I’m about 24 hours from having returned home from the Laser (now called ILCA 7) Masters World Championship, hosted by Vallarta Yacht Club in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. I’d like to share lessons learned, to help others improve in their Laser sailing and perhaps encourage some of you to attend the regatta.
This was my first Masters Worlds, and the regatta was one of the best ones I’ve been to. Not because I got a great result — I finished 7th out of 14 boats in my division (45 to 54 years old) — but because the racing was so challenging and fulfilling.
The level of competition demanded perfection in every way possible: every wave, and every windshift, had to be handled perfectly. This is because the talent pool in my group was incredibly deep:
- Adonis Bougiouris of Greece, a past Olympian and 5x world champion. A week prior, he finished an impressive 47th in the open ILCA 7 worlds, racing against sailors half his age.
- Ernesto Rodriguez, from Miami, a past Masters World Champion who probably would have represented Cuba in the 1996 Olympics in Athens had he not defected to the US (that’s a whole story in itself).
- Orland Gledhill, the UK’s representative to the 1996 Olympics, and UK Masters Champion.
- Ray Davies of Canada, Laser European Masters Champion.
- Peter Hurley, based in NYC and three-time runner-up in the Laser Masters Worlds.
- Rod Barnes, Australian Masters National Champion, and Nick Alexander, who finished second to him.
- Roger Schulz of Germany, 4th in the Laser European Masters.
Some of you reading this might have little or no understanding of sailboat racing, while some of you might not be familiar with Laser racing. So, let’s do a quick overview. Experienced Laser sailors can skip this bit.
A Laser (official name: ILCA Dinghy) is a fourteen-foot sailboat. Picture an oversized surfboard with a sail, and you get a sense of the boat. Here’s me sailing one. Physically, it demands a lot of endurance in your quads, core, and arms to continually adjust the sail, and support your weight to keep the boat from tipping over.
We sailed out of Puerto Vallarta, on the Pacific Coast of Mexico. It was hot. Really hot. More on that later.
We sailed the Laser outer course, pictured below. The course is set with inflatable buoys anchored to the sea floor. In the diagram below, the wind direction is blowing from the top towards the bottom.
Basically, the course was:
- Sail upwind (against the wind) for about 15 minutes
- Reach (wind on your side) for a few minutes
- Downwind (wind behind you) for several minutes
- Upwind again for another 15 minutes.
- Downwind for several minutes
- Reach for a couple of minutes
- Upwind for a few minutes.
Confused? Yeah, so was I at one point. More on that in a bit.
The first day was just a practice race, not scored in the final result, to get used to the venue. We then had three days, each with two races lasting about an hour each. Then a day off, followed by three more days of two races each. A pretty grueling schedule, considering that during each of those hourlong races you had to be at max heart rate.
There were several divisions, broken out by age:
- Apprentice: 35 to 44 years old
- Masters (my group): 45 to 54 years
- Grandmasters: 55 to 64 years
- Great Grandmasters: 65 to 74 years
Apprentices and Masters started together, for a ~20-boat fleet.
Here’s how I assess my overall performance:
- Downwind: biggest weakness, but improving. I’ve got to get myself to some downwind clinics and get some coaching to fix this.
- Scheduling (getting to the course on time, etc.): weak initially but improved fast.
- Starts, upwind, reaches, heat management, fitness, gear: good with some hiccups.
Here are my finishes in each of the races; moments of brilliance where I’d hold on for a third. But plenty of inconsistency. To get onto the podium, third place, one needed to average fourth place to amass around 44 points in 11 races.
Here’s a deep dive into how I did at each part of the regatta — what worked, what didn't, and lessons learned.
I had good starts in 11 out of 13 races. What worked:
- Using a compass. It was crucial to use a compass to find the favored end. Right after we had our 5-minute warning signal, I’d sail up to the committee boat’s flag, bear away to a beam reach, point at the pin end, and get the compass bearing. Since my vang was max eased and mainsheet luffing, I was pretty much motionless. I’d wait several seconds for the compass to settle down, get the bearing, then add 90 degrees to get the perpendicular heading. I’d sail down the line, get clear air, and take a wind shot. Again, vang off so you don’t get knocked in the head. So much more accurate and quicker than having to sail upwind on either tack and guess!
- Practice starts. Once you've done a wind shot and have a hypothesis on where you’ll start, do a practice start at that end. This will inform your time/distance thinking as well as laylines to the pin or boat.
- Agile strategy. I’d get one or two more wind shots, the last one around two minutes to the start, which gave me enough time to sprint to the favored side. This allowed me to make the right choice even if the wind direction shifted late in the starting sequence.
- Not taking huge risks. I didn’t try to win a side if it was risky. For instance, we had a sailor, Adil Khalid from the United Arab Emirates, who lined up so close to the pin boat, he could barely clear it without luffing head to wind and sculling. I was happy to start one up from him since, by the time we cleared the pin, he’d slowed so much that we were even.
- Seizing opportunities. At the same time, if a side of the line was uncontested, I wouldn't hesitate to start there. In one race, eventual regatta winner Adonis tried to win the committee boat (right side). Problem was, he was next to the committee boat at 45 seconds to go. Even with doing a downspeed backup maneuver (backing his boom), he still allowed enough of a gap for me and Adil to safely start to his right. See below.
- Quick bailouts. When getting shot out the back at a start, I’d very quickly bear away and tack onto port and duck boats. Typically when I started my tack, there’d be several boats to duck. But since other boats were bailing onto port at the same time as me, I’d only end up ducking maybe three boats — much less painful.
- Quick parks. If I ended up next to someone prone to backing up (i.e., Adonis), quickly pushing out the boom for a second to stop allowed me enough of a gap that his backups wouldn’t impact me.
- Drive-by snakes. When sailing on port, oftentimes starboard tackers will bear away to keep you from taking their hole. In these cases, it’s best to casually sail by, uninterested, then when you’re off the leeward corner of their boat, in their blind spot (since they’re looking ahead and to leeward), tack and take their hole. Credit to my squadmate James Espey for teaching me this one. Doing this, you need to comply with the rules: approach so there’s a ~five-foot gap between you and the windward boat (so they can initially keep clear), and sail straight until your pivot point (daggerboard) is ahead of theirs. Then slowly luff so that you lock them to windward of you, again while providing them with ample opportunity to keep clear. It’s aggressive but rules compliant.
