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JJ Giltinan: Seven time champion looks at Australian demise

by Richard Gladwell 12 Mar 19:14 PDT 13 March 2019
C-Tech leads Honda Marine in the heavy air Race 3 2019 JJ Giltinan Championship - March 2019 © Michael Chittenden

New Zealand's Honda Marine successfully defended the 2019 JJ Giltinan Championship on Sydney Harbour - winning this time by a 13 point margin, from the top Australian crew aboard Winning Group.

Last year Honda Marine became the first New Zealand boat in 40 years, to win the unofficial world championship of 18ft skiff sailing. Remarkably, she won by just a single point from a then-rookie Kiwi crew led by 49er sailor Josh Porebski.

In 2019 the gap between the rival Tasman fleets widened, with Honda Marine winning the JJ's with a race to spare and dominated the series with five wins from nine races. To underscore the Kiwi dominance, Porebski, the New Zealand national champion, and sailing a new boat, the old Knight Frank, won two races, and was unlucky not to have finished higher on the pointscore. C-Tech added a further win, in the heavy-air Race 3, to give the Kiwis eight wins from nine races.

That was the telling statistic of the regatta. In 2018 it was 5-4 to the Australians.

Soon after the lead boats had completed Race 9, Andrew Buckland, a seven time winner of the JJ Giltinan Trophy, and member of the commentary team for the series was asked his thoughts as to what the Australians had to do to win some races, and also win overall.

"Lots of work would be the summary", was his quick reply.

"I can tell you that the rig development of the Honda and perhaps, to a slightly different degree, ASCC, is equal or better than the whole of the Australian fleet. We would also note throughout the whole of the regatta that the boat handling of the two top Kiwi boats is one level above, and the precision on the track is also one level above the whole of the Australian fleet."

After the race, Buckland expanded on his views to Sail-World.

"No-one has the perfect answer on rig development, but the Honda mainsails do look more adaptable across the range and with whatever modes they have.

"For example, sometimes Finport is the fastest boat upwind - but only in a narrow wind range. Their mainsail does look very similar to Honda. But they can't go downrange very well - even though they have effected some improvements over the week.

"Honda seem to have taken the view that they want to have the small rig work perfectly up to 20kts - which they appear to have set as the limit of their efficient zone - knowing that they can probably get by in winds above 20kt by just not falling over."

A big mistake made by the Australians and seized on to some extent by the Kiwis is the fact that the JJ Giltinan is held in the tail-end of the Australian summer.

"It is not consistent wind," Buckland says. "Often it backs and lightens towards the end of the race - as it did today in Race 9."

"In the summer the seabreeze is usually very solid, and you just sheet on and off you go. But despite all the wind models, it never really got above 18kts this regatta."

"Honda looked to be good downrange for each rig. They and ASCC seemed to be adept at getting through the gears."

That ability to change on the water was a point often mentioned by Honda Marine's David McDiarmid - both this year and last.

And that is not forgetting that as Yamaha the same crew came within an ace of winning the title in 2017 - were it not for a Redress claim which was taken to Appeal and only resolved two weeks before the start of the 2018 JJ Giltinan Championship.

In Race 5, the fleet believed the forecast of 20kt plus winds and plugged in their #2 rigs. The promised wind never eventuated. "We went out set up for 20kts and quickly changed the settings for 10kts. Actually, we started with the 20kt settings, about 5 minutes into the beat we changed them down to the 10kts", McDiarmid told Sail-World after that race, which they won by a comfortable margin.

Key factors predetermine performance

"80% of the boat's performance is decided before the boats leave the shore,' Buckland continued. "So the crew selection, weights, skill, experience, cohesion is all decided at the point and can't be altered. They have to weigh around 250kgs - and not too old."

Age of the crews is another significant factor between the crews of the two countries.

"We don't have too many young blokes," Buckland notes. "Michael Coxon, Mike McKensey and Ricky Bridge aboard Smeg (who finished third overall) are obviously fantastic 18fter sailors. They are really good", he emphasises.

"But they are all 40yrs plus, not 20-something. And 18fter sailing is a reaction time sport. I got out as soon as I realised I was slowing down. Experience makes up for a lot of things, but when your reaction time gets slightly worse, it’s time to hang up the trapeze belt."

Going back to his earlier point about 80% of the winning being decided on shore, Buckland makes the point that "the top five Australian teams are very well resourced from the dollar point of view. But maybe not quite so well resourced from a time perspective. A lot of the guys are professional sailors, or are weekend warriors - albeit quite wealthy ones. But their time for 18fter training is in very short supply."

"One of the top crews hadn't sailed the boat together more than four times before this regatta."

"It is one thing to have the money, but it takes time to develop the speed."

Back in the Color 7 days - winning six JJ Giltinan titles on the trot - he says their crew - (Iain Murray, Don Buckley and Andrew Buckland) would sail more than 100 times per season.

"No-one does that anymore."

