Dave Best, helm of Misfire 127 and Crossfire 797, National Champion 1999, Inland Champion 1998, 1999 - talks about the first beat.
In big fleets, clear air is absolutely critical. You need boat speed to get off the line but even with that, dirty air is a killer. The first beat starts at least an hour before the gun. Dave says that he is always out that early, doing the first beat a couple of times, perhaps not all the way but certainly enough to find the wind shifts and bends. The wind is always shifting to and fro, usually about every 5 minutes and is really quite regular, he says. How to find the windshifts? Well, you can use your compass or get your crew to watch it. If you are near the land, you can use bearings there. Another way is to watch your club members and see what they are doing. Pair up with a mate, split tacks, sail for 3-4 minutes, tack back and see who crosses who. Dave's private tip is to watch the Lowestoft guys! See what they are doing and 'sus out' what they have discovered.
Whatever you do, the crew and helm must agree a plan for the first beat. Typically, Dave will go out to one side or the other. On the law of averages, there will be fewer boats out there than down the middle - clear air again. This way, you tack less often. Each unnecessary tack will cost you 3-4 boat lengths. Eight boat lengths could be 20 places on the first beat. Dave is insistent on this and says that even if it turns out that you go the wrong way on that first beat, the clear air out to the side will mean you still round the windward mark in the top 20% of the fleet. This is particularly important if you get a bad start. Stop thinking about the start, get clear air and sail as fast as you can.
To be near the front, you need speed off the line. Some crews tighten everything up in their excitement. This can stop the boat. The way to avoid this is to maintain trust in your settings. If you think you are going slow, don't start doing silly things with the settings. Trust the black marks and concentrate on sailing. Preparation here really matters and before the championship, you must have worked out your fast settings back at the club. Put marks on your jib sheets, main sheets and jib halyard. At the start, go to your settings and leave it at that. Dave says the most important 'extra' on the Squib is a great big, black, felt pen! Dave and Steve sailed the new Parker Squib, Crossfire 797, for the very first time at Plymouth. They set Crossfire up exactly the same as they were used to setting up Misfire 127, Dave's earlier boat. This gave them the confidence to go out and sail rather than fiddle with the string.
The crew plays an even more essential role on that first beat. Dave counts himself really fortunate to have had Steve Allso up at the sharp end when Mark Thompson could not make it for the Plymouth Nationals. Steve is some sailor having campaigned a J24 with Laurie Smith and it was an eye-opener, says Dave, seeing how much the crew could control the tactics, leaving the helm to concentrate on boat speed. He says the thing to do is to agree the route beforehand. Once off the start, the crew takes over, knowing the tacking angles and calling the shots. To have a crew that can call a tack so that you cross another boat by inches is very rewarding (and also sounds a bit exciting!) This matters particularly when you hit the lay line. If you are in or near the lead, overstanding can lose you 3 or 4 boat lengths. You have to have confidence in the crew's decision when to go for the mark.
However, says Dave, if you are mid-fleet, the situation is different. If you tack on the lay line in mid-fleet, other boats will cross you and tack on top, making you fall away. The danger is that you will have to put in another couple of tacks to make the mark. His tip for mid-fleeters is to overstand enough to stop this happening. He does not advise a port tack approach because, apart from the danger of not finding a hole, you will get all the dirty air from those who have rounded the mark - the importance of clean air again.
Dave emphasises the importance of boat preparation again when saying that he spends many hours working on the boat. He decided a couple of years ago to 'get serious' about becoming National Champion and the new boat takes up just as much time as the old one. In fact, Dave does not sail that much. (After all, he lives in Solihull and sails at Abersoch.) However, he does make sure that every time he sails the boat is ready for it. The new boat is not dry sailed but only stays in the water for a couple of weeks before being pulled out and cleaned. Asked about anti-fouling, he says that he does not think it slows the boat that much. On the other hand, he does say that before an important meeting, Misfire 127 was hauled out and sanded down - burnished, one might say. In fact, before the Nationals, the anti-fouling used to be sanded off. The new Crossfire 797 is not anti-fouled.