Walking the ACWS Racecourse with Dean Barker
The high speed, high-adrenaline race courses for the America's Cup World Series events in the lead up to the 35th Cup put a premium on split second timing, faultless crew work and fearless tactical calls. SoftBank Team Japan skipper Dean Barker shows us the new style racecourse through the eyes of the sailors.
We normally try to give ourselves 45 minutes to an hour before the start to prepare. We tend to focus on nailing the manoeuvres – tacks and gybes mainly – for that wind strength Once they start to lay the course we take a look at what is going on with the wind and the current and try to work out if there is a favoured side. We sail a couple of legs and get ourselves comfortable with our recorded headings on both tacks upwind and both gybes downwind. Once we are happy with that we look at the start line bias and the potential angles to the first mark on the opening leg.
The goal in the time before the start is to set the boat up so that you have optimum performance so that you can get off the startline well. When you have 10 to 12 knots of breeze it’s all about getting the boat on the foils quickly. In a perfect world you would line up at 30 seconds and come foiling in at full speed when you hit the startline. However, that’s a very high-risk approach - every now and then that might work but generally it’s just not possible.
In general you are weighing up the balance between which end of the line will give you the best angle on the reach to the first mark and which end is the shortest distance to the mark. In the end though it comes down to positioning in relation to the other boats and having your bow free to pivot down for your final acceleration and being able to go straight to full speed as quickly as you can.
The goal is to be sailing in clear air and in these foiling boats the breeze that you are looking for is always in front of you – you are never looking at breeze to the side or behind. So even ‘downwind’ you will be getting dirty air if you have somebody ahead and just to windward of you. Think of it in the same way that you would be getting gassed in a traditional monohull sailing upwind behind and to leeward of another boat. In these boats the basic rule is that if you are bow forward of your competitors then you have clear air.
Depending on the course configuration one the day the first leg can be just a few hundred metres or up to half a mile or so, but either way it is a real sprint to the first mark.
If you get the start right and you have come off the startline with speed then you are aiming to just pop out a little bit bow forward on the pack and then you are able to sail whatever angle you need to the first mark. The ideal scenarios are either to be clear ahead or to have the inside berth at the first turn. Whoever manages that is really controlling the race at that point because they can choose when to gybe for the bottom gate. The other advantage is that you tend to get further down the second leg before you are forced to gybe for the boundary.
If the guy who has started at the leeward end of the line has got a good angle and has got up to speed quickly then he has a lot of control over the guys further up the line. If he has clear air and can get to the first mark as inside boat then that is a huge advantage as the boats that are stacked two, three, or four wide at Mark 1 can get held out and find it very difficult to pick their own time to gybe.
First Downwind Leg
All the teams are getting better and better at learning how to gybe these boats efficiently but it is really still early days and the gybe losses are still big enough that you try to minimise the manoeuvres. Compared to the AC72s where there was little or no gybe loss and you could afford to gybe as often as you wanted too down the run, the 45s are not easy to foil gybe – that is stay on the foils all the way through the gybe – consistently across a range of conditions. The windier it is the easier it is but in winds below 15 knots you are aiming for what we call a ‘touch and go’ technique where you are happy for the hull to touch down briefly and the pop up again on the new gybe.
Until we all get slick at the manoeuvres the strategy for the first downwind leg is to set yourself up for which side of the course you want to go – left or right mark - at the leeward gate. That’s usually a preconceived strategy you have agreed before the start of the race.
If you don’t get a good start or have a bad first reach and you have found yourself back in the pack a bit then you might feel it best to get offset with what the rest of the fleet are doing.
The moment you round the leeward gate you are immediately thinking about the distance to the boundaries. Unlike a traditional course when you can go all the way to a lay line to minimise the number of tacks that you do you are forced to do three or four or even more tacks on an upwind leg. If you are behind one or more boats as you exit the leeward gate then you might think about tacking early to avoid getting pinned out on a boundary and having to follow in dirty air all the way up the beat.
Plus of course you are looking at the normal racing strategies around which side of the course you think is going to pay because of the breeze or the local topography. Even though we are sailing these super fast foiling boats windshifts are still hugely important and you absolutely have to make sure you use them to their full advantage.
There are a lot of interesting scenarios that happen on an upwind leg. The rules are slightly different in that the guys that are approaching a boundary on the left hand side of the course can tack on to port and have protection from starboard boats while they are within the four length zone from the boundary.
You are trying to think two or three tacks ahead as you move up the course so that you can set yourself up for the best opportunity at the windward gate and which mark you want to round. Fore example you don’t want to be hitting a boundary and having to tack and be under-laid for the mark you want and then having to do another tack. So further back down the course you might tack sooner or later so that you can nail the final layline approach to the windward gate.
How those decisions are made is really the result of the constant conversation going on between the helmsman and his tactician. It depends also on what whether you are in the fleet so whether you are defending or attacking, but ultimately its all about getting the inside berth at one of the marks at the top gate.
In a perfect world you would approach the windward mark rounding by being slightly overstood – above the layline – so that you can come ripping in and able to pop up on the foils just that little bit earlier to make the bear away easier. However, as we all know in racing you don’t always have that luxury and you might be forced into doing a tack around the mark - just to protect your advantage on that side for example.
There are a lot of things that have to happen on a tack or a gybe on these boats with the board systems and everything else so it’s not just a matter of throwing the boat around whenever you choose. You have to allow the guys time for the setup otherwise you can end up paying for a late manoeuvre with a slow bear away or taking too long to get settled away coming away from the mark and not getting foiling quickly enough.
Assuming you get around the top mark in good shape and you get up and foiling quickly then you are pretty soon going to be bouncing off the boundaries again. Downwind the rules protect you coming away from both boundaries but it can be a pretty strange feeling gybing on to port with boats hurtling at you on starboard. There are no calls or signals, you just basically turn the boat and expect that the others are going to keep clear of you.
Final Leeward Gate
The course is set up so that on the last downwind leg we round the left hand mark of the leeward gate and head off on a short dogleg reach to the finish. Ideally you want to avoid having to gybe around that mark. Much better to come in fast on the port layline but once again, sometimes you have to sail the fleet instead.
If the breeze is in the 10 – 12 knots or above you can sail upwind and downwind with the same jib. The big Code 0 headsail is something you are only going to be thinking about using below 12 knots. There are obviously some penalties to deploying the Code 0 in that somebody has to have the time to pull it up, you have people off the rail to get it, there will be extra drag and windage from the rig once it’s up there, and then you need to allow time for to get it down and stowed at the bottom mark. All that said, in a certain amount of windspeed, without it you don’t have enough power to get the boat going downwind efficiently.
The boats will foil at a low as 15 or 16 knots but they are not really efficient at those speeds and you can actually be slower on foils than off the foils so it is important not to force it too quickly. Once the breeze gets up above 12 knots it is absolutely vital to be on the foils as it worth 2 – 4 knots of extra boatspeed.