49er influence significant

He also points out that ASCC skipper Josh Porebski and crew Jack Simpson are also sailing 49ers (albeit on different boats). "The 49er is hard to sail," Buckland remarks. 'If you can sail one of them, and 18fter is a walk in the park. In the 49er you must have a good wide range in the rig adjustment. And the critical bits of boat handling are more difficult in a 49er than they are in the 18fter."

"If you are doing that program, it doesn't matter so much how often you are training in the 18fter."

"The technical development here is lacking,” he continues. “And there is a bunch of reasons for that. In essence, there are now only really two suppliers of sails in the fleet. There is not enough fire in either of those suppliers to come up with a breakthrough."

Buckland used to be responsible for the "bits from the deck up" on Color 7, with bowman Don Buckley.

"I don't know any detail of how Honda or ASCC have arrived where they have technically. Honda has a very nice solution mainsail-wise. I'm not so sure about the jib, and maybe the same about spinnakers.

"The sails the Australians are using are very good, but they (the sailmakers) don't seem to be at the task week in week out, although the sail restriction rules may have something to do with that. The moding and wide range capability of the rigs is so important - and it is almost an education program that is needed.

"Finport is probably the fastest boat upwind, a lot of the time but not down range, and it has taken all regatta to get to some reasonable pace."

"You need a down range setting for your big rig which might be 0-10kts and the other setting which might be 8-16kts. It is quite tricky, because the rig adjuster is often not quite enough. It is a lot of work to get sorted out."

Breaking away from Sydney Harbour Playbook

Turning to boat positioning on the race course, Buckland makes the comment that on average Honda and ASCC were very accurate on laylines.

A feature of the regatta was the willingness of the two top Kiwi boats to break tacks with the top Australian boats and take the other side of the Sydney Harbour course.

"They figured out what the problem was - which a lot of the time is the rough water on Sydney Harbour. Too much traffic. Too much rough water."

"We saw that once again today in Race 9. ASCC did a great job on the first lap, Honda did it on the last. It is tricky and Sydney is a busy harbour. Even today I saw Winning Group get hit by a powerboat wake for which they just weren't ready. It's a difficulty which is new in a sense, because the powerboats just keep getting bigger and the wash can be very untidy.

"But going back to the basics of picking the best laylines and picking an efficient angle going into the bottom mark for a good gybe-drop or whatever. The best Kiwi boats were better than all our boats."

"Their boat-handling was very vigorous but mostly very good."

"Because the 18fters are quite heavy, they need to be turned hard in gybe. You've got to get the apparent wind back up and flow reattached quickly so you can to get going again."

"At times the Winning Group were very good as you would expect with Sam Newton and Seve Jarvin aboard (both are seven times winners of the JJ Giltinan in the (2008-2015 era aboard Gotta Love it 7). They are good operators, but sometimes taking too much risk - like running into some pelican (cruiser) motoring down the harbour towing a kayak - you don't need to do that when you are that far ahead."

"The highest execution standard we have seen recently in 18fters in Australian was when Michael Coxon was sailing with Trent Barnabas in the bow, and David O'Connor on the main. They could do anything. Trent would regularly pull off the seemingly impossible.”

“Equally in that era, David Witt with Tom Clout and Tom Anderson could also be relied upon to do some amazing things in heavy air.”

"There are some incredibly skilled guys in the fleet, but to make the whole combination work is very hard.

"But in the end ASCC and Honda were better at joining the dots together than our guys. Winning Group was quite good - they hung in there and did a lot of good things, but sometimes they took risks in execution and tactics which weren't too great.

“Their regatta vanished a bit when they went the wrong way in a light air race, plus when they were hit by a boat under power.”

"From what we could see the Honda guys took no risk at all. They just started in "Row B" and worked out how to fight their way out. It was pretty amazing to watch."

Technical understanding lacking

Crew weight was often discussed as part of the reason Honda Marine's performance with their crew weighing in at around 20kg lighter than the other Australian boats around them on the points table. "When I spoke to them said they didn't think that any above 250kg was viable."

"But they didn't look too good on the only day in which it blew over 20kts for a while - that was their worst race. They just weren't very fast upwind."

"You can run your Monte Carlo simulation - which will tell you that on one day in the regatta we can expect a big breeze above 20kts. We can grin and bear that one - and just make sure that we don't tip over, and accept that you'll probably be not worse than a fifth-place finisher in that condition."

Buckland notes that in the Australian Championship, on one day with two short races race was sailed in 18 - 25kts and every boat capsized at some stage while racing.

"For our blokes, it is windier up to the end of January, when weight is always a help in a big nor'easter. But the JJ's are held in a time of the year when the average is getting lighter and they are not thermal winds anymore. Today, for example it was windier at 2.00pm than it was at 4.00pm."

"Yesterday it was tricky and ASCC had a very handy win - even with the wind swinging from 160-210 degrees, plus a bit of a rain squall. ASCC was commanding - amazing to watch. "

"A mid-summer NE is a very standard procedure - start here, tack there, go over here sort of stuff. If it gets volatile as it has done this week, then those standard moves don't work anymore."

