An Interview with the crew of “Disaster Area”

 

We normally expect Andrew Kerr to conduct interviews of sailors in the Santana 20 Class Association but today we get to turn the tables a bit and interview Andrew, Chris Winnard, and Lance Purdy – the winning team at the 2009 Class Championships. All of three have been great ambassadors of our class association over the years, often giving of their time and talents to the people who are trying to take their sailing to the next level.  Recently, I asked each of them a series of questions that we all would like to hear the answers to.

 

For those of you that don’t know our Class Champions personally, let me provide you with some background information. CHRIS WINNARD (skipper for Team Disaster Area) works for the Ullman Sails loft in Seattle, has been a member of our class association for over 20 years.  His 2009 championship victory is his 5th! ANDREW KERR (in the middle position of Disaster Area) has also been in the Class over 20 years; works as a professional sailor and coach (with many an article on our website as well as Sailing World, etc.), has won five S20 Class Championships crewing with both Chris and Bruce Golison.  Andrew most recently teamed up with Chris Snow to win the J24 Nationals in San Francisco.  LANCE PURDY (in the bow position) hails from the Sacramento area, is our Western Regional Director, and has come tantalizingly close winning it all too.  We’re all happy for these guys, and I’m glad that they were able to share their thoughts. So take a peek into the minds of our current Class Champions!

 

 - Derek Martin

 

1.  How did you prepare for Championships? Did you do anything different than any other regatta that was unique to the San Diego venue?

 

CHRIS: Because of our busy schedules we didn’t have as much time as we would have liked to prepare so we selected one of our favorite events – Eugene YC’s Memorial Day Regatta – to try out our new Ullman Sails and get our rig tune sorted.  We knew Mission Bay would have different conditions but this regatta always has a great turnout and offers a good opportunity to speed test and deal with some tricky conditions.  Our long time crew Bill Ramacciotti did bow and we ended up winning a tough event.

 

ANDREW: Preparation was fairly normal.  We sailed the boat at the Memorial Day regatta in Eugene, compiled a maintenance list for the boat, and made sure everything was up to speed and in order.  We went through the boat and did an inventory of everything to make sure we had everything that we would need.  Lance worked really hard on the boat to get it prepared when it was at his house; he was determined we were not going to lose because of a break down.

 

LANCE: Most of the preparation was very typical in the sense that it seems that regardless of what I am doing as crew, I seem to be the one most interested in making sure the boat is in perfect shape.   The spinnaker halyard sheave was sticky (which I consider a personal failure); otherwise I don't think the boat could have been any more perfect. None-the-less, we still plan to change some of the rigging going forward (it can always be better).

 

As far as preparation unique to the San Diego venue, there were a few things.  Besides making sure the kelp stick still worked, they were mostly mental.  One thing was thinking about how to keep the boat powered up in light wind and slop.  Chris clearly had been thinking about this because he came into the week on a mission to find boat speed.  I decided my job was to come in with a complete understanding of the rig and how to tune it to match where Chris was heading. Two years ago when we sailed inside the Bay, we did not get our light/moderate air tune dialed in until the last day. This time we had it nailed from the first gun.

 

The second thing was the kelp.  I made it my personal goal to not let kelp cause us to lose the regatta. That meant I would constantly try to keep it off the keel and also know exactly how to get it off as quickly as possible. Finally, I decided that I would not crack if Chris or anybody else got worked up about the kelp; I would just keep managing it as best I could. Only in one race did we get kelp hung on us; that cost us a couple of spots. We had to clear our keel as often as 5 times a race.

 

2. How much time did the three of you have a chance to sail together prior to the regatta?

 

CHRIS: Lance, Andrew and I last sailed together in 2006 at Coronado.  We have sailed in various combinations since then. Andrew and I have been sailing together for many years, which makes it easy to add a third. Lance does a great job on the bow or middle.

 

When we got to Mission Bay Yacht Club, we joined in for the tune up racing and felt a little out of sorts with very hot and cold speed.  We raced the MBYC TNT race that night and that was probably our defining moment for the regatta. We put it all together during that race – the crew work was smoothed out, rig tensions were sorted, and we set the batten tension for the main.

