October 06, 2007

2007 Laser Master World Championships (Roses, Spain)

These are my Worlds race journals.  I send daily updates home to friends during the events and often receive good advice each day but I also find them to be a useful analysis tool when preparing for the next event.  I’m making them public so that others might learn something from them.

It’s official – the largest Laser fleet ever has gathered for the Master Worlds. A total of 419 competitors will be broken down into different fleets – I’m competing as a Grand Master (age 56-64) with 76 competitors from 19 countries. It is by far the best group I have ever sailed against. Racing will be Sunday until Saturday, with Wednesday as a rest day. Some of the names to watch in the Grand Master fleet:
  • Mark Bethwaite (AUS), 6-time world champion and probably the favorite to win. I’ve known Mark for 35 years and he gets better each year. He averages about 6 first-places per worlds – really dominates. We’re tied 2-2 in the 4 times we’ve competed against each other. Mark is very, very good (duh) in all conditions.
  • Keith Wilkins (GBR) has won the worlds a record 10 times. Also very, very good, although said to be a little off the pace the year.
  • Nick Livingston (GBR), former #2 in the world, only the third person since 1990 to beat Keith besides Mark and myself.
  • Anders Sörensson (SWE), former Laser Master world champ, Finn Gold Cup and Finn worlds. Beat me the one time I’ve sailed against him.
  • Jack Schlachter (AUS), former #2, very fast, but hurt his back training yesterday. Hope he’s OK. Trains in Sydney with open world champ Tom Slingsby (favored to win gold in Beijing),
  • Wolf-Peter Niessen (GER), I was training with him on Tuesday and had trouble keeping up. Turns out he has also won the Finn Gold Cup and Finn worlds.
  • Colin Lovelady (AUS), 5-time Laser master world champion.
  • Rob Lowndes (AUS), #2 in the world last year in Korea.
  • Magnus Olin (SWE), another Finn Gold Cup and Finn world champion.
A quick tally gives 27 world championships with the 7 world champions that I know of (I don’t know everyone, so there may be more). In addition to the many excellent sailors not mentioned, there are almost always one or two really fast people that show up that no one knows. So, finishing in the top 5 will be very challenging.

The conditions here have been windy – winds 15 yesterday and 40-50 mph on Wednesday (small sand dunes were forming between the boats on the beach – we won’t sail in these conditions). The waves seem to come from 2 directions and are steep and difficult to read, especially when combined with passing fishing trawlers. Nothing at all like the flat water in Dallas that we train in.

In the practice race today, I sailed the way I would in Dallas. It did not work – tipped 2 times trying to catch waves. The race was won by Sörensson who looked very fast. I’m going out early tomorrow to do a little more tuning with some U.S. sailors. Racing starts tomorrow afternoon.

Day 1 – 12-20 knots with 4 foot seas

Race 1: The Grand Masters (GM) were the forth and last fleet to start in the outer course. The race committee set an unusually long line and after several delays, we started in about 15 knots on the inner trapezoid course. The line looked square and there was a good line site onshore, so I started about 1/3 of the way down, above Jack Schlachter (AUS). Focused on staying with Jack who was moving well into the waves. There appeared to be two sets of waves, so they were really sloppy. We punched out with John Dawson-Edwards (CAN) and Ken Brown (CAN) just above. After about 5 minutes, Jack tacked and ducked me and the 2 Canadians. After another minute I tacked, mainly to stay with Jack. I might have been able to cross the two but played it safe and also ducked them. Worked hard sailing on port by pointing up into the waves and then trying to accelerate down the back. At the starboard lay line, Jack was about even and called starboard. Rather than try a risky lee bow, I ducked him, tacked, and was then lee bowed by Ken. Nicely done. We rounded together a few seconds behind Jack who led the fleet. Played a little inshore on the run and we pulled away from the rest of the fleet. We took the inshore gate to head inshore on starboard, just as another fleet was starting their second race in our area. With 130 Lasers now racing in the area, it was hard to tell our positions. The two GMs behind me tacked onto port so I covered them, and Ken covered me. Positions were unchanged at the top mark and reach as the wind increased. There was lots of traffic on the run and again I played a little inshore. Moved into second place by living dangerously catching a few big waves by the lee. A little too dangerously. A large one threw me out of balance and I tipped to windward. Got up quickly but the sail stalled to make bearing off difficult. Held even on for the rest of the run and the bottom reach with Ken just ahead. Mark Bethwaite (AUS) rounded just behind me to start the short final beat. He worked to windward and finished in 6th just ahead of me as we passed Ken on the finish line. Was pleased with boat speed and conditioning but not pleased with tipping. We just don’t get anything like these types of waves in Dallas.