"The Kiwi guys look like they have a model in their heads for the volatile days. But our guys don't develop that because we don't sail enough in volatility."

"Last year, in the first race of the JJ's the ASCC guys had their first race in Sydney on an 18fter - and Josh [Porebski] made the comment that he had to get the course sheet out to see where to go to the next mark."

"Our guys have to do a lot more work. They haven't not worked hard this year, but they haven't worked hard enough technically."

Buckland says that he thinks some of the class rules have served to dissuade other mast and sail makers from getting involved in the class, and believes there is need to de-regulate more to encourage new suppliers to become involved.

"Not all people understand the technical issues at a high level. There might be the interest, but they also need to be enthused to put in the tuning work over a long period."

"It's a key part - when two turns on a D1 can change you from being horrible to great. With carbon masts it is critical to get the fine settings right and repeatable."

"That high-level skill has deserted our fleet," he says.

"To get the luff curve, the battens and everything right for one of these boats with a carbon rig with a square top [mainsail] is a lot of work."

"We have to re-create that ability here in Sydney. It's been a bit embarrassing at times to see our guys struggle."

"The weather here doesn't do us any favours. It is usually a building breeze in the summer, and blows harder at 4pm than 2pm. Our guys are heavier, can just lean back, knowing that it will get windier, just pull on some more cunningham and off we go. That doesn't teach us much. It's not a drag race at this time of the year."

"The NZ guys seem to be better at moding, they are more precise and adaptable."

McDiarmid reflects on winning factors

In the ninth and final race of the JJ Giltinan, the defending and new champion, Honda Marine's skipper David McDiarmid claims their strategy was to get off the start line cleanly and avoid being run over by a spectator boat."

"We just got off the start line, did two tacks and everyone else just disappeared. Josh [Porebski - ASCC) was just behind us, and that was pretty much the only boat we saw the whole race."

"The other boats couldn't pace it with us for one reason or another."

When asked to comment on the hypothesis that the late summer Sydney weather wasn't doing much to help the locals, McDiarmid quipped "that's what they said last year, as well!"

Historically, Sydney Harbour has been the nemesis of Kiwi sailors.

In a break with that tradition, one of the features of this regatta has been the number of times that the Kiwis and Australians would take opposite sides of the Sydney Harbour course – and with the Kiwi boats coming out on top.

"We had a couple of races where we were sailing lifts, and the other guys were sailing knocks, and we haven't known quite why. We back ourselves to pick a shift, that is for sure."

Time in boat a big factor for Honda

"The Sydney boats seem to have a playbook they go to, and maybe they get a bit stuck with that. Sometimes they just disappear, and we pick two shifts.

“Today [Race 9] we got a shift out of the right on the first work and everyone else was hard left, and that was us gone.

On the previous race day - in the easterly, again the Kiwis got a big shift out of the right, lifting through the fleet on the second work from eighth place to first going into the final leg.

McDiarmid definitely puts that one down to luck. "That's just the easterly - sometimes they come good, and sometimes they go bad. Picking that one was hard. You have just got to be in the right place at the right time.

As to the main differences between the two 18ft fleets either side of the Tasman, McDiarmid, as did Andrew Buckland, put it down to time in the boat.

"We have just sailed our boat together more, as a team. Every tack and every gybe is a bit better. We can skim around them. We could get our heads out of the boat. The other guys are all good sailors in their own right, but probably not sailing together as a team so much.

"The top Australian boats definitely don't lack in boatspeed. They can pace it with us. It is just getting the boat around the track in a long race."

Changing gears

McDiarmid down plays any technical advantage the Kiwis may have. There’s no America’s Cup style development program going on.

"We have been using the same rigs for six years," he explained. "So it's not that. We have the same rigs in the boat and with new sails. We can get our rigs through a range - we know what to do with them. But they are nothing new - we have had them for a long time."

The New Zealanders are using different sail designers than the Australians, but McDiarmid says he hasn’t had a lot of time to spend looking at the Sydneysiders’ setups.

But he does concede that there has been some incremental change in their sail shapes over the last couple of years.

"The seam shape has pretty much been the same for a while. We have played around with the profile a little. Dealing with the introduction of 3Di has been a significant change for us.

"We had 3DL jibs last year, and going to 3Di jibs this year has made a huge difference. It is mostly just learning how to use them. It is really all just a matter of learning how to use your own gear."

On the fact that Honda Marine had the lightest crew of the top five overall, McDiarmid said: "we are a lot lighter - we are about 240kg, and most of the top crews are sailing at around 260-270kgs."

He says they didn't settle on 240kg as a target weight, "it was just where we wound up with the group of guys that we have got."

"Having three guys who are keen, and are all good mates is important.

"We all bring our attributes to the group. That is more important than weight being exactly right. We can make up for that with sails and masts and different settings.

"The real difference is the group that we have got going. We will hold that advantage until we don't have the same group."

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