 

ANDREW:  Chris and I sailed together at the Memorial Day regatta with Bill Ramacciotti while Lance sailed on Sea Bear with Patricia and Jason in the same event. This was a great opportunity to sail in a 25-boat fleet against very good teams in a terrific regatta. We then practiced for a day in San Diego and did the Mission Bay YC TNT evening race as a final tune up - which we found really helpful for our boat handling practice as well as developing team awareness and communication.

 

Looking back, doing that TNT race was critical.  Chris suggested we do it and we are very glad we did. When we had joined in for the practice race earlier that day on the ocean, we were very rough around the edges and really needed the practice; everything was a bit off kilter and the TNT was the perfect tonic to get us back in it.

 

LANCE: We have sailed together in the past, both in a group of three and in combinations of two.  However, we always recognize that we don't sail together enough. This is a handicap, but one you can deal with if you are mentally prepared to iron things out quickly and give everybody honest feedback, while keeping a thick skin. We all came in mentally prepared.

 

Also, while we were at the event, we took every opportunity to get time on the water, including the beer can races. There were two things that hurt us because of not sailing together. One, I was not smooth at all on the foredeck. I used to be a great foredeck, and even for the last few years I have at least been passable. However, I made a lot of mistakes during the regatta and overall I would rate myself as very average. These problems would have been ironed out with more time together. One leeward mark in particular almost cost us the regatta. Two, we had some communications issues at the starts about who would call what and how we would make decisions.  We were over early in the first race because of this and we were late in two more for the same reasons. It took us too long to get this ironed out and it could have cost us the regatta. Fortunately, we had enough boat speed to recover.

 

3.  What is your general pre-race routine? Do you use any pre-race weather data resources?

 

CHRIS: I check the Sailflow website for wind info (which turned out wrong for the last race!).

 

ANDREW:  Like a lot of sailors, I like to get to the boat early and rig it in a very deliberate fashion while visualizing the day on the water and what we need to do to be successful; it helps me get in the game. Also in the morning’s activities would be tuning the rig, cleaning the bottom, checking that we have everything we need, checking the notice board, and also enjoying chatting with other sailors about the upcoming day’s racing.

I find that it is great to lighten up a this point after all the prep work, keep the jokes going and the rapport with other sailors, it helps you sail loose and have fun. When you are having fun you tend to sail well.

Once on the water, we try to get out to the race course as early as possible.  We check in with the RC and go upwind and get settled in and really focus on making the boat go fast, we just keep trying to ratchet up our team awareness as much as possible.  Once we feel good about the boat speed and set up, we start noting compass headings, looking hard for where the breeze is forming, the angles of other boats sailing and also looking at the cloud cover and marine layer on the shore to try and predict when the wind may fill in and shift.  We practice some tacks and then do a spinnaker set and focus on the mode of sailing needed for the given set of conditions – Lance would be looking back talking about the breeze and we get the dialogue going on the boat between the three of us.

 

I had some reminders written down on the bulkhead - kelp check, stay in breeze and a reminder about the compass numbers and what they mean wind-shift wise downwind – whether we are in a lifted phase or headed phase downwind. I personally find that there is so much to think about and be aware of that writing a few critical ones where you can see them down is helpful, especially in the heat of the moment.  Dave Perry tells a great story about a Finn sailor who had a tendency to bang the corner upwind – he wrote on the boom as a reminder - ‘“tacked recently?!!” After some jibes, we get down to the starting area, do a takedown, and start looking at the starting line and looking upwind for changes.

 

Of course, all this time Lance has been looking long and hard for kelp and we back down at least a couple of times and take periodic head to wind readings to try and detect a trend in the breeze. 

The big thing from a team standpoint is us keeping our heads outside the boat and constantly reassessing our initial assumptions, we tried to do this as much as possible before every race.

 

LANCE: We do have not set pre-race routine, but we check on the typical stuff including sailing out to the weather mark, getting wind angles, doing a few maneuvers to get loose, etc. This year, we were not worried about boat speed so we mostly focused on tactics and the wind.  We used only typical weather data resources that anybody can get off the radio of the TV.  However we did rely heavily on both Chris and Andrew's local knowledge. Given that Chris and Andrew had the basic wind strategy handled, I figured it was my job to look out for something unusual compared to their preconceptions. It was interesting to note that all three of us were almost always on the same page.

