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Improving as a Racer, Part 1, the Undersides

So, you're a sailboat (or yacht, if your boat is big enough) racer and you want to improve. Who doesn't. I'm always remembering a line from "The Karate Kid": There is always someone better. But how do we get better? What is important to focus on? Stuart Walker has written that a sailboat race is a bit like walking up a down-escalator. The person who trips up the least will get to the top soonest.  But what is a trip-up? From my point of view, this is a personal question. It depends entirely on who you are (as a racer) and what your goals are for the race. Sure, everyone wants to win. But let's be realistic - are you good enough to be competing to win?

Typical races seem to have several sub-races going on within. There are the folks duking it out for the silver (typically the top 4-5 boats). There are the boats in the middle of the fleet, looking to get into that top 4-5. And there are the folks towards the back of the fleet that are trying to get around the course and learn how to get into that middle group. This is very typical of a race here on the Chesapeake. Most starting classes have anywhere from 6-12 boats and they seem to divide out that way. So the first step is to recognize your particular goals. It boots nothing to focus on the subtleties of a persistent versus an oscillating wind if the hull is fouled.

So let's look at the big things first, and then work our way towards the more subtle things. Here are the most important things to focus on when you are starting out. Let's talk about them in terms for what is "huge", what is "big" and what is "midlin".

Make sure the hull is clean and fast. First, make sure that the hull is scrubbed by a diver before the race. Especially on the Chesapeake in the summer, this is most important. I've seen barnacles start to grow in as little as a week. Think about the surface area under water covered with all that turbulence. This is huge. The better boats in the fleet are vying for divers to clean their hulls in the hours before the race.

Second, make sure the bottom paint is a suitable racing paint that is well finished. On my second boat (an Olson 911s), I had done the bottom paint myself to save some $$. I spent the money to buy "Baltoplate" paint and rolled it on and sanded it as well as I could. After a couple of years, I decided to have the bottom paint done by a pro. As a test, I tried to measure our speed as we motored in, and then as we motored out after the new paint was on. Bottom was clean, same RPM, everything as controlled as I could make it. But there was a .3 knot different in boatspeed going in versus coming out. That's big.

And third, make sure the boat is as light as can be. Weight in the boat causes the boat to submerge a bit. This is additional surface area creating friction and also additional displacement - which can be though of as water that must be pushed out of the way. There is a subtlety here - movable ballast (i.e., crew) can and should be heavier in more wind, lighter in less wind. But honestly, are you going to leave some of your friends at the dock because the wind isn't filling in? Not likely - I wouldn't. So make sure any other weight - the non-movable kind is off the boat. I took my Olson 911S to the MORC nationals one year. We sailed her from Annapolis to Deltaville (a trip of about 16 hours) and when we got there, we proceeded to offload everything we could - anything not specifically required by the rules to be kept aboard. We even unscrewed and offloaded the dining table. Since I was curious about the effect, I noted the waterline before and after the unloading - the boat was about 1.5 inches higher out of the water after. I'm no friction physicist, but I'm guessing that's a few square feet of submerged surface on that boat. Important. Not big or huge, but definitely important.

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