October 28, 2017

Bill Symes - Winning the 2017 Radial Great Grand Master Worlds

Bill is the driving force behind the Columbia Gorge Racing Association which for 21 years has hosted world championships, national championships, and the famous Gorge Blowout.

Bill had an outstanding come-from-behind win at the recent Master Worlds in Split. At any given event several people can win, and Bill explains how he was able to “find the magic” to win this world championship.

By Bill Symes
Doug has asked me to share some insights from my effort to win the 2018 Laser Masters Worlds (I sailed in the Radial Great Grandmasters division). The short answer is: sometimes the magic works. After 12 LMWs, I’ve learned that, no matter how well prepared I think I am, I could as easily wind up 20th as 1st. There are just too many variables that can’t be controlled, and you need a few breaks to win. This year I got the breaks. But I know readers of this blog will be looking for something a little more substantial than luck and magic. So here goes.


I set some general goals for fitness and weight loss at the beginning of the year, but unfortunately couldn’t muster the discipline or enthusiasm to get to the gym. Fortunately, I do like to sail. I logged more than 80 days on the water prior to Split, including a couple of very productive training sessions at the International Sailing Academy in Mexico and the Columbia River Gorge, with excellent coaching from Vaughn Harrison, Colin Gowland and Brett Beyer. I was also lucky to have some very fast rabbits to chase around, including Olympic campaigners Marek Zelesky and Justin Norton, and masters aces Andrew Holdsworth and Keith Davids. I’m sure this raised my game a notch or two.


The competition in our fleet promised to be stiff – 62 competitors including five former master world champions and the usual contingent of newcomers aging into the division for the first year, with the advantage of (relative) youth. But the man to beat was defending champ Rob Lowndes from Sydney. Rob has been a good friend and archrival since our first meeting in 2002 in Hyannis, MA. We’ve taken turns beating up on one another over the years, but lately he seems to have had my number, taking first to my second in the last two LMWs. That needed to change.

The conditions were light to moderate (7-11 kts) with small waves, the lower limit of my range but fortunately just enough to get my 180 lb. butt on the rail most of the time. Rig set-up was for max power, with a fairly deep outhaul and rarely more than a touch of downhaul. Upwind, I was usually sheeted out more than the boats around me, but seemed at least equal in speed and height.

The start was critical (no surprise there). With 60+ boats on the line, my focus was to secure a clear lane with good tactical options, so unless one end was really favored, I tended to set up closer to the less crowded center. I worked very hard to get good line transits (not easy to find on the featureless hillsides of distant islands – “hmmm, looks like third dip to the left of the highest rise . . .”). This usually enabled me to get punched out a boat length or more from the pack and sail the first beat in clear air.

Upwind the conventional wisdom was to go right, as the expectation was for the sea breeze to veer as it filled in. Sometimes it did; sometimes it didn’t. My usual approach to the first beat was to lean right, but take advantage of little oscillations to work back to the center (the only time I went all the way to the right corner, the wind went left – with disastrous results). Although I rarely rounded the windward mark first, I was usually in touch with the leaders.

Off the wind, it paid to be aggressive. I was able to pass boats on the reaches and runs by working harder to keep the boat surfing in marginal conditions, keeping the rig pressured up and sailing hard angles but always mindful not to stray too far from the rhumb line (a dangerous tendency in a big fleet). I spent a lot of time working on downwind speed this year, and it made all the difference.

In Conclusion

Success in a sailboat race is the cumulative result of a multitude of small turning points: win or lose a clear lane at the start, wind up on the right or wrong side of a shift on the first beat, round ahead or behind the peloton coming into the leeward gate. And of course, avoid the big mistakes, a capsize, a collision, a yellow flag, a missed mark, or one of those dreaded three-letter scores (OCS, BFD, DNF, DSQ, etc.), all of which I’ve had my share of in past LMWs. Fortunately, this time most of the turning points went my way and I was able to avert any major disasters.

I’m an intuitive sailor. Unlike many successful competitors, I have no engineering background and little technical or mechanical aptitude. Fortunately, I have 60 years of sailboat races under my PFD. I do best when I can turn off my thinking cap and sail on muscle memory. Call it “flow” or “the zone”, that elusive state of mind where relaxation and arousal find the perfect balance; you are focused, in the moment, running completely on instinct. I don’t know the recipe (wish I did; I’d bottle it and uncork it when needed) but I believe it begins with the quality of life off the water, which in my case was superbly managed by my wife, lover, first mate, social director, travel coordinator, mental health counselor, and head cheerleader LauraLee. Thanks to her, I was able to find the magic.


  1. Congrats Bill on your well earned win and kudos also to your shore team!

  2. Congrats, Bill, and excellent article!


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