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Hyde Sails 2022 One Design LEADERBOARD

Ben McGrane's Tips for Winter Handicap Racing

by Mark Jardine 13 Feb 06:00 PST
Roger Gilbert and Ben McGrane in the 505 © Hyde Sails

Over the last 20 years Ben McGrane has been a serial competitor at winter handicap events. They offer hardy UK sailors the opportunity to continue to compete through the winter months, and with the introduction of the Sailjuice series, the events have continued to thrive, offering great racing at challenging venues and, according to Ben, some of the best racing available all year!

Mark Jardine caught up with Ben to find out what it is about the winter events that keep him coming back year after year and, as a past winner of the Bloody Mary, Tiger Trophy, Grafham Grand Prix, Draycote Dash and King George Gallop, we also took the chance to find out how best to approach handicap racing.

Mark: A lot of people may feel that sailing in winter is something they don't want to do.

Ben: I think, probably as I'm getting older, I'm starting to understand that a bit better. At the same time, I think I would like to keep racing all year round, and that's what I have done since I was a kid.

Inland they race all year round, whereas at coastal venues you tend to see this this gap and it all kicks off again around Easter time.

I think there's a lot to be gained by sailing through the winter and the kit has got vastly better. I think, if you're well prepared, some of the best sailing you can do in the UK is actually in the winter months.

Mark: Often, during these winter months, there are less pressures on people's time, so it can end up with these weekend events, or one day events, you can get the time away from the family commitment to do them. Are there advantages on that front as well?

Ben: I think there are. Even with championship sailing, you can see classes now leaning towards trying to focus their regattas outside of the holiday periods because of less potential knock-ons with people taking a two-week family holiday in August but also wanting to go and do a national championship. One of the biggest problems with our sport, I think is time pressure as you can't just go out the front door, like you would for a 30 minute run - sailing takes time.

I think you're absolutely right, that for winter events or winter sailing there's probably more time available. I suppose the flip side of that is the biggest part of our sport is weekday evening racing, which of course isn't an option in winter.

I try to do one handicap event a month, and I think that works quite well for just keeping racing fit. It's a long winter otherwise!

Mark: The approach you take to winter racing, particularly with two different formats - handicap racing and pursuit racing - require very different approaches. In a handicap fleet, how do you approach the start line?

Ben: That's a big question! It depends what boat you're in for a start. If I'm racing in a Mirror, for example, I know that I'm going to spend almost the entire race sailing in dirty wind and your fundamental focus becomes, 'right, how am I going to get off this start line and find clear wind?'

Starting basically at the wrong end in a Mirror can be a good thing to do, because you're in clear wind. Whereas if you start at the favoured end, you can be literally spat out the back door 20 seconds later and sit in dirty wind.

At the other end of the spectrum, if you're in a fast boat, you don't want to be starting above a boat that's going to pinch, you just want to get going, and get going fast. You have to approach it with a view to what you're racing and what you're racing against. It's a real challenge.

Each venue and race is different, so the questions become, 'How do you keep it clean?', 'How do you stay out of trouble?', 'How do you keep the boat going fast?'.

Mark: Then, with the pursuit races you may have the Toppers starting at 12.30 on the dot, and if you're in an International 14 you wouldn't even have the sails up at that time. How do you handle that challenge?

Ben: Roger and I won the Bloody Mary in the International 14, which is quite a few years ago now. We got into the lead with around 15 or 20 minutes to go and it was a day where everything kind of just aligned, being able to carry the spinnaker on most downwind and reaching legs, and the runs were long enough that the boat handling was manageable in around 12 to 15 knots - perfect International 14 weather basically.

With a boat like that, when you approach a leeward mark and there's 30-boats piled up rounding it, you just carry on round the outside. You just don't get involved in any of that.

I think that one of the biggest things in handicap racing is managing clear wind and keeping clear of trouble. That goes a long way to having a good race.

Mark: Those congested roundings must be fantastic preparation for championship racing?

Ben: For sure. During the King George Gallop we were in an Osprey, and the lake is pretty tight for a boat like an Osprey. Then you put 80 boats on it, and we were the second start, with the slow fleet going first, so again, it became about how we were going to contend with navigating around 40 boats in arguably one of the quickest boats there.

We had to position ourselves to get clear wind to make sure we can get around the marks. As you're coming down the run, there are ten boats all coming into the mark together, so we made the call to drop the spinnaker a bit early and just let it all happen, trying to keep it so that you're controlling where you go and how you get there, rather than just being in the melee.

I think if you know those skills, then they massively come into their own during open meetings and championships, where if you have a great start and you're out in front of the fleet, it's less of a problem. If you have a bad start and you round in the 40s, and it's all more congested, then you haven't necessarily got clear wind all the time; you're having to manage being around the boats - your winter sailing, your handicap club racing, is basically where you refine those skills.

Mark: From a sailmakers point of view, where over the summer you've had your championship events, you've got various ideas as to where you could make slight modifications to the sails. Do these winter events provide good validation points in the sail development process?

Ben: Absolutely. For example, at Hyde Sails we're working on the Osprey sails. We came away from the Nationals knowing where the strengths were, where the weaknesses were, and then that development process continued. The winter events have worked as validation as it allows time on the water, around the boats.

You can't take handicap results as gospel, but it gives us time on the water around other boats of similar speed. This is where I am thinking about the tuning guide, and the setup, and developing all that sort of thing as well. It's an important and valuable time.

Mark: Tuning guides are clearly an area you're making a big focus on during 2024. Do you see it as really important for all fleets, having as many sailors using the right settings?

Ben: I think it's part of being a sailmaker, that we're trying to make sure we provide supporting information as best we can, and a tuning guide is a great starting point. If you take our Osprey sails, and you set your mast up as we instruct in the tuning guide, then you know that's my settings, and it's a good starting point.

Everyone's settings then evolve, as a crew might be heavier or lighter, or you might like setting your boat up in a different way, but I think if you have that start point you can hit the ground running.

Having a set of sails from one sailmaker and then using them with a tuning guide from another sailmaker won't necessarily work. One of the biggest mistakes I see is people buying a set of sails and then putting them on to the mast set up for their previous sails, and then thinking the sails are no good. If you're not going fast, it's generally because your setup is wrong, your tensions are wrong, or your sheet angles are wrong. It's so important to have that starting point for your sails.

Mark: Do you have clients regularly contacting you for that help with that initial setup?

Ben: I've seen that a lot where I've been Mirror racing over the last couple of years. People come and ask you questions, and we go look at their boat, put a tape measure up the mast and check the setup.

We're producing tuning videos which are a good way of educating people, as well as explaining smaller details, such as getting the jib tack height right, as it can all really add up and make a big difference, especially in tight, competitive fleets. At Hyde Sails we're here to help!

Find out more at the new Hyde Sails website, and contact the team here.

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