How to find a PHRF racer with a “cupcake” rating

A “cupcake” boat is described as a second- or third-hand boat that has a favorable PHRF handicap even if it has been restored to its first-generation capability. Several good examples of this kind of boat are the Olson-30, Pearson 10M, O’Day 30 and Ranger 30.

Every year, a number of new designs join the PHRF racing scene. They tend to be “high visibility” and attract talented sailors – the type who invests the time and money needed to extract the full potential of their machines. After a few years the luster usually wears off, and the hotshot sailors sell their boats and move on to the latest hot designs.

The next owners typically have a racing program of lesser intensity than the original owners. The sails have aged and are not replaced as often as they should be. The boat is gradually laden with extra “stuff” – you’d be amazed at the “stuff” that a boat can accumulate. The new owner’s crew often isn’t as sharp as the first-year crew. The result is that the boat can no longer win. Could the PHRF handicap be wrong?

By the time the boat has a third owner, an appeal is often made to the local PHRF committee for relief from what now appears to be an onerous handicap. The PHRF Committee, being nice guys, will usually decide to help out. A six second per mile adjustment is common under these circumstances.

With the extra six seconds per mile, the third owner is now happy. He or she has been the beneficiary of what I call the “nice guy syndrome.” In the end, however, that time credit will not make any difference. The typical “third owner” has a racing program so flawed that much more than this is needed to make the boat a winner.

However, the nice guy phenomenon creates wonderful opportunities for the knowledgeable sailor to pick up a boat with a favorable handicap. If you take that third generation boat and restore it to its first generation splendor, you have a winner – in other words, a “cupcake.”

In your search for such a cupcake, don’t be greedy. You don’t want an old boat with too favorable a handicap. After your restoration, if the improved performance is too obvious, corrective action will be taken by your local handicappers. So how do you find the right cupcake?

If the boat is built locally, it’s likely that a number of them are being raced in your PHRF region. Odds are that at least one of these boats will be raced well, so the handicap for that design will be “fair,” not “favorable.” You won’t find a cupcake here; avoid locally built boats.

Instead, what you want is a boat that has few sisterships racing in your area but many racing in another area. Check the US SAILING PHRF Handicaps Book and look for boats that have low handicaps in regions where a significant number are raced. Then see if the boat is scarce in your region. Finally, compare handicaps. If the boat is scarce locally, it should have a higher rating – the nice guy syndrome. You may have found a cupcake, frosted and ready to eat.

The Olson 30 is a good example. It’s a boat on which I have raced in my home waters of New England. While the previous owner of the Olson was a back-of-the-fleet sailor, we were able to sail this boat well enough that we were rounding the windward mark in the middle of the fleet that started in front of us. Unfortunately, the owner sold the boat before we could race it in an important regatta.

The California-built Olson 30 has a 96 handicap (outboard version) in the local fleets where it is popular. The Olson 30 is also raced as a one-design in California, which tends to bring out the best in the boat. In other regions of the country, the Olson 30 is less common, and so some PHRF fleets have significantly higher handicaps. For example, our handicap in New England was 108. If you’re in one of these nice guy areas, put the Olson 30 on your cupcake list.

Another favorite of mine is the Pearson 10M. This is by no means a racing machine. Rather, it is a solid boat with a rig that is indestructible. But, with preparation, it can be made to go. Note that the New England handicap, where the boat was built, is 141 and that the handicap is higher everywhere else. In my area it has been shown that the boat can win at 141 if properly prepared. Any higher handicap is a gift to you. Look for the tall rig version, as it’s better in light air.

The O’Day 30 and Ranger 30 are also on my cupcake list. (The Ranger 30 is really a tall-rigged O’Day 30.) The fleets that have well-sailed boats use ratings of about 174 for the O’Day 30 and 168 for the Ranger 30. There are fleets that have these boats up to 12 seconds per mile higher than these handicaps. These are good boats for the person looking for an econo-racer. A good keel fairing job is essential as the factory keel was a bit uneven.

Another boat to consider is the S2 9.1. Well-built and a good all-around performer, the handicap for an S2 9.1 can be as low as 123. Many of the other fleets have this boat at 132 and several are at 135. Any handicap above 131 makes the boat a cupcake.

A classic cupcake is the Cal 40. Where hotly raced, they often have a handicap of 114. However, other areas have handicaps up to 126. While this boat can be a little sticky in light air, a properly prepared Cal 40 can be a real winner in a breeze.

I have just touched on my favorite cupcakes. There are many others, of course. Just study the US SAILING PHRF Handicaps Book and you might find the perfect boat for you. A word of caution when comparing handicaps in the US SAILING Book. The handicaps for the Northwest and BC Sailing should be multiplied by 0.9 to bring their handicap scales in line with the other fleets. Also note that all the YRA of Long Island Sound handicaps tend to be slightly higher than the national average. Once you understand these variations, you can make better comparisons.

Also, keep in mind that a cupcake handicap doesn’t make a boat an automatic winner. It took years of neglect to get that rating. You’ll have to restore it to top condition if you want to win. This means getting new rags, fairing the bottom and the appendages, and getting the junk out of the boat. Once you have done this, you are ready to put a good crew aboard and go after the trophies.

When racing in the storm

The 1998 Sydney-Hobart race tragedy that killed six sailors has sadly opened up questions regarding the safety of offshore racing. New safety measures are being proposed to prevent future disasters. One such measure is the possibility of postponing the start of a race if foul weather is forecasted.

The recent Sydney-Hobart race calamity was a grim reminder of the perils of racing offshore. The shocking reports from Australia brought back frightening memories for me of the 1979 Fastnet Race. Again, in 1998, as the storm unexpectedly built to near-hurricane strength, the priority shifted from racing to survival. For the unprepared or inexperienced, this is never an easy transition. Aboard Ted Turner’s Tenacious in 1979, I vividly remember the power of that storm. While at the helm, the roar of a giant cresting wave was deafening. As the wave broke over the cockpit, it felt like being at the bottom of a goal-line pileup. Even with two safety harnesses attached to the boat I could not tell if I was still on board. Adding to the long night of terror were continuous Mayday calls crackling over the VHF radio and occasional flares looming and then disappearing over the horizon. based on this experience, I can understand what it was like for the Sydney-Hobart fleet.

Sadly, six sailors perished. There is good reason to ask if the race organizer, the Cruising Yacht Club of Australia, or the sailors themselves could have done anything to prevent this catastrophe.

The lessons from the ’79 Fastnet inspired regulations that made offshore racing safer. The current Sydney-Hobart inquiry will likely be another harbinger. For now, there are many questions.

Should races be postponed? Can weather forecasts be more accurate? Should (and can) race committees communicate special announcements during a race? What can sailors do to prevent breakdowns, injuries, or worse, loss of life?

Sailing is impossible when the wind is over 60 knots and breaking seas crest over 30 feet. No boat can race, and few can make headway. Imagine the terror of being on a boat as it is rolled 360 degrees. The rig is broken and half in the water. Your boat lacks maneuverability. Suddenly, a crew is washed overboard. How would you respond? Considerable knowledge will be gained on how to handle a case like this through the experiences of the Sydney-Hobart competitors. We should listen carefully. The next disaster could be on any of our boats.

