Monday, 4 March 2019

FOSSC: the "Storm Freya" play

As far as race strategies go, relying on “Storm Freya” to subdue the competition has its merits, but I don’t think it’s one we want to be relying on every week.

Six boats rigged in the rain for the 1200. By the time we got on the water, the rain had eased but the wind was building as forecast. A capsize following a clumsy gybe and an ill-timed gust at the leeward mark at Green Yellow on the first lap left us swamped and at the back of the fleet, from which we never really recovered, finishing 5th place. A squall came through as we crossed the line, so rather than heading straight in, Amanda and I stayed out on the water for another fifteen minutes, screaming back and forth across the lake in a ball of spray and giggles whilst the wind blasted through. It was just too irresistible, and in any case, we were probably safer out there than trying to land in it back on the lee shore of the launching area.

After lunch, the Race Officer changed the course to reduce the number of gybes to just the one, and removed the dead downwind runs of the previous race. Even so, only four boats made the start line; Sue in her Topper, Phil with his Aero, Jon with his radial rigged Laser and ourselves. The conditions were by now beginning to get quite frisky.

We started well, middle of the pack but hitting the line fully powered up and bang on the gun, the Laser slightly windward but astern of us, the Topper directly below us but with her cut-down 4.7 sail not affecting our air to any great degree. We rounded the windward mark at Red White with Jon’s Laser on the outside putting him right on our wind for the reach down to Green that followed. 

Almost in a repeat of the first lap of the race before, the teeth of a gust hit us just a few boat lengths out from Green. We rounded, struggling to harden up to the beat, fighting to trim the sails in and keep the boat flat and leaving Jon plenty of room between us and the buoy. Jon, struggling with the same, was knocked flat just in front of us.

We bore away, just skimming the tip of his mast as it sunk beneath the water, fortunately doing no harm to either him nor us.

Fighting to get the boat and sails back under control and get her up in to the wind, we left Jon behind but sloughed off badly to leeward of the layline. Behind us, the Topper tucked in around as neat as you like between the still flattened Laser and the leeward mark, hardening up onto the beat and tanking away, leaving us abashed in her wake.

The conditions continued to build. The white-knuckle reaches across the wind were exhilarating, on one our 13’ dinghy hit just over 13 knots planning between the White and Red marks. The beats back to windward were gruelling, muscle tearing and finger shredding, hiking hard and continually playing the mainsail to try and keep the boat flat and powering into wind. Twice the gusts caught me hiked right out as they passed and a relative lull followed, the boat falling back on top of me, dunking me in the water; both times a windward capsize was only saved by Amanda scrambling up to leeward and, to somewhat lesser effect, my pumping the sail hard, the same way you might launch a kite, to lift the boat back up onto her feet, and me with her.

On each lap at the end of that screaming reach from White to Red there was a gybe, and on each lap we chickened out, instead holding our course on beyond the mark and into the relative shelter of the bank, where we then wore the boat around with a tack before then reaching down to the bottom mark at Yellow. With wry amusement, we noticed the rest of the fleet did exactly the same.

All was going well until the last lap but one. The three single-handers were having a much harder time keeping their boats on their feet; the Topper had retired, we’d left the Laser behind after his capsize on the first lap, and, I think, a similar capsize (or two) with the Aero had at some point let us sneak past Phil. And then we simply got knocked flat. Beating to windward, both of us fully hiked out hard, the mainsail spilling as far as it could go, and still she went over before we could do anything to stop her.

I rolled directly over and onto the centreboard and we had her up again in short order, but a swamped boat is a bit of a challenge to sail to windward. Actually, a swamped boat is a bit of a challenge to sail anywhere, and our gunwales were floating inches below the water, with only the foredeck sitting clear. But we backed the jib to drag her nose off of the wind, sheeted in, and began to carefully, trickily wallow our way onwards, the windward mark, blessedly, not so very far away, and once we were able to turn downwind, the auto-bailers and transom flaps worked their magic. We still held the lead on Jon, although he was now threatening to close, but Phil had swept past and was now powering ahead. At that point, the promise of 2nd place didn't feel so bad.

And then on the last lap Phil decided to gybe, instead of wearing away with a tack as he’d done on every other lap. Too busy keeping our own feet, we didn’t see it at the time, and didn’t realised we’d passed him. But the Shorten Course flag was up, so after the bottom mark, we tacked early and sailed through the line.

In the chaos of thrashing water, wind battered rigging and cracking sails, I didn’t hear a finishing gun. I yelled at the Committee Boat to ask if we were done, but in the mayhem couldn’t hear a reply; I could only see the Assistant Race Officer waving at us, and couldn’t tell if he was waving us to go in or instructing us to continue. Behind us, we could see them finishing now Phil. Perhaps the Shorten Course flag had been for him? I’d been sure he was ahead, but didn’t think he’d been that close to lapping us, despite the capsize.

We were damned if we were going to risk getting scored an inglorious “Did Not Finish” after all of this, so resigned ourselves to a final lap.

Ten minutes later we were deep in the throat of another squall, the boat on her side, Amanda in the water and me on the centreboard, the Enterprise beam on with her mast submerged and being driven by gale force winds into the soft mud on the bed of the lake; we were completely pinned by the wind and waves.

The Safety Boat was hovering like a concerned mother hen, struggling to hold station in the chop. With the race clearly over and outside assistance no longer a bar, I passed them our painter and asked them to pull our nose into the wind, dragging our mast around and free of the suck of the mud. We were back up, and squinting to windward could see line after line of white crested waves marching down the length of the lake towards us. Jon’s Laser was on its side against the leeward shore, so we reassured the Safety Boat we could look after ourselves and cast them off to let them tend to the other casualty.

Head to wind, we untangled the lines and then lowered the main to prepare for a lee shore landing back at the clubhouse. We wallowed our way back in with the jib for the most part flying loose, pushed along by our bare poles; with her gunwales submerged and only the foredeck above water keeping her upright was a challenge. We landed back at the shore, Pete, the duty Race Officer catching us in the shallow surf, and he and Phil helping Amanda and I pull the boat up on her trolley and hold her clear enough to drain.

When I asked if we’d got back in time for the start of the next race Pete laughed in my face and Amanda came as close as she’s ever been tempted to come to full mutiny.

The rest of the day’s racing was cancelled.

Back ashore, the Club’s weather station reported that the wind had across the afternoon averaged a mere 21 knots, but had peaked at 45 knots. After the ignominy of almost finishing last in the first race, we won the second, beating Phil into 2nd place by a mere 10 seconds and leaving Jon to take 3rd. Our 2nd and 5th gave us 2nd place overall for the day’s racing, so with the event being one of the Club’s championship races, that will mean a bit of glassware for us both at the end of the year. 

Not a bad start to the racing season.

So the “Storm Freya” strategy (otherwise known as the "Last Man Standing" play) is not one we should necessarily rely upon in our playbook, if only for the good of the boat and moral of the crew, but it appears it’s quite effective. 

The day was brutal, but the sailing was stupidly fun.

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