Race 2: A carbon copy start with the same line, conditions, and plan. Was able to stay in clear air and worked the right side of the course to lead that group. Most of the fleet continued on starboard into the shore. When we tacked, it looked like the right pack was ahead of the left pack. As we converged near the mark, they were lifted, with Bethwaite and Schlachter leading. Rounded in the high teens. Ouch. On the run, some of the large waves were hard to catch. Continued to work the inshore side that did not pay. There were definitely some holes and lost a few places. On the second beat worked the middle with lots of traffic everywhere because we were again sailing with another fleet. At the windward mark, got more aggressive and tacked inside several boats. May have touched the mark with my sail so did my penalty turn and held even with others on the top reach. The run was patchy – lots of holes and gusts. Most sailed by the lee to catch waves, I decided to be a little more conservative by jibing onto port. Those that did not caught better waves but some tipped. Held even on the bottom reach. On the final beat, forced a NZL boat away near the finish line, which was ridiculously short. There were some collisions just below it and you had to weave through boats to get to the line. Finished 20th – definitely a discard.

So, the key is getting a good start and picking the proper side on the first beat. The fleet is too fast to do much catching up. I have not seen the results but believe that Jack Schlachter (AUS) and Anders Sörensson (SWE) are tied for 1st. Five more days and a lot more racing to go.

Day 2 – 12-20 knots with 4 foot seas

Race 3 – Same conditions, course, and start sequence as yesterday. The line must have been 400 yards long with another good line site. Started mid-line just below Mark Bethwaite (AUS) and was able to point a little higher. A perfect start that was called back. Damn! Second start was identical with Mark just above me again. We punched out with Jack Schlachter (AUS) just below me. Another perfect start that was again called back. Double damn!! The third start was again almost identical and we were off. Had a clear lane and held even with Mark above and Jack below, although they were able to point a little higher through the steep chop. The entire fleet went left inshore. Mark was the first to tack, followed by Jack and then me. Both Jack and I over stood the weather mark which some feel is difficult to see. Rounded 4th. Held even on the run as everyone was about even catching the waves. What follows friends is a checklist of how not to finish a good race:
  • Let Magnus Olin (SWE) pass me on the left on the run. With a right-gate rounding coming up, should have been more aggressive forcing him out.
  • Mark had a clear lead at the bottom (see below) followed by Jack, Michael Nissen (GER), and Magnus. Closing in from behind on some good waves, I should have been more aggressive to get inside Jack to round in second place.
  • Caught a big wave at the mark that allowed me to round just behind Jack, but in doing so caused Magnus to bear off to avoid me. Because I had no right-of-way, had to do my 720 penalty turns and lost about 5 places.
  • At the windward mark, lee bowed AUS and could not make the mark. Should have ducked him and then tacked. Hit the mark and did my 360. Lost 3 more places.
  • Held even on the reach and then tipped on the run. Some of the waves come from the side and one caught me sailing by the lee. Was really slow tip and I almost saved it but could not.
So this is how you turn a 4th into a 16th. There’s a time to be aggressive and there’s a time to be patient. I got it all wrong.

Race 4: Needless to say, I could not wait to get going again. The breeze clocked left making the pin favored. With such a long line, a bad start at the pin was much better than a great start in the middle. Started about 10 up from the pin with 65 boats above me. Without great pointing speed, started to slip down behind Michael Nissen (GER) below me. Above me, Magnus Olin (SWE) punched out and there was a gap before the rest of the 65 boat fleet. Tacked through the gap to get into the clear on port. About half the fleet continued left while the rest tacked behind me. There was good separation between the left pack and the right. About half way up, it looked like the left was being headed. Remembering what had happened in race 2, decided to change partners and head left, so tacked. Was ahead of all but one in the left pack. Tacked back onto port only to find out a few minutes later that the entire left pack had over stood the line. Mark Bethwaite (AUS) footed out from under me. Michael, Mark, Anders Sörensson (SWE), and Jack Schlachter (AUS) rounded ahead. Might have rounded 2nd if I had tacked below the left pack. On the run, watched Mark take the lead. Held on to 5th on the run and second beat. Magnus passed below me on the top reach which was really tight. Could not quite catch Magnus on the run. The bottom reach was very broad and was able to roll him but he headed lower to stay ahead. Very well done. Finished 6th, about as good as I can do in the breeze and the waves with this excellent fleet. Hope we get some lighter conditions like we get in Dallas. Note – the race committee has recorded me as over early for this race (OCS). Michael below me and Magnus above me were not over early, so I want to check the video tape in the morning.

A few comments about Mark Bethwaite. I’ve known Mark since 1971 and was able to beat him in Chile to win the worlds ten years ago because he was fast upwind but vulnerable downwind. Mark has been training with open Laser world champ Tom Slingsby and is today a completely different downwind sailor. He gains 200-300 feet on the entire fleet without doing anything radically different. Some carve and move around. Mark just steers through and with the waves better than everyone else. Upwind, he’s fast, steady, and does not make any mistakes but downwind Mark is on his own. He won both races today very comfortably and will easily win the worlds if the conditions remain the same.