Even without a storm, falling overboard is the most common reason for offshore deaths. The list of sailors who have been lost is long: Nigel Burgess, Mike Plant, Makoto Namba, Rob James, Larry Klein, Andrea Romanelli, Tom Curtis, and Tom Curnow.

According to press reports, the CYCA race committee expected a fresh gale, but still sent the fleet to sea. Apparently they are comfortable with big storms since the Sydney-Hobart race has a long history of “southerly busters.” Unfortunately, the wind built to near-hurricane strength on parts of the racecourse. That’s when the problems began.

The pressure to start the race was strong. On December 26, 1998, the weather was perfect. A huge, festive crowd lined the harbor anticipating the annual spectacle. They were rewarded with a classic spinnaker start in a fresh northeasterly.

There is considerable precedent, however, for postponing the start of long-distance races. In 1982 the Cruising Club of America held back the Newport-Bermuda fleet one day because of rough weather in the Gulf Stream. The Storm Trysail Club has, ironically, also cancelled its t:t. Lauderdale-Key West race because of heavy conditions. Even the Whitbread Round the World Race postponed a leg start from Uruguay in 1993.

Interestingly, another race scheduled to start from Melbourne for Hobart on the same day was postponed.

Luckily for the stricken crews, the Sydney-Hobart race runs along the Australian coast, making helicopter rescue possible. The Australian Navy dispatched a fleet of 27 vessels and several aircraft to search a 4,000-square-mile area. In all, 55 sailors were lifted from life rafts and damaged yachts. Of the six fatalities, Bruce Guy, the owner of Business Post Naiad, had a heart attack. The other five drowned.

There were suggestions in 1979, and now again twenty years later, that the race should have been cancelled. But running for cover is not easy. And how does the race committee communicate with the fleet? Once started, it’s up to the skipper to decide when to stop racing.

Modern ocean race boats are much lighter than 20 years ago. The ride on board can be rough. But the fact is that most boats made it back safely despite broken masts, injuries, and major breakage. This is a credit to ocean-race regulations, strong equipment, and skilled sailors.

The worst case was a 55-year-old wooden boat, Winston Churchill, that sank and lost three crewmembers. Should a classic boat like this one be allowed to compete?

Strict entry requirements for long-distance races are mandatory. The Whitbread race required syndicates to complete a designated long-distance passage before being accepted for entry. The CCA has rejected boats with a history of broken masts or other chronic problems.

The 1998 Sydney-Hobart race now goes in the record books as one of the two toughest offshore races on record. It was sad to learn of the deaths of six sailors. They will be missed, but the lessons learned from the 1998 Sydney-Hobart race will provide benefits to future ocean racers.


Race Organizers

  • Conduct rigorous safety inspections and hold procedural reviews with all participants.
  • Require that all crew attend safety-at-sea seminars within two years of race.
  • Track pre-start weather systems from two sources.
  • Distribute air-sea rescue procedures with sailing instructions.
  • Require life jackets, foul-weather gear, and life rafts in bright colors.


  • Recruit a minimum number of veteran ocean racers.
  • Post “all-hands” billet and list command structure and a safety equipment storage plan.
  • Hold a safety drill, and review procedures for storm, breakdown, or man overboard, making specific crew assignments.
  • Equip foul-weather gear with floatable flashlight and whistle.
  • Inspect and set storm sails before the race.

In a Storm

  • Rotate crew regularly to avoid fatigue and the resulting bad decisions.
  • No yelling. Clear commands instill confidence.
  • Keep the boat on a comfortable, safe course. Forget about racing.
  • Be organized down below. Make every action purposeful.

Boats that fly

Two companies, Hobie and HydroSail, have built the TriFoiler and the WindRider Rave, respectively. These are new sail-powered hydrofoils that are earning raves from sailors and racers. Addition of new technologies to the boats have lessened the problems faced by previous models.

“Fast is fun” is sled maven Bill Lee’s favorite half-liner, but there’s a growing group of beach-cat sailors, windsurfers, and even one-design racers poised to lay claim to his slogan. This group is flying hydrofoils at automotive speeds, aided by a couple of boatbuilders who have launched reasonably affordable production foilers. Sail-powered hydrofoils have been around for a while, but up until now, they’ve been considered more or less quirky prototypes. The bad rap seems to be going away, however, and at recent boat shows speed aficionados crowded around WindRider’s Rave and Hobie’s TriFoiler with more than just idle curiosity.

Sailboats have dug holes in the water for centuries. For most, in fact, there’s only a slim hope for a momentary surge onto a plane. Climbing out of a wet trench is like expecting a Sumo wrestler to perform floor exercise. In most cases, the displacement hull plows aside and pulls along surrounding water, a process that makes waves and consumes most of the energy provided by the sail plan.

The few boats that can actually get over the hump of their own bow waves and transition into planing mode introduce a new set of hydrodynamic concerns. At this point, skin drag becomes the heaviest of shackles that bind, a reality of fluid dynamics that restrains further increases in speed.

Friction is an unrelenting foe of all machines, and sailboats are far from immune to its effects. Large, flat surface areas plane easily, but once on top of the water, they suffer from excess skin drag, which limits their high-end performance. The law of hydrodynamic lift defines an indirect correlation between speed and the optimum area of a planing surface. In short, the faster you go, the less boat needs to be in the water.

The dilemma facing hard-core speed sailors revolves around the design compromises necessary to provide enough flat surface to get a boat on to a plane, and then, once it’s skimming across the water, to provide a hull shape that lessens the effect of skin drag.

Rising Above the Drag

Hydrofoils are a natural evolution in the quest to rise above the drag-inducing effect of water. Their primary advantage is the way that they decrease surface area as speed increases and lift ensues. These wings in the water are like any foil – deriving lift through the pressure differential between the surfaces.

Just as a boat needs to be steered in a port/starboard context, a hydrofoil needs a means of controlling its up/down incidence angle. Most popular are mechanical feedback systems. These sense boat trim and actuate linkage connected to trim tabs that cause a foil to climb toward the surface or dive toward the bottom. The latter is advantageous as the breeze stiffens and the foil on the windward side of the hull (or weather ama) adds righting moment by automatically pulling downward. This auto-stabilization effect contributes significantly to a vessel’s ability to carry sail.

Until recently, fast boats and big dollars were synonymous. Budget-bound hydrofoil fans had to roll up their sleeves and experiment in their own garages while others plunked down a lot of money for esoteric custom boats.

One-off composite construction in exotic materials paid off in performance, but the hefty price tag chased away less well-heeled speed enthusiasts. That began to change when Hobie started building the TriFoiler, a production version of the Greg Ketterman design that Russell Long used to set world speed records in the early ’90s. Last year, Wilderness Systems joined the quest by engaging the design expertise of Sam Bradfield and his firm, HydroSail. The result is the WindRider Rave, an innovative “medium-tech” design that’s less complex, easier to rig, and less expensive than the TriFoiler.

