Ready for the Weather Gate?
By Jeff Zarwell
National Race Officer
Going into my first windward-gate regatta as a race officer, I anticipated increased mark-set responsibilities and a need for experienced hands to pull off the initial set and then to maintain a four-buoy weather-mark configuration.
I was right.
However, the benefits of the windward gate were greater than I expected.
The two-day regatta was sailed in J/105s out of The San Francisco Yacht Club in Belvedere, California. Courses were laid in what we call the Olympic Circle, a relatively shallow, relatively tide-protected area on the Berkeley side of San Francisco Bay, often used for higher-level competition.
We ran the first two races with a single weather mark and offset, adding the weather gate for the final race of the day after an initially backing breeze stabilized. In the first rounding of the windward gate, it was clear that that most of the 28 competitors had not calculated (or were not able to calculate) risk/benefit between left and right marks. With the left side of the course favored for the downwind leg, only 9 (including the ever-competitive Chris Perkins) took the starboard mark. On the second rounding, however, that number increased to 16.
Back at the dock, comments from competitors were cautiously optimistic, and on the second day of racing, we saw the proof that in certain circumstances, a windward gate can afford a boat in trouble a second chance. Perkins, in the first race of the day, was shut out in an attempt to round the port mark of the gate. Normally, he would have had to spin, lose boatspeed, and deal with traffic in a second rounding attempt. Instead he bailed over to the starboard mark and maintained position. The windward gate operated much like a leeward gate. Once the competitors realized this, the fleet maintained an almost 50/50 split in weather-mark roundings for the remainder of the day.
The San Francisco Yacht Club introduced the weather gate as an experiment in easing congestion at the first mark without lengthening the first leg. My preliminary thinking, based upon one weekend of racing, is that a weather gate can be effective but is not more effective than an extended leg. In fact, a weather gate could actually increase congestion by way of confusion, if not properly set. Used correctly, a weather gate can indeed reduce congestion and add tactical opportunities.
I would recommend that R/Cs set a windward gate at 7 or 8 boatlengths. You might shorten that, depending on the fleet and conditions, but it seemed that with the increased cross traffic, longer is better.
We as R/C confirmed that this four-weather-mark arrangement is best attempted only by experienced mark-set personnel. We had a cross current that required us to lengthen the spacing of the starboard offset, and of course having four marks at the top of the course instead of two means that with any shift in wind or current, the weather mark-set team will be doing twice the adjusting.
As with the starboard rounding of a single mark, with or without an offset, there is the increased risk of starboard-gybe boats coming down on starboard-tack boats still approaching the weather mark. Careful placement of the offset would probably alleviate that. This was our first time with a windward gate, and as a race committee we had a learning curve of our own. In the end, all the competitors said that they liked the windward gate and the additional tactical opportunities.
Posted July 11, 2008