- Down-speed weakness. In one start that was pin-favored, Adonis did a downspeed backup, which kept me from moving forward. Not able to match his move, I got shot out the back and had to do one of those bailouts.
- Sloppy rigging. In another start, the tail of my outhaul tie-down line was in front of my timer on the mast. At 20 seconds to the start, I leaned forward to tuck it away. “No harm to fix this, we’re all luffing,” I thought to myself. Bad idea. The boat to windward sheeted in right as I did this. I sheeted in a second too late and got rolled.
What to do differently:
- Get better at downspeed maneuvers on the start line: backups, double-tacks, and half tacks.
- Ensure that your gear is 100% ready for the start. What can go wrong, will.
I generally had good upwind legs. I was the first Masters sailor to the windward mark in 3 out of 7 light air (6 to 7 knot) races. Here’s one of those races:
And in the two races I started poorly and was in nearly last, I clawed back and finished third, largely based on my upwind performance.
- Rapid optionality. It’s crucial to gain the option to tack on a header as soon as possible. This meant pinching in the flat spots, followed by aggressive footing just before the wave sets. This in turn meant sailing with as much power as possible in the sail, which mean lots of hiking. Even in 6 to 7 knots, I was at max heart rate. The goal is to shed the boats off your hip as fast as possible. Below and in this video is an example of what that looks like, from the last start of the regatta. I’m fourth from the left. Adonis is second from the left. By pinching in the flats and footing through the sets, I was able to gain a lot of gauge (leeward distance) on Adonis so he wouldn’t send me back, and at the same time pinch off Ray and Andres, both to the right of me, while keeping forward speed on Adonis.
- Aggressive, continual, legal kinetics. Looking at Adonis and Ernesto, they’re continually working their boats through the waves. At the tips of the waves, using their tillers and torsos to turn the bow down five degrees to soften the landing.
- Dry bow. Always keep the bow out of an approaching wave by aggressively leaning back to pop up the bow up. This in turn means a strong core, especially in terms of side-to-side movements.
- Punching. When the bow slaps down after a wave, “punch” the mainsheet. Imagine yourself punching someone in the stomach: fist in and then back. That’s the motion: punch your mainsheet hand out fast, then immediately pull it in. This keeps the sail from stalling the moment your speed slows and your apparent wind shifts aft. Then trim back in fast, which is basically a legal pump since your apparent wind is shifting forward.
- Low mode, max power. It’s all too easy to pull the controls in, flatten the sail a bit, not hike so hard, and go into what I call “pinchy pinchy mode”. The problem is that, over time, you’ll lose boatlengths, and in this talented fleet, even at the end of an hourlong race, it’s only a boatlength or two that separates each position. You need to aim for a power profile that lets you sail with your telltales streaming back (as opposed to up, i.e., pinching), no more than 5 degrees of heel, and torso out.
- Lots of cunningham. Brett Bayer (world champion here, in the grandmaster fleet, and a dozen times elsewhere) said to pull just about all wrinkles out of the luff. That meant sailing upwind and pulling the cunningham so that the bottom of the sail was about a centimeter from the top of the gooseneck. Then I saw Adonis pull on his cunningham in about seven knots so that the bottom of the sail was just barely above (1 mm) the gooseneck. So in five knots, I’d be 1 cm above the gooseneck, and in seven I’d be 1 mm above. This helped with getting the crucial low mode.
- Minimal vang. I wanted max power in five to seven knots, and at 185 pounds (84 kilos), I was able to hold the boat flat and foot with just two block vang. This is one of those few times I disagree with International Sailing Academy’s recommendation of two block plus 3 inches. But given that I was able to hang with Ernesto, Adonis, and Brett in these conditions, I’ll go with what worked empirically.
- Prestart testing. Max power means keeping your outhaul at one hand's length out — but no more since that results in a baggy sail that slows you down. Your foot camber is partially a function of cunningham and vang, so I’d first pull on the cunningham and vang per the above, get the mainsheet to two blocked, then adjust the outhaul with a full sail and heeled over. This often meant pulling the outhaul a few millimeters one way or the other, so outhaul markings are crucial (more on that below). Below is an example of that baggy outhaul.
- Play the oscillations. Plenty of time I’d hear competitors ask each other, “did you go right or left?” To me, that was absolutely the wrong way to think of it. Puerto Vallarta, at least this week, was all about playing the oscillations. For instance, everyone says “go right if it’s windy”. Our practice race was the windiest — maybe 15–17 knots. On the first beat, I won the right side of the course. Guess where the top three came from? Left. The next beat, Ernesto stretched his lead by heading left — he was probably just sailed a righty out to the left.
- Correlate compass to angles. Although many headers could be determined solely through the compass, sometimes the heading was bouncing around too much in the waves. In these cases, it was helpful to use the boat angles to corroborate what you were seeing on the compass. Boats to leeward suddenly punched out? You’re in a header.
- Hang it out. Sometimes a lift might take you to one corner or the other. In one race where I got shot out at the start, after ducking the starboard tackers, I saw that we were lifted on port. I kept headed to layline, with the rest of the fleet lifted on my hip. Just before layline, the righty came, and I was back in the hunt.
- Foot through lifts. In one race, I was, as one competitor put it, “in another postal code”, having started left and gotten lucky with a 20-degree lefty. I was trying to foot, but should have done so even more in order to consolidate, by pulling on more cunningham and vang in order to sail lower. A righty came, and as a result, a few boats closed the gap.
- Not overstanding. Before you think, “duh” and skip this paragraph, let me emphasize how hard it is to spot the weather mark in big swells. Now throw in the cognitive impairment that comes with max heart rate in 85-degree air temperature. All too often, competitors would overstand the weather mark. I found it helpful to put the mainsheet in my tiller hand, while in a flat spot, and use my forward hand to help twist my torso and hold that position for several seconds to find the weather mark poke up through the large ocean swells. More than once I saw I was on layline before the boats around me. Below is a photo of three of our fleet (far left of photo) overstanding the weather mark.
