Saturday, August 18, 2018

Thistle Nationals 2018 Review - Westport, CT

These are my reflections from the 2018 Thistle National Championship in Westport, CT.  I don't know which of these were the biggest differentiators in our week and some of it may not have helped at all, but this is everything that came to mind as relevant info to someone looking to improve position in a major regatta.

The regatta had 66 boats, with the first 3 races being a round robin between the 4 fleets and the final 4 races being the 33 boats in the Championship Division.  Our scorecard for the regatta was 2, 3, 4, 3, 4, 4, 7, winning the regatta with 27 points.  Positions 2-5 had point totals of 32, 40, 46, and 49 points.  Our focus all week was 1) Boat Speed 2) Be Conservative 3) Take Advantage of Small Opportunities.


Prep work was pretty standard for a major event.  We checked all the pins and ring dings.  Checked lines for wear.  Polished the bottom really well.  Made sure the mast was straight.  The biggest difference was working to fair the rudder, which had been repaired and had some orange peel in it.  I wet sanded it out to 1500 grit.  Now that I have some more time I'll get it polished a little further and I need to fair my centerboard a bit.

Tuning - On Shore

I sail with North Sails, using a Fisher Main, Proctor Jib, and Full Radial AirX500 spinnaker, so the boat is setup for the Fisher main.  The main and spinnaker were new, but I made the mistake of leaving my brand new jib at home on the shelf and had to use my backup, which luckily only had a handful of days on it.

Mast diamonds were at 4-9-4 using the black Loos Gauge all week with rake at 27' 1/2", prebend at 1" exactly, and the forestay at 25 to start the week.  To achieve this I do not use a shim in my default setup, unlike many.  Monday we had finishes of 2, 3 with the overbend wrinkles not quite halfway back in the main window, but it was close enough that adding a shim would be too much.  After racing Monday I tightened the forestay to 26 to help bend the mast some more and got the overbend wrinkles I was looking for in the main.  The prebend probably increased slightly above 1" but I didn't measure it.

On Wednesday in heavy air our speed was good, but we were slightly slower than Dan Hesse in both races.  He had overbend wrinkles going all the way to the back of his main and mine were a bit less than halfway back.  Sailing again the same condition I would put a shim in.  We had all the power we needed and maybe we weren't able to flatten our sail out as much as others.

Greg Fisher looked at my boat in breeze a month prior and felt like it needed a shim in those conditions, so the data points add up to using one in big breeze.  On Friday the breeze was quite nice when we went out and did our warm ups, so we put a shim in and speed felt great.  It lightened up and we took it out before the race, which was the right choice.  It appears my boat wants no shim in light and moderate conditions and 1 shim in overpowered conditions.

On The Water Prep

Once we got out to the course our plan of action was typically to do a few things: 1) speed test 2) sail the windward beat 3) time on distance runs. 4) line sights.

Speed testing with another boat makes sure there isn't something wrong with your setup that day.  It's more of a validation that you're ok than an attempt to find and ounce of new speed to use in the race.  Then we'd sail the first beat, usually alone.  I don't do split tacks as often anymore since they can give misleading data.  But we do gather our numbers on both tacks and get a feel for the swings the breeze will go through over a 15 minute period or so.

The last thing we do is time on distance runs.  I assume some others were doing it, but I never saw anyone else working on it all week.  We did it every day and would often spend more than 10 minutes working on it before racing.  I would pick a buoy and practice setting up on the starboard layline to it and timing my acceleration to it like a start.  It significantly increases the intuition and timing on the starting line.

The last thing on our checklist before focusing on the race ahead is getting line sights for the start.  A lot of people get a photo line sight, but I prefer a movie.  We start well low of the line and get a view of what the sight looks like as you approach the line.  This makes it far easier to find your line sight in the heat of the moment and also lets you get a feel for where it is when the actual line sight is covered up by other boats.


We did two things during the week that were different than most of the fleet.  One was our jib trim and the other was using the traveler with a Fisher main.

In the moderate conditions we had much of the week, we trimmed our jib harder than most of the fleet.  We were very close to the spreader and sometimes touching it.  I have ticklers on my spreaders that go out to 10.5" from the side of the mast and we were a solid 1.5" inside of the ticklers at times.

The reason we did this is because the jib was showing that it wasn't stalling.  We had a tell tale on the jib leech we could see and Joe trimmed it in until it would start to stall then ease it back to full flow.  He would test this every so often. And the result was that we were often much further in than the 2" off number we hear often.

That mode felt a little tougher to drive - it just needed more concentration.  But we found that we would sail a higher mode than those around us.

