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J70 Worlds Recap

Written by Willem van Waay

I recently had breakfast with my good friend, Fabian.  He owns a J70 at Coronado Yacht Club and is very excited about his boat, racing one design, and improving his skills on the race course.  The weekend before we had a local San Diego J70 Regatta called J Fest.  Fabian was a little frustrated with his results in the 13 boat fleet.  He only sailed Saturday and the conditions were quite challenging- shifty, light, and a little sea swell- plus he was sailing one man short.  As a big, beautiful plate of Huevos Rancheros landed in front of me Fabian asked, "How do you do it?  How have you been top 2 at all 4 J70 Worlds?  How do I get better?  What does it take? How do I get a steady team?  What should I do?  Help me please." 

I said, "Fabian: you tell me what your budget is, what your goals are, and what kind of time you can dedicate to this. I'll do my very best to get you where you want to be."  Fabian is by no means alone in his quest to improve his results, take down some of his friends in the class, have a team with great chemistry, enjoy himself, etc.  One thing I like about Fabian is that he’s never shy about asking questions about how he can improve.  It’s ok to ask questions, and when you want the best answer go the person you think is the most qualified to answer it.  It's often like in middle school where the prettiest, most popular girls don't have a date to the dance.  It's not because they don't want one, but more because all the boys were afraid to ask.  The worst thing that can happen is they could say no.  One of the biggest lessons in life that I've learned is that it never hurts to ask.

I hope that what I share here will help Fabian and others like him have a better idea of what it really takes to be at the top.  Unfortunately, there is no quick answer, no magic pill, no trick rig set up.   Yacht racing is a very unique sport in that the list of variables is limitless.  We don't just strap on some shoes and run the 100 yard dash.  I used to race road bikes competitively and that's a sport with a lot of important elements for success: fitness, endurance, diet, weight, body type, lung capacity, managing lactic acid and pain, lack of fear, bike handling, tactics, terrain covered, length of race, drafting, and of course the bicycle.  Yacht Racing has ten times the factors involved (fortunately, all the physical fitness aspects are relatively less important in our sport!)  In order to be the very best, we need to think less about the big picture and focus almost obsessively on all the little things, understanding that each of them is important for success.  If we focus on the top 10 most important things, we can maybe win our Club Championships, top 20 things we might be able to win Bacardi, top 30 variables we might be able to take down Charleston, North Americans, or the Europeans.  If we check everything off of the list and have a little luck on our side we might have a chance going into the final race to win the World Championships with 160 + boats, 8,000 miles from home.  It’s all the little things that add up to a successful campaign.

When I won the Worlds in 2015 with Flojito, it was because we put in the most time, did the most regattas, and simply worked really hard.  In 2016 the pure determination and dedication of Joel Ronning and team Catapult crowned them champions.  Better coaching, more time in the boat at the venue, and more extensive sail testing gave them the edge.  This year our team, on Relative Obscurity, followed suit and did the hard work to put all the little pieces in place.

Victor and I showed up a couple extra days prior to practice to make the boat and rig as close to perfect as possible.  The boat was marked beautifully throughout, all settings perfectly symmetrical, we’d gone over the rigging meticulously, any possible breakdown or malfunction had been considered, windage was scrutinized and discussed while any piece of hardware or line was rigged, no extra gear was allowed on board (Vic was so obsessed with weight he was getting a little on my nerves.   "Victor- when you were like 5 I was trying to win a Farr 40 Worlds here and we were loading every tool in the trailer onto the boat for extra weight.. get to the top mark first in chop and 20 kts and we would figure it out from there.")  Anyhow, my point is, from the bottom of the keel to the top of the mast, drag, weight, windage, strength, and reliability was discussed.  We changed out some of the hardware at the base of the mast that we had seen break in the past- through-bolted on a heavier spin cleat and block…”We are in Italy and we don't have any of the right tools, this a massive pain and probably wouldn’t break but we are going to spend an extra 5 hrs to know we can trust it to hold up.”  We figured out how to best clean the bottom of the boat during the regatta (it wasn't legal to dive the boat or tip it over using halyards or hanging on shrouds once it was splashed but Victor and I had a 45 min technique that was pretty exhausting and ridiculous, but we didn't care, we just wanted to go faster).  We had a velocitek for each side of the starting line, installed Erik Shampain's wider hatch cover with stronger Velcro to keep the boat super dry down below, put together a break down kit, etc.  The boat would only have the parts and tools we absolutely needed.  This boat was ready for anything.   In 2014 I thought we had Catapult perfect, in 2015-2016 I thought Flojito was tricked out even better, Relative Obscurity was top level/no excuses.  What's next?