- Tacking at top of swells. Head up as you’re going up the swell, then tack at the crest, where there's most wind for you to accelerate.
- Split if behind on last beat. If behind on the short final beat, it almost always made sense to split in order to gain maximum leverage. Conversely, when ahead, it made sense to cover hard on the final beat to protect your gains.
- Not seizing optionality. In race one, we got headed 10 degrees a few minutes after the start. Ernesto was barely crossing all of us on port, but there were two boats on my hip preventing me from tacking under Ernesto. I asked them to tack, and they didn’t. Why they thought it was a good idea to ignore the current World Champion and eat a header was a good idea, I don’t know. But they zoned out, only tacking on Ernesto’s hip a minute after he crossed. I immediately followed, but then was one of the last boats to get the subsequent righty. From then on, it was an uphill battle.
- Not ducking boats, part 1. In race 4, on the final, short beat, I was on port converging with Orlando. I couldn’t quite cross him. But, I was on the port tack layline to the favored right-hand end of the finish. Take a moment and ask what you’d do in this situation? Duck Orlando, obviously. The problem was, being tired after two hard races, in the heat, I made the wrong move and tacked under Orlando. He in turn pinned me out past the layline to the port end of the finish. As a result, he lost one boat, and I lost four. In the final tally, this one mistake dropped me from 6th overall in Worlds to 7th.
- Not ducking boats, part 2. In another race, I was lifted, on starboard, converging with Ray, on port. He asked if he could cross. I said no. He tacked underneath me, so I had to tack away so I wouldn’t drop back in his leebow. I tacked back after four boatlengths, but Ray locked into a 20-degree lefty and crossed me by several lengths.
- Caught under boom. On day one, in two tacks, I didn’t duck under the boom enough. As a result, I always capsized twice, losing several boatlengths. Super avoidable mistake.
- Messy office. Also on day one, I didn’t make a point of keeping my control lines away from the mainsheet ratchet. At one point, my cunningham got sucked into the rachet, loop and all. I had to cleat off my mainsheet, untie the loop, and pull out the cunningham. Rookie mistake.
- Not assimilating wind data. This one’s a more subtle mistake with a major lesson. In race 12, in the restart, I did a wind shoot and saw a wind heading of 260 degrees. After the start, halfway up the leg, I found myself on starboard between Adonis and Ernesto — good company, right? Our starboard tack heading was about 208, and we were well left of rhumbline. What’s wrong with this picture? A 208 degree heading + 35 tacking angle implies a wind direction of 245 degrees. We were eating a 15-degree header and letting boats get to the right of us. As it turns out, Peter Hurley, who was behind us at the time, got right, and saw a starboard heading of 230, implying a wind direction of 265 degrees. Rather than cruising into oblivion with Ernesto and Adonis, I should have tacked on that 208 heading. Granted, this is a lot of math to do when hiking hard; my workaround is below.
- Dry air wind shadows. At one point, I tacked shy of starboard layline, maybe a dozen boatlengths behind four boats further up the course. I lost out of boats on both sides of me. My hunch is that the dry 85 degrees air in Puerto Vallarta is more easily disturbed than the damp, cold air that we get in Northern California.
- Knotted mainsheet. Sometimes I’d arrive at the weather mark, or reach mark, with a knot that I’d have to untie. This is a function of a couple of things: water in the cockpit, and not cleaning up the mainsheet during calmer parts of the upwind leg. Later in the series, I’d get into the habit of running through the mainsheet about 3/4 up the windward leg, while on the less-bumpy (due to wave skew) starboard tack. Don’t do it sooner, since the mainsheet can re-knot.
What to do differently:
- Watch your heel. Ernesto and I tuned up on the last day of racing. His feedback: on port, I need to watch my heel, especially when at the top of swells and the windspeed increases. Just a few more degrees of heel let him sail higher and faster than me.
- Optionality ASAP.
- Duck. And hydrate and work out enough to minimize fatigue so you can think clearly.
- Get under boom.
- Clean office.
- Table of equivalent headings. On port tack, head to wind, and starboard tack, written on the cockpit. Do checkmarks for each row as you collect data in the prestart — this is a Buddy Melges technique. Collect this data on a regular basis, every two minutes — a Dave Ullman technique. Use your mast timer to remind you of when to get this data.
- Run through mainsheet 3/4 of the way up the course. In Puerto Vallarta, with starboard wave skew, this means starboard layline, or on starboard while approaching the port layline.
- Adjust cunningham for wave skew. In Alameda, I’ll often ease the cunningham on port tack, since the left-skewed waves make port the less bumpy tack. I should have tried that here.
- Breakaway. Go into the reach with the right mindset: it’s an opportunity to break away from the boats behind so that you can start the run with clear air and lots of options. Some people say that reaches are simply parades —maybe so in slower boats, but in Lasers, a few good waves let you build a gap of several boatlengths. However, it takes max effort, heart rate, and concentration to make it happen.
- High road. The reaches were very tight so you had to commit to the high road to get clear air.
- Narrow band. Andres Heredia (the winner of the apprentice fleet) said that he essentially pointed at the reach mark, with maybe five degrees of variance. Five degrees below rhumbline to surf, and five degrees up from rhumbline when not surfing, such as in a light spot. You don’t want to get stuck too high, slowly reaching down into the reach mark. Here’s an example of how the fleet followed a tight line.
- Aggressive turndown. When a good wave came along, it was crucial to do a quick jerk of the tiller combined with a quick lean out and push forward with your torso. All these would quickly turn your down to align with wave direction to surf. Then lean way back and out, sometimes even with your back touching the deck, to get your bow up.
- Head up on the backside. As the wave passes you by, you’ll be on the backside, going slow. At this point, you’re a sitting duck for other boats to roll you. Compensate for this by doing an upturn (weight forward, on your knees if light, heel to leeward, steer up). As do this, you’re preserving your speed and reloading for the next surf.
- Continual mainsheet trim. Given that raid accelerations and decelerations with surfing and coming off waves, your apparent wind is all over the place. You need to continually trim the mainsheet.
