the time we got to the gate, it was windier than the weather mark. For this reason, it felt better to have worked low of the rhumbline by 2/3 of the way down, so we could BR surf in the higher winds, rather than having to go BTL and not being able to surf when it was windy.
• Given the flood, it was easy for us to outrun puffs downwind. This meant that it wasn’t a good idea to chase a puff unless it was a few boatlengths away… and if those cases, bear away or head up to catch it.
• I didn’t push it at leeward marks. If someone was four boatlengths out when they turned to round the mark, and I was inside, I’d go outside them. It was too windy to hail other boats to ask for room, and they were probably too tired to immediately understand my request.

Downwind – What didn’t work
• Once, a big lefty (facing upwind) rolled down the shore, and boats ripped along in that on a fast broad reach, even though on the prior upwind, there was less wind inshore and less flood current inshore. As you are on the offset leg and first bit of the downwind leg, look for big, sustained lefties.
• When it was windy and flooding strong. it was hard to make the north gate work, even if it was favored by a few boatlengths. This is because you’d lose a ton of distance in the jibe, it was hard to sheet in fast due to fatigue, and then you’d have to spend maybe 30 seconds crawling over the bottom (due to the flood) to get clear of the gate to tack around. Meanwhile, sailors who went for the south gate were motoring to shore. The exception to watch out for is when the north gate was favored and the flood was weak.

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