Observations from a Slalom Racing Newbie

A Report by David Fielder

I was enticed into trying the Berkeley CalCup Slalom event for the first time this season by my WS buddy Oren. That should come as no surprise, as he is always challenging me in some way or another - resulting in most of the WS improvements I've ever made. Initially by selling me his piece-of-junk (!) Seatrend as my first personal board back in 1991 or so. For 8 years prior to that, I'd always rented - and thus sailed much less. Please also note that dollops of sarcasm are part of our bonding approach towards each other.

So, with great trepidation, I joined Oren for the first slalom event of this season on May 25th. My main concern towards racing has always been that I would cause others grief due to crashing in the turns. Given all the "geek padding" I wear, somewhat less concerned about being crashed into. I still recall observing one national race at Crissy (from shore) where the fleet of about 100 sailors was divided into two lots, half the fleet approaching start from starboard and half from port. I thought it would be the Perfect Disaster as I watched them close. I also observed the result of missed jibes at the marks and how messy that can get - and these were relative pros.

But, the first challenge (as always) was picking the right gear for the conditions. I'm fairly good at evaluating from the riprap at His Lords and picked my 6.5WW for use with my ML bump/jump board and race fin. That turned out to be perfect choice for that day.

Next challenge was getting to the start line, which is fairly far upwind, at least for this weekend BAFer. In trying to do so, I missed the first race. However, I was in perfect position to see several of the contestants, including Formula guys (aka "The Big Boys"), fall at the first mark. Needless to say, that gave me some confidence as I knew I could at least fall just like them!

The rest of that day was a combination of severe adrenaline rush, frustration with lulls, close calls (over the years, I always seem to be trying to crash into Mitzu!), bad start timing, and perhaps most telling - ignorance of key rules and scoring process. However, I did discover that I could hang with some of the folks, make as many marks/jibes as some, and enjoy myself. My biggest deficits that series were ignorance of rules, poor upwind capability (can't tack to save my life), and probably timidity.

Turns out that scoring is based primarily on just showing up and finishing all the races - due to sever penalties of DNS/DNF. Who Knew??!! No wonder Oren was upset when I insisted we skip the last race to get home for dinner. I also recall not bothering to run one of the races simply because too far away from the start (naively thinking - so what?). Those mistakes on my part cost both of us.

So, was stoked and somewhat more prepared for the next Weds event, only to have unsailable winds for slalom next two weeks in a row. Pressure was starting to build to go over to "The Dark Side" - aka Formula Gear (of course, in reality we all know that appellation is really reserved for the Kiters)!

Then came last Weds, June 15th, and a big Reality Check for me. I "Rigged For the Moment" (my motto), which resulted in choosing a 5.8 and the ML. Unfortunately, given the unusual gustiness I probably really needed some combination of a 5.5 and a 7.5 - hard to arrange during such events. I was out nice and early for the first start (having learned NEVER to miss a race), only to get somewhat becalmed and start very late.

The rest of the races that day were for me a wallow in frustration. I made several costly tactical mistakes, often sailing too far downwind trying to jibe for the last upwind mark, only to put myself in major wind hole - essentially "lost and gone forever" - watching the next race start and finish before I could even get back.

So, as a newbie here are some concluding thoughts:

1. Slalom racing can be fun and even potentially successful for the novice.
2. Everyone falls sometime, so best to just get over it.
3. Perhaps partly due to the lack of stakes - other than bragging rights and personal pride - everyone seems very courteous and potential for disasters/crashes appears minimized.
4. Given #2, it is possible to beat the Formula-rigged experts with slalom gear, at least theoretically - but only on such a course!
5. Important to know at least some of the rules.
6. Showing up and finishing are CRITICAL - so try never to give up, even if just slogging or worried about missing dinner!
7. Pray for Wind!!!!

In addition to those observations, I know several women who are much better WS than me and could easily compete successfully. Would be neat to see more of them out there!

I also need to work on the start process so that it becomes more clear/intuitive. For me now, without a good racing watch (yet!), I'm usually reduced to watching for the experts to get ready. Result is at best trailing slightly behind off the start, which doesn't help. OTOH, at least then I have less anxiety about causing the first pile-up!

Also, I'm somewhat torn as to my launch preference (His Lords). It has major benefits of avoiding the wind shadow at the docks, minimizing the upwind approach to the course, and giving a much better feel for course conditions. Major downside is missing much of the camaraderie and info-sharing at the docks rigging area. Not sure what to do about that, at least unless/until I do go over to The Dark Side......

So, I can with good conscience recommend this event to my BAFing/slalom colleagues, and will continue to do so.

Thanks again for all the encouragement!

David (USA-212) - ex-chemist, so you may get the presumptive drift! :)