- Cunningham off before the weather mark. Blow the cunningham before you get to the weather mark, while there’s still tension on it. It will rise up on its own, so you’re less likely to need to pull it up on the reach (weight forward = slow) or run.
- Outhaul and vang easily accessible. Some reaches were full-on hiking; these meant that the outhaul had to be kept in the upwind setting. Other reaches were sit-down affairs; for these, it made sense to ease the outhaul to a downwind setting. Still other reaches found us broad-reaching to the end, which meant that the vang had to be eased.
- Aim high. On the second reach, aim a couple of boatlengths above the mark. This dissuades others from going high for the inside route and gives you the ability to turn down at the end to pull on outhaul, cunningham, and vang.
- Wrong mark. In one race I was first to the mark. I saw just one mark in front of me, maybe 20 boatlengths away. “Wow, this is a short reach,” I thought. Then Adonis blasted over me. “What the hell?” I looked, and it turns out I was pointed at the offset mark for the inside course for the Grandmaster fleet. Adonis found the actual reach mark, and it was about 10 degrees higher than the offset. This isn’t what the course diagram indicated, but race committees make mistakes. I quickly fixed my mistake and headed up, but every place counts in a small fleet.
- Committing to the low road, part 1. In one race, a boat tacked right at the weather mark, outside me. Since he was required by the rules to give me room, I went inside him. Now my bow was locked to his leeward side. This wouldn’t be a big deal for a downwind leg. But on a reach? It meant that I was just a few feet from the crucial high lane, and that enabled a few boats to roll me.
- Committing to the low road, part 2. In another race, it was light and the wind angle was relatively free, making for a broad reach. I chose the low road… good choice, right? Wrong. Mid-leg, the boat right behind me starts going high. It’s rarely a good idea to switch strategies like this mid-leg. The boat behind rolls me since he’s sailing at a faster angle, then slows in the wind shadow of the boats on the high road, locking me into his wind shadow. The perfect way for him to shoot himself in the foot and drag me down with him.
- Not raising board. Often I’d keep the board down so I could hold a high lane on a tight reach. But too often, if the reach was a bit eased, I wouldn’t pull the board up. This was slow. Here’s one example of this mistake by me…
- … and an example of Grandmaster division winner Brett Bayer with his board up since the breeze is a bit further back:
- Janky transitions. Just before one reach mark, Ernesto surfed a wave to get inside rounding on me, then bore away to stay on that same wave downwind. Within 30 seconds, he gained several lengths on me. Beautiful sailing, and in stark contrast to my not catching that same wave, let alone surfing it downwind.
- No clean-up. I wasn’t using calm parts of the reach (between waves) to sort out my cunningham, outhaul, and vang lines into separate piles. Doing this would have enabled me to more quickly adjust controls on the subsequent downwind leg.
What to do differently:
- High road!
- Pre-start, spot the reach mark, and note its position relative to the offset.
- Spot the reach mark before rounding. While a few boatlengths from the mark, look under your boom and locate the reach mark. Is it above the offset?
- If yes, set up for a tight reach where it’s imperative to hold the high road: board down, or maybe up just a couple of inches; outhaul unchanged (but put tail aft and ready to grab, vang at two-block, cunningham unchanged if nuking but off otherwise.
- If no (reach mark below offset), set up for broader reach so you can surf: board up, outhaul off a bit (and tail handy), cunningham off, vang at two block or a bit looser.
- Board up if not tight.
- Smoother transitions from reach to run.
- Clean office when not surfing.
Ugh, this was the painful leg. I often lost boats. A good leg was one where I lost only a couple of boats. On a typical one, I’d lose a few — a good chunk of a 14-boat fleet. Only on one did I actually pass boats.
What’s interesting is that my downwind has improved a lot in the past few months. In local regattas and in practices, I can often gain on boats. But in the talented worlds fleet, I needed more.
- Rhythm. On my best downwind legs, I’d get into a by the lee (BTL) rhythm downwind, where I’d feel a wave coming under me, get on my knees, heel to leeward, on your knees if light, and steer to upturn onto it, catch it. And then heel to windward and steer to downturn and ride the wave face BTL. ABRAT: Always Be Rocking And Turning. Here’s an example of a downwind leg where I quickly got into a good BTL rhythm:
- Proper mainsheet angle. I marked my mainsheet at 90 and around 75 degrees. Most of the time, my sheet was around 75 degrees, for better airflow. One more thing I can thank my squadmates James and Sanjai for helping me figure out.
- Drop sheeting. With a mark at 90 degrees, when sailing on a wave BTL, I could easily drop sheet (i.e., quickly release and then grab the mainsheet) and get a reverse pump to stay on a wave.
- Press forward. On some big waves in light air, it paid to temporarily press down on the deck near the mast, to force the bow down to catch a wave. Combining this with a downturn — heel and tiller to windward — put me on the edge of control but was fast. Olympian Sarah Douglas shows this at one point in this video.
- Gate sights. Sailing out to the course every day, I noted which buildings lined up with the downwind gates. This provided a handy way to ensure that I was steering in their general direction downwind. This is crucial, since, at the top of a mile-long leg, it’s hard to see the waves in the swells when you’re trying your utmost to surf the next wave.
- Kept it legal. I never got a yellow flag for Rule 42 (kinetics), despite plenty of aggressive rocking. That’s because I was always turning — in hindsight, perhaps I was turning too widely, and burning up too much distance. Something to work on.
- Know your umps. I talked to the head umpire, Andrus Poksi, early in the series to get a sense of his knowledge of Rule 42 — pumping, rocking, etc. — as applied to Lasers. One litmus test question: “From where do you watch for Rule 42 violations?” The recommendations from World Sailing is scattered and buried in their ILCA Rule 42 guidelines; even some international-level judges aren’t aware of them. This umpire knew, which was great. Another good question: “Is a BTL drop-sheet considered a pump?” This umpire went on for a couple of minutes talking about there was a debate a few years back, and it was settled that drop sheets are not considered pumps. The point is, if the umpire can nerd out on Rule 42, you can sail aggressively within the rule; if they can’t, sail more conservatively since they might make some bizarre calls. For instance, check out this discussion among judges, where some call reverse pumps illegal.
