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A Newbie's take on the 2006 Master's Pacific Coast Championship Laser Regatta

Photos courtesy Sean Trew

The 2006 Master's Laser PCCs were held in the Columbia George and hosted by the Columbia George Racing Association. For any windsurfer 'The Gorge' needs no introduction. Frequent strong winds that generally run against the current of the Columbia river allow longer downwind runs with plenty of waves for surfing. The CGRA enlisted Kerry Poe who did an excellent job running the Race Committee.

My sailboat racing resume is short but does not lack effort. I started racing my Thistle class sailboat in 2002. That same year I started crewing on a Mumm 30. The skipper traded up to a J130 and decided to compete in the Victoria to Maui race in 2004 and I was selected for that event. Over a year of training yielded us a first in class and second overall finish. In the two years since Vic-Maui I have focused on my Thistle and we are now able to finish near the top of the fleet during our traveling regattas. Of course none of this really helps on the Laser.

Somewhere between the Thistle racing and Vic-Maui campaign I picked up a cheap Laser sailboat. I raced it occasionally in the local Portsmouth fleet. I didn't take it too seriously and had a lot of fun at our local lake.

Early in 2006 the local racing started to attract a few other Laser sailors. By mid summer we had four regulars. A few of them had competed in local Laser Regattas. This, combined with a large gap in the Thistle racing season, got me interested in trying a real Laser regatta. My schedule showed that the PCCs Masters regatta would fall nicely into the gap in the Thistle Regatta schedule. Two of the Laser guys from our local lake signed up as well.

Two of us had never sailed at the Gorge. We decided a practice day was in order. On Friday we arrived to what is considered the 'wrong' wind direction. It was blowing ten to twelve knots out of the East. The lake we normally sail on seldom sees this much wind or this much wave action. It was good practice and just whetted our appetites for more.

30 Lasers waiting on the beach

Saturday showed us what the Gorge is about. Ten to fifteen knots of wind out of the 'normal' westerly direction pushing up some waves against the one knot of river current. The sun was shining and the temperature was probably between 70 and 80 most of the day. Perfect.

With about 30 Lasers on the line, up from the four or so I was used to at our local club, I was about to get my first lesson in Laser starting. The starts were competitive with a fair number of general recalls. As I didn't know many of these folks and it was my first Laser regatta, I chose not to start aggressively on Saturday. I accepted a second row start on more than one occasion. With the winds up I found I could hang with many boats upwind. Until I tired, anyway. Then they would slip away. Most of these sailors could hike much longer than I could. Windward mark roundings were near the rear of the fleet.

Downwind was completely different. I wasn't afraid to sail aggressively downwind and found myself regularly catching and passing boats. Sadly that same aggressiveness caused me to loose many more positions as I death rolled repeatedly. By the end of the day I believe I was upside down six times. Sometimes more than once in the same race. My best capsize had me half way to the board when the mast hit the water. Dropping all that sail in the water stops the boat, but not the sailor. I slid face first down the length of the rail and was unceremoniously dropped off the bow into the drink.

Upwind I was hiking as hard as I could. By the end of Saturday that wasn't very hard. Downwind I was righting the boat time and time again. The net result was lots of work for a poor out of shape Laser newbie. While packing up my boat I was approached by a friend who is a Laser regular. I had to admit I wasn't sure I was having fun anymore. He talked about meeting up for dinner and a beer at the local pub. I declined and by 8:30 p.m. I was asleep.

Sunday brought less wind and waves but plenty of sunshine. This may have been a godsend for my tired bones after being thrashed by Saturday's racing.

With less breeze and one day of racing under my belt I felt ready to attack the start line. Of the four starts on Sunday three of them were solid front row starts at the less popular end of the line. I was up with the faster guys and able to see just how slow I was. I could either equal their boatspeed or their height but not both. At the time I could not be sure whether it was the boat or the driver. Later testing where we traded boats showed that the problem followed the boat not the skipper. This same hardware allowed me enough speed to win on many occasions against our local Laser sailors but in this crowd either my '70s boat was too slow or my sail was too old. Regardless, I was moving toward the rear of the fleet in a hurry.

Lasers just after the start

Downwind wasn't much better. With less breeze, most of the fleet was willing to sail aggressively. I had lost my advantage downwind. Keeping the boat upright helped my finish positions compared to Saturday but wasn't as satisfying as actually passing boats.

My upwind and downwind boat speed issues were not a surprise. The lack of time I have spent sailing the Laser certainly explains why I wasn't fast. But I was surprised a bit at the starts and some of the mark roundings. I would characterize the fleet as 'liberal' when it came to rule interpretations. While I am not an expert at the Racing Rules of Sailing I believe I understand the important ones well enough to stay out of trouble on the race course. Of the situations on the course that called the rules into play most were of little consequence.

The exception was a windward vs leeward situation while sailing upwind. Neither boat hailed 'protest' despite the variety of verbage that was exchanged between the two boats. Although I believe neither myself nor the windward boat were adversely affected, there was contact. After the race I chatted with a group of sailors to verify my understanding of the rules. The skipper of the windward boat arrived during this discussion. After a rulebook was quoted and both sides were able to give their testimony a ruling was agreed upon. To the windward skipper's credit he acknowledged his mistake.

Despite some difficulties during this first Laser regatta I found myself wanting more. I certainly had some boat speed issues to fix but was ready to step up my program enough to put myself into better equipment. I found myself wanting to work a little harder to make myself a better Laser sailor. Time will tell if that happens as this class is full of talented and hardworking sailors. Most importantly, now that I have that first Laser regatta under my belt, I can relax and enjoy the after racing beer.