Day 3 – 8-10 knots with sloppy seas

The good news from race 4: Magnus Olin (SWE) started above me and remembered seeing the pin with me well back, so I should not have been scored OCS. The bad news: the jury would not accept his testimony for my redress because it was filed after the one-hour cutoff. If I was in the hunt, I would have been upset about the 14 points that this error cost me.

Race 5: The wind was from the same direction but much lighter. But unlike sailing in Dallas, there were smaller random waves. Started near the pin in clear air as the front row charged off to the left with Rob Lowndes (AUS) just below me. The port tack lay line was crowded so I sailed just below. Did not have the same speed as others in these waves. Rounded 12th because people coming in from the right had more pressure. For the rest of the race, fought to keep the position because most people have good speed both upwind and downwind. Finished 11th. Mark Bethwaite (AUS) rounded 5th and won the race (more below).

Race 6: The pack wanted to start near the pin and the line was square, so I started near the committee boat, again going left with Rob. We played the middle left shifts until we got to the port lay line. Things got ugly near the mark with boats coming in from both sides. The positions were pretty random with good sailors having horrific finishes and back-of-the-pack sailors having great finishes. I finished 18th, having picked off 3 boats by approaching the tiny finishing line on starboard. Mark finished 6th.

Why Mark Bethwaite will win: I’ve been watching Mark sail in a breeze and in lighter air today, both upwind and downwind. He is winning on boat speed in a very unusual manner that I have not seen before. Others are throwing their weight around, sheeting out to go around waves, carving downwind, etc. Mark does none of this. He does not move his body or trim the main – he only focuses intently on the waves just in front and makes rapid, minor steering adjustments. That’s it – nothing else. Mark has learned a way to sail Lasers that is faster in all of the conditions we have sailed in so far. Definitely a minimalist approach – very efficient, clean, and fast. Rob seems to be using the same technique and is faster than last year when he came 2nd in Korea. My guess is that they have learned this from Tom Slingsby who is the current open world champ. They all live in Sydney and have been training together. Rob has invited me to train with them before the worlds that are going to be in Sydney in February. Wednesday is a rest day – I’m going to get more info.

Day 4 – 3-6 knots with sloppy seas

In Dallas, we practice various ways to sail on lakes with no significant waves. In the open water here there are always waves, even when there is no wind. Lake sailing techniques do not work in open water and are sometimes slow, and the boat gets out of balance and tips more easily. So the way some sailors are now managing open water waves for a pure boat speed advantage is really important, especially because all Laser world championships are held in open water. I talked with Mark Bethwaite about how he steers through the waves. He gave me a summary of what he is doing and I tried it with limited success. More on this later.

Also, I have seen and been using a new way of starting in big fleets. Typically you set up your position and hold, but do not know what is going on elsewhere in the fleet. I watched one sailor do this and it works: you start 200 feet above the committee boat and reach parallel to the line with 3 minutes to go. The goal is to make a general assessment where the boats are and where the holes are. When you pick your area, you broad-reach to below the line and then jibe onto port. You then look for a specific place and tack into it with 1 minute to go. With this position, you then protect, use your line site, and then go with the fleet.

After 4 hours of waiting on the water for steady conditions, we started our sequence. This time the line was really short – not really enough room for our 75 boats. I targeted about 1/3 from the pin but there were really just too many boats forming 3 rows. Got into position 2 boats below Mark Bethwaite (AUS) and just up from Magnus Olin (SWE). Things were really tight. With 10 seconds to go, checked out the line site and we seemed to be on the line, so I slowed down (nervous about getting an OCS). With 5 seconds to go, the boats above pulled the trigger and punched out, giving me my first crappy start – should have taken the chance of focusing more on the boats above and not the line itself. Tacking would have meant taking 60 sterns, so continued to the left favored side in bad air. Probably rounded the first mark mid-fleet. We were on the same course with another fleet, so it was really hard to check positions or get clean air. Was able to gain about 12 places on the final 2 mark roundings and finished 23rd. Another character-building experience. The race was won by Anders Sörensson (SWE) who started about 10 up from me, punch out, and sailed really well. Two more days to go.

Day 5 – 2-5 knots with big rolling swells under a lot of slop

With an onshore delay, I sat down on some steps with a friend Brett Beyer from Sydney on my right. Brett is an unbelievable sailor and is on his way to winning his 5th apprentice master worlds. We were talking about Mark Bethwaite’s steering techniques and how Brett, who coaches Mark, uses his weight more to steer. We also talked about training plans for the next master worlds in Sydney, problems with the upcoming Olympics in Beijing, etc. After about 20 minutes, another good friend Colin Lovelady from Perth joined us on my left and we talked some more. Colin is a living legend and has also won 5 master and grand master worlds. I was thinking about how cool sailing is to be able to sit between and compare notes with two of the most successful Australians athletes in any sport. Brett then left to check his boat and Colin turned to me and asked, “Pardon me, but who was that?” Incredibly, they live 3,000 miles apart and had never met. So a sailor from Dallas Texas got to introduce them. Amazing.