- Aim for the inside. Often, I’d aim for a point about two boatlengths below the left gate mark, in order to keep my air clear of other boats. Then, once close to the weather mark, I’d upturn onto a broad reach and sail a hot angle through the relatively light air caused by everyone’s wind shadow. Below is a photo of that. The opposite could probably work if BR surfing for to the right gate: keep it high, and then go hot BTL right at the end to sail through bad air.
- Controls early in breeze. In the windy practice race, the waves started to get bigger near the gate as the water got shallower. It paid to start pulling on controls during the calm periods between waves. For instance, outhaul in at ten boatlengths in a flat spot. Then ride a big wave. Then cunningham on at five boatlengths in the next flat spot. Then ride another wave. Then toss vang to the new high side just prior to sheeting in.
- Missed waves. I’m guessing I missed anywhere from several to a couple of dozen waves each downwind leg, which my competitors were able to catch. This adds up to lost distance. Everyone can catch some waves in PV; the winners catch every wave.
- No surf periods. Nearly every downwind leg, there were times where I wasn’t even finding a wave for several seconds. This was worrisome… were there really no waves around me? Or was I just blind to them? I’d see boats around me surging forward, adding to the urgency.
- Sloopy steering. I wasn’t cognizant enough of rhumbline and wave angle to minimize the distance steered. This might be fine if in the high winds and steep chop of my home waters of San Francisco, where big turns are essential to keep the boat from plowing into the wave head and turning your Laser into a submarine. But in the more subtle five to ten knots that we had, precision steering was key. Reexamining this video by Olympian Sarah Douglas in conditions similar to PV, it’s clear that steering angles need to minimize distance sailed downwind.
- Sloopy transitions. When doing from the reach, it’d take me a while to get into my downwind rhythm. Sometimes I was futzing with a knotted mainsheet. Other times I was clearing up tangled control lines.
- Poor strategy. Ernesto mentioned that before the second downwind, he’d pick the side of the course he’d want to get a lane in. If we were starboard lifted upwind that meant port facing downwind — more breeze blowing in from that side — and do a hard bear-away to BTL to lock in that position and focus on BTL surfing. And vice-versa if rounding in a lefty — choose starboard facing downwind and focus on broad reach (BR) surfing.
- Imprecise lane establishment. It was key to quickly get a lane immediately after the reach mark (or second upwind mark). Sometimes I wouldn’t bear away enough to get a clear BTL lane. Sometimes I’d bear away too much.
- Didn’t always adjust controls. Embarrassingly, sometimes I’d space out and not raise my daggerboard, or blow my cunningham or outhaul. I’d chalk this up to lack of practice, as well as heat plus exhaustion.
- It takes two. In one race, I spend the first part of the downwind leg following Adonis, who was steering for the leeward mark, not the gate. On the ILCA championship course, identify the gate by spotting TWO marks next to each other. Not just one.
- Last-second losses. In at least three races, competitors would break overlaps with me and round ahead at the leeward mark or gate. These conditions are tough, since there’s less wind, due to sailors’ wind shadows, and confused chop from the wake of the umpire boat and other sailors.
What to do differently:
- More careful steering. If you look at the above sections, you’ll see examples of precise steering in the start, upwind, and reach. In my upwind, for instance, I’m talking about the importance of steering low by two or three degrees. Downwind, I’m pretty sloppy. I’ll sail too high or low of rhumbline, which wastes distance. Or I won’t align with waves to surf them. Below is one example. I round second (first Master) and then head off 30 degrees from the fleet, presumably to build rig load:
- … and it didn’t work. Here’s a video grab from later in that leg. I’m on the far left; Adil, in the middle, rounded a few boatlengths behind me, and now he’s way ahead:
- … and by the end of the downwind leg, Ernesto and Adonis both passed me. See below. I’m the small boat in the middle.
- Banded upturns and downturns. When it’s light downwind (five to ten knots), do your BTL surfing while staying below dead downwind (DDW). I’m not sure how close to DDW you can get — is it five degrees? Ten? — but you want to avoid the DDW “no-flow zone” where the airflow across your sail is minimal and slow. Conversely, do your broad reach (BR) surfing while staying away from the DDW no-flow zone.
- Careful DDW crosses. Until the course is really skewed, at some point, you’re doing to need to shift from BTL surfing to BR surfing, or vice versa. Only cross DDW when there’s plenty of airflow. This is because a transition from DDW means an airflow reversal on the sail. If it’s windy (see: San Francisco Bay) this reversal is almost instant and doesn’t slow you down relative to surfing a wave or staying upright. In lighter air like PV, it takes a few seconds, which means a period of time when your sail isn’t providing drive. What Adonis and Andres mentioned is that they wait until they’re in relatively high wind (say, a ten-knot puff on a predominately eight-knot leg) or on an exceptionally good wave, in order to do a DDW cross and start to reconnect to the rhumbline.
- Think like a keelboat driver. This might seem like bad advice for a lightweight boat like a Laser but stay with me. In keelboats in light air, you’ve been solid at precisely steering a boat as low as possible to the point just before the leeward sheet of the kite sags, and then steering up a few degrees to reestablish kite pressure. Conversely, you’ve been frustrated many times as a kite trimmer, calling out, “puff on, soak down” and the driver obliviously sails an unnecessarily hot angle through a puff. Too often in Lasers in light air, you’ve been too little of the former and too little of the latter. You need to sensitize to rig load so that you find the lowest angle that still keeps pressure on your sail. And don’t sail too hot for too long after you have speed.
- Consider when board up. On one downwind leg, Andres had his board up to almost a flat-water position. He later said this was because, on that leg, he was going to be barely turning and didn’t need much daggerboard.
Side note on kinetics:
- Ernesto raised an interesting Rule 42 question: if you’re surfing BTL, drop sheet, sheet in (not an aggressive pump), then drop sheet again, is that considered pumping while already surfing, and blocked by Rule 42? Another good Rule 42 litmus test question in order to see what kind of umpires you have.
- Super structured. After almost missing the practice race the first day (see below), I went into Google Calendar and laid out a structure for each day: when to wake up, eat breakfast, rig up, attend the daily sailors briefing, get dressed, sail out, and tune up. Put in as many details as possible: taping hands, what to bring to the boat, etc. I allowed thirty minutes to sail to the course, and sixty minutes to tune up pre-start. Then I outlined when to fill up water bottles for the day ahead and hit the sack for ten hours of sleep.
