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In search of all the right moves

Published Sep. 2, 2005

Call it a chess match on water.

Competitive sailing isn't just a matter of who has the best equipment. Rarely, in fact, does that come into play _ barring something breaking. In most cases the boats are identical. They're provided at the Olympic Trials, Olympics and very often in college competition. All the sailors have to bring is what they will wear.

The Laser and 470 Olympic Trials start today in Houston, the Mistral at Jensen Beach. The Europe, Finn, 49er, Yngling, Tornado and Star trials are early next year.

Laser, 470 and Mistral class trials cover trapezoid-shaped courses. The length of the course and placement of the buoys is based on how long it should take to finish a race based on existing wind and currents.

Racing isn't strictly a matter of whose boat slices through the water fastest. Speed doesn't mean much if you're not reading subtle wind and current changes and reacting to them quickly.

And because each class has its peculiarities, a sailor specializing in one is likely to become more adept at it than someone who sails various classes. Rarely is a sailor skilled enough to be world-ranked in more than one class.

In any class, strength is essential, as are stamina, agility, experience and the right body type. Some are better for specific classes. In Laser, it's about 6 feet, 2 inches and 170-175 pounds.

In Lasers, more than any others, tactics separate the winners from the others _ having a feel for the boat, knowing the quirks of the course and working every nuance of the waves and wind, predicting what the competition might be contemplating.

"There's a tremendous amount of strategy in Laser sailing," said Tim Landt of Tierra Verde, on the executive committee of the International Laser Class Association and Laser representative to the Olympic Sailing Committee. "All the best guys go fast enough, so it comes down to a mental game."

Because the Laser is a lightweight boat (130 pounds) with about 76 square feet of sail and a shallow draft (depth in the water), it is sensitive not only to changes in wind and current but also to the slightest motion by its sailor.

Most of the race is spent hiking, facing the sail and, with feet under a strap, leaning far backward and over the side to counterbalance the tilting created by the wind in the sails.

Leaning and pumping, much the way a child does to go higher and faster on a playground swing, can add speed. Rocking the boat can get more air in the sail.

Similarly, ooching, sitting and jerking your rear end forward the way an adult does to move an office chair without touching the floor, will raise the Laser's bow and perhaps get the boat onto a wave. Leaning forward raises the stern and lowers the bow to ride the wave.

In competitive Laser sailing it's called poor judgment, or cheating. "You don't practice what you think judges might call cheating," said Mark Mendelblatt of St. Petersburg, regarded as the No. 1 U.S. Laser sailor. "Usually you get a flag because you weren't thinking."

Getting caught once, the time penalty is a 720, two circles in place; a second flag means you're out of the race; a third and you're out of the regatta.

In Laser and all other classes it's winner-take-all at the Olympic Trials. There are 16 races in each class, two per day. Win one race, you get one point; second place is worth two points and so on. After all 16, the two worst races can be discarded (forgiveness of sorts for someone penalized once or twice). Lowest point total, you win the trials and head for Athens; second place, you go home.

"Getting one flag isn't that big of a deal," Mendelblatt said. "You're going to sail very differently with one flag instead of none. After that you have to be really careful. You're going to be scared to move."

Landt, still competitive, has a slightly different perspective. "In a lot of regattas anything goes. At the (Olympic) trials and games, judges watch sails very closely (from nearby inflatables) to detect improper butt wiggles, rocking back and forth, and so on. But the judges can't be everywhere, so when one approaches and the sailor knows it, he's wearing a halo," Landt said. "The second the judge leaves, the horns come out."