The Rave has a 25-knot-plus top end but doesn’t require a crew ready for an Olympic campaign. Its success begins with the marriage of rotomolded, soft-skin hulls and a stiff, load-carrying frame. Bradfield (who once set a world speed record with a hydrofoil that sported inflatable hulls) saw the potential value in using rotomolded polyethylene hulls. He designed the boat like the human body: a rigid skeleton carries the loads and the softer skin keeps the water in, or in this case, keeps it out.

What makes the combination a success is the way the foil, rig, and sailing loads are focused onto an aluminum grid rather than onto the weaker, soft, flexible skins of the hulls. There’s a space frame in the main hull and tubular supports for the amas. The shrouds, as well as the upside-down T-shaped daggerboard/foil combination, all stress the light but hefty alloy tube and space frame.

The large-roach, full-batten mainsail is boomless, and after going through an intentional jibe at 25 knots, I could see why it makes sense to keep the rig that way. Each warp-speed pivot jibe feels like the crescendo of an amusement park ride that’s over in a nanosecond. When you finally realize that you’re on the other tack and that the boat never faltered from its foil-flying stance, you’re on your way to understanding what sailing at warp speed is all about.

In light air, there’s a feeling akin to what you might expect from a highly maneuverable beach cat. As you approach the threshold of hull-flying conditions, typically around 12 knots, the boat needs to be coaxed onto its feet. Usually this means turning a bit off a beam reach with the puffs, and then a small but quick turn back up to a beam reach. The acceleration of the leeward foil is enhanced by the longer turning radius, adding more lift and helping to get the hull out of the water.

As the hulls start to fly, there’s a distinct feeling of acceleration, the ride smooths out and dries out, and first-timers can’t hold back hoots of exhilaration. It’s a wet ride; when the water temp is chilly, your PFD better be over a spray top, or better yet, a full wet suit and booties.

Factory rep Mike McGarry, part of HydroSail’s design team, told me that there’s a group writing up one-design rules for the Rave. Reach mark roundings will probably feel like being between the uprights of a sling shot. Footage of these boats battling around a racecourse could rival Indy car action.

Sailing to weather is a “six of one, half dozen of the other” decision process. On one hand, when in a displacement mode, the high-aspect-ratio daggerboard/foils allow you to sail at about 40 to 45 degrees to the apparent wind. Once you’re up on the foils, 55 to 60 degrees becomes the best you can do to weather. Windward legs in one-design racing will likely reveal just when it makes sense to crack off and fly above the water versus staying stuck and pointing higher.

The Rave’s rotating aluminum foil-shaped spar and Neil Pryde sails come standard with the boat and are a cost-effective package that performs well. The small self-tending jib and larger, pole-mounted roller-furling reacher (a removable option) extend the usable wind range of this boat. Besides being able to climb out of the water in as little as 11 or 12 knots of true wind, the Rave is a fun boat to ghost along in 5 knots. Yes, a carbon spar and high-end composite hulls could squeak out a few extra knots, but they would undoubtedly skyrocket today’s $7,995 base price. Add to this the facts that even in 20-plus conditions you never think of hiking and that you can solo sail with ease, passing fleets of Melges 24s and Mumm 30s with their chutes up, and it’s easy to see why there’s growing interest in boats that fly.

Taking your own measure

Offshore sailboat racing has its own degree of risks such that safety regulations have limitations in protecting sailors. A prime example is what happened in the Sydney-Hobart race in Dec 1998. The only solution that can be offered is to prepare for any situation that a sailor can face.

I remember sailing in 45-knot winds while racing offshore from Marion to Bermuda. The waves were big but not especially dangerous. Under storm jib and triple-reefed mainsail, we could manage to steer the 33-footer upwind at 5 knots without pounding too badly. One particularly big wave swept our decks, flattened our dodger, and filled the cockpit with water and foam. Although it didn’t get any windier, I remember thinking fairly often about how much more wind it would require before our skipper should call for the change to the storm trysail.

The winds eased off eventually, but I’d seen the edge, beyond which we’d have had to shift from racing to focusing on how to make it through the storm in the best way possible. Being prepared for that moment is the point of having some experienced crewmembers, carrying good safety equipment, rehearsing man-overboard drills, and learning everything you can from the accounts of racing sailors who experienced storm conditions such as occurred in the Sydney-Hobart race last December.

Our story of the race in this issue is sensational, but not an attempt by us to sensationalize the fact that six sailors died. The general media already handled that pretty well. We wanted to bring you the words and actions of sailors caught in a severe storm so you could learn from their experience and act accordingly when getting ready for your next race. In the reading, I have no doubt that you’ll also feel more connected, as fellow sailors, with those who survived and those who died.

After the official inquiry is completed, race authorities will upgrade safety regulations and other requirements and procedures for offshore races. This was the case after the ’79 Fastnet in which 15 died, and also after the ’93 Sydney-Hobart in which two boats sank and many boats suffered delaminating hulls in a much longer upwind slog.

But race officials can only do so much to protect sailors. Next year, or 20 years from now, another major storm will catch a fleet offshore. You might be there. Will you take cover, prudently, if you have the opportunity? If you can’t dodge the storm, will you organize and lead your crew effectively and make good decisions about your storm tactics? And will your crew and safety gear be ready if fate sends a wave your way that would roll and dismast any boat? Tough questions, no sure answers.

Offshore sailboat racing is an adventure sport that offers compelling personal rewards for sailors. It also bears a certain degree of risk. As a skipper, you may never face the decisions that Sydney-Hobart skippers had to make. You may not lose a mast, lose a crew overboard, or have to choose when to step into a life raft. Yet if you keep at it, something’s going to happen sooner or later. And even if it doesn’t, by going through the process of preparing for what could go wrong, you’ll take your own measure on a far larger scale than you’ll ever contemplate by counting the contents of your trophy case.

Getting around the windward mark

Rules on sailboat racing require sailors to give way to boats that are within the two-length-zone of the windward mark. A boat is deemed about to pass the windward mark when its speed increases and goes through wilder winds and waves. The boat needs more control at this point.

In the last two issues, we’ve followed a fleet of boats from their start on up the first windward leg, applying the racing rules to common boat-to-boat situations. This month we’ll look at snapshots of that same fleet of boats as they round the windward mark, discussing the rules situations that crop up there. In each case I’ll assume the mark is to be passed to port.

In the first scenario, Paul and Mary have overstood the weather mark and are screaming in on a close reach overlapped on port tack. Until they are “about to pass” the mark, Paul, as windward boat, is required by Rule 11 to keep clear of Mary. When they are close enough to the mark that they are “about to pass” it, then Rule 18.2(a) begins to apply and Mary must give Paul “room to pass the mark.” ISAF Case 84 discusses the meaning of the phrase “about to pass.” When a boat becomes “about to pass” a mark depends on several factors; the faster she is approaching the mark, the wilder the wind and waves, and the more sailhandling she has to do to round the mark, the sooner she becomes “about to pass” it. When she reaches the two-length zone, she is almost always “about to pass” the mark.

