Post Regatta Blues

By Erica Beck Spencer, Skipper for The Sea Bags Women’s Sailing Team

Is it just me or is anyone else a little blue after a big, more than a weekend long, regatta?  Maybe it is similar to the post vacation blues—back to work, back to the battle against the constant mess that is my parenting life, back to all the stuff that I have to do on top of all the stuff I want to do.  I think it is a little more intense than that for me. I think racing sailboats is my drug. When I have to stop physically, I can’t stop thinking about it, can’t stop thinking about how to get faster, can’t stop thinking about what event is next.  Also, I miss my racing friends who I only get to see at regattas and I miss my team.  It’s a bit like being a kid and going to a summer camp—having an incredible time with your buddies for four or five days and then needing to go home.  You’re happy to see your family, but you miss camp.

For me, the blues after finishing the 2016 J/24 North Americans and the J/24 East Coast Championships are a little more intense than most events. Coming home with a broken rib from the NAs meant dealing with the repercussions of an injury that couldn't be ignored. Knowing that I wouldn't be able to exercise for awhile, that I needed a ton of sleep, and that Side Hustle, our other J24 was out of the water, which was a good thing because I couldn't sail her until I healed anyways, all made me a little sad.  Plus, summer had ended—god I love summer. 

I’m not sharing this to get sympathy, I’m sharing to possibly acknowledge something we all, or some of us, go through.

So, on that note, I’ll be took big deep breaths regularly, so I didn't get pneumonia and slept lots. To get ready for the next event the ECCs. After the ECCs the Post Regatta Blues were back and winter has started to set in here.  Maine's winter is a bit longer than most places and waiting until the next event in the spring is a challenge.  So sail on our southern friends and hope to see you all in 2017 at the next great J/24 event!

And on that note here are some photo highlights of the year to keep us all going from our team.

Women's Team Climbing Steadily towards their goals at J/24 NAs in Canada

By Erica Beck Spencer   Skipper, Sea Bags Women’s Sailing Team

This past September (2016) the Sea Bags Women’s Sailing Team traveled North of the US border to Mississauga, Ontario for the J24 North American Championship held at the Port Credit Yacht Club. This event included three full days of racing and was an excellent opportunity to race at the venue of the 2017 J24 World Championship. Forty-five teams, primarily from the US and Canada battled it out in varying conditions to become one of the top teams on this continent and many tried to qualify for worlds. For the United States many of the leaders in the fleet had already qualified and we were one of many teams hoping to be one of the six teams to qualify who had not already done so.  The US sailors there were all excellent and qualifying was going to be tricky. Teams like Angel of Harlem, Spoony Tactics, and Velocidad hadn’t qualified yet… Qualifying was going to be a serious stretch for our team but that was our goal.

On the first day of racing, our six-women team headed out early with the promise of about 9-12 knots of breeze. We anticipated needing to wait for breeze for a while and we were right.  Many of the team members went for a swim in a warm Lake Ontario.  Check out this flip into the lake by Kim!  As soon as the shoreline had popcorn clouds above it we knew the breeze would fill in, and it did. We quickly got back into gear, got the genoa up and sailed up wind to make sure we knew the correct tension for the halyard and to get our minds into racing mode. Transitioning from lounging and waiting for wind to racing is tricky, but the women of team Wait For It were ready and back in gear quickly. Friday was our best day. We had three races in the top half of the fleet, but did take a scoring penalty in race three for a breech of a down-wind port-starboard interaction.  Frankly, the boat on starboard was going slightly faster than I thought he was and I made a mistake. I should have gybed to stay in front of him instead of trying to cross him.  We were happy with our best race of the regatta—a ninth. A ninth at our second NAs—not too shabby!  We came off the water in 14th place and were very happy to be this high in the standings, even if only for a day.

Day two, Saturday, was breezy.  In a previous blog post I wrote about beginning to overcome my fear of driving in big breeze (link to this).  But on Saturday I had another first—driving in big breeze with big waves. I know what you’re meant to do—pinch up and drive up the front of the wave and bear off a little and drive down the back of the wave at an angle.  But this is tough to do when the waves are very close together. In the first two races we were able to get off the line with the acute guidance of our tactician Hillary Nobel. I’ve never had a crew be able to get me up to the starting line as well as Hillary can. The team was happy with a 19th in the first race of the day, followed by a less exciting 31st. 