- One of the first. Once I set up a detailed schedule, I’d follow it closely so that I could end up being one of the first boats to leave the harbor. Getting to the race course early gave me lots of time to reflect on my performance, doing a mental inventory similar to what you’ve read above: what worked, what didn’t, and what to do better. It gave me a chance to get lots of port tack heading info, practice my mainsheet clearing, get a gate sight, and then later tune up with other boats. It’s a huge confidence booster to be arriving at the weather mark and see competitors still leaving the harbor. It gave me a chance to hydrate 15 minutes before the start.
- Arriving too late. We arrived the day before the practice race. It took us longer to get from PVR airport to our hotel room (four hours) as it did to fly from SFO to PVR. There were people in the airport who said they’d help us find our shuttle, then give us tequila shots and try to scam us into buying vacation tours. See photo below. Then it took us an hour to check-in at the hotel, Paradise Village. I had allowed three hours to get my charter boat ready for the 5:30 pm equipment inspection but missed my appointment.
- Incomplete prep. Given the backlog above, I never had enough time to do a full prep. I didn’t have time to polish my hull, blades, and spars with McLube; didn’t tape over the bailer; and didn’t tighten the rudder bolts. I didn’t have time to properly unpack, sailed out to the practice race with two left-hand gloves, and made the practice start with only five minutes to spare. (But still got a good start — many thanks to the Treasure Island Vanguard 15 fleet for helping me become a better starter!)
What to do differently:
- Arrive earlier. Arrive at least the day prior to getting your charter boat, to allow enough time to unpack, with plenty of time to set up your charter boat prior to inspection.
- Write out your schedule BEFORE you fly down, based on the notice of race and sailing instructions.
Given how physical the Laser is, and Puerto Vallarta’s warm temperatures — 85 degrees Fahrenheit / 29 degrees celsius — it was clear that it was going to be crucial for dealing with the heat. I’d spent time racing Lasers in Singapore and was astounded by how much water I’d drink.
As one sailor who recently moved from San Francisco to Puerto Vallarta put it, “I think we've gotten to be good at being camels”. Meanwhile, I was a sea otter, adapted to racing in 53-degree water wearing 7mm of neoprene.
We saw this hot weather adaptation among the sailors, with Adi Khalid of the United Arab Emirates and Adonis of Greece wearing dark clothing, with cold weather sailors like myself dressed in white.
- Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate! I got four big 48-ounce Nalgene bottles, drinking their contents through a day. That’s 1.5 gallons in 24 hours. Here’s the breakdown:
- Bottle one: Hammer HEED, drunk during breakfast. Caffeinated, so no need for coffee.
- Bottle two: three packs of Maurten Drink Mix 320 Caf 100–40% drunk before race one, 60% drunk before race two.
- Bottle three: Hammer Recoverite, drunk after arriving onshore.
- Bottle four: water with a packet of Emergen-C to keep my immunity up during a long regatta, which I’d drink during the course of the night.
As Peter Vessella put it, “you have to pound water”. One key metric: pee at least once on the way to the race course, to ensure you’re starting out hydrated.
- Safe transport. Since the Hammer powders come in massive plastic containers, I scooped out just what I needed into plastic baggies, then put them into the Nalgene bottles so that nothing would escape. I was worried that airport security would ask about white powder being transported in baggies, but there were no such questions.
- Big bottles of water. Figure out where to buy big bottles of water before you travel to the regatta. In our case, there was a grocery store a five-minute walk from the venue, with big gallon size bottles. People claim that you can drink PV water from the tap, but there was no need to take a risk. (Indeed, after the last night of the regatta, when we got cocktails with ice, our stomachs started getting gurgly.)
- Water boat. Before the regatta, I lined up ten sailors to go in on a water/food/spare parts boat, pictured below, to carry all our water, gear, and spare parts. It was driven by a local Laser dad. This was a lot cheaper than a coach — about USD 300 per person for seven days ($42/day) — and saved each of us from having to carry a liter and a half of water, which weighs about seven pounds.
- White clothing. White jogging cap, white Huk neck gaiter, and white nylon shirt. I had a somewhat loose-fitting long sleeve white that I wore over my lifejacket. You can see an example of this below. For next time I’m in hot conditions, I want to get a stretchy white rashguard that doesn’t flop around as much in the breeze. I should also get some warm weather hiking pants, such as the SEA Airprene hiking pants.
- Protect the chest. One thing I learned racing Lasers in hot Singaporean conditions years ago: never race without a rash guard under your lifejacket. Nipple rashes are no fun.
- Sunscreen applied, multiple times. Before heading to breakfast, I’d apply some 50 SPF sunscreen with zinc. Then repeat a couple of hours later, after rigging up and getting dressed.
- Get dressed cold. I’d get dressed in my air-conditioned hotel room near the venue, then hang out there when we were on a no-wind delay. Much better than roasting in the sun! Another tip, from Olympian Wolfgang Gerz, is to get dressed with the shower running since evaporation is a cooling process.
- Hose off pre-splash. Before you wheel your boat down the ramp, hose off from your head down with water.
- Goat tape. Used by weightlifters to prevent blisters. I didn’t use this for the first two days, got a blister, then used it for the next five days, under my gloves, and had no issues going forward.
- Keep it clean. All that hydrating means a lot of fluids coming out, and over a seven-day regatta, clothes can start smelling funky. I bought some detergent at the nearby grocery store, and almost always had clothes soaking in soapy water in the kitchen sink. Since I brought an extra mainsheet, I had a nice long clothesline to let everything dry off.
- No dishwasher. Don’t ever put Nalgene bottles into the dishwasher. 19 times out of 20, nothing will happen. Then one time, you’ll end up with a warped and useless bottle when there’s a random jet of hot water that bounced off something and sprayed on your bottle. After returning home, I put my bottles into the dishwasher to give them a final cleaning, and some of them got warped.