When they are “about to pass” the mark, Mary is required to give Paul room, including the room he needs to begin his tack around the mark. However, the moment Paul turns past head-to-wind, he becomes a starboard-tack boat while Mary is still on port tack. At that moment, Rule 18.2(a) ceases to apply because the boats are then on opposite tacks on a beat (see Rule 18.1(b)), and Paul is required by Rule 13 to keep clear of Mary. That will not be burdensome because his course and momentum will be carrying him away from her. After they both have tacked onto starboard tack, a new overlap begins between them. As they bear off onto the course to the next mark, Paul will have right-of-way under Rule 11 and also the right to sail above his proper course because the new overlap began with the boats side by side (see Rule 17.1).

Thelma and Louise are approaching the mark overlapped on starboard tack. Well before they entered the two-length zone, Louise crossed ahead of Thelma and tacked rather clumsily into a slightly overstood position. As a result of Louise’s slow tack, Thelma was able to overlap Louise to leeward. For this reason, Thelma, even though she has right-of-way as the leeward boat, is constrained by Rule 17.1 not to sail above her proper course. There’s a bit of foul current running, and Louise has reached down close to Thelma in an effort to blanket her and thereby prevent her from fetching the mark. Since Thelma is just below the layline, her proper course is to luff above closehauled and “shoot” the mark. By reaching off close to Thelma, Louise has put herself in a risky, position. If she sags down so close to Thelma that Thelma cannot shoot the mark without making contact with Louise, then Louise will have failed to keep clear and therefore broken Rule 11.

Ed and Fred are both approaching on port tack with Fred clear ahead. While the boats are on the same tack, Ed must keep clear of Fred (see Rules 12 and 18.2(b)). However, from his position, Fred cannot tack without placing himself in Ed’s path while turning from head-to-wind to closehauled on starboard. The moment Fred turns past head-to-wind, Rule 13 replaces Rule 18.2(b). Under Rule 13, Fred would have to keep clear of Ed until he was on a closehauled starboard-tack course. This gives Ed the advantage. He needs only to hold his course until he can fetch the mark, at which point he should be able to tack around ahead of Fred.

Pat and Stan are approaching on opposite tacks with Pat on port barely able to cross Stan on starboard. While they are on opposite tacks, Pat is required by Rule 10 to keep clear of Stan. Rule 18 does not apply (see Rule 18.1(b)), so Pat is not entitled to room from Stan to pass the mark. New Rule 18.3 begins to apply right after Pat tacks within the two-length zone. That rule makes Pat’s position very risky. If Pat tacks to leeward or just ahead of Stan, then he must keep clear not only while on port tack (required by Rule 10) and while turning from head-to-wind to closehauled on starboard tack (required by Rule 13), but also must not tack so close to Stan that Stan is forced to luff above closehauled to avoid him. If Pat tacks this close, he will break Rule 18.3(a). Furthermore, if Pat crosses Stan’s path and then tacks, he must do so far enough to windward that he is able to keep clear of Stan should Stan become overlapped inside him (see Rule 18.3(b)). Rule 18.3 is tough. To avoid breaking it when making a port-tack approach to a windward mark, you should make your approach at least three hull lengths to leeward of the mark so that you can complete your tack onto starboard before you enter the two-length zone. If you find yourself in the zone on port, you’ll be safe if you duck the transom of any nearby starboard-tack boats.

Ted and Alice are also approaching the mark on opposite tacks. Alice has overstood and is reaching down to the mark. Ted tacks from port to starboard inside the two-length zone. He completes his tack and assumes a starboard-tack, closehauled course without breaking Rule 13, but just after he tacks, Alice is compelled to luff to avoid hitting him. She protests.

Should Ted do a 720? No. Neither boat has broken a rule. As soon as Ted is on a closehauled starboard-tack course, he obtains right-of-way under Rule 11. At that moment, he must give Alice room to keep clear (see Rule 15). That Alice was able to luff and avoid contact indicates that Ted did not break Rule 15. Alice was forced to luff to avoid Ted, but she did not have to luff above closehauled to avoid contact. So Ted did not break Rule 18.3(a).

Tom, Dick, and Harry’s situation was described to me in an e-mail from a reader. Tom was hit with a sharp puff and capsized just as he was about to round the mark on starboard tack. Before Tom capsized, Dick thought he would easily cross Harry and tack around the mark ahead of him. Suddenly Harry and Dick are faced with a new situation. If Dick bears away to avoid Tom, he will not be able to cross Harry. Although Harry was on the layline to the mark, now he cannot make it past Tom without tacking.

Both Dick and Harry are required by Rule 21 to avoid Tom if it’s possible for them to do so. While Dick and Harry are on opposite tacks, Rule 18 does not give either of them any rights to room to pass the mark or the obstruction (Harry). It seems to me that the safest thing for Harry to do is to tack onto port, then back onto starboard right away, well before he is close to Dick. After Harry tacks onto port, there is a chance that Dick can put himself in a position to block Harry’s tack back onto starboard in order to beat Harry around both Tom and the mark. A riskier move for Harry is to hold his course on starboard and then tack when he is about to collide with Tom. This may force Dick to take Harry’s stern, at which point Harry can tack and block Dick from tacking onto starboard. If Harry can pull this off, he has a chance of rounding Tom and the mark ahead of Dick.

The long tack

Sailors who want to take advantage of the weather mark should follow the long tack. The latter helps the boat to avoid the laylines where poor wind shifts are usually located. The long tack is oftentimes the path of heading shifts.

We were on Thunder Bay at Alpena, Mich., about to start the first race of the Yngling North Americans. I asked my crew if he could see the weather mark.

“There it is, just to the left of the white powerboat,” he said.

“OK, I see it – a good 15 degrees to the right of the posted wind direction.” I wondered if the race committee was detecting that the wind at the mark was veered 15 degrees. Or were they expecting it to shift 15 degrees during the first beat? Were they making a mistake? Whatever the reason, if the mark was 15 degrees to the right, we were going right. I planned to start so that we could tack to port, onto the long tack, as soon as possible.

My middle crew seemed puzzled. “You don’t get to the weather mark any sooner by taking the first tack toward it,” he said. “As long as you can’t lay it, boats on opposite tacks must sail equal distances. Why bother finding the mark?”

I postponed this discussion until after the race, but on the way in I asked him if he agreed that the weather mark’s location did matter sometimes. “Oh, yes,” he replied, “when you’re close to laying it, you certainly want to be on the tack toward it. It’s dangerous to approach a layline far from the mark. And if you can lay the mark from the starting line, you’d better be on the laying tack initially. You don’t want to overstand.”

“Yes,” I said, “but the avoidance of overstanding is of minor significance. Detecting the long tack is what counts. In oscillating shifts – and the wind is usually oscillating – sailing the long tack is more likely to lead to a header.”

On the second beat of the fifth race, we were sailing in a 16- to 18-knot oscillating northwester. The three leading boats were on starboard to the right of the rhumb line. Elite Field, the seven-time Yngling North American champion, was ahead and to leeward, and Bruce Chafee, her closest competitor in the series, tacked to port across our stern. Field tacked across our bow to cover Chafee, and I yelped with delight. In a wind close to the median, I was now the only one of the three still sailing the long tack (headed about 20 degrees to the left of the mark). Our rivals were on the short tack sailing toward the near layline. After sailing a few minutes more, during which Chafee and then Field tacked on our hip, we were all lifted about 10 degrees. They looked to have gained.

