Sprints II: Gemma’s Got Game

Originally posted March 19, 2009 on SLSailing.com.


Mowry Sprints

I started telling you about Mowry Sprints a few days ago; let’s pick up the story where we left off!

As I mentioned, there was a good deal of interest and excitement in the sailing community over the Regatta. The few week build up to the event saw a crescendo of practice sessions, qualifying races and the usual pre-race sailor trash-talk at the start lines. When race day finally arrived on March 7, skippers from eight clubs converged on Mowry Bay to join their friends, rez their boats, and compete for bragging rights.

I’ve also already discussed one of the most fascinating twists about Sprints. Although it was organized from the outset as a regatta that would return interclub racing to SLSailing, the head-to-head battle on the water between different yacht clubs never emerged. Everyone knew it was really a celebration of the sailing community and the diversity of clubs. The sailors proved that by readily flipping their affiliations around to accommodate the schedule and make the race a fun competition. Pippa Rexen made a major effort to keep things straight and identify which skipper was sailing under what colors; she finally gave up. The sailors knew who they were and why they were sailing, that was enough! And Commodore Saxxon? He just kept smiling. I’d like to say he was the calm eye in the storm, but actually it was a hurricane that never happened, an event that held much humor but little hubris.

The race skippers were: Epicurus Emmons, Taku Raymaker, Glorfindel Arrow, Tasha Kostolany, Maamon Kitaj, Jamey Sismondi, Nuggy Negulesco, Cory Copeland, Colin Nemeth, Max Starostin, Miwha Masala, Gemma Vuckovic, Bea Woodget, Julia Ceres, Aislin Keynes, nobuko Criss, and Alizia Baxton. Gashlycrumb TiniesIn keeping with the tone the skippers set and the 1960s politics espoused by the tunes on the MBYC jukebox, I’ve listed them in a totally random fashion, without regard to club, gender, or sail preference, and in complete defiance of the hegemony of alphabetical order.

Moving right along here, let’s talk sailing (for a change).

The racecourse

MBYC uses the Linden raceline in Hepurn. The line runs East – West, parallel to the SL grid lines and is set perpendicular to the racewind, which blows from dir=90 (using the SL angle system) or dir=0 (Using the RL compass angles). This means that nearly all MBYC races begin with an upwind beat to a race buoy located in one of the two sims immediately North.

That’s the classic start for the well-known MBYC1 course used for all the races in the Mowry Sprints. MBYC1 is a short, Olympic triangle that begins with a beat to the first mark in Jasckle followed by a proportionate, starboard-tack broad-reach leg to the buoy in Hahne. Race boats then make a hairpin, counterclockwise turn and fall on a beam reach coming back, running parallel to the sim edge with Mare. Once the boats reach Jasckle again, they pass the green buoy and fall off to a near dead-run all the way home.

It’s a deceptively easy course that has few strategic options, particularly in a Tako. The Tako uses a simple “real wind” lift algorithm to power the boat, and the Tako’s sheet/ sail control options are similarly limited.  In fact, the combination of a short, bare-bones race course like MBYC1 and a classically simple Tako dinghy rig in my opinion turned the Mowry competition into a duel that emphasized fundamental sailing skills over complex race strategy. The Sprints challenge skippers were certainly up to the task.

Life in the Fast Lane

Every Sprint contestant launching a boat on March 7 was a Tako sailing expert, but sailors reading this article know how inadequate the term ‘expert” can be, how it misses the toil and skill racing often entails. The relationship between an SL Race skipper and a Tako sailboat extends way beyond memorized gestures, the clatter of keystrokes or the flashing images of polar plots… It’s not even reflected in those jumbled images of crashing rigging that force you bolt upright awake from a deep slumber at 2 a.m. each night, the ones that leave you clammy with sweat, plaintively screaming “Starboard!” Into the blackness.

Tako sailors know this.

