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Words of advice from a 15-time entrant

Long time entrant Neil Lawton, who was aboard the Farr 1104 Close Encounters last year when it withdrew with a torn main, is back this year for his 15th race. He wrote up some thoughts that were on his mind, and offered them to us to publish - a great read especially if you missed the Race Clinic.

Every Coastal is different so what is good for one race may not be a great idea in another. However over the years there have been a few things learnt or observed that may be useful, so here goes. The weather is often the big factor and no two years are the same. That said, I think more than half of the time it’s some sort of W or SW so the following notes are written based on a hypothetical classic spring W or SW breeze. All opinions are my own and no guarantees or warrantees can be issued ☺

The Route North – Key Points, Tricks and Tactics

Before the Start

The best thing to do here is get out there early as it gets very busy. Sail past the start line (make sure you’ve been seen!), try and get a decent transits on the line then sail back and loiter in the area between Devonport Wharf and Stanley point. Assuming a SW or W this is the best area to be in prestart but remember everyone else thinks so too so keep a good look out.

Get the main up and get the gear ready early. Decide how the kite is going to be set up which in this SW scenario means making a simple decision between 1) starting with a kite or 2) starting on headsail and then popping the kite after the gybe at North Head.

Option 1) starting with the kite: In this case get set up ready for a starboard pole. Approach the start under headsail, launch kite and drop headsail at the gun and off you go. This is the option the pros will go for but it does mean gybing the kite in amongst a fleet of 200 boats right under the gathered crowds at North Head - a sure fire way of getting your photo in the Weekend Herald if it all goes wrong.

Option 2) start under headsail: This is the conservative approach. Set up all the kite gear for a port pole. Start under headsail and stay like that until after you have gybed at North Head then launch the kite.

Either way, before the start get the headsail up early enough to get comfortable with crew work through the tacks and gybes as you maneuver around, settle in and make sure someone is on top of the timing (if I remember correctly the time is indicated over VHF as well as normal flag signals).

The Start to North Head

Assuming a classic SW start the best way to approach the line is on starboard, near the Devonport Wharf end, at speed and on time - Easy! In reality this means loitering between Devonport Wharf and the Navy base close in to the north shore. Look what everyone else is doing and join the masses as they all move over onto starboard and rush to the line. Doing this means you shouldn’t have anyone forcing you over and if you are early you can reach down the line to kill time. One thing to note is there is often a massive “line sag” going on. With such a long start line it’s very easy to get into the mindset that you are near the line when in fact you are still well back from it. From North Head it looks like the line of boats “sags backwards” as all try and not be over early but are still a distance off (especially in the middle). A way to avoid this trap is to try and get that decent transit on the line before the start. (Caveat: I once was “over early” at the start of a 1200mile ocean race and had to spend an embarrassing 15mins going back to re-cross the line after the fleet had gone – so it can happen the other way too).

The first challenge after the start is what to do at North Head and when to make the all-important gybe. The thing here is not to go over too soon. It’s tempting and you know you need to head north so why not head that way as soon as you can? The big problem is North Head can cast a long wind shadow and going early can put you right in the middle of it – a bad idea. It’s best to watch what’s happening, go a bit further than you might otherwise do and go when you feel right. Be careful of boats to windward who have already gybed, they will be heading at you on port but often it’s hard for them to see ahead clearly so be ready to do some shouting of STARBOARD! While still on starboard don’t be intimidated by boats right alongside of you to windward who are also still on starboard. You are trapping them and they can’t gybe until after you do and they might well do a lot of shouting about it. They can huff, puff and bluster as much as they like but you still have rights over them. Your Proper Course is the route you feel is best to get you to Russell (not them), no one can force you over so race your own race here.

Once gybed over and heading north the fleet quickly spreads out and the madness and mayhem of the start to North Head section soon disappears. Once things settle down it is a good idea to get some folks to go below and get some rest, it’s a long day and night ahead…

Inside or Outside?

There is very little to really worry about from North Head up to Cape Rodney (esp. in our hypothetical reach/run W or SW) other than avoiding sailing too close to the back of Kawau and getting into its wind shadow, making sure to avoid Flat Rock and not getting caught up in traffic or tide through Tiri Channel. However once at Cape Rodney the single biggest decision of the race must be taken – do you go inside or outside the Hen and Chicks? There are as many reasons to go either way as there are skippers in the race. I’ve been both sides with varying success although more times inside than out. I know one skipper who’ll go outside every time and he’s won doing it that way but for every one of them there is a winner who went inside. If you haven’t got a good reason to do otherwise then probably the safe bet is to go inside as it is slightly shorter and most of your competition will go that way anyway. However, you’ll not know if that was the right call until you all meet again at Cape Brett and that’s a long night further up the course. If you decide to go inside then once at Cape Rodney aim straight for Sail Rock. Once you are near Sail Rock adjust your course more northerly to place you on a line which will leave you a sensible distance off the Tutukaka Coast – see next section. All things being equal and assuming a decent reach or run up then the sun should be setting by the time you pass between the Chicks and Whangarei Heads – those heads have a very eerie and spooky presence silhouetted against the dying light.