We sailed another three minutes before the expected header (a 30-degree back to the extreme of the range) finally appeared. We had been on the long tack a total of about eight minutes and were within three minutes of the port layline. I tacked and I looked through the mainsail window – there was no one in sight. We reached the starboard layline on port (now the long) tack, close to the mark, and rounded with a quarter-mile lead.

ln the vast majority of around-the-buoy, near-shore races, the wind oscillates 20 to 30 degrees in classic oscillating-wind conditions, 5 to 10 degrees in more common conditions. Except when a single, persistent shift is superimposed, oscillating shifts are the major determinants of strategy and can be expected to appear every three to eight minutes. The fundamental principle governing the management of oscillating shifts is that (when a boat is sailing a lifted tack) a heading shift will shorten its course absolutely and relative to all boats astern and to windward. A lifting shift will lengthen its course absolutely and relative to all boats astern and to windward. One is always hoping for a heading shift.

The long tack is advantageous because it provides more time for a heading shift to appear and because it permits the boat to comply (for as long as possible) with the maxim, “Avoid the laylines.” If, for instance, a boat on its initial tack has sailed halfway to the layline, the distance back to the thumb line will be twice as long as the distance to the layline. On a 20-minute windward leg (10 minutes on each tack), the long tack to the far layline may take 10 minutes, and the short tack to the near layline may take only five. The boat on the long tack is twice as likely to meet a heading shift as is the boat on the short tack.

The initial tack (from the start or the leeward mark) is always a tack away from the rhumb line, and assuming a square beat, always a short tack, while the second tack is always a tack toward the rhumb line, always a long tack. At the rhumb line, the long tack becomes the short tack and vice versa. Once a boat reaches a layline, no shift can help; it is as close as possible (on a direct line) to the weather mark. In any subsequent shift all other boats will gain relatively and many will gain absolutely. The short tack not only provides less time for a heading shift to appear, but also takes the boat progressively closer to the layline, into a position in which she can only lose.

Relative gains are more important than absolute gains. What matters is whose course is shortened most or whose course is lengthened least. Heading shifts produce gains relative to all boats astern and to windward. The boat that first assumes the long tack (digs back in from the initial tack first) will be ahead and to leeward of her competitors and will gain the most in a heading shift. When looking for heading shifts, one should comply with the old adage, “Get on the major (the long) tack as soon as possible.” However, in the narrowing upper portion of the windward-leg diamond, with less than four minutes to a layline, heading shifts on the lifted tack become improbable.

The windward leg may be considered a series of quadrilaterals, two adjacent sides of which are the laylines ending at the weather mark and the other two the courses on either tack that a boat might sail to reach that mark. To visualize any quadrilateral and to determine which of its sides is the long tack, one must know the location of the weather mark. A beat should be conducted by sailing on the long side of each quadrilateral, looking for and expecting, at approximately four-to eight-minute intervals, a heading shift.

“Yes, Virginia, we do need to find the mark – regularly and frequently.”

Zen and the art of sailboat racing

Sailors must prepare their psyche and body for them to perform optimally during competitions. They must not be overly focused on mistakes. They must also eat nutritious foods and avoid indulging before competitions. Sailors’ concentration is reduced when their bodies have to digest a lot of food.

“Why should we care who is the rest in the land at racing plastic boats around little rubber balls?” This question thoroughly stumped me until I discovered philosopher-runner Dr. George Sheehan, who exhorts us to “Play regularly. An hour’s play a day makes a man whole and healthy and long-lived.” (Running and Being; The Total Experience, Simon and Schuster.)

Sheehan gives play a supralogical, nonrational, mystical importance in our lives. “In play, you realize simultaneously the supreme importance and utter insignificance of what you are doing. And accept the paradox … Play, then, is the answer to the puzzle of our existence.”

Thank you, Dr. Sheehan. You’ve eased my mind. So our sport must be approached as recreation, although it is right, and sometimes mandatory to play as hard as possible. I’ll try to explain the art of living this paradox, from which stems Corinthian sportsmanship. This is about learning how to reach your potential, about becoming a calypso poet. About realizing, as Kierkegaard wrote, that “I, myself, am my only obstacle to perfection.”


Your expectations were high, but your results were lackluster. The crew didn’t have a great time. Mistakes compounded, tempers flared, you lost sight of the forest for the trees.

You know that you performed beneath your potential. Was it because you shied away from situations that tested your skills to their utmost (“duck out”), or did you “amp out” and start over-early at the pin three out of seven races? Was the game played at your rhythm? Were you dictating the offensives, causing your opponents to change their game plans?

“Well, yes, I’m nervous. This is the national championship, and I dearly want my best performance. For the life of me I can’t approach it as just another regatta. This is for all the marbles. This is the big one. Are these thoughts helping me sail? Why can’t I focus my energy on the task at hand? What is this pressure and where did it come from? From within me?”

Recognize that pressure is in your control, and that mistakes and falls are part of the process. Don’t dwell on what goes wrong. Worry about your mistakes later. My grandfather had a very sensible habit. He confined all his worrying to his daily bath.


Three rules of digestion have been known since antiquity: 1.) Eat foods that agree with you. 2.) Avoid foods that disagree with you. 3.) Don’t go to bed mad.

Leave aside taste for a moment and consider nutritional content, ease of digestibility, and toxicity. Toxins stress the body you want relaxed, so reduce your intake of these poisons (the toxins most common in the average American diet: caffeine, alcohol, tobacco, preservatives). Next consider balances both within each meal and among meals from day to day. Balance your overall diet, and counterbalance each meal: meat and potatoes; milk and Oreos; gin and tonic; fruit and granola….

Breakfast is the most important meal of the day because it refills your body after a spell of not eating. Skip breakfast, and you’ll be famished just as the first race starts. Eat a proportioned breakfast. Snack on a grapefruit midmorning and you’ll be at the peak of concentration throughout the first race. Lunch is optional. If you are sailing a physically demanding boat (e.g., a Laser in 20 knots) you will certainly detract from your afternoon performance if you scarf a huge lunch. The blood in your body is finite, and you want it replenishing your hiking muscles and your brain, not dilly-dallying around your stomach. Wait until dinner to feast.


Because sailing is mostly a cerebral sport, a lot of sailors are lax on their physical regimens. They should expect to get pummeled at the world level as long as they refuse to take conditioning seriously.

How does your body handle exercise? Are you in shape? Could you stand your trick at the helm of a planing Whitbread 60? Are you ready to go up the mast to make repairs? Can you trim a spinnaker perfectly for 30 minutes and more with no heed to the gale? Will you be sore on the third day of the event? How much stretching do you do?

I asked Skip Whyte, US Sailing Team coach, what successful fitness regimens he had observed. He said that yoga carries some of the most successful boardsailors that extra distance. So in sailing, as in life, physical conditioning is used to improve overall concentration and wellbeing – to promote control of the body and mind.


