A View from the Back of the Fleet

Bill Eimstad wrote this immediately after the Laser Master US Nationals. Between the newest women singlehanded champs, Abbie Carlson in the Junior Women’s and Hanne Weaver in the Singlehanded Women’s, we’ve had a lot to cover at the front of Laser fleets. My own experience was somewhere in the middle of the Master US Nationals.

There’s a danger in thinking sailboat racing is all about winning. One of the things we value in sailing is the never ending learning curve (especially it seems in the deceptively simple Laser). Another is the fleet camaraderie, which in the Laser Masters fleet is exceptional. Here’s Bill’s tale of struggle and triumph.

Full rig start! Photos by Christy Usher

Cascade Locks July 7 – 9, 2017 A few weeks ago I decided to race in the Laser Masters U.S. Nationals. After all they were being held right in my own back yard. Go sail against the best and learn as much as I can. It would be my third regatta in the Laser. For me there wasn’t any choice between a standard rig and the radial rig. I only have a standard rig.

After 48 years of racing sailboats I bought myself a Laser. I wanted to get back into a one person dinghy where the only thing that mattered was your own sailing skills. I started out 49 years ago learning to race a variety of sailboats at the U. S. Coast Guard Academy in New London, Connecticut. Over the years I’ve raced all kinds of boats… Laser II’s, Stars, Lidos, Santana 20’s, and lot of other different keel boats including a 70’s era IOR 3/4 tonner Rhapsody, a well known race boat in Puget Sound area that I was the proud second owner of. That boat was a serious handful downwind in heavy air!

Day One: Friday morning it’s blowing a good solid 20 as everyone is preparing to leave the beach for the first start. I got some last minute advice from one of the clinic instructors, “try to keep it upright because capsized is slow.” No kidding! I got off the beach OK and sailed out into the river to bear off downwind. As soon as I turn downwind the boat takes off on a plane and wham, I capsize to windward. It kind of caught me by surprise. OK… I stood the boat up, got control and tried it again… wham, I capsized to windward again. After the fourth or fifth iteration of this same scenario I decided it was time to return to the beach and reevaluate the whole situation. It turned out four other guys in the standard class hadn’t even left the beach. All four are guys with a whole lot more experience in a Laser than I have. I was greeted with “you made a good decision” and Emilio Castelli offering me a glass of wine. Thanks Emilio. It certainly helped relieve some of my frustration. After another 5 of the standard rig sailors joined us on the beach before the 1st race was over I didn’t feel quite so bad. Hats off to Tracy Usher, he made it out for the second and third races. By race three the wind is hitting 30 most of the time.

Fortunately a couple of guys pointed out why I crashed to weather. DON’T LET THE MAINSHEET OUT SO FAR! Hey, I came here to learn right.

Day Two: Saturday morning seemed calm compared to the day before. There was a nice wind in the low teens with lots of nice solid gusts thrown in. I got off the beach early to try to get comfortable in the boat and get my bearings in the race area. There seemed to be a little more pressure on the Oregon side along with more pronounced gusts, and the water was a little flatter. Out near dolphin #14 on the Washington side there was a rough patch of water where the current velocity made the waves stand up pretty good. I chose the left side on the first beat hoping the smoother water would make up for the difference in the current velocity. Wrong! Again I’m learning.

Race two the wind is building. I lost track of the time in the sequence and had a horrible start but made it around the course with out any major problems, just slow going to weather in the chop. I’m starting to realize that my mere 155 lbs is a bit on the light side for keeping the boat flat and powered up enough to punch through the waves. Downwind is a blast! The boat just rockets through the puffs.

By race three the wind is still building and is well into the 20’s. The committee gives us a “D” course with the reach legs. I tell myself that should be one hell of a fun ride. Another poor start because I misjudged how quickly the boat would take off when I had to reach off a little to keep from being over early. More learning! Both beats are just agony because I can’t seem to drive the boat through the waves. The second downwind leg is another blast with lots of big puffs that send me closer and closer to the fleet again. I look back as I set up for the gybe mark and notice that I’ve got a little “calm” between puffs in which I can make the gybe. Both boats directly ahead of me capsize during the gybe. Just as I reach up to throw the boom across and throw myself across the boat the next big gust hits me and I go down too. As the boat goes over I throw myself onto the centerboard, untangle myself from the mainsheet and quickly get the boat back up. The big puff stays with me as I rocket towards the leeward mark. Man, what a ride! I even pass two boats! I manage to come up close hauled around the leeward mark without crashing and I’m thinking that I just need to make a couple of good tacks to make the finish line ahead of the two boats. Not to be. Three times I put the boat in irons trying to tack. Frustrating! After finally crossing the finish line I sail out towards the gybe mark to watch a closely packed group of the radial sailor round the mark. Unfortunately two of the guys end up capsizing on top of each other and getting all tangled up. Both sailors popped up and appeared to be unhurt. Tough conditions for everyone.

Race four I finally get a decent start and head for the right side to ride the current. I’m certain though that I’m doing more up and down in the waves than I’m making in forward progress. By the time I get to the weather mark I’m worn out and the beach looks mighty attractive, so I call it a day.

Day Three: The wind is smoking again in a repeat of Friday. I make it off the beach OK this time but promptly crash on a poorly executed gybe. When I stand the boat up I end up in irons again and then crash again before I can get the boat moving. I repeat this scenario a couple of times before I realize I have the vang down way too hard. I release it and sail the boat back to weather. I’m already worn out so I call it a day. This is not an easy decision for me to make as I want so badly to be out there racing. I have to hand to all the guys in the front of the fleet who were flat out racing under the conditions. It takes a tremendous amount of skill and finesse with a big dose of strength and stamina to sail these little boats under extreme conditions. I have a lot to learn.

After taking a couple of days to reflect on the whole experience, I have a Radial rig on order and I’m looking forward to having another go at this in a few weeks. Thanks to everyone who offered friendly advice. A big thanks to the race committee and regatta organizers for the great hospitality and a very well run regatta.

–Bill Eimstad

Kurt grew up racing and cruising in the Midwest, and has raced Lasers since the late 1970s. He has been Assistant Editor at Sailing Magazine and a short stint as Editor of Northwest Yachting. Through Meadow Point Publishing he handles various marketing duties for smaller local companies. He currently is partners on a C&C 36 which he cruises throughout the Northwest. He's married to the amazing Abby and is father to Ian and Gabe.

One thought on “A View from the Back of the Fleet

  • July 27, 2017 at 9:56 am

    Yep, that sums it up pretty well. My strategy in the Gorge is “finish every race and stay upright.” Anything more, like tactics for example, is icing on the cake. Thanks for sharing the story Kurt.


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