In the third race, the waves were getting bigger and bigger as the breeze increased and we were handling them after a nice start. But about ½ way up the first beat we started climbing up the biggest wave I’ve ever driven up, I said, “Oh s@$T!” It felt like I was climbing a wall. What I’m about to describe is something I didn’t know was possible. I was flipped off of my skipper’s seat forward into the trimmer’s territory. My back hit the leeward edge of the cockpit near the winch and my breath was totally knocked out of me. I was able to grab the tiller and release the mainsheet before I was capable of telling Charlotte to let out the jib. Without even needing to discuss what to do next, Charlotte climbed back to drive and Kim took Charlotte’s trimming spot. I was able to catch my breath while hiking from the rail before taking the tiller again to finish this race in 20th.  As challenging as it was to race up wind in these waves it was exhilarating to scream downwind while surfing the waves.  Our friends on Bash recorded going 14.5 knots (check out their stats in the photo). That’s crazy fast.  I’m not sure if we went that fast, but I’m almost positive we went the fastest I’ve ever gone on a J24.  It was crazy. My crew rocked these conditions. I couldn’t look around—I stared at the tip of the mast and kept the boat under it while holding the tiller with two hands. Kim Calnan and Katie Drake were our eyes in front of us and behind us. They reported the approaching waves and changes in velocity and balanced the boat perfectly.  Whenever we felt slightly out of control, I did what Mike Ingham told me to do, and trimmed the mainsail a bit. Charlotte rocked the spinnaker. Of course, Jess Harris rocked the bow as she always does and got the job done. These women are fearless, strong, dependable, and damn good at what they do in all conditions. 

Photo Credit: Ron Medlin, Jr.

Photo Credit: Ron Medlin, Jr.

In the fourth race of this day we were covered at the start and then the genoa car broke.  We had boats above us so we couldn’t tack. After some quick thinking on Charlotte’s part, we took the genoa car from the windward side and used that to stay on starboard tack. We then moved the jib car back to the genoa car track and used that without a jib car on port tack. It wasn’t a permanent solution but it could help us finish the race.  After doing half the race we we’re nearing last place and decided that this race would be our drop anyway, so we decided to abandon the race.  My team and I knew that I was seriously hurt and that once the adrenaline stopped running I’d be feeling some pain. 

Sunday was disappointing because the race committee was only able to run two races.  We did well in both of them and really wanted a third race.

We didn’t qualify for worlds, but I couldn’t possibly be more proud of this team. We were the only all women’s team and we finished solidly in the top half. We finished 20th which isn’t bad considering this was only our second North Americans and our third international event, and that this particular team of women had only sailed together for three day. There are very few sports in the world where women and men can compete at the highest levels. Only at the Olympic level do men and women not compete against each other. And we did all of this with one bad race, one broken rib, and one shredded jib car. We are going to get better. We’re climbing steadily every time we race.

Second Smarts

By Erica Beck Spencer: Skipper, Team Wait For It/Sea Bags Women’s Sailing Team

Right to left: Michael McAllister, Erica Beck Spencer, Hillary Nobel, Jess Harris, Molly White, Andrew Gibbons, Charlotte Kinkade, Carter White

Right to left: Michael McAllister, Erica Beck Spencer, Hillary Nobel, Jess Harris, Molly White, Andrew Gibbons, Charlotte Kinkade, Carter White

I just returned from a nail-biting, down-to-the-last gybe, tie-for-first-place kind of weekend at the Sailing World/Helly Hansen Marblehead NOOD Regatta.  My team, my team of driven, bad-ass women led the J24 class for the first two days of the three-day event followed closely by the other  J/24 Sea Bags Team with Carter and Molly White who are well know on the racing circuit. I can now safely argue it is easier to enter the last day in second place than in first place.  We tried to be prepared by not drinking (much), going to bed early, talking with experts who’ve been in our position before, and trying to sleep but the stress is there and hard to ignore. I held the tiller that could steer us to an overall victory, something my team and our beloved competitors passionately wanted.  I can now say that second place smarts more than third, fourth, fifth, sixth, twelfth and possibly even last place. (OK, maybe not last place but close!)  Second smarts.  Being that close and not winning… ah, the agony of defeat. 

I can honestly say that we left nothing on the race course, we gave it everything we could.  We were prepared, aggressive, confident, and fast. Our speed suffered a bit on Sunday possibly because of the excessive lumpy seas or the tune of the rig, who knows, but it showed. But on Friday and Saturday we were in the grove, fast, united on the boat, and making great decisions as a team. It was exhilarating. And overall, we tied for first with one of the best J24 teams in the country.  Now that’s progress to be proud of.