Fortunately, Jud had the exact same attitude with his sails.  His attention to the details is impressive.  He has done his homework over the last few decades, he's worked with some of the best guys in the business, and undoubtedly taught them some tricks of his own.  Any class (Etchells, Star, J70, etc) that he has ever become passionate about has some beautiful Doyle sails that can only improve her results.  Vic and Jud sailed together in the San Fran Worlds and they made some pretty big positive changes to the main for the breeze.  Jud is a fantastic team player and always willing to share his ideas.  A couple times we shared coaches with other good teams in regattas leading up to the Worlds (2nd place Savasana with Stu Mcnay and no slouch Bruce Gollison with Steve Hunt).  Jud would just happily discuss with Steve and Stu how to better tune the rig, inhaul more efficiently, or best balance twist between the jib and main.  Sometimes the rest of his team, sitting on the other side of the table, would just stare at each other thinking ‘WTF:)’.  I'm sure I was just as guilty when explaining the wing on wing, or weight movement downwind when the coach asked me a question.


Boat speed makes everything easier out there; as the conditions become more challenging so does the possibility of an increased speed edge.  Fortunately for us Porto Cervo was very choppy with plenty of breeze.  It was tough stuff.  That being said we were also very prepared for the flat water and light breezes that we experience in Porto Cervo the other half of the time.  Boat preparation, efficient sail testing, and time together as a team are the main keys to superior boat speed.  Time, money, and the team's dedication to the cause are the limiting factors that simply determine how extensively we can work on getting that speed edge. 

     The best way to measure speed is with a very good paddle wheel and a good eye on the rail. We went with the B&G system- it has an excellent compass and it updates the speed more frequently.  As the trimmer, I'm sitting in the very best spot to see the machine and the competition to weather.  You need to be brutally honest about speed and height with those boats that the driver and trimmer can't see.  After sailing with Bill Hardesty for three years we developed a system that worked very well.  We had a target number on each tack that was the responsibility of the driver and main trimmer to stay near.  That being said, I could personally adjust that target to improve our tactical situation.  Fortunately if we were ever slower than another boat or even lacked height the solution was usually pretty simple.  I would raise the target number- example 6.3 was our target but in this particular piece of water I would raise the number to 6.5.  Victor and Peter would focus on going faster (usually putting the bow down and freeing up the main a touch). This new speed would turn into more lift and our almost dangerous situation would quickly improve.  The more we can forecast shifts, puffs, and lulls from the rail the better the driver/main trimmer can anticipate their next move.  Sometimes you’re going to be wrong with your call but you'll probably be right 80+% of the time.  Never give up and force yourself to perform the same regardless of your position in the race. 

Coach, training partners, and team dynamics are probably the most critical parts of the whole puzzle.

Our coach at the worlds was Tony Rey and he did a fantastic job.  He was attentive, focused, great with the weather, took photos of other top boats, etc.  He didn't try to change our set up or boat handling techniques but if he thought someone did something better we had a video of it.  Our training partners were Peter Cunningham with teammates Lucas, John, and Ben- a team that Tony Rey and I had assembled.  Young, hungry, strong guys determined to bring Peter to a new level and help us with our project.  They trained with us 5 days prior to the event, also had Doyle sails, and seemed to be the closest to our equal in upwind straight line boat speed.  Sometimes even faster- when we had a question- Lucas and team shared immediately.  They even won a race in gold but unfortunately snapped their rudder prior to the first race on the final day.  Our other training partner Glen Darden with Jonathon McKee did the same- add check pintels and gudgeons to that quickly growing list.

Our team- Relative Obscurity: Peter Duncan, Victor Diaz de Leon, Jud Smith, and myself.

We worked hard on our team dynamics; it's never super easy.  Sometimes too much talent is a bad thing. It's a shame when that happens, but it's pretty common in all team sports.  We were all very committed and focused, but every once in awhile we would have a little hiccup/blow up that would be distracting and detrimental to our results.  We all wanted to win and constantly make gains on the race course; being all very experienced we often had our own ideas about how to best do that.   Victor would often display his Latin passion and young confidence.  His effort was never lacking, he wanted this as much or more than any of us, but there were times when the young stud just needed to listen to us old and older farts.  In my often-shaking head during these situations, "Flojito y Cooperando"(relaxxxxx and cooperate in Spanish) was my mantra.  Becoming a cohesive unit takes time, it doesn’t just fall into place on day 1.  Just like a Navy Seal Team on a night mission we needed to stay focused, trust each other, have each other’s back, and only talk about what’s most important.  Countless hours training together enable the Seals to perform this way: we needed our time together and training too.  Instead of ever pushing a teammate down we needed to make the mission to pull him up.  Now that’s the goal of course but typically after most regattas I’m apologising to teammates for being such a hard ass; we can only do our best. 

