A singlehander’s insights on singlehanded racing

West Coast sailor, singlehander and Ocean Navigator contributor Chuck Warren weighs in on some of the aspects of singlehanded racing. Warren will ultimately be participating in a seminar for the Singlehanded Sailing Society of San Francisco (that’s Chuck at left with his son Aidan) that will prepare singlehanded racers for the 2008 Singlehanded Transpac race. Chuck’s thoughts:

You’re the weak link in the system, so how do you manage your energy over a period of weeks to maximize each day’s run?

What can you do?
How little sleep can you get by on? How many good hours do you have in a day if you’re sleeping that little? How strong and energetic are you in those hours? Are there hours when it is almost impossible to stay awake when on a minimal sleep regime? Feeding and watering is a separate and equally important subject. It also takes time. Overall physical fitness is pretty much a given.

What is the environment (wind and sea)?
Forecasting this is central to managing the inter-relationship between your body energy and boat speed. Remember that there is a time dimension to the range of wind and sea in any forecast. There is a 3/4 chance, based on my research*, of having a change of wind speed by one Beaufort Force Factor or 15 degrees of direction in a four hour period in the variable latitudes, roughly 20-40 degrees north or south latitude. There’s a 1/2 chance in the Trades, 20 degrees either side of the Equator. Ship reports which are within about 50% of forecast wind speed and 60 degrees of direction are considered to confirm the forecast. So, to a large extent, you are your own forecaster. A forecast of ‘same as last hour’ has a 1/4 chance of being right for a 4 hour period in the Variables.

What are you driving?
What do you lose by going on self-steering? How much wind velocity increase can your boat take on self-steering before spinning out? Or how much are you going to have to de-power to get some uninterrupted rest? How many sail changes are you good for – in an hour? in 4 hours? in a day? How long can you hand-drive in a day – with 1 sail change? with two sail changes? with four sail changes? Now, same questions but it’s day 10 of a 14 day race.

What’s the course?
SF-Hawaii, naturally. That’s about 2000 miles. In other words if there’s a 3 second per mile handicap difference you need a time difference of about 1:40 at the finish to break even. If this is a 14-day, 2,000 mile race, that averages out to about 6 knots of boat speed. 1:40 is about 10 miles at 6 knots. What CAN you (your body, your boat, your systems) do to gain 10 miles in a 4 hour watch (2.5 knots extra)? in a day (10 miles/day = .4 knots extra)? in a week? Probably has something to do with what you expect for overall weather in each part of the course, yes? But it is also a decision that you have to make in each hour, maybe minute for the two weeks you’re underway.

What’s the downside?
Weather goes bad; you push too hard, or both. You pass the point of useless fatigue (impaired perception-hallucination, bad judgement and feeble abilities, increased risk of actual injury, excellent chance of landfall on the reef rather than in the harbor). How slow do you have to go for how long to get yourself back in form? How much did you gain getting there and what are you losing in recovery? Of course if you push so hard that you break the boat or yourself, that opens a whole new can of pileworms. You’re certainly not finishing first.

By Ocean Navigator