The other thing we did was use the traveler with a Fisher main.  It's sacrilegious, I'm aware, but the recommendation to try it came from none other than Greg Fisher.  When we were in breeze and the boat was in max depower mode, we dropped the traveler just below the tiller hole, about 8" down from center.  We used this in both races on Wednesday.  The result is that the tiller immediately feels significantly more neutral and we would climb off of boats around us.  It was a nice secret but I believe it'll be the norm for the Fisher main in the next year or so.

As always, when the boat is overpowered the focus is on keeping the boat as flat as possible while still keeping sufficient forward drive.  That balance includes a lot of easing the main and feathering into the breeze, varying the degree of each with the sea state.


My #1 goal at the start of a race is clear air for the foreseeable future.  If I don't have clear air or it will likely go away I am determined to do whatever it takes to get in a position with a clear lane within 45 seconds.  Several times during the week I tacked out of an okay but not good lane, ducked the whole fleet, and got to a place where I'd be free to sail as I wished.

Much of the week we didn't have a good feel for which side of the course would win, so we started towards the middle of the line.  That makes it easy to bail for an alternate plan if you aren't committed to one side.

The toughest race we had was after a mediocre start and a difficult attempt to bail that required several tacks and sitting in less than ideal lanes for periods of time.  In that race it took me 2 minutes 11 seconds to get clear air.  It's no coincidence that we had our worst first beat and toughest race after that start.

Tactical Approach

I've subscribed to a theory for the last few years that I learned in a book.  It says that the regatta winner will be from one of the 5 fastest boats, who is conservative and consistent early in the event and then races specific competitors late in the event.  I've worked hard on the speed part and I feel like I'm going faster now than ever.

The conservative and consistent part is the tougher part.  The theory says that it's very hard to pick the correct side consistently and you should only get to one side if you are confident it will pay.  Instead, sailing up the middle along an imaginary corridor where you tack on the imaginary boundaries, regardless of being headed or lifted, will produce better results.  This is because your speed works against all but the other fastest boats and you aren't back in the fleet from being off to the wrong side.

The downside is that you won't be in first as often, but you'll have far less double digits as well.  It took me a while to get comfortable sailing this style, but now I love it.  In the first two races I felt like we were in position to win the first leg.  But we stayed consistent and kept to the middle, letting boats get to both sides of us.  We were fast the whole time and when the sides converged at the top mark we were never first, but were pretty close after taking far less risk.  And of course, we were ahead of the side that lost.

It feels weird just sailing up the middle, especially since all my lake sailing trained my mind to think I can outsmart the competition to pick out the next shift and puff.  But we just kept to the middle and I believe we rounded the windward mark in the top 4 in 6 of the 7 races - but never first.

The reaches are frustrating.  Unless you're with a couple other savvy boats, everyone wants to mess with the boats immediately around them.  I just want to stay in my position and help our group close on the group ahead and extend on the group behind.  I think people lose sight of the fact that trying to pass that boat in front of you significantly decreases your chances to pass any of the boats ahead of him.

After the first mark, all the remaining legs are about managing the boats around you and not letting a big chunk of the fleet get leverage.

I feel the results from this style speak for themselves.  We never won a race and I don't believe we were ever first at a mark.  However, we finished in the top 4 every race except the last, where we rounded the first mark in 3rd and eventually got match raced back through the fleet by Dave Dellenbaugh to 7th.

The Course

The course was difficult to figure out.  We'd often have an idea which side would win, usually driven by current, and it wouldn't work out that way.  Both sides of the course worked on every day.  I think that lends more to the conservative strategy instead of trying to win a side.


Our speed felt top notch all week.  We sailed in 3 knots at times and the upper teens at times.  Dan Hesse was a tick quicker in breeze, especially on the tack directly into the waves.  Dellenbaugh was a tick quicker in the light air.  But otherwise we felt really good, especially considering our crew weight was around 500 lbs, which was significantly heavier than most.

On one windward leg on Monday I felt a little slow.  I might have had the vang on a bit in light air.  But other than that we felt great at all times.  My focus was on driving really well all the time and really keeping track of the tell tale on my main.  I kept that stalling about half the time in the light and moderate conditions.

In breeze I played the main aggressively, but used very little tiller through the waves.  Every once in a while I would drive down a little when we would get really slow, but I didn't try to drive through each wave cycle.  We were using the traveler down and that worked.  Occasionally the main would backwash a bit and cause it to flog.  If the main flogged we took that as an indication the jib was trimmed too tight and would ease it a bit.


As with most things, success was the result of the summation of all the parts.  I believe it's more about the process and approach of a team than the individual little things we try to go faster.  If you have any questions or comments feel free to contact me directly.  

Brad Russell

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