 

4.  Before the start of Race 1, what was your pre-race strategy and how did it change over the course of the regatta?

 

CHRIS: We like to get out and track headings on both tacks and line up with a top boat for some speed testing. We were over early in race one so after restarting we have to find clear air and big lanes to work our way through the fleet. We didn’t change our pre-race strategy much as the regatta went on.

 

ANDREW:  There is a good saying “you can’t win the regatta on the first day – but you can lose it!”

With that in mind, we had a conservative game plan not only for day one but also for the regatta as a whole. Given that there were no throw outs, we felt that avoiding big mistakes and making high percentage moves around the racecourse would pay off.  Having said that, we were OCS in the first start.  We were able to regroup quickly and it was a timely reminder of the above!  Our goal is typically to have a solid day and a chance to build on that platform in day two, and then a chance to win on the last day.

 

LANCE: Our pre-race strategy was start left, start clear, don't be over early, stay out of trouble, watch out for kelp and let our boat speed do the talking. We started over early so that blew the strategy out of the water.  However, overall, we did a good job of sticking to the plan. A couple of times we momentarily cracked, but Andrew generally kept us together with a calming influence. Here and there we lost a point or two, but we never tanked a race.  We also put off mistakes quickly. We over tacked one race and came in second. We blew one weather leg and went first to fourth, but we didn't turn that from a 4th to an 8th, but rather dragged it back to a 3rd. In one race, I did not see a starboard tack boat and we had to crash tack, but we still ground back to a 3rd.  In each case, I am sure each of us had someone to blame and maybe even the person who made the mistake was blaming themselves, but we talked through it quickly (not always without some frustrated anger), shrugged it off and charged ahead.

 

In the last race, we were sure that the right was coming in.  We were all wrong, but we did not panic (the stress level was high but no panic).  We were a bit off our game but we did pull it together and just ground everyone down with boat speed by sailing clean and not making any more mistakes.

 

5.  Sailing in the ocean. We had both wind and some swell. What was your steering technique and how did you shape your sails differently than if you were sailing in flatter water.

 

CHRIS: Going fast in the different conditions is key, of course. We ease in the chop and try to use the flat spots to either ratchet up to gain some separation or to go fast forward to go over a competitor or the fleet/pack. The championships had a different wave pattern than the normal fare so a lot of communication was needed from Lance for waves and wind and Andrew for speed controls.  Kelp was a major factor - very frustrating at times!

 

ANDREW:  One really important element from a middle crew’s standpoint was the lean-in/lean-out body work in the lulls and puffs upwind and to do it in such a way that Chris could see the waves at all times.  I really worked on this because it was imperative in the wave formations for Chris to see.  In bad sets of waves and in the lulls, we eased both sails a little and generally kept the bow down and the boat rolling at all times - we felt that speed through the water was overall the best VMG.

 

Having sailed together with Chris for 20 years, we don’t say a great deal as we know what each other is thinking.  But, once in a while I do ask him how the mode is in terms of trim, as well as a quick check-in on the steering groove.  For us speed is king – if we are not entirely sure what to do tactically in a given scenario, we knuckle down, get our space (lane), and go fast.  This has always been our mantra - always keep the boat going no matter what the situation.

 

Chris is an exceptionally focused driver; we work hard together all the time to always keep the boat going and rolling along no matter what - puff/ lull/ wave set/ flat spot/just got lee bowed, etc.  We stay in the moment, keep making small adjustments, and work hard. His determination and focus is something I am always trying to teach other drivers when I am coaching – be relentless and locked in at all times. It is why he is as good as he is – he has all the winning traits that a top driver needs.

 

Downwind, we kept the pole tip down a little bit to create a more draft forward and open leeched sail shape; this provided a wider groove in the swells. The pole was also eased forward going down a swell as the apparent wind shifted forward. Trimming the spinnaker, I focused heavily on talking about pressure on the sheet so we were never too low in the lulls or high in the puffs. The combo of good wind calling from Lance, good steering from Chris, and myself talking pressure on the sheet all the time kept us going downwind fast.  Of course dodging kelp was critical too!

