The gist of this month’s column started after (during, actually) a discussion about the importance of high average speeds when sailing or racing offshore. We got there from the response to the at least two dozen things I reckon the average bear can do to their average normal sailing boat in order to “speed it up” without breaking the bank.

The proposition of high averages is sufficiently critical that none other than prominent French sailor Jean Le Cam is having his new IMOCA built without foils. How can this be? Aren’t foils the wave of the future? Le Cam is possibly known in the U.S. only for his part in the recovery of fellow Vendée Globe competitor Kevin Escoffier after the latter’s boat broke up and sank in the Southern Ocean last time around. Le Cam is now well into his 60s and has been “doing this” a long time. His new boat is of course an updated design versus its forerunner, so “faster,” lighter and so on. Sans foils including the massive amount of structure and related foil management kit – hydraulic pumps and rams, fiber optic cabling, sensors, computers and software required to keep the whole circus working – she’s a lighter boat, equipped with only two conventional daggerboards. Who would’ve thought daggerboards on yer yacht might be described in such a fashion? Oh well, here we are. His view is that races are won by – guess what? – maintaining higher average speeds over a longer time.

When speaking with clients on this topic, my recommendation is to keep at 90% of full throttle, 90% of the time. To put this in perspective, consider the following.

When sailing to Bermuda for instance, sailing 700 miles at a 7.0-knot average this passage takes 99.84 hours (.84 hours = 50.4 minutes; call it 100 hours for this discussion and ease of math). Assume a speed increase of one percent (0.01%), the Holy Grail of the America’s Cup. This brings your average speed up to 7.07 knots.

This (tiny) increase shrinks the elapsed time to 99.10 hours. This elapsed time difference between 7.0 knots and 7.07 knots is 0.9 of one hour, which is 54 minutes faster. Ever lost a race by something less than 54 minutes? If you can manage a 0.05% increase, this brings your average speed up to 7.35 knots and elapsed time shrinks to 95.24 hours – or 4.76 hours faster. If you can get a 10% speed increase (generally unheard of), this raises your speed to an average of 7.70 knots and the elapsed time drops to 90.91 hours. That’s NINE HOURS FASTER than “just” 7 knots! Expressed another way, try for the highest average speed you can for the most amount of time – One of Cooper’s Laws of Sailboat Racing.

Don’t Slow Down! Only an hour (over a 100-hour race) might, on occasion, be the difference between wind and no wind, or wind and way too much wind, rain and no rain, daylight or dusk, fair or foul current, fog or no fog, and so on, let alone The Pickle Dish.

This latter aspect, the weather, when approaching one’s landfall is not to be dismissed lightly, I think whether racing or cruising. Back of the napkin suggests that finishing half a day ahead of the next boat in the Vendée is akin to a photo finish in the Vineyard Race.

At the end of July, I sailed doublehanded with one of my clients in the annual New England Solo Twin. We sailed aboard his Dehler 3O One Design, a pretty sporty 30-footer. He is very new to sailing but absolutely dead keen on it. He’s also a computer engineer and robotics guy so very process-oriented. There were a number of moments in the race where my gut suggested we do X. When I posed the questions about doing something he responded with a very thoughtful reply encompassing all the things he had thought about and planned out, based mainly on his research of the weather forecasts. I let this discussion play out and generally followed his lead.

After the race I went back and did an analysis based on my own sailing experience and allocated a time value to the things we did, where I thought we had left time on the track. The fierce line squall across Block Island about 0500 on Saturday took up about an hour of the two hours we left out there, I reckon.

