Dorade Log 3: Lessons in Light Air at St. Barth

Winds of 6 to 12 knots are a sweet spot for the 82-year-old Sparkman & Stephens yawl, as Boats.com’s editor discovered while aboard Dorade for Les Voiles de St. Barth.

24th April 2012.
By John Burnham

The Caribbean training campaign continued in early April at St. Barth for Dorade and our crew, as we prepare to race the restored classic offshore in June from Newport to Bermuda. Modest breezes were certainly less exciting than we’d experienced in our St. Maarten shakedown a month earlier, but the opportunity to spend a week competing aboard the 52-foot Dorade in beautiful, warm waters while learning how to help her slip along quickly were at least as valuable and enjoyable.

Two yawls off St. Barth: Dorade, at 52 feet, astern and to leeward of the 80-foot Marielle. Rachael Balaban photo.

At Les Voiles de St. Barth, a young and growing event in its third year, we came up against our first classic competitor, the 80-foot yawl Marielle. She’s a well-sailed boat and showed her transom to us as soon as the wind topped 10 knots, but given that we sailed most of the regatta in less wind, Dorade usually had the advantage.

Right off the start of the first race, under genoa, Dorade proved to be very quick upwind, and as the regatta went on she seemed very happy in 7 to 12 knots of wind, tacking through 90 degrees and going fast. When the wind got softer, our tacking angles widened as we searched for speed, and we had to be careful not to strap the sails in too tight. Marielle wasn’t the only boat that needed every bit of power she could generate when it was light and lumpy.

As a training session, Les Voiles de St. Barth taught us several other things about our 1929 Sparkman & Stephens-designed ride. For one thing, we got to look at all her big genoas we couldn’t fly in St. Maarten—the Light 1, Medium 1, and Heavy 1. The M1 was looking tired, but rather than simply plan to order a new one, we began thinking that for the Bermuda Race, if possible, we might want one sail that could be used across the 7-15 knot range that the M1 and H1 currently cover.  This would reduce sail changes—important when your jibs have hanks and changes must be “bald-headed”—and also save space on this narrow, 10-foot-wide thoroughbred.

Another thing we learned is that even though the boat has lots of sails you can put up when you’re reaching and running (five at a time if you like), when the wind goes below eight knots, the boat may be faster without staysails. Having most of the crew scurrying around hoisting, trimming, and tweaking can also slow you down, and we decided that in light air, while racing offshore to Bermuda, we would be better off when half of the crew is off watch, their weight low and quiet in their bunks.

Dorade's crew in Les Voiles de St. Barth

In addition to Dorade’s sailmaker, Anson Mulder, we had our Bermuda Race navigator, Jess Sweeney, aboard for the regatta as well, and both are among those crewmembers featured in the videos we filmed during the event, Dorade: Training to Win at Les Voiles de St. Barth, and Dorade: Les Voiles de St. Barth: Tuneup for Classic Yacht.  This was Jess’s opportunity to assess the electronics and begin to fine-tune the calibration of the instruments. Dorade has an excellent B&G system installed, but calibration always takes time. By the end of the week, Jess had dialed in more accurate boatspeeds, which in turn gave us more confidence in assessing the correct crossover points between different sail combinations.

Pam Rorke Levy at the mizzen, John Burnham calling tactics, and Jamie Hilton steering with one of the concessions to modernity aboard Dorade -- a tiller extension.

Personally, as tactician, alternate helmsman, and member of the mizzen squad with owner Matt Brooks’ wife Pam Rorke Levy, I learned during the course of the week to gauge our tacking angles better and to keep a lighter touch on the helm. When the wind shifted, it was usually faster for the trimmers to adjust first as the helmsman moved the rudder gently. Picking laylines in light air took practice, because speed and pointing were often different tack to tack, depending on waves and wind shear. I found it was easy to be premature, sometimes costing us a couple extra tacks; in another race, at least once, I was too conservative, overstanding a mark unnecessarily.

One exception to the requirement for a light touch on the helm was in a race when a small squall came through and we ended up reaching for a mile or so along the windward shore of St. Barth in 20 knots. In those conditions, with a big swell sometimes driving the bow to leeward, I had to be prepared to move with the six-foot tiller and be physical—a reminder of the sailing we’d done in St. Maarten, but in the biggest waves we’d encountered yet.

My bet is we’ll see more like that at some point between Newport and Bermuda. At least now I’ll know what to expect.

- John Burnham

 

Read the author’s first two Dorade logs: 

Like Dating Marilyn Monroe and Skinny Genes.


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About the author:

John Burnham

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John Burnham, Editorial Director, lives in Middletown, Rhode Island, on the East Coast of the United States and would rather be sailing, or afloat on any boat, whenever possible.
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