Other people may think of sailing as a romance full of storybook experience, but Tako racers know the real truth. Yes, they were once young, naive, green… and in love. The fresh gleam of new gelcoat was all that mattered. Wind-powered Dharma Bums, they lived on the road, going from raceline to raceline, sleeping on their boats and Greenaching for more. Time passes though, and a life of windy salt spray takes its toll; a sim crashes once too often, you make a sincere Gesture by hitting an F-key but your boat ignores you, and then — the final straw – you sicken when three other boats, new boats with flashy scripts, show up at the raceline flaunting your ID number.

Sprints!You loved your Tako once, no one can ever take that away. You’ll always have Paris; but now…

Now all you know is that your forestay is slack and your aft grows more beamy with each passing day. Romance changed to responsibility, and you face that gritty truth without remorse. You fought the good fight, and you gave this relationship all you had to give. This past year you dragged your Tako out of bed to attend every regatta, hoping things might change. You did your best but it was to no avail. You shudder to recall that fateful night when in desperation you called Tako product support pleading for couples therapy, only to discover the line had been disconnected months ago.

You know it’s not all bad, you have just grown apart; you and your Tako will always be friends. You know there is much to look forward to; tomorrow you have a date with that Fizz 3 everyone’s talking about. And who knows? Maybe you’ll go back and finish your degree; after all, next month you’re signed up for a J-Class…

The warning horn sounds, and your thoughts come back to the moment, the task at hand. You turn your face to the wind, glancing port and starboard at the gaggle of familiar skippers joining you from disparate points across the tiny world we all share. For this one day, this moment, you are at peace.

Your mind clears and your muscles limber as your gaze fixes on the horizon. You are a sailor. You are one with all the start line skippers from all the countries and cultures and classes that surround you now. It’s no accident, mystery, or mistake; a million years of evolution on a water-covered world has brought you to this point. Now, like so many generations of sailors before you, you realize there is only one idea, one small word that has value or meaning. That single word holds the power to unlock the future beyond the horizon, and nothing else matters. A faint, familiar gun goes off, and with pride and determination, and the steely confidence you can handle whatever happens next, you join with your fellow sailors and chant: RAISE!

Starts and Finishes

Given the razor-skill of the challenge fleet and the simple, in-your-face design of the MBYC-1 racecourse, one can confidently predict the skippers would push the limits, sailing at or near the theoretical performance max of the boat.In practical terms, that means on March 7 a Sprints skipper had no margin for error, and a sailor’s slightest slip could cause Sprints to slide away. In a fleet so equally matched, a boat that fell astern would have little opportunity to build sufficient momentum to pass the leaders, and the tactical options are minimal. This is a common problem in SL and RL races actually, and there’s only one good solution: Get out in front and stay there.

There are lots of things to worry about in a race, and it’s easy to lose some perspective. however, looking at the “facts on the ground” in Mowry, I thought it was hard to deny the importance of the Start. It wasn’t the only thing to worry about, on a list of the top 10 ways to win, start line tactics was 1-8 inclusive, at least in my opinion.

The usual start line duels have a few nuances at Mowry that are worth mentioning.The first problem is that the milling area during the two minute pre-start is fairly small; there is relatively little open water to maneuver in. Thankfully, the Tako is small and carves sharp turns. Nonetheless, Mowry’s a place where extra practice sessions at the start line could pay off big.

Cory Copeland loses hair overboard

You want proof?  Straight out of the blocks in the men’s division’s first race Epicurus Emmons and Cory Copeland both crossed the raceline with matching, valid -00:01sec start times. These days, thanks to Cynthia Centaur most of the race lines in use will not give you a valid negative start.  However, the Hepurn race line at MBYC is on Linden water, and dates back to the Pleistocene era. It is perfectly serviceable, but has a few historical quirks that become obvious to a skipper willing to spend the time coddling it in pre-regatta practice. If you go back two years on the forum, you’ll find long discussions about negative start times and a whole fleet of skippers who were relentlessly doing hotlaps on different courses, hammering the start line again and again to gain a fraction of a second advantage. if you were a skipper with ice water running in your veins and an all-or-nothing mentality, you knew you could stare down the line, take your chances and get a -00:01 valid start. No tricks were involved, just guts and adrenaline.  Was Cory Copeland in that hot laps crowd?  (Insert ‘grin’ here) Actually, along with Cybrid Keats, Cory invented hotlaps. It was fun to go over the numbers and see that all the time Cory spent in cold storage hadn’t dented his nerve for negative Mowry starts.

