29er Midwinters West Roundup

By Willie McBride
US Sailing Team Olympic Coach



Wow, what an awesome weekend of racing in Coronado! With 50 boats on the line, this was by far the most competitive 29er fleet that we've had in the US in over a decade, with some really impressive performances, and some very tight competition at the top of the fleet. Right now there are generally two different groups of teams on the race course - those who have the speed and handling to race, and those who need to focus 100% on developing those skills. Usually I focus on aspects of how to sail a 29er well, but because we had such great competition, this debrief will focus mainly on tactics and strategy.

Weather: Build Your Mental Model

Every day when I drove down to the Coronado venue from Point Loma, I drove over the Coronado Bridge, and my mind switched into race mode. Getting to see the race course from high up gives you a great vantage point to start thinking about what the wind is doing, and how the weather will effect the race course for the day.  Observing where the light patches are in the morning, where the breeze develops first, how the angle evolves over the course of the morning, what the clouds look like, where the blue sky appears first, etc. can give you a really good idea of what side will pay, later in the day. If you haven't read it yet, go read Wind Strategy right now! 

This weekend we saw perfect sea breeze conditions on the first day. Saturday, we saw a fog bank that sat offshore, probably with a warm top, causing the sea breeze to fight with the gradient, and delaying our nice racing conditions. Sunday was more of our normal sea breeze conditions, but with a colder temp on land, and a stronger gradient component from the north, causing a bit of a tricky transition on the water. Along with the Silver Strand geographic effects on the race course - a left bend in the wind as the wind passes over the land - all of these factors played into building a mental model for what the wind was doing. All of this is described in detail in Wind Strategy.

Once you have a mental model of what the wind is doing on the race course, the next step is to start building your strategy.

Strategy: Keep it simple

The first step here is asking yourself whether or not you can predict what the wind is doing. In a few of the races over the weekend, confidence was high, but in other races, the key realization was that you could not predict the wind's behavior, and that it was therefore better to stick to a more conservative, fleet management game plan.  In either case, simplicity is the name of the game, and sticking to a simple track based strategy is a good way to keep things simple.

Image from McBride Racing Tactical Playbook

Image from McBride Racing Tactical Playbook

The 5 tracks that I generally ask teams to stick to are:

Tracks 1-4: Inside/outside + right/left - These tracks select the side of the course that you think will ultimately come out ahead, and then select whether you think gains will increase on the edges more quickly than risk.  The McBride Racing Tactical Playbook goes into a lot more depth on these, but the bottom line is to select the side you like, and then to choose your level of risk vs. reward on each side.

Track 5: Minimize decisions - I wrote a blog entry on this a while back, that outlines what to do when you're uncertain what the wind will do next.  This is more of a fleet management strategy, and was definitely appropriate for a lot of races at the Midwinters.

Once you know your track, the next step is to execute, and adapt to situations that arrise around the course using your tactical playbook.

Tactics: Build Your Playbook

There were so many tactical plays that occurred around the race course this weekend, and I don't have time to get into them all, so if you're interested in really drilling into this, please go buy the McBride Racing Tactical Playbook.  A few general observations to help guide your decision making in the future:

1. Use the top middle of the course to survive when your lanes aren't great.


2. Stay on the outside of the diamond at the beginning of the downwind, and the inside in the second half.


3. Center up in the commitment zone, then own your side coming into the leeward mark.


3 Aspects of A Solid Game Plan

Creating a solid game plan before every race is an important tool to help everyone on the boat understand what the big picture objectives are in the race, and if you make a good plan, it’s the key to long term improvement.  When you check in with your coach or your teammates, be sure to check these three boxes to ensure that your game plan is air-tight:

  1. Observations:  Each good game plan starts with a series of objective observations about how the course is setting up.  “Darker water left,” “Oscillating shift pattern,” “Flat bottomed clouds on the right,” “Skewed starting line,” “Less current on the beach,” and, “Windy conditions,” are a few examples of observations that might factor into a game plan.  Taking the time to list your observations at the beginning of a game plan will help everyone onboard begin to visualize how the race will look, and what types of tactics will come into play.  For example, noting that, “The wind is 100% driving force or stronger,” should put you in a mindset of minimizing costly boat handling.  In addition to setting the tone for the race, this part of the game plan will help you hone your strategic game down the road, as you learn to evaluate more variables at play.
  2. Plan A and Plan B Objectives: In this part of the game plan, the goal is to pick out the most important factors from your observations, and use them to clarify what the objective of the first beat will be.  If for example, you know that the wind will be light during a race, you might conclude that pressure should be weighted more than shift, so even with an oscillating shift pattern, you may choose to extend to a side of the course to capitalize on more pressure.  On the other hand, in side force conditions (slightly more breeze) you might prioritize shift over pressure, as a one knot pressure difference might be a small factor compared to sailing lifted.  In this step, it’s also important to consider what you will do if your start doesn’t go according to plan; is it best to stick to your original plan, or do the conditions give you the flexibility to change the plan slightly in order to find better lanes?  As a whole, this step sets the objective of the first beat.
  3. Inside Versus Outside Track: Once we have our objective in mind, the final key is to identify the strategic track that sets us up to accomplish our objective.  A simple decision making model to apply is an inside or outside track on either side of the race course.  Outside track courses should be employed when your objective requires you to win a side.  Going back to the example of light air, if we see pressure on one side of the course, and we are confident that the extra pressure will be more important than the oscillating wind direction, we probably want to start as close to that side as we can, and beat other boats to get to the pressure (outside track).  In contrast, in side force conditions, we might still favor the side with more pressure, but position ourselves on the inside track in order to control the fleet when the oscillations come through, and to keep options open later in the beat by staying off of lay line.