I would say that there were four regattas that were major steps to our success at worlds… this was our rehab institute, we all needed work.  At each event we had breakthroughs that heavily influenced us and helped us grow into our final product at Porto Cervo.  Bacardi, New England Champs, the Italian Nationals, and the Ted Hood Regatta in Marblehead.

Bacardi:
Moose joined us here instead of Jud and it was my very first event ever with Peter Duncan.  Moose had been the trimmer for Peter in the past but here he would move to bow and let me slide into his old spot. With more J24 worlds championship wins than Tom Brady has  Super Bowl rings, Moose acted as an absolute true professional.  Winning was our goal and no egos between us ever caused any friction.  His wind calls were spot on-great to have an awesome trimmer in the bow spot giving me the exact input I needed to make the boat go faster downwind.  We came back on the final day to win the event.  In the last race we got unlucky off the line, but after rounding the weather mark deep in the high 20s, we just powered through the fleet with good speed and great tactics in the building breeze to finish 7th or so and win Peter his biggest event ever in the J70.  Peter gained confidence in his campaign and I gained a ton of confidence in Jud's sail package and Peter’s driving.  To be at the top in Italy we needed to start winning- great to check that off my list. 

New England Champs in Newport:
Victor had previous commitments so he couldn’t race with us this time.  In a big fleet with a fair amount of talent, I would do the main sheet, tactics with Jud's help, and trim the kite downwind.  Dirk Johnson, a young sailor from The College of Charleston and a Newport local, would be tossed into our hot fire.  He tacked the jib, helped Jud where he could, and hung on tight.  He listened, left any FJ and laser ego at the door and just did his very best to be a team player and improve himself on the boat.  A great 5 day crash course on how to race a J70 with 3 pretty seasoned teachers.  We trained a few days before the event with Glen Darden, Jonathon McKee, and team Hoss.  We focused a great deal on the wing on wing- I knew the wind strength would be mostly 8-14 and I wanted to have that part of my play book with the boys pretty dialed in.  I've worked hard over the years on this part of the J70 game and wanted to share it with Peter and Jud without Victor jumping around with different ideas.  I knew that better mastering this element would not only greatly improve our chances here but also at the Worlds.  Not just using it to gain right away, round a leeward mark easier, cut off some distance at the finish line or stay in a leeward puff longer.  I wanted to experiment more with it- actually feel the shift and jibe the appropriate sail to take advantage of that shift.  Nice to have a team with me that can handle the boat handling tasks I wanted to execute.  We lead the event from race 2 and never looked back.  On day two we sailed a couple entire runs in wing from top to bottom, making insane gains.  On one run I remember the pressure being entirely 6-8 knots.  Our position was pretty established in that race so I opted to race the entire leg in Wing.  Not easy for 100 feet to a finish line in that breeze; we went for 1+ miles and never lost an inch.  We won both races on the final breezy day and learned some upwind techniques in 20+ knots and chop.  Lessons learned- better understanding of the wing on wing and Victor gained more confidence in his team.  We were not a one man band.  We're not going to be Weird Al Yankovick... let's be Talking Heads or The Cure.  Let's continue to improve as a team and have some time near the top cranking out hits. 

The Italian Nationals: 
With a stacked fleet of 50+ boats we sat in 6th or so after day 1.  This wasn't working.  These guys were better than us, we were all heads down and frustrated during the sail in.  5 hrs or so after racing that day we all took a couple big deep breaths and regrouped ourselves.  We chatted with one another about how to better distribute roles and responsibilities because our current style wasn't going to cut it.  This style would not win here and probably not get top 10 at worlds.   Peter would have to trust Victor on the starting line and tight situations.  Vic's instincts in those tight situations are excellent, and his communication of those instincts is pretty damn spot on.  Victor has had some great results with relatively inexperienced drivers - here we had an awesome driver but the mojo wasn’t quite right yet.  Peter’s main focus now would be to keep the boat at target speeds and simply do what he does best: drive the boat.  Victor would trust Jud and me more with big picture tactics/strategy (Jud and I would agree on a game plan and try to speak always as one voice tactically.  We shared wind and wave calls from the rail while doing our best- within the rules- to hike the boat flat).  Victor could then spend more energy on trimming the main right and keeping the boat fast with Peter.  Now we were finding a new gear.  This new trust, and next level appreciation for one another on the boat, enabled us to finish off the regatta with a 1,1,4,1,1 and an unexpected win.  A few of those firsts came by passing Claudia and Petite on the final runs usually in some type of wing battle.  “We can do this.  We will be a contender at the Worlds in 2 months!  If we put our heads down, be willing to grind for every point, work together through thick and thin, and push each other to our limits we are going to be hard to beat.”