- Hydrate on the plane. I should have started hydration on the flight by bringing an empty Nalgene bottle with me through SFO security, and then filling it up in the airport. Then pound the water starting on our descent. This would have kept me ahead of the dehydration curve that probably led me to make stupid mistakes (near capsizes, cunningham cluster) on day one.
- Generous scoops. I almost ran out of Hammer HEED and Recoverite powder. In hindsight, there’s no harm in putting a few extra scoops into your bag.
What to do differently:
- Hydrate earlier
- White rashguard
- Airprene hiking pants
- Hand wash the Nalgenes
- More electrolytes
It’s funny — I spent more time in a gym than on the water to prepare for this regatta, but I don’t have a lot to say about it.
- Surgery. Carpal tunnel and elbow surgery the previous fall meant that I no longer had numbness. Huge improvement.
- Broader fitness. Unlike in 2021, where I focused on my legs and cardio, this time I focused more on overall fitness: legs, lungs, arms, core, and hip flexors. Worked much better.
- Heart rate tracking. I used an Apple Watch to track my workouts, both in the gym and for on-the-water practices. I made it a goal to ensure that I was close to max heart rate as much as possible the entire time. I use Strava to track my stats.
- Everything is practice. That quote from Pele has always resonated with me. I try to fit in fitness time wherever possible. A standing desk with a balance board that I’ll work at several hours a day. A Prohands Gripmaster XX-Heavy tension that I’ll use in meetings or in the car. Exercise equipment at home, in case I don’t have time to get to the gym.
- Cramps. I got cramps on some of the race days, despite my extensive hydration program above. Mid-regatta, I started eating two bananas a day, and the cramps went away.
What to do differently:
- More workouts. If you see Adonis and Ernesto, you’ll see it’s no mistake they were way ahead of the rest of the fleet in terms of conditioning. I’ve got a ways to go to get to their level.
- More core. In a lot of photos, I don't feel like my torso is far enough out upwind, and I’m not agile enough downwind. More core work could help.
Those of you who’ve met me know that I geek out on gear. It’s a good thing I don’t sail a truly technical boat like a 505 since I’d probably never get out on the water. I’ve organized this roughly bow-to-stern:
- Compass. I’m not normally a compass guy. But I heard that a compass was essential to PV, so I bought a Velocitek Prism with a Carbonparts mount. While not cheap, it was essential, both for finding the favored end of the line as well as shifts. If I had to pick out one standout piece of gear for this regatta, it was the compass. It has a feature I call JFC: Just a Funking Compass. No GPS, no timer, no backlight, nothing to go wrong. Just a heading, all the time. I already have a countdown timer on my wrist and on the mast; I don’t need a third one.
- Mark compass. I put two small marks on the compass. On the right side, “- H” — meaning, when the numbers go down, that’s a header (on starboard). And on the left, “+ H”, indicating that higher numbers on port are a header. It’s one of those little things that keep you from making boneheaded mistakes when tired. See below.
- Standby gear. When I started practicing a lot for Worlds, I started wearing out my gear. I found it best to have “standby gear”. I’d keep using my old gear in practice until it completely wears out, but swap in the new standby gear during races. It’s no big deal if a part fails in practice, but is if it fails while racing, especially in a world championship. I applied this thinking to my hiking pants and (eventually) mainsheet.
- Spare wind indicators. C-vanes are essential to proper downwind sailing, but the yellow vanes break way too easily. I went down with three spares, and sure enough, one of them broke. Really frustrating.
- Shock cord for mast retainer. When returning to the dock at Vallarta Yacht Club, the wind would come from all directions. After removing the mainsheet, the boom would often do a full 360-degree rotation. Using shock cord, rather than a rope, for the mandated “safety” line meant that it wouldn’t yank out the blocks at the base of my mast. We call this a “spevak”, after my unfortunate friend Walt Spevak, who got his cunningham and outhaul blocks pulled out of the deck in the middle of last year’s ILCA North Americans. When rigging a spevak, keep the shockcord thin (1–2mm) to reduce every last gram of weight. No, your mast won’t fall out if you have a shockcord… take it from this San Francisco sailor who’s capsized plenty: the cunningham and outhaul are plenty to ensure that your mast stays in.
- Proper telltales. I found that the wool telltales that come with a Laser sail are slower to respond than cassette tape (still sold on Amazon!). Also, they are placed a couple of feet from where the sail initially bubbles in a luff. So, I got an old cassette tape, and place them right where you first see the sail bubble. The result: more instantaneous feedback if your sail is over- or under-trimmed.
- … here’s what those telltales look like. See lead boat, 158976:
- Mark vang, per the ISA video guidelines.
- Mark outhaul. Using electrical tape on the boom, I set up marks for various outhaul settings. This allowed me to precisely lock in the right setting at a leeward mark rounding, and to fine-tune settings upwind. The black (i.e., base setting) tape band is for when the foot is one-hands-length (6 inches) from the boom, red is the max in you’d ever have (foot half a centimeter from the boom), with blue and green each at 1/3 and 2/3 of those extremes. I rig my outhaul similar to Pavlos Kontides, with the purchase forward and under the boom, so that I can easily gauge the setting on both tacks. Max out (the loop at the end of the outhaul secondary) is set so that there’s one “shaka” length from the bearing point of the aft fairlead and the edge of the luff.
- Mark cunningham. Similar to the outhaul, this was essential at leeward mark roundings. Using tape on the mast, I set up marks for cunningham settings. Black (base setting) marks the bottom of the luff when pulled hand tight. Red tape is touching the top of the gooseneck. Blue and green are each at 1/3 and 2/3 of those extremes. Max out (the loop at the end of the cunningham secondary) is such that the cunningham rises two inches from black; that feeds enough slack to the sail when going downwind without excessive wrinkles. Below you can see examples of my cunningham marks on my mast (nearly covered up) and outhaul marks on my boom.
- Smooth cunningham functions. I set the cunningham primary so that the double block is even with the gooseneck bolt when at base (black/hand tight) setting. This means that the double block shouldn’t rise much (if at all) above the gooseneck when at max ease, which could lead to problems with the blocks getting caught on the top of the gooseneck when pulling the cunningham on at the leeward mark. It also gives enough “throw” to pull the cunningham on tight in heavy air. Also, I use old-school duct tape to keep the cunningham out of the gap between the gooseneck and the boom. Lastly, I rig the cunningham primary on either side of the boom, with the primary outside of the outhaul block line, so that I can quickly pull off slack downwind.