As with every blog post I try to share something that others might learn from. One of the things that the team talked about on Saturday was our between race routine.  There is so much to do between races but sometimes all you want to do is breathe, lighten your bladder, eat, and drink water.  Those things are important but with a team of five (or six—depending upon the event) a team can take turns doing everything that needs to be done so that you’re prepared when the warning gun goes off.

Besides the above-mentioned essentials, here are some things we also pay attention to:

The rig.  We discuss our speed from the past races and think about the new conditions to see if they warrant a rig change. We adjust the rig accordingly and then make sure that we go up wind to see how she feels with everyone on the rail. 

Back her up! We point the bow into the wind, push the main out, and sail backwards (steer opposite of what you would do when sailing forward) to shake any weed off the keel. We do this as close to the start as possible.

Bump the main sail.  Our halyard stretches or slips ever so slightly during a race so we untie the halyard and loosen all of the main controls to make sure we can get her as high as possible. 

Send someone up to stand on the boom by the mast to get a better view of the wind up course. Then discuss with the team which side is favored taking into account the current and past conditions.

Make sure the spinnaker came down correctly and is ready to go.

Get line sights on the starting line.

Decide which end is favored.

Make a plan for the start and the next windward leg so that everyone can be informed.

It is a lot to do in a short period of time but being prepared and mentally in the game will set you up for success for the next race. 

Just want to give a shout out to my team. I hope they know how damn proud I am of them. We had Charlotte Kinkade trimming all three days; Hillary Nobel (new to our team, the J/24 and to calling tactics); Carol Pickering on mast on Friday and Katie Drake for Saturday and Sunday; and Jess Harris, team manager, rockin’ the bow all weekend.  Other team members not on the boat this weekend include Laurie Orlando, Kim Calnan, and Sandy Yale (age 13). 

We’ll be preparing our team and boat for North Americans over the next month! 

Check out the results from the Marblehead NOOD Regatta by clicking here.


I Think I Can...

By Erica Beck Spencer, Skipper Sea Bags Women’s Sailing Team, J24 2918

Today I’m reflecting upon our second major sailing event with the J24 Sea Bags Women’s Team, the US J24 Nationals in Saville, NY.

Sea Bags Women's Sailing Team

Sea Bags Women's Sailing Team

40 boats attended the 2016 US Nationals and unfortunately luck was not on our side for most of the event. Despite our safety checks on hardware when rigging the boat things came undone while racing, the welding on a jib car broke (luckily before a race), and we kept picking the wrong side of the course. It wasn’t our best regatta and truly we only had one great race with a top ten finish.

Despite all of this the learning curve was great and the conditions on Sunday pushed me way out of my comfort zone. The forecast for Sunday was ominous. It kept getting worse as the regatta progressed… or better, depending on your opinion of big breeze. By Sunday morning there was no doubt, it was going to hoot. Nobody left the harbor with a genoa on deck—only the much smaller jibs. This was a sure sign it was going to blow snot all day. I talked to many tuning tacticians that were setting their rigs for the heaviest setting.  I did the same and set the rig for our tightest setting to depower the boat as much as possible. Most tuners, tune to base on the dock and then adjust on the water. They tune to the conditions, not the forecast. On Sunday there was no doubt that we’d see 20+ knots with gusts in the 30s so we set for heavy air on the dock.

And here’s where I get to the point of this blog post -- I was scared. I had never driven any sailboat in breeze as consistently strong as what we were going to have. As the skipper I’m responsible for everyone on the boat and for the boat itself. All morning I fought the voice of self-doubt. Are you qualified to do this? Can you handle this? Will you be able to avoid an out-of-control boat at the windward mark? Will you be an out-of-control boat at the windward mark? I quietly spoke to several experts before heading out about things to be cautious of.  I talked to Kris Werner of Quantum and Carter White of the co-ed Sea Bags team. Here are some of the points that I took away from these mini-coaching sessions:

  • Keep some distance from newer teams out there that aren’t comfortable starting in these kinds of conditions. They may be out of control and could really make it hard to get a clean start.

  • Head out tuned for the tightest setting on the rig, with mast butt max forward.

  • Be careful at mark roundings. There will be out of control boats.

  • Trimmer and driver need to work together. When crew counts down to a big puff--both need to be ready to burp the jib and main simultaneously and bring them back in keeping the boat at the same angle of heel. For smaller velocity increases, talk together about if just one sail needs to be dumped a few inches. In smaller puffs, the jib stays in and the main gets dumped slightly.

  • Backstay on hard upwind. Vang-sheeting -- traveler stays up to midship and the main sheet is dumped in big puffs.