Ted Hood Regatta:
A small but stacked fleet, the perfect wake up call.  We decided to train with Savasana and Midlife Crisis for two days.  Both of these teams are excellent, very polished with changing gears, boat handling, and tactics.  We were the heaviest team and it was mostly 4-7 kts but still we managed to lead by a point or two after two days of racing.   Saturday night there was the big fight between Mayweather and McGregor.  Peter's good friend had ordered the fight and wanted us all to join.  Being on the east coast that meant being up well past 2am and drinking a few more cocktails than needed.  Hungover, we lost the regatta in the final day, argued half the time, felt like s$&@ and ended up third, losing to both our training partners.   Probably just what we needed- a good slap in the face.  We can only win when we are at our very best.  “Winning isn't easy, let's not get cocky!  Let's not screw this up!”

The Worlds:
The stage had been set and we were as ready as possible.  Boat, sails, and team were all prepped and looking forward to being tested.  Looked like it was going to be nasty- big wind with unrelenting chop.  After days of training in that stuff our confidence raised.  We needed to use our speed to our advantage, properly control the risk, enjoy ourselves, and try to stay loose.  Most importantly we needed to avoid drama, stay out of trouble on the start line, and just do what we do best.  Bill Hardesty had a comment years ago that has always stuck with me: "Let's just keep it boring boys.”  Another boring 4- that'll do... Oh a 5 that's ok… low risk 2nd- we'll keep it.


We ate in at the house a lot, quick and easy.  We avoided alcohol and Claudia's Bday party at the YC, we got lots of sleep.  We stuck to the same program and did the same boring thing day in and day out.   Racing in one of the most epic places on the planet and I'm home with my team by 6 and just chilling- pretty lame but winning isn't.  I wore the same clothes every day and washed them every night.  I'm a superstitious guy and I wasn't going to race with some unlucky or untested undies.  We stayed pretty loose, enjoyed our view of the water, dined on home cooked pasta with the freshest anchovies and Parmesan cheese we could find.  We kept as much of our lives during those 5 days simple and clean, the basics done very well.  We facetimed with our families, and when people got excited about our results we simply said, "It's far from over, 3 more races, anything can happen", etc.  This was our job for the week, nothing else mattered.  "Let's just get through another day."


The event was like a dream.  We averaged less than 2 points per race including our drop.  In all my years of racing I've never been able to put a score line like that together; I’ve never even seen it.  Not in a fleet of that caliber and size. This was our time-we peaked at the perfect moment- nothing was going to stop us.  We had a few challenging moments but it seemed as though, just before we got into serious trouble (sitting in the mid 20s and approaching a lay line), the world would adjust for us.  The winds would head us, force us to tack, and then lift us so that we could cross the fleet and lay the mark.  Our team was silent on the rail thinking, ‘Holy crap!!  What is going on out here?!?!’  A few days earlier my daughter Vela (“sail” in Italian) was learning to meditate with her amazing mother Stephanie.  At 2 1/2 years old, in a lotus position on a little round cushion she said something like, "winds will push daddy right."  Did this have something to do with our good fortune?

It was awesome sailing with this team.  We came a long way and it was a fantastic voyage.  Thanks Peter and team for involving me.  It was great to make new friends and to accomplish a lofty goal that the four of us had set together just 6 months earlier.  We believed in ourselves and never gave up.  No one can ever take this away from us.  Biggest one design, keelboat world championship attendance in history.  This was our year!  Our time!  Champions!! 

Winning the Worlds is one thing.  But the main point is that if you ask the right questions, if you enjoy what you’re doing, involve people you trust, and invest the time and energy, any team can quickly move up towards the top of the fleet.  My objective here is not to overwhelm people with all that is involved to win a World Championship, but instead to encourage others that with desire anything is possible.  Since the Worlds, I was asked by J Boats and Jeff Brown to coach the entire fleet at the event Fabian was asking me about (J Fest in San Diego).  Through the course of the weekend I watched teams quickly improve simply by having their questions answered and by making little changes to gain speed; sometimes that gain was 40+ boat lengths a race.  It was fun to be involved and to watch the light bulbs flicking on!  It’s not always just about having the most expensive program, it’s about being efficient with your time and your money.  Sometimes a quick question, a little change, or a few hours working with the right coach can make all the difference.  Spending money on something does not necessarily mean your project will be done right; find the best person for the task at hand and wait for him if he’s busy.   He’s probably busy for a reason.  Good luck friends, hope this helps. 

 

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