I was asked to give a brief report on my experience at the 2009 5o5 world championships in San Francisco…enough time has passed that I don’t think I can really give a detailed race-by-race account, but the event was definitely memorable enough that I can fill a page with my general impressions…
It all started with the drive down the west coast with Phil Cragg and his boat, CAN8192; the rig we were towing was a bit unusual to say the least. The plan was to stay on a nice 30’ powerboat moored right at St. Francis YC, then tow it back to Canada so Phil could sell it through his yacht sales business. Needless to say, a 30’ powerboat trailer is a bit oversized for a typical 5o5. Went through a bit of extra gas, but I’m sure the boat had a nice cushy ride down!
We were going to race the NAs as a warm up, then hit the worlds, so we were in San Fran for a little over two weeks. St. Francis Yacht club is a pretty awesome place, and they put on an amazing show. Free food & beer after racing every day. Some parties to kick off the event that rivaled the swankest functions you’ve probably ever been to. And a few days off to explore San Fran, which is a pretty neat town to hang out in for a few weeks. The club is right next the Golden Gate bridge, and in August the fog rolls in pretty thick. Every day started under a fog bank, and every day ended under one. Cold and dank and windy…jeans and toques were the order of the day. Phil brought his winter jacket, a good call. On one lay day I decided I needed to dry out and get me some of the much fabled California sunshine, which I eventually found on a hike up in the hills around Sausalito.
My thoughts on sailing in the bay:
The Berkley circle race location made for a pretty lengthy commute to and from the course every day. This turned out to be kind-of a relaxing run down in the morning as the sea breeze filled in, with some time to blow off some warmup wire running & gybes as the start line got closer. The way back home…different story. Try to visualize running two marathons back to back, then being bashed around for an hour or two getting randomly smacked with a nerf baseball bat while getting sprayed by a freezing cold fire hose every few seconds. A salty fire hose. Not that fun. Drawbacks aside, the sailing was definitely among the best that I’ve ever done. San Fransisco bay is one of the places in the world every racing sailor needs to check out at least once in their life. Nice big chop, windy as hell every single day, just about the most hard core venue you can think of. A true test of sailing ability.
The racing itself was intense, leaving me with little doubt that the top of the 5o5 class contains some of the best sailors in the world. We ended up having a decent NA’s finishing in the 20’s somewhere, I think…the boat held together and we managed to finish every race. We were a little more disappointed with our mid-pack finish at the worlds, some costly errors and gear failures, and maybe the tough conditions caught up to us a bit. I came away with a few key thoughts on what it takes to race down in San Fran:
1) Boat Prep
Phil and I had put in some solid hours of boatwork in the months before the trip. We beefed everything up & made sure the boat was rock solid, all the systems were working perfectly, and also made a few modifications to keep up to the latest class developments. We were considering going to a double pole system, but in the end because of limited practice time, decided that it was better to stick to what we knew. We did have a nice new shiny carbon boom & pole though. This is definitely a huge part of racing on the bay; with the breeze in the upper 20s pretty much every day, you really have to put in the time to make sure the boat is bombproof; and even then you’re guaranteed a breakdown or two. We ended up blowing our vang apart into little pieces, snapping out trap twing line in the same race after a jury rig, and we almost lost the mast when the forestay snapped in two. The metal part. Crazy conditions, and finishing every race will get you a long way up the standings.
2) Boat Handling
The Berkley circle is shallow, and I think this worlds might have set a record for snapped masts. Top priority was on not wiping out. Second priority was on keeping the mast out of the mud when you did wipe out. We did alright on this score…by bringing two spare masts down we were guaranteed not to break one thanks to Murphy’s law. So not only do you need to get your boat bombproof, but you’ve got to spend considerable time making sure you are comfortable blowing off gybes in 35 knots. Our boathandling was actually pretty good given the limited amount of truly san-fran style heavy-air training we’d done…but we still managed to wipe out our fair share. Obviously fitness is key here too, as everything gets that much harder as you start to fatigue.
It’s a good feeling to be able to spend some time sailing neck and neck with the likes of Mike Martin and Holty…which usually happened on the last beat as they were lapping us. Keeping up with the big boys…it is difficult for me to overstate the magnitude of this challenge. The top 10-20 boats at the worlds were just so blazingly fast that it was hard to believe we were all sailing the same boat. Even with a perfect start, nailing the shift and tide, tacking right on the layline the best we would be rounding is top third. Keeping a lane off the line was pretty tricky, so most of the regatta was spent searching for lanes and trying not to get catapulted way past the layline. Crew weight was maybe one of our issues, being probably one of the lighter teams competing (even after my 2-month 2-Liters-of-whole-milk-per-day diet), but plenty of light teams were still able to go really fast… Just as with anything in sailboat racing, it comes down to putting in the time, but it was truly impressive how quick the top boats were able to go in the breeze. Pretty good motivation to get out there and practice!
All in all, San Fran was a racing experience I’ll never forget, definitely one of the premier regattas I’ll probably ever sail in, and it was damn fun!