We sailed out to the starting area in light, lumpy conditions. My fleet was the 3rd start and the Spanish race committee was really slow getting the starts off because the line was short, pin-biased, with no black flag. There was a great line sight because the pin boat had a tall mast and there were houses on the mountain in the distance. Decided to try mid-line – there were tons of boats all around. With 15 seconds to go, everyone pulled the trigger. With the line site, I knew they were all over, so did not even bother to sheet in. General recall. Decided to get a little more aggressive for the next start, so positioned below the committee boat, closed the door on others, and started beside the boat on the gun. Great start. We headed inshore in a light breeze with lumpy slop and big swells – slow going. Only one pin boat was able to tack and cross me. I tacked to cover the German. We slogged it out for 30 minutes trading lead positions, powered up with lots of foot and vang, and sheeted way out to keep moving – we must have been tacking thought 120 degrees. At the first, mark, the right pack came in with a little more pressure, so I ducked some and rounded about 8th. Sailing the outer trapezoid, was able to hold off Anders Sörensson (SWE) on the reach. Mark Bethwaite was nowhere in sight. On the run, I regretted not having my light-air mainsheet, but with the breeze able to pick up so suddenly, had decided to not risk it. On the next beat, the wind continued to fade as we played the middle left. A group of 10 on the hard left led by Jack Schlachter (AUS) started to get more pressure while everyone on the right looked really bad. So the committee abandoned the race and we headed in. One more day to go – I need some races to move up!

Day 6 – shifty 10-15 knots with small waves, just like Dallas

After a brief delay, the wind died and shifted from the usual southeast to the north. The weather marks were set close to shore. To the middle and right was a steep 1,000 foot hill, to the left was a large bay with the harbor. Seemed pretty obvious that a right approach would be risky because of the affect the land would have. As the first start, we were sailing the outer trapezoid.

We had a short pin-favored line with a poor line sight. The bottom part of the line looked really crowded, so decided to start 100’ from the committee boat and then go left. With 15 seconds to go, my sail completely stalled, so I let off the vang to get going again – scary moment. Got away cleanly and we immediately lifted. Played the middle left shifts that were quick and irregular – just like Dallas lakes. At times was way ahead of the left pack and at other times was way behind. Rounded 5th with Nick Livingston (GBR) leading. Nick rounded the offset and headed downwind instead of the correct reach. None of the other sailors called him back (tough crowd). Feeling that this is a shitty way to gain, I yelled and he rejoined us in 4th place by the end of the reach. The other positions were unchanged on the reach and run. Took the right gate (looking downwind) and played the left side. At one point, crossed Mark Bethwaite (AUS) who was going right. Seemed odd to be splitting tacks with someone so good at playing the shifts, but was sure that the left was better. Rounded a close first. On the run and reach, the 4 other leaders sailed completely different routes. Decided to just head straight for the marks playing the small waves. Rounded the bottom mark still in first with Michael Nissen (GER), Mark, and Bill Symes (USA) close behind. Bill tacked as did Mark, Michael did not, so decided to cover him for the short final beat and to be on starboard at the finish line. At the finish line, the left had a little more pressure. In a photo finish, it was Bill, Mark, and then me. Michael finished 4th. A good race, especially for Bill.

Our final race was immediately started in the same conditions. Started in the same position and strategy (and same stalling for some reason), with the pack going hard left. This time, the middle did not pay as well and rounded 12th with the main pack of 60 boats just behind. On the reach and run it was important to keep the air clean, with others doing a better job. On the beat, played the middle left shifts and gained a little. Positions were unchanged on the run and rolled Michael Nissen (GER) on the bottom reach. Just below the finish line, crossed Michael on starboard, tacked to cover, and got room at the pin. Finished 7th with Jack Schlachter (AUS) winning the race.

Mark Bethwaite deserved to win and did – his 5th master world championship. He had the winning combination of being very fast in all conditions and not making any major mistakes. In such a competitive fleet, my mistakes were costly. For the last few days, I’ve been in 11th or 12th. Finishes of 3 and 7 moved me up to 9th. Wish we had had more conditions like we get in Dallas, but this is rare in open water sailing. Was clearly under prepared for open water and the larger fleet, and will also need to work on the new steering techniques being used by some of the Aussies. While I would have liked a better finish, there is nothing more fun than competing at this level with so many great people from so many countries. The next worlds in Sydney start in less than 5 months. Can’t wait to get home to Big D.
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