Most events are won and lost in the months before the boats hit the water. This is the time when winners are conditioning their bodies, sure, but more importantly, they’re taking time to visualize the championship in all its intricate details: the pain, the pressure, the sunburn, the missing ring dings, the breakdowns, the blood, the weeds on the rudder, and most importantly, the victory.

Visualize that the victory will hinge on a definitive moment. Picture that moment. Coming back from 36th to 12th twice on the second day? Winning a duel in the final race? Picture the outcome in your favor, and make that vision yours. Fuse yourself with your imagined future.

Visualization is when you change your thoughts from “If I do well at the Frakenlacker regatta …” to “When I win …”


A mantra is anything you can murmur to yourself that focuses your mind on the task at hand. “Eat two oranges. Eat two oranges. Eat two oranges… .” Concentration is heightened by this repetitive task.

I know a Laser sailor who was frustrated by repeated stumblings when she was learning to sail double handed boats. Her mentor and crew observed that when she sailed well, she was humming a tune or singing a favorite song. One day when she was sailing poorly, she took five minutes between races to listen to a favorite song. The tune stuck, she sang along, and was able to stay relaxed and focused.

Mark Allen, many-time Ironman Triathlon winner, said in an interview in Outside magazine, that when he’s racing, all he knows is the step he is making now. And so he settles down to count his footsteps or pedal turns: 1,2,3,4; 1,2,3,4; 1,2,3,4 … That’s a mantra.

I know an excellent crew who always counts out loud each of the last 20 seconds before the start. As the numbers get smaller, everyone on board settles into his or her battle station. Everyone focuses on winning that infinitely complex, slow-motion, jostling dogfight called the prestart. “5, 4, 3,” she counts, and at “GO!” they always go.


Here are two attainable goals I recommend setting for yourself: 1.) Pass the boat in front of you. 2.) Learn at least one thing from every race.

Painting the tactical picture

A tactician needs accurate information from other crew members to be able to skillfully manage a sailboat. Tacticians usually have a limited view of the two ends of the boat when they are hiking. The skipper and the fore-deck crew should serve as the tactician’s eyes.

So you’ve got a tactician sailing on your boat. Great! You can just sit back and make sure the sails go up and down, and they’ll do all the thinking, right? If your tactician is standing behind the helmsman, the answer may be yes; but when the boat is small enough to need the tactician hiking forward in the cockpit, input from the rest of the crew can have a major impact on the quality of the tactician’s decisions.

When drooping over the side of a Soling, the tactician can’t see what’s happening to weather. When the tactician sits legs-out on a J/24, Olson 30, etc., the genoa blocks the tactician’s view to leeward. Instead of asking the tactician to lean in or go to leeward, sapping boatspeed, other crew should be feeding him information. Does this mean you have to act as the tactician? Of course not. It means that you need to learn to give accurate information so the tactician can use it to make good decisions.

The two people most likely to see into the tactician’s blind spots are those at either end of the boat-the skipper and the foredeck crew. The image they provide for the tactician should be like an aerial view of the racecourse.

The main source of information should be the skipper. The skipper can describe how many boats are to leeward and how many of them are ahead. The skipper should also find a range on the boat (the front or back of the mainsail window, or the leech of the genoa) and use this range to keep track of your position relative to the boats.

If there’s a window in your genoa, then the foredeck crew can also keep tabs on the boats to leeward. On the J/24, the window provides an accurate gauge. If they appear in the front of the window, they’ll cross; in the back, we’ll cross; in the middle, it’s close. The foredeck can also talk with the tactician about how many boatlengths to leeward the boats are, while keeping an eye on any change of course. If any boats tack, the foredeck will need to say how many boatlengths away they are, and gauge whether you’ll cross or not.

The tactician should then articulate a game plan, something like “We’re in a good lane; there’s nobody to leeward pinching or driving over us from above. We’re about fifth or sixth. The boats to weather are consistent on heading; there doesn’t seem to be any shift or current affecting us, so we’ll continue, since this is the long tack. Let’s work on boatspeed.”

Try Not to Panic

The worst thing that can happen is to provide “emotional” or inaccurate information. “They’re killing us to leeward,” moans the skipper. “That guy in the corner is way ahead.” It’s been my experience that usually nothing has changed, but the skipper has tightened up, and boatspeed drops. The tactician might decide to tack, but when he gets a look at the old leeward side, he realizes (too late) that you’ve made a mistake when you should have kept going.

Instead of supplying inaccurate or emotional commentary, the skipper needs to analyze why someone looks good or bad. The tactician can help by asking questions: “Was there a big shift? Is there more current? Is that the fastest guy in the fleet? How is he compared to the boats around him?” Input on what’s happening to weather can also help the driver put things in perspective. “The weather boats are all falling into us.” And the skipper responds, “The same thing is happening to us compared to the guys to leeward.” Aha! A persistent shift. Unless the whole pack of boats to leeward is showing the same shift or speed, the observation of one boat is usually anomalous. As tactician, I’d hold on a little and see if this is a trend or a one-shot deal. The driver should concentrate on keeping the boat at speed, giving periodic updates.

The foredeck also needs to concentrate on accuracy. Without the added task of driving, this person can give the best input as to what’s going on ahead and to leeward. The most important points to cover are pressure and the angles of boats.

If a boat to leeward is pointing higher, this information should be supplemented with the conditions. The foredeck might report, “The lead leeward boat is up about five degrees. He has all the crew up and hiking, so they’re probably in more pressure. We’d have to foot to get the pressure.” Or, “The boats to leeward are down and slow with crew in; they’re probably in a hole. We have to tack to avoid the hole.” This type of information gives the tactician not just the picture of what’s happening, but why and whether or not you need to take action to avoid trouble or gain an advantage. In combination with what’s happening to weather, the tactician can plot your course as you move up the leg.

OK, Time to Panic

Just kidding. Things do get dicey, however, the closer you get to the weather mark or a layline. As the boats converge, the lanes of free sailing get narrower and eventually disappear. A constant feed of information will help the tactician keep the boat in a clear lane. A minimum lane would put you either two boatlengths abeam and to leeward of a weather boat, or two lengths to weather and aft of a leeward boat (just high enough to stay out of its wake).

If you’re approaching the starboard layline on port tack with lots of company to leeward, the tactician will need to know how many boats are in the pack, how far ahead or behind they are, and how much room there is between the boats. The closer you are to the mark, the more critical this information becomes to finding the right place to tack. At the same time, the tactician needs to tell the skipper what’s happening to weather, so there are no surprises when you tack for the mark.

This is the time that the foredeck is most helpful. For the most part, finding a lane means concentrating on the boats that are ahead. The communication from the bow should sound like this: “There are two boats coming; judging by my angle through the window, the first will cross and the second is about one and a half lengths behind him. We’ll need to make a small duck. The next group of three is about four lengths beyond the second boat; the leader of that pack will cross, and we’d have to dip the rest. The weather most boat has the others pinned.” From this, the tactician and skipper both know there is a small lane just to weather of the second boat. They can dip the second boat and sail two lengths before tacking, or they can dip the whole pack and then tack, pinning the group.

