Guest Blog: Hand Steering at Night

June 24, 2020

Sloan Burns/SloanBurns provided us with this onboard report from aboard his Jeanneau Sun Fast 3300 after finishing second in the Double-Handed Division of the 2020 Online Newport Bermuda Race.

I was supposed to be doing the actual 2020 Newport Bermuda Race on Artemis, an Italia 13.98 owned and skippered by Jeff Kennedy of Annapolis. He put together a fantastic crew, and we had been working very hard pre-race on statistical analysis of historic winds, comparative race data, and expected performance with the Italia yacht. We worked closely with the sailmaker to ensure our inventory was appropriate. Boat prep was moving along splendidly, and we were enthusiastic and optimistic about our race prospects. To hear the race had been cancelled was devastating for us as a crew, though we felt it was a respectable decision by the race committee.

Instead, both Jeff Kennedy and I decided to race the virtual regatta both to test our navigational theories as well as keep the spirit of Newport to Bermuda alive. I chose the Sun Fast 3300 because double-handed racing is something I have a great interest in and I’ve seen the boat sailing around Annapolis.

Several days before the race, the routing was calling for a slight east of the rhumbline course. Near the start, the route switched to an east flier going 100nm off of the rhumb.

Sloan Burns, the skipper of SloanBurns, poses in the nav/helm station with his girlfriend Kira Gelineau, also of the Artemis N2B 2020 Italia crew, and their new puppy Bean.

This is something in real life, I would never consider. I chose instead an eastward route and set a no-go boundary of no more than 20nm off of the rhumb. I set a route to stay on the east side of the main rhumbline pack, giving me maneuverability and what I considered to be a neutral position with the uncertain and evolving weather pattern. It became apparent there was little that could be done with the first hole so sticking close to the rhumb seemed to ensure the best performance.

I found it most beneficial to hold true to the old saying of “races are won and lost at night” — something that benefitted us greatly in the 2018 Bermuda Race where I was lucky enough to sail with Glenn Doncaster aboard Nanuq (Fishing Bay Yacht Club). Despite the land-based virtual race, Doncaster’s wisdom held true—and  I found myself setting alarms through the night often “hand steering” through the very late and very early hours instead of relying on a pre-plotted and set “autopilot”.  I also found hand steering to be helpful in picking my way through the “holes” that popped up in the course — optimizing wind angles and VMC.

After getting through the first hole, I switched into this optimal VMC mode. [Another benefit of the SOL racing for a navigator is learning to describe and numerically define sailing objectives, e.g. racing to a point vs. true wind angle vs. match racing and position defense]. Routing then sent me west of the rhumb line. Rather than aggressively chase the optimal route 20nm east then west again, I chose a middle of the road route and stuck along a more optimized VMC course.

This maneuver positioned me in a very precarious location with respect to the encroaching low. Watching the weather, it looked like I was minutes from either making it out of the very edge of the low or getting swallowed by it. Enter more hand steering, again. As the low approached, the wind speed started dropping out faster than predicted and in fear of being swallowed, I tacked early before the optimal angle and was able to stay in the breeze.

After exiting the low, it was apparent that midnightexpress and OscarBoteco1 had maneuvered the low better than me and exited with a more advantageous position—stronger wind and better angles for the drag race to Bermuda. I needed to make up at least a half of a mile in the next 200nm, which proved nearly impossible.

As midnightexpress finished at the pin, SloanBurns aimed up the line slightly, half a mile behind and with equal distance on OscarBoteco1 (faint yellow boat).

I attempted some maneuvers not called for in Expedition routing. I tried to manually steer a “Wally” course to close the gauge between my more westward competitors [Thanks, Kevin Lineberger the tactician aboard Dennis Hannick’s Goin’ at FBYC]. When this did not prove fruitful enough, I calculated an exact great circle route and crossed my fingers — all of them. I never could catch midnightexpress but was successfully able to defend against OscarBoteco, which Expedition initially had finishing at least 2 minutes ahead of me.

Competing in a virtual regatta was interesting to say the least. The SOL Racing community was very helpful in the chat — giving us newcomers access to many of the tools and tricks of the program known to veteran SOL Racers. [Fun Fact: Did you know that you can drive to the
0.001th of a degree in online racing? That would be some fantastic driving skills in real life. Talk about a steady tiller.]

The author, hand-steering his Sun Fast 3300 through the early hours of the morning.

Thanks to the SOL community and the Newport Bermuda Race organizers for keeping the spirit of the race alive in a virtual format. While I absolutely missed the ride to Bermuda and the collaboration with my crewmates, the virtual race gave me a very different sort of challenge that I found very enjoyable. All in all, it was definitely the most comfortable offshore race I’ve done thus far — though the fact I attempted to pour my midnight coffee into an upside down coffee cup is probably an indication that I got no more sleep than on an actual race. 

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Guest Blog: Hand Steering at Night

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