Splitting fortunes at the 2017 J/111 Worlds at St. Francis Yacht Club

Spend enough time sailing on any body of water and it slowly reveals its secrets, giving sailors a set of rules-of-thumb that should—theoretically—be the keys to success, provided that time-honored patterns prove consistent. San Francisco Bay certainly has its closely guarded secrets, as the sailors gathered at the St. Francis Yacht Club in San Francisco, California, for the 2017 J/111 World Championships learned today during the first three races of this exciting series. 

But instead of delivering conditions that were consistent with the tacticians’ hard-won playbooks, today’s action was defined by big fleet splits that delivered interesting returns on investment at the rounding marks, leeward gate and finishing line.

“By running three races, our goal was to let the fleet leg-out a bit,” said Jeff Johnson, Principal Race Officer. “We saw gradually building conditions throughout the day that gave people time to shift gears and to introduce their crews to San Francisco Bay.”

This build-up began with a slowly gathering morning breeze that filled in on San Francisco Bay’s Berkeley Circle, where the racing was held, with a steady 10-knot breeze and a tide that was flooding by the time the first starting gun sounded. While common wisdom on the Berkeley Circle holds that one should go right until it doesn’t work, some of the fleet instead opted for better current relief and others sought out stronger pressure.
J111 Worlds 2017-1
While this created one split, another was created well in advance of the regatta by each skipper’s crew selection. “Skeleton Key—that’s the boat to beat,” said Ralph Wedge, who is trimming mainsail aboard Reuben Rocci’s Swift Ness. “We’re a Corinthian group, but we’re serious about what we do. Except for Bad Dog, all the other boats have professional sailors, but it’s a friendly and competitive fleet.”

Once the starting signals began sounding, Corinthian and mixed-crew teams all brought their A-game to bear against their rivals on a windward-leeward-twice-around course. And while rules-of-thumb were certainly considered, the fastest sailors also knew when to go off piste in terms of their rulebook strategy. “It took a lot of grinding,” said Peter Wagner, skipper of Skeleton Key (USA 115), immediately after taking the regatta’s first bullet. “The race was won upwind.” When queried about the favored side of the course, Wagner’s crew reported that things oscillated, requiring sharp focus from the entire team, and from their skipper.

The breeze continued to slowly gather for the day’s second race, forcing teams to work through their gear changes and apply more rig tension as needed. Again, the fleet chose opposite sides of the racetrack up the first uphill hike, with Jim Connelly’s Slush Fund (USA 119) winning the start and holding her advantage all the way around to the finishing line, where Skeleton Key almost nicked victory. Our congratulations to Rod Warren’s Joust (AUS 1110) crossed the finishing line next to complete the second race’s Top Three.  Rod and crew are based at Sandringham Yacht Club, Melbourne.

“Our plan was just to have fun and sail fast,” said Jason Currie, Slush Fund’s mainsail trimmer, just after crossing the line. “We won the pin end of the start, and we tacked and sailed away. Currents played into it a fair amount, and we sailed into the cone of Alcatraz” to seek relief from the flooding waters.

St. Francis Yacht Club’s race committee was clearly paying attention to the shifting weather conditions as the daily high-pressure system tried valiantly to push blue skies above the course, but the marine layer remained steady, even as the breeze swung to the south for the day’s final race. Skeleton Key enjoyed a tactically wise mid-line start, followed by Martin Roesch’s Velocity (USA 008) and Doug and Jack Jorgensen’s Picosa (USA 120), but the building breeze and steepening waves saw numerous lead changes. By the first weather mark, Picosa was in the pole position, followed by Skeleton Key and Slush Fund. But instead of the rich getting richer, Warren’s Joust team crossed the upwind finishing line in first place, followed by Velocity and Slush Fund.

At the end of the first day of racing, Wedge’s prediction rang true as Skeleton Key is currently topping the leaderboard, followed by Joust and Slush Fund.

Racing is set to continue tomorrow, and the Race Committee is again aiming to rifle off three more windward-leeward races on the always-challenging Berkeley Circle, keeping clear of the Bay’s shipping lanes and narrow rivers of current that characterize its western waters. Racing continues through Sunday, August 27.

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