  • Downwind: twings all the way down. Keep the boat under the tip of the mast. Tip of mast leans to the starboard, push tiller to port slightly to get the boat back under the mast. Weight back in boat. Two hands on tiller (ditch using the tiller extension). Tactician can help with mainsheet in gybes.

This was not the first time when I’d question my competence. For example, in college, at my first big women’s event at Yale, I said to my coach Sarah Kent, “I don’t belong here. All of these women have been racing for years and I’m not good enough.” Or the time it blew stink the first time crewing on a J24. Will I be able to do the foredeck in this kind of breeze?  Now as a mother, there is self-doubt about my parenting because of sailing, Will I be a good-enough mother if I do this time-consuming thing for myself? or the time right before my first regatta as the skipper for Wait For It… at midwinters when I confessed to my father, “I don’t know if I’m ready for this.”  Every time I’d move through these am-I-competent-enough moments and I’d just do it. And each time, I’d do better than I thought I could, and each time I’d walk away knowing I could, and firm in the knowledge that we’d get better each time I do it. 

So, I’d just do it. I’d ask a lot of questions and trust that between myself and the other teammates that we’d figure things out.  I knew we’d make mistakes and we’d learn from them. Last year rigging and de-rigging took forever. Now we’re getting the rudder off, mast down, shrouds off and stowed, mast and keel covers on, boat strapped to trailer faster than some other boats and way faster than we did it a year ago.  Once upon a time, everything was new, but every time we do something we get better.

Chris Jankowski, a great sailor, as well as the former owner of our boat said, “Having confidence is the first big step.” The only way to get that confidence is to get over the “Can I?” questions and just do it. The next time it’s hooting I’ll think, We’ve got this!

Check out the results here:

Top Sea Bags Sailing Team results were; Will Welles in first, Carter White in second & Travis Odenbach in 6th overall.

From Good to Great!

One year and two regattas ago I started skippering Wait For It… a J24 owned by Jess Harris with an all women’s team. Prior to this I crewed on Lightnings, Etchells, and J24s and occasionally would grab the tiller of someone else’s boat or boats in community sailing centers like our own Sail Maine. I skippered in college, a part of the team that brought National ranking to the University of New Hampshire’s club sailing team, and while crewing taught me a lot, I never stopped wanting to drive. Financially, owning a boat was out of my reach.

In this relatively short period of a year, I now know there is so much more to skippering than holding the tiller and steering the boat quickly around the race course.  I didn’t know how much more there was to learn despite decades of racing and being pretty competent at calling tactics, understanding wind patterns, and learning all I could about the positions I crewed in. I’m good at what I do but I’m not great and I want to be exceptional. There is so much more to skippering than I knew -- campaigning a team, bringing together the right group of people, tuning the rig, keeping up with the boat maintenance, trimming the sails perfectly in various conditions, the logistics of getting a team to and around a regatta venue, and on and on the list goes. In the last 15 months I have learned more than I have in the last 20 years. As part of my journey I will be writing blog posts for the Sea Bags team about the things I’m learning. My hope is that I can share what others are teaching me. 

The most important thing I have learned is everyone is willing to help and asking questions will help you learn things faster. You can learn without asking questions, but if you ask many 1) you get to know people faster which will make the regatta experience that much more enjoyable, 2) you will likely learn things that you can’t “Google”, 3) everyone in the J24 fleet is willing to help others grow (and I would suspect this is true in other fleets as well,) 4) when you ask questions about something and then succeed in doing it—other boats will be rooting for you and excited about your progress.  5) all of the pros in this sport want teams like mine, and yours, the non-pros, to excel.  Their job is to make us better so we stay in the sport (and buy more sails!).

So this blog will be about going from being a good racer to being a great one. Here’s an example of something I’m good at and want to be great at. At midwinters at the Davis Island Yacht Club in Florida I was approaching a start luffing a bit and accelerating slowly. Rossi Milev, an incredible sailor who ended up winning the event approached from leeward of me (same tack and somehow rolled underneath me (despite a small hole below us), came up close-hauled under me and passed me as if I was standing still (which I wasn’t). It was incredible. Now, I’m no chump on the starting line (although he might say I am) but I’ll be the first to admit I’ve got a lot to learn—but what he did amazed the crap out of me. I asked him how he did that and I told him that I wanted to be that good someday. He said, “In ten years you’ll be able to do that.” Maybe it will take that long, I’m hoping I’ll be that good at starting in five years… How will I get there? By asking a boatload of questions.

So let’s get this blog-party started! What are some things you’d like to learn about? What are the pros/experts doing that you haven’t figured out yet? All questions and thoughts welcome!