The Learning Curve

written in December, 1997, by Bob Aman (who has continued to improve by leaps and bounds, and very nearly won the 1998 Ultimate 20 Nationals in September, 1998)

I have just finished my first season as an Ultimate 20 owner. I received U20 #71, Rogue, in April of 1997. This was truly a learning season for me. One of the best things that I can say about the U20 is that it has been easy to learn on. I started sailing on our local lake in April against seasoned PHRF skippers and crews. Up until then, I had only scattered times at the helm and four years of crewing. My crew and I did not know what to expect from ourselves and the boat except a very steep learning curve. That it was. Over the season, I began to become more familiar with the boat and what it could do but I never knew exactly what I had learned. That is, I was sailing PHRF and finishing in the top 20%. I did not know how far I had really come.

As a skipper I have had to learn the rules of the road, how to sail a new boat and train a crew. At least it has been on my boat. I have been involved in weekly races and one regatta on Fern Ridge reservoir here in Oregon. My first 4 races were about learning how to operate the boat and train my crew who had only sailed socially a few times prior. So we had a new boat, green skipper and green crew up against larger PHRF boats on their local waters. What could I loose. Actually, I couldn't have asked for a better group to sail against since they cut me slack a few times when I was learning how to drive the boat. On Fern Ridge my U20 is the smallest boat in our fleet of 25 PHRF boats yet my rating of 151 makes me the 4th fastest boat by the numbers.

Probably the most fun I had was during our Memorial Day regatta. We had four U20's show up. Dick Martin from BigBird came all the way from Arkansas to lend a hand crewing for us and promote one-design racing. My fondest experience was the first day which ultimately was completely canceled due to bad weather. The Saturday race was started under cloudy skies and shifting winds. Fortunately, we were in the first start which got us on the course early. We sailed an Olympic course and I got to the windward mark second in the fleet and ahead of my mentors, Kent and Gina Morrow in their U20, Mad Dog. During the reach leg, I sailed higher expecting to make up on the other conventional spinnaker boats only to eventually watch a Santa Cruz 25 sneak by me putting me in 3rd. After that, I learned to sail almost the same course as these boats down wind to perform the best. The exciting part came when we were sailing a windward/leeward segments of the course on a starboard tack, the wind had shifted 90 degrees by now and then went dead. Within two minutes, the wind had shifted left over 100 degrees and now I was on a port tack sailing the exactly the same course. By the time we made the next mark we had to simply sail a reach back to the finish and easily finish 3rd. Five minutes into this leg, a squall came in with 20 knot plus winds and hail the size of large peas along with lightning strikes around the lake.

At this point, we began seeing all types of boats heading into the yacht club across our course. We figured they just got scared off the lake. After all, we were 3rd in our fleet, ahead of the other three U20s and the balance of the seasoned PHRF boats. We weren't going to let the three inches of hail in the boat or the lightning keep us from our finish. Before we all finally learned that the racing had been canceled for the day, only five of our fleet actually finished the race. Of the five finishers, two of them were U20's, which really goes to show how well these boats do in all types of weather. I just had a wonderful time in that race knowing that this 20 foot boat kicked butt on the big boys. Ultimately, the PHRF boats were ecstatic when they learned that this first race was canceled giving them the opportunity to sail under kinder conditions the following day.

The next fond memory was during one of our Sunday races. My crew was my wife and me sailing again against the PHRF fleet. My wife had never sailed a race before and had never seen the spinnaker fly. With winds running 13 to 18 knots,we both agreed that launching the spinner for her first time may not be a wise idea. We had a three race series that day and off we went. Fortunately, the first race was a triangular race and we stayed with everyone even without our spinnaker and a couple of lucky wind shifts. The second race was a windward/leeward race and after getting too the windward mark first and heading down wind my wife was really pumped. We watch the other boats round the mark and pop their chutes and quickly catch up to us. My wife began to reconsider our choice not to fly the spinnaker and wanted me to launch it. Unfortunately, I hadn't tied up the spinnaker or run the sheets and being a fairly short course I would have cause more damage trying to get it ready and flying. Fortunately, we were only passed by two boats and one of them went off to the wrong mark. We were second around the leeward mark and ultimately corrected on the Olson 30 who finished ahead of us. The third race saw the 18 knot winds with gusts to 20 plus and we were over powered and trying to keep our feet dry. Again we were blessed with a triangular course. By the end of the day, we had taken a second overall without flying our spinnaker. This boat is fast, forgiving, and fun to sail. I hope that all of you are having as much fun sailing it as I have.

There are now over eight U20ís in the Northwest with prospects for several more in the near future. I was able to entice some of the owners to come to my neck of the woods to for some of our local regattas, first on Memorial Day and again in September. Finally during our Harvest Regatta, we managed to get five boats onto the lake and qualified for our own start. It was during these two events that I finally discovered that I was sailing the boat fairly well technically but that I had a way to go on learning tactics. Overall, while I have enjoyed sailing with the local PHRF fleet, I thoroughly enjoyed U20 one-design racing the best. I cannot advocate enough bringing our boats together for one-design racing.

I think what made these events very special was not just the one-design fleets, but the way we shared our experiences and crews. Between the Morrows, Dick Martin and me, we swapped crew with the less experienced boats and provided suggestions to assure that everyone had a great time. I only hope that everyone enjoyed the time together on the water and learned more about the boat. When next year's sailing season starts again, you bet that I will do everything in my means to bring all interested parties together on the lake again.

With that said, I would like to extend my sincere thanks to a few individuals who made my first season one to remember. These are the owners and crews who attended the one-design regattas. First and foremost, Kent and Gina Morrow, who traveled seven hours from Washington for two separate regattas to race one design. Secondly, Sven Leon and his wife from Portland, Oregon, Tim Bombar from Redmond, Washington and Barry Fisher from Newport, Oregon also deserve recognition for traveling to these events.
Rogue jibing
Aman and crew on their way to a bullet in the '97 Nationals
(click to see larger version)
I would also like to share with you my experience on this learning curve. I have been sailing the U20 at least once per week since April. I have participated in approximately 50 races this season and I have learned a lot. I have also learned that there is a lot more to learn. With all this opportunity to learn, I still didnít know how much I had improved. I was fortunate to be able to participate in the 1997 U20 Nationals in Pensacola, Florida in September. In a leased boat, with two year old sails, and with only one of my regular crew, I got my first bullet in the first race. While overall we took a 6th, that one race was enough to tell me that I had learned an incredible amount last year. I had a great time at the Nationals and if any of you ever have an opportunity to participate, I would strongly urge you to attend.