Another 15 minutes was allocated to being late for the start, another column in itself, and three more 15-minute blocks were allocated to navigation issues. This included a trawler, not on AIS, executing a number of Crazy Ivans near one of the marks. Despite all this we were not last, beating a couple boats that didn’t survive the squall as well as we did. We broke nothing, despite 48 knots of true wind speed and hairing off downwind at 16 knots the one time I glanced at the meters. Two hours less elapsed time would have placed us within the range of the top four finishers on elapsed time. Rating faster than all of them, we still would’ve been out of money, most likely. How does one leave two hours on the track in a 21.25-hour race, a mere .095%? Pretty easily, it turns out. But the most recent, and frankly glaring example of leaving time on the track was during a regatta in mid-August.

I was working on the Race Committee for the Safe Harbor Marinas Race Weekend as the spotter on the signal boat. The entry list ran the gamut from a J class at 138 feet all the way down to a modified Farr 30. The superyachts were sailing outside, the performance cruisers were down by the bridge and the ORC and PHRF “fast(er) classes” including the IC37s were on the track I was working, north of the bridge, near halfway rock.

And I remark here, it is likely a few boats I have in mind in the following paragraphs, though unnamed, will likely recognize themselves from the actions described. Sorry guys, but you cannot argue with the observations. Don’t shoot the messenger.

The starting sequence had the fast ORC A boats go first then the IC37s and in both cases these classes were spot on the line, sometimes within half the foredeck length or less of the line. But after that it went downhill pretty fast.

The bulk of the boats on our course were regular production boats: J/109s 105s, a couple C&C 30s, a Cape 31, a few other flavors of J plus a few customs ranging from just launched to twenty or more years old.

Generally, boats that the everyman might own. Said everyman regularly goes out and spends multiple thousands of hard earned cash on high tech sails, of which there was no shortage on the track, let alone cordage, slippery blocks, bottom jobs, and so on. Yet they cannot get a start or go around corners to save their lives. After the first two starts, the distance back from the line that the class was, at 5 seconds to go, ranged from 10 seconds to nearly 30 seconds…and that was the boats in the front row. It is mind boggling to me that owners can spend so much on sails, (and other stuff) yet not put themselves in a position to take advantage of them. Then there were the corners.

The course was W4, finishing downwind. The bottom mark was a gate, so you could pick which side you wanted to go up the next beat. I saw the following: One boat was firing into the downwind starboard mark, well in front of the hounds on his heels. They executed a pretty clean kite drop, gybed and sailed for 15-20 seconds, maybe more perpendicular to the beat, right across the gate, perhaps 200 yards from one MarkSetBot to the other. In doing so, they gave up all of that lead. Granted, if the right was the correct side to be, and that did not seem to be the case in general, 15-20 seconds is a pretty big wind shift, or increase (or minimal diminution) in boat speed.

Then there was the kite handling, and the breeze was perhaps 15 knots if that. Many boats carried their kites until the bowsprit was at the Bot. Sometimes they even had the jib up. But holding on to the kite so long, even if you are going fast, puts you on the wrong side of the risk/reward calculation versus time when you cannot get the kite down promptly, or as it happened to one boat probably three out of four roundings (over two races).

In order to get the kite under control, they ran off downwind, giving up several hundred yards for no reason. Talk about unforced errors. They were not alone. Less than half of the classes had clean, fast, smooth and effective kite drops and mark roundings. One of the many things I find interesting about this is time versus money calculus. These boats all had sporty expensive sails, but no crew work and/or flawed tactical decisions at the back of the bus. I have lots of video footage of these situations and I plan to make a seminar out of it.

Personally, I reckon a couple hours of practice twice a week, with someone who knows how to smooth out all these bumps is way more valuable for the average bear, like these guys, than spending squillions of dollars on sails. And I work in the sail
making game. Sheesh. ■

Australian born, Joe ‘Coop’ Cooper stayed in the U.S. after the 1980 America’s Cup where he was the boat captain and sailed as Grinder/Sewer-man on Australia. His whole career has focused on sailing, especially the short-handed aspects of it. He lives in Middletown, RI where he coaches, consults and writes on his blog,, when not paying attention to his wife, dog and several, mainly small, boats.

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