None of the information that the tactician has received is necessarily tactical; it’s just an accurate depiction of what’s happening on the course. As crew, you can be constantly gauging how far away boats are, how their angles compare to yours, and why they’re different. If you can see these things, you’ll be a great help to the tactician. It also helps to practice in everyday life. I once sailed with a golfer, who asked me how far away I thought another boat was. When I answered in boatlengths, he started to do the math. “Let’s see, that’s about 300 feet, or 100 yards, that’d be a seven iron. I think you’re right!” So, with the length of your boat in mind, practice gauging that distance in traffic, at a football game, or wherever it might be appropriate. Either that, or take up golf.

From the experts: pocket electronics keep the numbers handy

Pocket-sized electronic devices have been developed to improve sailors’ performance during competitions. Sailors may use the Family Radio Service for communicating with race officials while aloft. The water-resistant Kestrel anemometer is handy for measuring windspeed.

Small, light and powerful – these are just some of the criteria for handheld electronics. What’s available, what can it do to improve your racing performance, how easy is it to use, and does it fit in your pocket? These were questions we asked as we investigated the latest in handheld electronic devices.

Keeping in Touch

One of the best breakthroughs for recreational activities is the FCC’s allocation of 14 new UHF FM frequencies between 462.5625 and 467.7125 MHz. Known as the Family Radio Service, these walkie-talkie-type units are incredibly small, but can deliver communications over a 2- to 5-mile range. Slightly larger than a beeper, the Icom IC-4008A units we tried definitely met our “pocket” criteria.

The FRS radio is perfect for race committees and sailors alike, potentially eliminating the annoying clutter and extraneous radio traffic we encounter on VHF frequencies, especially on weekends. In addition to 14 exclusive channels, users can select from as many as 38 “group” subchannels.

How about this? With the race committee and all the competitors set in the same group, over-early callbacks could be announced without interference. You can even use these radios with an optional earphone/microphone headset that is voice activated. This setup offers hands-free operation – no more fumbling for the radio while you’re trying to sheet in and work your way through a crowded start. The Icom units we tested even have fold-down antennas that reduce the chance of breakage and allow the radio to fit into the smallest pocket. For two-boat testing or communication between a coach boat and a dinghy sailor, the Icom offers a clear-sounding alternative to the bulkier VHF, and, at $300 a pair, is pensive option.

Unfortunately, the market for these bite-size radios is so new that no one offers a waterproof unit. However, all units are small enough to easily fit in a sandwich-size plastic bag, which should offer adequate protection in most cases.

How Hard is it Blowing?

For most small-boat and one-design sailors, exact windspeed is more a point of interest than a critical tidbit of information. There’s no shortage of pocket-sized anemometers in the marketplace, so if actual numbers are important to you, you’re in luck. To find out which one we liked best, we compared three of the most common anemometers: the Davis Turbo Meter and two units imported by Speedtech Instruments, the Skywatch Elite, and the Kestrel 1000.

The Kestrel, which retails for $85.00, is by far the smallest of the three units we tried. It retracts into its own protective case, it’s waterproof and shock resistant, and it even floats! The Kestrel measures current, average, and maximum windspeed in every imaginable unit. It even has an auto-shutdown feature to preserve the battery if you forget to turn it off. The LCD display has large, easy-to-read numbers, even in bright sunlight.

The Davis Turbo Meter, which retails for $165, is the only one of the group with an LED display. Although advertised to provide excellent viewing contrast, even in bright sunlight, I found that the display screen was small and hard to read in direct sunlight. The Turbo Meter isn’t waterproof, and there’s no maximum or averaging speed features.

At $135, the Skywatch Elite has many features – more than either the Kestrel or the Turbo Meter. Using the built-in compass, you can establish wind direction as well as velocity. Like the Kestrel unit, the Elite has windspeed maximum, average, and current velocity, all shown on a large, easy-to-read display. One drawback of the Skywatch Elite is that you have to remove a protective cap to expose the wind cups. There is no lanyard attachment for either the instrument itself or the removable cap – one more thing to lose overboard. The unit is described as weatherproof, but only with the cap in place.

The Electronic Scratch Sheet

Pocket organizers are catching on like wildfire. Since I purchased my Palm Pilot Pro about eight months ago, I’ve loaded it with appointments, notes, time records and expense data, phone numbers and addresses. With the Palm’s Hot Synch feature, and the software the unit comes with, data transfer between your laptop or desktop PC and the Palm is really a snap. But what could my Palm do for me on a boat? It didn’t take much time to come up with a list.

How many times have you lost the scratch sheet for your race overboard or gotten it soaked beyond recognition? The Palm III is compatible with Microsoft Excel and Word, so you can prepare handicap spreadsheets in advance and transfer them to the unit before you go racing. How about recording fleet standings during a regatta or keeping a work list for your boat? Phone numbers for backup crewmembers are at your fingertips when your foredeck doesn’t show at the last minute. Its uses are endless.

Pocket Navigation

The handheld GPS is one of the greatest inventions of the last 15 years. The trouble is, for most units you need a chart to go along with them. Marking a lat/lon position on a folded chart while sitting on the rail just doesn’t cut it. The solution is easy – a handheld chart plotter, and once you use one, you’ll never go back.

Magellan’s NAV 6000 is a 12-channel, splash-proof unit measuring 3.25[inches] x 7.5[inches] x 1.75[inches]. Its convex 4-inch diagonal LCD screen is great for a clear look at the vector charts stored on a C-Map NT cartridge, which is loaded inside the unit. The screen magnifies the display information so it’s easy to see and find yourself on the chart.

With a chart plotter you can use the cursor keys to set the crosshairs on your next mark and get a readout with direct range and bearing to the mark. It updates continually as you move. What’s more important, this capability is visual rather than numerical. In a busy cockpit, just telling the helmsman to simply steer left or right can eliminate the potential confusion in the direction-giving process.

A constant danger in any race is grounding on close-shore tacks. With the C-Map cartography, you can zoom in to close scale (.25 mile), and know where you are relative to rocks or shoals. It becomes a simple task to confirm your position on a paper chart, too. With an average selling price of $600 for the NAV 6000, and about $200 each for the C-Map cartridges, this choice for pocket navigation packs a lot of punch.

A new player in the pocket charting game is Lowrance Electronics’ GlobalMap 100. Their new approach to cartography won them an innovation award at this year’s IMTEC industry show in Chicago.

The GlobalMap comes with a built-in background map of the world. What’s unique about the GlobalMap is that the map can be enhanced with data from Lowrance’s IMS CD ROM, which is included with the unit. From the CD ROM you can download up to two megabytes of additional map detail. The beauty of this is that you can download chart details you need for the area in which you’ll be racing. With a list price of $450, including the software and data transfer cable, Lowrance has definitely brought electronic charting to a new level.

Tracking the Competition

You’ll need a big pocket for the new Tasco Lasersite 600 or 800, which measure in at 7[inches] x 5[inches] x 4[inches]. But with the ability to make precise range measurements of any object to within 3 feet, the Lasersite is an interesting option for keeping track of other boats, whether racing or two-boat tuning. For racers, the 800 model with 800 yards of range is the best choice. The two-button control is easy to use and the Camcorder-style hand strap keeps the unit secure while you take a sight. The Lasersite even has a “reflective” control for using it in the rain. Once the initial setup is complete, using the Lasersite is a simple matter of point and shoot. Within seconds the range is displayed on-screen. The Tasco Lasersite 600 (600-yard range) retails for about $500 and the 800 model around $675.