- Mark mainsheet. 90 degrees and 75 degrees. 75 is a typical setting for BTL and BR, while 90 degrees is a good reference for drop sheeting.
- Mainsheet cleats. This one’s bound to be controversial, but I had the charter folks rig up mainsheet cleats as far forward as allowed in the ILCA rules. The cleats are small enough to not get in the way when sailing downwind. And yet they let me rest my arms when sailing out to the race course. They also make it easier to clear the mainsheet when approaching the weather mark.
- Max leech tension. I have a thick traveler line, I think SK-99 Dyneema 4mm, and I tie the loop as tightly as possible. Every day, I’ll re-tie the line since the half-hitch will slip a bit. To get the trav extra tight, I’ll pull up on the section of the trav between the loop and cleat. This means my tape on the tiller will wear out nearly daily, so that’s another rig-up task. Additionally, I’ll get the clew strap super tight by laying the outhaul grommet on its side; this lets me get the sail down a few more millimeters on the boom.
- Old Laser tiller. There have been some questions about whether tillers made for older LaserPerformance boats would work well on the new ILCA hulls made in Thailand, which put the rudder gudgeons and transom slope at one end of the tolerances. Southeast Sailboats did a great evaluation of this question, with the conclusion that a new Rooster ILCA tiller is 6mm lower than an older Rooster Laser tiller. That’s half a centimeter. I didn’t find this to be an issue in my upwind performance. Most of the time, my traveler block was touching the deck upwind; check out the photo below.
- Lots of duct tape. I used duct tape to repair my shredded golf bag (used to transport my tiller, sail, lines, and sailing clothes), tape down my compass every day (photo below), and keep the cunningham clear.
- Mainsheet. A couple of minutes before the first race on day two, I saw that my mainsheet was almost completely shredded where it goes through the ratchet block. It was fine when I left the dock but rapidly deteriorated on the sail out. Thankfully, our first attempt at a start was a general recall, so I had time to swap ends of the mainsheet. Later that evening, I swapped in my new mainsheet, which I had on standby. (For my mainsheet, I use the yellow Rooster Polilite 6mm rope that pretty much everyone uses.)
- Mast timer. To be clear, my mast timer worked, but after seven years, it’s getting condensation if I leave it in the cockpit. Time to get another one to have on standby. I can keep using my old one in practice.
- Compass velcro. Just before one of my races, I quickly raised my board up and down to remove any seaweed or debris that might have wrapped around it. Bad idea: my compass completely pulled off, bringing the velcro pads with it. I looked at a number of different ideas but settled on the idea of mounting my compass in front of the mast in the future. That way, I can do kelp and weed checks all day without the compass coming off. It’ll also keep it away from the vang, outhaul, and cunningham lines. I’ll have a safety line attached to it in the off chance that someone knocks it off with their boom. I’ll use a bunch more velcro, found on Amazon. I’m using Gorilla Glue to help the smaller pieces of velcro stick to the base. Here’s a photo of the base; the original velcro pads are black; the new velcro is clear.
What to do differently:
- Always use standby gear in races and old gear in practices.
- Buy standby mast timer.
- Compass in front of mast.
- Rooster tiller extension. My current Acme extension hasn’t broken — yet. But I’ve broken them in the past, and Roosters are stronger.
Some last few thoughts:
- Best restaurant. The Iguana Restaurant and Tequila Bar is one of the best, if not the best, restaurant in Puerto Vallarta. It’s about 45 minutes from Vallarta Yacht Club, so ask your hotel concierge to set up a reservation during your lay day. Check out the view below.
- Best place for gifts. Vallarta Chocolate Factory has amazing chocolates, and great gifts for friends and family back home. In particular, they have hot chocolate tablets, which will survive the hot trip back to your hotel better than chocolates. If you’re doing a regatta and burning thousands more calories a day than usual (i.e., assuming you’re hiking hard and carrying max power), then this is a great place to splurge on some extra calories. Zoom in to the offerings below.
- COVID tests are easily obtained in Paradise Village, the hotel complex where we stayed during the regatta, near the Tulum restaurant. They have both PCR and antigen. Antigen tests are old-style “brain ticklers”… eesh!
- Pregame: Always grab the free dinner at the yacht club after racing, even if you’re planning to eat later at a restaurant. I find my appetite spikes during regattas due to the four or so hours of on-the-water activity. Hot items only, to be safe.
- Sea life. Puerto Vallarta’s sea life is… varied:
- Sailing out to the venue, I’d often see fish jumping out of the water. In the windy downwind legs in the practice races, fish were leaping out of the water to get out of my way. Both magical.
- On one upwind leg, the side of my boat hit a sting ray, who seemed to get pissed off and slap his stinger. Thankfully he was on my leeward side, four feet from my feet.
- On another upwind, I hit something hard with my daggerboard, presumably the shell of a sea turtle.
- And every day, I’d see at least one dead fish floating in the water, which was curious since I didn’t see any signs of pollution. Makes me appreciate San Francisco Bay’s recent renaissance, with regular sightings of dolphins and humpback whales in the bay itself.
Laser / ILCA Masters Worlds was a great regatta. It was great to race against some of the best in our class, and as you saw above, many are open to sharing their expertise. It’s a great learning experience and a good way to renew old friendships while making new ones. It’s worth noting that there wasn’t a single protest the entire week.
The next Laser / ILCA Masters Worlds will be in February 2023, at Royal Varuna Yacht Club in Pattaya, Thailand. Conditions will be similar to Puerto Vallarta. A bit hotter, with highs of 88 degrees (31 Celsius) and lows of 76 (24 Celsius). Roughly the same breeze, averaging 9 knots.
To prepare, I want to do lots of practice sessions with short courses, with downwind legs no more than one or two minutes. This forces a level of intensity that’s easily lost with longer courses. I’ll need to master transitions at marks, immediately find a rhythm downwind, and address all the improvement points listed above.
I can’t wait to start the preparation!