Tutukaka Coast

One thing that can happen on this section is boats often sail too close to the coast. It is shorter to do so but the wind often softens at about this time in the race and it dies away A LOT MORE closer in. This is especially true once you pass Ngunguru and come alongside the big headlands around Tutukaka. The lighthouse at Tutukaka Heads will be obvious from sundown but don’t get confused by the town lights you see on the coast here because those are Ngunguru not Tutukaka (Toots is too well hidden behind the heads to see other than the ever flashing light). Another danger to avoid on this section is Elizabeth Reef. Make sure you have a safe water waypoint marked and pass it well off shore. It might be an illusion but whenever I pass this area in the daylight it looks like the reef comes further off the coast than it’s marked – I’m sure the charts are correct but I would not want to test it on a dark night.

The Approach to Cape Brett

You’ll pick up the flashes of the light at Brett as you go past Tutukaka but don’t be fooled as it is still a long way away, it will be a flashing, hypnotising sentinel with you all through the night.

This is a tough part of the race and you need to use the folks who have rested early for this stretch. Oddly though I actually enjoy this section, slowly drawing in the miles and mentally calculating and recalculating an arrival time at the Cape.

Often here you start to meet other boats. After hours of seeing nobody, suddenly they’re all around as everyone converges on the same patch of ocean. It’s important to keep a good watch and be aware of who is nearby.

A good reason to leave a decent distance off the coast on the Tutukaka section is it gives you a slightly better angle into Brett especially as you get near to the Cape. If you stay close into the coast then the last few miles to Brett are under big cliffs and often a large wind shadow under them. I’ve seen boats go in too close and just park up as we’ve sailed away and left them behind only a mile or so further off shore.

Rounding Brett

Once you are near Brett then the second big choice of the race has to be made – Shoot the gap or sail around the outside of Piercy Island. Most boats will shoot the gap and I’ve done that more times than not as it is shorter and leaves you in a better place to start a beat into the bay. However there is a big caveat in that sometimes there is absolutely no wind in there under the cliffs, none, zip, nada. I’ve sailed around the Island on the outside before and left a whole flotilla of boats with masthead lights swaying in a lazy swell going absolutely nowhere on the inside. The only thing is to look ahead and make the best call you can based on what you can see is happening in front. The other weird thing about going through that gap in the dark is it feels far narrower than it does in the daylight. It might sound odd but big swells breaking on huge cliffs sound extremely and worryingly close even if you know they are a safe distance away, quite freaky.

Heading to the Line

If I had to sum this section up in one word it would be COLD. Given our SW or W breeze this section is a beat to windward in the dark and early hours of the morning with everyone feeling tired. Make sure you are wrapped up before Brett as once on the wind it gets very chilly very quickly.

There are a few traps and hard bits on this part of course so it’s important to be aware of where you are. Bird Island can suddenly pop up from nowhere if you are not careful (although you’ll often smell it first) and remember Whale Rock is not exactly where the Whale Rock light is either. Tapeka Point all the way to the finish is a rock strewn coast so again it’s important someone is watching the plotter and depth.

The other big danger here with a lot of boats all beating to wind in the dark is traffic. It’s a good idea if someone is looking down to leeward all the time through the bay.

The finish boat will sound a horn as you cross the line and it’s a great feeling. Time to motor over to Russell, drop the anchor and open the rum.

What to Bring

Random thoughts on what to bring in no particular order:

  • Good wet weather gear

  • Good boots and socks

  • Thermals

  • I say no particular order but those three above are numbers 1), 1) and 1) on the list.

  • Everyone needs a torch - Head torches are good but remember to not look straight at the helmsman with it switched on or else the driver is blinded until he gets his night vision back. Make sure amongst the torches there is at least one really good one with a tight beam to look at the trim of the sails.

  • Life Jackets/harnesses and lanyards that you’ve fitted and know how to use.

  • A sense of humour

  • Snack Food - Everyone should have snack type food (chocolate, muesli bars etc) which can be in pockets for the long night sitting on the rail.

  • Hot Food – Pies are good ☺ anything that can be warmed in the oven and eaten with hands.

  • Crib sheets for navigation. It’s a good idea to have a laminated sheet in the cockpit with the main light sequences on plus some course waypoints, with distances and bearings between them etc.

  • Rum

  • Coke

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