 

LANCE: If you want to know about upwind technique, you had better ask Chris. He is the fastest upwind sailor I know in a fat little boat in that crap. I can stay with him in flat water or straight chop, but in that slop, I can't hold a candle to him. My job was to tune the rigging to ensure the boat was powered up and also had the right feel for Chris.  Normally, that means really tight uppers and loose lowers.  Initially, I had the uppers just a little tight to give him the feel he wanted (the groove was too thin and he had to make too many trim and rudder adjustments).  So we backed off the uppers slightly from the flat-water tune and kept the lowers loose as we anticipated.  We also tried to keep the forestay tighter to see if we could point better, but the loss of power was too great.  We finally just ignored the forestay and went for speed. Speed equals height.

 

I think Andrew also follows the same mantra, which from a trimmers standpoint would be never to "trim too tight". Again, speed equals height.  Never pinch and never strap the genoa.  These are two critical issues in the offshore slop.  Beyond that, you need to ask the masters.

 

6.  What was the verbage you used in communicating for kelp or port/starboard crossing?

 

CHRIS: Lance keeps an eye through the genoa window for close crossings and I try to keep track of things by looking through my ‘wide screen’ helm window.  I have a bigger window spec’d for the main to gauge long-range crossings.  Lance called the kelp, which was a very tough job!  We don’t say much on the crossings, usually Andrew and I will discuss if we’re clear or if we want to tack and lead back.  We had one minor melt down in the last race when we were forced to crash tack by Britt Williams. There might have been a little more said on that one!

 

ANDREW:  Lance would talk about what he was seeing through the window and keep a sharp eye for kelp.  As the regatta went on, we kept progressively prioritizing kelp – both upwind and downwind.  Lance was really good at this.

 

LANCE: I took us awhile to figure out the kelp verbage, and I slipped a couple of times later and confused Chris until he almost wanted to hit some kelp and knock me off the boat.  Generally, however, it was just a call of "up" or "down" until we were "clear". I think helped that I drive my own boat.  I could tell by how the boat felt whether it would be faster to head up or down.  I made a few mistakes but overall it was good.  Chris did trust me even when he was pissed at me. There we a few times when it was obvious we could not miss it, at which point I would yell for the stick and Andrew would get it for me.

 

As for crossings, the biggest thing any skipper and tactician want to know is how many boats are crossing and if you can find a lane back after the first boat crosses or if all the air will be taken.  It is my job as foredeck to give this information to the back of the boat before boats are anywhere close to us. So, it is usually a quiet conversation over the course of minutes before a crossing. As for calling close crosses, if I knew for sure that we were ahead or behind, I madke that very clear so Chris and Andrew don’t worry about it.  If it was obvious that we were going to collide, or if it was too close to call, I just calmly told Chris he needed to take a look and call it, which he did.  As I said, I did completely screw up one time and never saw a starboard tack boat because I was looking so hard for kelp.  But the rest of the time, we had no issues. The key is for the foredeck to feed the information backwards well ahead of time. If that is not happening, I don't think you can win regattas.

 

7.  The last race was certainly the most exciting.  Going into it, you had a three point lead on last year’s champion, Eric Kownacki.  But on the first windward leg found you buried a bit after the start and Eric rounded the first windward mark in second to your 10th.  What was the mood on the boat at that time and how did you go about climbing back into it?  It was a great example of perseverance and persistence to come back and finish 3rd.

 

CHRIS: The weather information and observations we had regarding wind pressure had everything going to the right.  We started at the boat end and the wind went hard left.  We tacked and just had to try to tough it out and try to find a shift or good lane back. The shift never came so as we got up to the top end of the beat, we were deep in the fleet.  Once we got going downwind, we focused on the immediate boats and a way to pass them on the run.  I think we passed about four boats by the leeward gate and knew that if we could get clear air on the beat, we would start grinding through the fleet. We also knew that we had a long race to use our good boat speed and even though they shortened the course, we did what we had to do.  Also, on a personal note, with my dad lying in a hospital bed cheering me on, I wasn’t going to let this one get away!

 

ANDREW:  The mood was very determined; we wanted to sail a solid race, go fast, not be OCS or foul or get tangled up in situations.  We nailed the start at the RC end but it was a general recall.  On the restart, we were a second or two late at the RC boat end and tacked immediately to clear our air and get going fast.

