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The Tactical Side of Vic-Maui

by Ron Olgilvy, May 23rd, 1998



The Tactical Side of Vic-Maui

This race, like most others, can be broken into many segments, each with several tactical options. This article describes some of the choices racers must make during the crossing to Maui.

The Start
Win the Start - Clear air, going fast right from the gun; what a way to start the race. Ocean races and records have been decided by seconds, and a few seconds at the start often means five minutes, an hour into the race. And what about the Sea Q Trophy for the best start?

Or Back Off - It's a long race, and an altercation at the start can destroy the entire race. What's 10 or 20 seconds in a two-week race?

Juan de Fuca
Sail it as a Swiftsure - Go through the race. In a westerly, cross over to the U.S. side with the ebb, looking for the current and a 15-to 20-degree lift to bring you well west of Pilar Point. Look for the westerly to shut down at night and be replaced by fluky outflows. Look for wind, and keep an eye on the current. Avoid Clallam Bay and Neah Bay after midnight. In an easterly, hoist your chute and go for it.

Beyond Cape Flattery
Head South - Stay within sight of land and take advantage of shore breezes. There is more wind than outside, so work south to stronger breezes and better sailing angles for Hawaii. It's better to be a bit south to avoid the dreaded, windless Pacific High.

Work Offshore - Head offshore for the constant ocean wind and the favorable current that flows south. Pay attention if you plan to use it, its location, width and strength vary. You may have to work through a light-air transition zone, but you get into the real breeze first, and this is the shortest route to Maui.

Power Reaching for Several Hundred Miles
Your only tactic here is to line yourself up where you want to be when your boat locks onto its downwind polars. (The fastest route downwind for a sailboat is rarely straight to the destination. Each boat and each wind strength have a different optimal offwind sailing angle. These angles are called the downwind polars.) Making all the distance you can toward the finish could send you smack into the center of the windless high. In a good year, it might put you on the best course for Maui. There is usually great pressure gradient (wind) off San Francisco, but how far south should you go? Watch for the commonly found tongue of windless high pressure on the southeast corner of the high that can provide a branch of light air several hundred miles toward California from your favored route. You want to cross this tongue where it is thin, or where it has a pressure gradient. Set yourself up for the next long and telling section, the Slotcars.

The Slotcars
The various races around the Pacific High to Hawaii all share the so-called Slotcar feature. You lock into a route that is predetermined for up to 1,000 miles, unless you are willing to pay a heavy distance and time price to change slots. In the slots, you maximize your great-circle distance to the finish.

Pick an Inside Slot - Don't get caught! The boats in an inside slot (closest to the high) sail the shortest route with the best lift to gybe on at the end, giving them the best route for Maui. This comes with the lightest wind and the highest likelihood of spinning out into the high (having to sail higher and higher to keep an efficient wind angle as the wind goes lighter, continuously sailing farther into the high), and having to gybe out at a terrible angle back to the mainland to get south again.

Pick a Southern Slot - Go where the wind is. The wind is usually stronger farther from the center of the high. This more conservative route provides better wind, better sailing angles for longer, and less chance of getting caught by a moving high or just by being too close. Hit the trades first and start surfing.

The Gybe
Unless you lined up in the wrong slot or caught a fortunate wind shift with a front or small system coming through that allowed you to gybe and gain some distance south, you will be working on your downwind polars for a thousand miles. Your choice about gybing is key, this better be a good call.

Gybe Early - Sail the long leg first, minimizing the risk of overstanding and staying off the layline to allow ample distance to react to opportunities such as squalls, as they present themselves. You're going downwind now, so the gybe you are on isn't relevant to gains on the finish line - concentrating on your downwind polars and anticipating local squalls and wind changes will dictate your gybing strategy. Gybing early will get you down into the stronger trades faster for the next starboard gybe.

Or Hold On Right to the Layline - Ride that lift around the high as long as possible and look at the great course you can sail on the opposite gybe. You'll pick up miles on each schedule now. But, every mile you oversail is wasted distance, because this is the layline. You aren't gybing back.

Approaching Maui
The trade winds get a bit of south (10 degrees) in them as they deflect off the island of Maui. They can also go lighter at night and stronger than average in mid-afternoon. (Does this mean you should plan your arrival for the afternoon?) Anticipate a westbound current in the trades. If your call of the layline felt close before, you'll find yourself reaching up hard at the end of your approach.

Approach Maui Early, keeping on downwind polars at all times. Many skippers have reached up so high they've been forced to white sails just to make Pailolo Channel.

Or Sail the Layline - It's a complicated layline to call, but worth it if you can hit it. Work in the 10 degrees or so that the wind will shift again, calculate the effect of day or night on your approach, and call the layline. All your separation from the fleet here turns into miles ahead as the wind shifts. Furthermore, the boats that went early will find themselves sailing very low in light airs (if a night approach), while you get the chance to heat it up.

The Finish
Stay Wide and away from the Maui shore in Pailolo Channel to keep in the best breeze for finishing. Watch for being headed right out into the channel. Keep your white sails ready.

Cut It Close - Cut as close as the wind (and rocks) will allow. You will sail a shorter course with a better wind angle in lighter breeze.

Post-Finish
Savor the Moment - Keep the sails up for a while and bask in the personal triumph of your achievement. Avoid that noisy engine. Relax and sail for Lahaina.

Pack It Up Fast - Get the sails down and clear the decks. Customs and a cooler of drinks are coming aboard. As long as you have sails drawing, they can't come alongside. When was the last time you had an ice-cold beer?

Credits: Adapted for the 2000 race from an article by Ron Ogilvy, "Vic-Maui 1998 Program"

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