Even though it’s been around for years, the KVH Datascope must be included on any list of pocket-sized tools for the racing sailor. The Datascope is an extremely accurate fluxgate compass as well as a range finder. You can use the Datascope to track your competition’s speed by checking relative bearing changes, or using the scale built into the scope to find range. Don’t expect the accuracy of the Lasersite, but you can definitely keep track of substantial changes. With the Datascope you will need to know or estimate the height of the object you are taking the range on and use the on-screen scale to get a reading. Not exactly point and shoot, but functional. It’s high quality, and at $445, is a solid piece of gear that definitely fits in just about any large pocket.

Small Compass Wonder

The Outback ES imported by Speedtech is the most feature-packed handheld fluxgate compass I’ve ever seen. It offers both day and night use capability with its display backlighting, and it doubles as either a countup or countdown timer for starts and handicap timing.

Worried about a starboard-tack boat? Use the Outback’s bearing feature to check for relative bearing change of the oncoming boat to help determine if you can cross. The Outback even has an auto shut-down feature that is user-programmable in five-minute increments. With a list price of $99.95, Speedtech’s Outback ES is a serious contender in the electronic handbearing compass market.

Sailing the Figaro is a singlehanded firedrill

The popularity of the Figaro Solo has motivated French company, NKE, to develop an autopilot software for the boat used in the race, the 30-ft Beneteau Figaro. The software responds to varying windspeed, sea condition and points of sail in accordance to the boat’s features.

The Figaro Solo is a French singlehanded race consisting of four legs, each 400 miles long. Now in its 30th year, the race has grown so popular that more than 50 boats compete, likely because it’s raced in a one-design production boat – the 30-foot Beneteau Figaro. The intensity of this race has led to continuous refinements in three key areas-autopilot, water ballast, and electronic navigation – the combination of which requires cerebral as well as physical skills. A French company, NKE, has developed autopilot software for racing purposes, specifically with this boat in mind. The autopilot features an integrated gyrocompass, dual pilot controls in the helmsman’s port and starboard positions, and a remote control bleeper that hangs around his neck (which also puts the helm hard over and effectively stops the boat should the bleeper and helmsman ever be more than a boatlength from the processor and hence overboard).

NKE’s helm-response software has been optimized from endless testing and computer simulation of the boat sailing in different conditions. Integrating the boat’s physical properties with different boatspeeds, the pilot’s software reacts for each windspeed, sea condition, and point of sail (using inputs from the compass, speedo, and wind instruments). It calculates how quickly the boat is going to yaw or round up in a puff, bear away in a surf, etc., and can apply just the right amount of helm at just the right moment to keep the boat sailing a preset course or apparent wind angle with least use of the helm.

The skipper’s skills, however, are still better at anticipating which way the helm should be moved at any particular moment, and when he is not falling asleep he is always the fastest helmsman. Upwind, a helmsman can usually sail a boat closer to the wind and make sure it stays in the groove by anticipating when he is getting too close to the wind. When the boat is left to the pilot upwind, a slightly wider angle is always used to leave a bit of margin and keep the speed high. Reaching, or downwind in light air, the boat can often be left to its own devices under pilot; a good time for the helmsman to get some rest or pay attention to sail trim.

The water-ballast system is manually operated and is relatively straightforward, but for newcomers it takes a bit of getting used to. Ballast is required when sailing upwind in over eight knots true wind. The snorkel, a kind of reverse self bailer, is lowered through a through-hull fitting. Valves through an inlet manifold are arranged so as to fill the windward tank as the skipper works a handle in the double-action pump on the cockpit floor. The skipper can continue to steer and pump at the same time. Filling the windward tank from empty takes about seven minutes, depending on how fit you are.

Tacking equipment from side to side inside the boat (sails, food, drinking water, spares, toolbox, etc.) has always been allowed, but all safety gear, batteries, anchors, and chain are sealed in place and are only touched in emergencies. For all races, the class rules specify a maximum weight of loose equipment of 40 kgs. (90 lbs.) for inshore races and 80 kgs. (180 lbs.) offshore. Moving the gear makes a huge difference, and ingenious systems have been devised for optimizing the position of this weight as far outboard as possible. Many boats are arranged so that three or four stacking crates can contain everything; they are then stacked on special shelves against the side of the hull just ahead of the water-ballast tanks for upwind sailing, farther aft for windy downwind sailing, and alongside the mast in light air.

The hardest physical maneuver is tacking at the top of the wind range of the genoa. The whole operation, if you’re good, takes about 40 seconds from the moment the skipper at the helm decides that in 40 seconds he needs to be on the other tack. This sequence must be followed for best results: The skipper bears away a couple of degrees, presses AUTO on his autopilot, moves forward from the tiller, opens the ballast system transfer valve, and starts counting … two, three, four … eases the mainsheet as the weight of the water ballast falling to leeward makes the boat heel over … twelve, thirteen, fourteen … jumps down below and starts to heave the equipment crates to the leeward bunks, still counting … twenty-one, twenty-two, twenty-three … leaps back up on deck … twenty-eight, twenty-nine, thirty … water is in the leeward tank, close the cross-feed valve (easily forgotten!), holds his fingers on the appropriate two buttons on the autopilot (this has a preset tacking angle in it), the boat starts to luff up, blows the old genoa sheet and starts tugging in the new one as the boat slowly bears away onto the new tack.

Trim the sail in, check the main, watch the speed build, dive down below to finish moving the kit to windward, then get back on deck, check the jib, check the main, get back to the tiller and disengage the autopilot. Forty!

Now he’s steering again, catching his breath, looking around to spot the next windshift, and considering going through the whole process again. Anticipation is all, along with a bit of fitness and strength. How long does a tack on a Mumm 30 take?

Navigation in the tidal, rocky waters of Northern Europe over many days requires preparation. A typical leg of the Figaro race will have the skipper program up to 200 waypoints into his GPS. Every rock and navigation mark on every chart used by a Figaro sailor has a number written beside it that corresponds to the pre-programmed waypoint. In the middle of the third night, when you’re short-tacking against the tide in 25 knots of breeze and you haven’t had more than four hours sleep in bursts of 15 minutes since the start and you’re battling for the lead with five other boats, you can’t just slip down below and check your position every five minutes. You have to be able to pull up a range and bearing for every rock and hazard from your steering position. Differential GPS sets are the norm and many boats use chart plotter screens, either mounted on deck or that swing into view in the hatch.

In addition to the Figaro Race, the class organizes a circuit of grand prix events, consisting of both buoy and overnight races, all singlehanded. There are also several two-handed events, including a biennial transatlantic race. Prizemoney is as much as $30,000 for the big events, and cumulative performance goes toward an annual ranking. It’s a highly rewarding boat to learn to sail.

The 1999 Figaro Solo begins in August.