 

About 4 minutes into the leg, the wind went left and never came back to median.  So we took our lumps and rounded in 10th.  Our downwind speed was very good and we immediately started passing boats and gaining on the front group. The communication was good and the determination on the team was tangible; keep sailing well, keep chipping away and good things will happen. Very often your overall series standing is determined by how you sail your worst race; if you sail hard and sail your best it can the difference maker.  For us, we felt that we would be right on the top two boats in another leg. The team focus was excellent, but even better – and arguably the most important trait of a team – the determination to sail our best.

 

Winning the championships was very special - for Chris and I it was our 5th win – four of those with Chris (95, 98, 02, and 09) and one with Bruce Gollison (2007).   We have been second and third many times so each win holds a special memory, not just for the sailing, but also for the people we have met and the friendships we have made over the years.

 

LANCE: As I said, the stress level did go up.  Voices were raised.  However, nobody cracked and we finally got down to just sailing clean and using our boat speed.  I think it did help that we all agreed on going the wrong way after the start.  There were no fingers to point. We just had to get the boat moving. The biggest gainer was the first leeward leg where Chris and Andrew did a masterful job.

 

8.  You guys sailed a fantastic regatta - never finishing lower than third throughout the entire regatta. To what do you attribute your consistency?

 

CHRIS: Great boat preparation by Lance so that we had no boat issues.  Fast sails and lots of good communication by the team.  Andrew and I have sailed together for many years so many times things get done without anything having to be said.  Lance calls the line and crossings well. A smooth running boat is a fast boat.

 

ANDREW:  Good speed, good team work and communication, and good preparation.  Lance was, in my opinion, our MVP.  He worked very hard on the boat and was very focused in all aspects.  It is not easy at all to for a skipper to work foredeck for a championship.  He is an excellent sailor - as every one in the class well knows - and Chris and I were excited for him to win the championships – he flat out deserved it.

 

LANCE: I think we all are pretty mentally tough. I know I have purposefully worked on my mental toughness over the years and I don't think Chris and Andrew ever had a problem with it, though you might want to ask them about a certain Western Regional's at Huntington Lake (they may have mentally blocked it out).  The other thing is boat speed.  In only one race did we think we were not the fastest boat and we all are pretty sure it was due to kelp.  Boat speed will make you feel golden.  Chris is the upwind master but we all worked together on boat speed. Once you have that dialed in, life becomes much easier.

 

9. Looking forward to the 2010 Championships, what do you think will be important to sailing well in the high altitude waters of Huntington Lake?

 

CHRIS: It’s been a while since I last sailed there so I would have to defer to Andrew and Lance. It’s a great place to sail with lots of challenges!

 

ANDREW:  Starting well is going to be very important in order to have a lane to sail all the way over to the scout camp on the left shoreline. The ability to tack well is going to be very key as well as there is a lot of short tacking to stay in the velocity and shifts. Downwind is going to emphasize connecting the dots with the puffs so a really good set of eyes looking back to stay in the breeze and jibing to connect with them will be at a premium.

 

LANCE: Completely different venue. Boat handling is a premium. You must have a good start, or a 5th is about the best you can hope for. You have to be able to tack and accelerate quickly. Holding a thin lane is critical at times but you have to also know when to put the bow down.  Lots of switching gears, typically 2-3 times on every tack.  Lots of moving the backstay. You may have to strap the genoa at times, but you had better not "strap it and forget it" because you will get spit out the back. Constant, constant, constant adjustment of trim on both sails - genoa and main.  Knowing how to play the shore is important (you have to hit the shore lifts, but you can't tack too much). You have to know how to play a "hairball" puff (you know it when you see it, boats on opposite tacks, 100 ft. apart, both lifted). You also have to stay in the wind seams downwind so you have to know how to go low and slow really, really fast (yes that sounds crazy, but it is accurate).  You also need to know how to quickly throw two gybes to jump to a new seam. That's not the half of it either.

 

Thanks guys for your efforts in this interview and for being such good ambassadors of our Class.  And again, CONGRATULATIONS on your great victory!

 

CHRIS:  Thanks Derek - and a big thanks to you and all the people who made Nationals such a great event.