If you can lay out these three components of your game plan before the start, you’ll have a much better chance of pointing the boat in the correct direction in the heat of battle, when the pressure is on.

29er Worlds Wrap Up

At 22:00, we pull out of the Airport Marriott parking lot… Finally on the way to Pwllheli with ten sailors, two drivers, and four sail tubes crammed into ten seats!  After a quick stop to grab food, I follow Annie Merson’s car down the freeway for about an hour until her GPS directs us to exit and we begin to follow a series of winding side streets to get to the hotel for our first night in Wales. 

Fifteen minutes pass, and the road gets narrower and windier.  Thirty minutes; no sign of the hotel.  An hour passes, and we figure out how to use the GPS in our car, which tells us we’re only half way there!  Max, who is sitting in a foot well in the second row begins to feel sick from the winding road and the smell of traveling sailors…

Finally, as Max is getting ready to roll down the window and lose his dinner, we come around a curve in the road, and see the hotel!  Success!

After checking into our rooms, the kids go to get settled while I pay, and the receptionist realizes that we’re not supposed to be in one of the rooms.  Kids re-locate into new rooms. 

2:30am…  I make one last round to check on everyone and make sure all of the sailors have a bed to sleep in.  California kids are rooming with Florida kids.  Ten sailors are crammed into six small beds.  Everyone is smiling and joking about the situation, and spirits are high.  After a grueling day of travel, I can’t believe what a positive attitude the whole team has.


Over the last two weeks in Wales, there have been almost two hundred teams on the water each day with identical looking sails, identical hulls, and many talented athletes among them, but every morning as I motored out to meet the team, I could spot my group from a mile away.  They were the six boats clustered tightly together, speed testing on starboard first, then on port, then in groups of three splitting to each side of the course to test the pressure difference.  They were always among the first boats on the course, and supported each other both on and off of the water.  The team’s relaxed and supportive attitude on the first wild evening of countryside driving and “musical-hotel-rooms” set the tone for the remainder of the adventure in Wales, and really exemplified the strength of this team that gave them an edge on the international stage.

Reflecting on the lead up to the event this summer, I think that we did a lot of things right, and the results reflected this.  The sapling, US Sailing Olympic Development Program brought together and provided coaching for an awesome group of top talent in the correct venues to hone heavy air boat speed tuning and techniques.  These camps were complimented by windy regattas in the Gorge and San Francisco with teams from the East Coast, West Coast, and Canada.  In Wales, the heavy air preparation paid off in the qualifying series, which saw two days of big breeze and massive waves.  In the final series, Chris and Wade finished 1st and 2nd in the two windy races of the series, with the rest of the team not far behind.  The ODP group training approach really pushed the bar high for all of the teams who were involved in the windy training camps, unfortunately our lead up wasn’t quite long enough. 

This is the first year that the US Sailing Olympic Development Program has existed, and as such, the national effort to bring together the top talent did not begin in earnest until the June ODP Camp at Saint Francis Yacht Club, leaving only two months to prepare for the start of the 29er Worlds.  While teams had all been working separately for some time, the combination of top teams and consistent coaching immediately sent the learning curve skyrocketing.  With the time constraints of working to peak at the worlds, the windy venues made for ideal training grounds, because we knew that the venue would have a lot of breeze for much of the regatta, but as a team, the lack of time together in light air was evident when the breeze dropped for the first two days of the final series at the Worlds.  The team approach to pre-race research kept our teams afloat through those light air days by keeping our scorelines more consistent than most of our competitors’, but ultimately, our lack of time in light air was a major detriment to our overall results.  With a calendar full of ODP events throughout the next year, and training across the full spectrum of conditions, I think that the outlook for the team is extremely positive at the Worlds in Medemblick next year!

The story of the regatta is a podium finish, with three teams in the top fifteen, and five in gold fleet.  It’s a story about a US team who demonstrated that they can compete head to head with the Aussie and Kiwi skiff squads across a wide range of conditions.  Ultimately thought, I think that the biggest story is one that the results don’t show; the story of twelve talented sailors coming together in a few short months to push each other, support each other, and build a body of knowledge worthy of a podium finish.  Among the skills that we had time to practice, I think that our guys proved that they are the very best in the world.  Chris and Wade led the charge with their third place finish, but without the support of Nic and Ian, Max and Andrew, Sam and Michael, Jacob, Rhodes and Evan, and Shane and Pere, the scoreboard would have told a different story.  I am thoroughly impressed by the team effort that all of these sailors put in to make this happen, and I can’t wait to where it takes us as a national squad. 

On The Run - Youth Champs Debrief

Since the final day of Youth Champs in Rhode Island, we've been on the run, migrating from Newport to Boston, Boston to San Francisco, San Fran to Santa Barbara, and tomorrow we head out bright and early to hit the road to the Gorge.  It's been a whirlwind week, but I wanted to get the Youth Champs debrief posted for anyone who is interested in reading it before the Gorge regatta.

To view the debrief, click here.