And Epi? How can one explain his equally remarkable -00:01sec start? I wondered a bit whether hitting that remarkable score on the very first race of the regatta was attributed more to brains, skill, experience or audacity… I’m deciding its crew! Epi’s tactician For the sprints was Fanci Beebe, co-owner of the USS Sailor’s Cove / Lawson Landing estate. Fanci rarely has time to sail, so it was absolutely wonderful seeing her riding shotgun for Epi. as a team they pulled off a remarkably good series of laps, winning the first race and then coming in third and second for the races that followed. That certainly proved good enough to capture first place in the Sprints Men’s division.

Mowry Sprints TrophiesMy comments about start time skill  are certainly not just restricted to Epi and Cory; a quick look at the race line results confirms my earlier claim that this is an excellent crowd; in the second men’s race for example, Max Starostin, Tasha Kostolany, and Nuggy Negulesco all simultaneously crossed the start line at 00:00 sec.    The women’s division proved equally to the task. All those flowery words I wrote above about Cory and Epi crossing together at -00:01sec? Well Aislin Keynes and Julia Ceres sailing for SYC and MBYC duplicated that feat in the third race of the women’s division. Woots! Pretty incredible sailing.

Gemma Vuckovic lead the NYC team

In the Women’s Division, however, Gemma Vuckovic proved an undeniable superstar. Gemma and her tactician Quirky Torok sailed against a fleet of remarkable racers that included Miwha Masala, Bea Woodget, Julia Ceres, Aislin Keynes and nobuko Criss. In that tough field, Gemma and Quirky failed to win a single one of the starts. In all three heats Gemma had to fight her way forward and somehow find the strength and momentum not only to claw up alongside each competitor, but to find that extra lift – somewhere – to blow past them in order to challenge the next boat in front. Bea and Julia gave Gemma serious competition; this was far from a cakewalk, but Gemma had the heart and held the day, winning the women’s division decisively. Her win was all the more impressive when one considers she lost the starts… She had to win by outsailing Julia and Bea.  At this point, I feel forced to add a disclaimer:

Warning: To any new SL sailors reading this article, attempting to outsail Bea and Julia can be extremely hazardous, and should only be attempted by trained professionals.

What Gemma and Quirky accomplished demonstrated not only consummate sailing skill, but also a remarkable force of will in each heat of the competition.

Epicurus Emmons discusses last minute strategyFollowing Gemma’s dramatic performance, one more race was held. The two division winners, Epi and Gemma, went head-to-head  to decide the grand winner and take the prize for their club. I have already stated that Epi and Fanci made a remarkable team. They sailed with precision and flashes of brilliance, clearly deserving the first place division prize. Having said that, however, it was obvious on that day, at that time and in that place no mere mortal could match Gemma’s prowess. It might well be different next week or next month, but on March 7 the team of Gemma Vuckovic and Quirky Torok were unstoppable. In that final race they crossed the finish line a full sim ahead of their opponents, another astonishing feat considering the level of skill and the short course distance.

That flawless performance won the Mowry Sprints club prize for Nantucket Yacht Club. At the end of the day, however, when the trophies were handed out by Francois Jacques and MarkTwain White, there was no doubt that the big winner was SL Sailing, and the wonderful community Mowry Sprints celebrated.

Gemma Vuckovic

One response to “Sprints II: Gemma’s Got Game

  1. Pingback: The World Sailing Show – Nov 2018 – Thar She Blows!

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