UNCLE FLUFFY’S SECRETS TO WIN THE J/22 WORLDS
Interview Reveals Details on Boat Settings, Tactics and Crew Work
Congratulations Zeke, Emmy, JoAnn and Jackson on your, hard fought, victory at the 2018 J/22 Worlds in Annapolis. Can you tell us a bit about the team and how it all came together and worked so well?
Zeke – Our team first sailed together at the 2016 J/22 Worlds in Kingston which was our first event as a team and my first time ever skippering a J/22. I had sailed a lot with each other person on the boat separately but never together. It was clear from day one of that regatta that we had something special. With the Worlds coming to my home waters here in Annapolis, it was obvious who I wanted to have on board with me. Jackson has made a name for himself across our sport as a Real-Deal-Tactician-and-Trimmer and I feel lucky to have such a good friend be so talented and willing to sail with me! Jo Ann already had a World Championship under her belt and she brings all of the technical perfection to her bow work as well as tuning (she tunes the rig!). She’s a spark of positivity and fun and I can’t imagine having anyone else on the bow. Emmy Stuart is an All American Crew from the College of Charleston who has really come into her own on the keel boat scene. Her knowledge of wind shifts and current really gave us an edge in the tricky conditions we had. On top of that, she kept us all organized with the off the water logistics that took a ton of pressure off of the rest of us. The only thing more special than winning a world championship is doing it with friends you love!
Jackson – My role on the boat was to handle the jib trim, spinnaker trim, and tactics pre-start, upwind, and if we were going to have a straight set at the windward mark or look for an opportunity to gybe quickly. I would try to discuss my thought process as best as I could so that everyone was on the same page. Emmy would take over the tactics downwind as I was trimming the kite, and she also did a great job painting the picture of what was going on behind us on the downwind legs, which would keep me keyed into the race for when we turned back upwind. Sometimes I would take a quick snapshot of what was happening behind me while trimming the kite (maybe once or twice a leg if the opportunity presented itself, although I’m sure Zeke isn’t thrilled to hear that!). Due to Emmy’s tactics downwind, I don’t think we ever had a negative delta on any downwind leg the entire regatta. In fact, I’m pretty sure we actually passed boats about 75% of the time on the downwind legs.
Jo Ann – I had 2 main roles on the boat:
1. Tuning the rig. Zeke, Jackson, and Emmy gave me full control over setting up the rig which freaked me out. I would ask for their opinion on it and they would always respond “just do what you think is right!”
2. The bow. Just making sure all sets and douses were flawless as well as ensuring weight placement was correct. Then assisting Emmy with an information regarding boats, speed, wind etc that Zeke and Jackson needed.
Emmy – My role on the boat was pit. I was responsible for time on the line, trimming jib during pre-start, calling pressure, waves, current, lanes, keeping eyes on the marks, prepping kite for set/dousing the kite, cleaning up lines as needed, and moving my weight around quite a bit. With four people on the boat, I was sharing quite a few jobs with Jo Ann which forced me to constantly think about what I could be doing to add value in the moment.
The week started off with an announcement that they were shortening the event by a day due to the possible effects from Hurricane Florence. How did that affect your strategy for the week knowing that the first few days they would be looking to get as many races “front loaded” as possible?
Zeke –When we heard they were going to front-load as much racing as they could, it didn’t really alter our approach all that much. We just knew the first couple days might be long so we brought some extra rations so we could stay healthy out there. But our hard focus for the first couple of says was still the same – DON’T LOSE THE REGATTA. You can’t win the regatta in the first day or two, but you can certainly lose it. We just tried to avoid big mistakes and give ourselves a shot at the end of the regatta.
Jackson – I personally didn’t look into that too much. We knew we had to have good races from the very beginning, but that’s always the case if you’re looking to win an event. I suppose the only thing that the schedule change affected was that we knew we had to prepare for slightly longer days. I think it was fairly close to dusk as we hit the dock after the first day of racing.
Jo Ann – I think everyone on the boat is super focused and the longer days didn’t phase anyone. We made sure we all ate and drank after every race.
Emmy – I was initially bummed to hear that Friday was cancelled. However, it was really positive being with a team that was excited to get in as many quality races as we could while we had good weather. From my perspective, we were all psyched to be racing this event together that it was more so mentally preparing for some of the challenges ahead (sailing in some of the tricky shifty conditions, lighter conditions and even the fog) and staying positive.
In looking at the results the fleet was packed with talent with many past World and NA champions. Obviously teamwork was critical but you had to be confident in your boat speed in a large fleet like that. What were the keys to being “World Champion Fast”, what were the condition for the week and how did you “change gears” as the conditions changed?
Zeke – As always, speed is king. Jackson and I worked hard to get the mast tuned as straight as possible before the regatta and from there I knew Jo Ann could take care of all the tuning. As the helmsman, it was my responsibility to keep us moving fast. I focused a lot on the balance of the helm and tried really hard to keep the keel engaged – I think that is the real trick in the J/22.
It was mostly light air, so Jackson and I worked hard on keeping the boat fast but erroring on slightly eased/open sails and when I felt we had an opportunity to “squish” the boat flat with the sails trimmed a bit harder, I could really feel the keel engage and the boat would just take off. The North M7 main has been an amazing sail for us with that design having won 4 of the past 5 World Championships. We have worked a lot on development on new molds and designs over the years and, at this point, we just keep coming back to the fact that the M7 is the best all around shape. When the breeze came up a bit, my focus was on finding the perfect amount of backstay so that we could pull the head stay a bit straighter and open up the main leech to help keep the boat flat while still at max power. There was a lot of communication throughout the entire regatta about crew placement, sail trim, and mode so we could be sure we were on the same page shooting for the same goal. Major KUDOS to Emmy and Jo Ann who had to tough it out down below in a number of the light air races. Having weight low and decreased windage is key for light air speed upwind. But we wouldn’t have been able to be fast if we weren’t in the best breeze! Jackson, Emmy, and Jo Ann did a phenomenal job with boat placement so we always had a chance to rely on our speed!
Jackson – Oh man, this is a good question. Our boat preparation started months and months before the Worlds even started. Zeke did an amazing job making sure we had the bottom of the boat well taken care of, and then we made it as perfect as possible throughout those months leading up to the Worlds, always thinking about how we might enhance even the smallest things. Starting to prepare the hull, rigging, and rig tune well before the event allows you to go into the first day of racing completely focused on the task at hand (sailing well in the conditions of the day), which is a major advantage. It takes a really long time and a lot of effort to get the boat in tip-top shape. We went over every little piece on the boat with a fine-tooth comb to make sure everything was working just the way we wanted it to, and it wasn’t going to break on us.
Setting the base rig tune on Uncle Fluffy is a little strange. We found that for some reason the mast was very hard to set straight, and keep straight, through the settings. I really focused on that for a few days during the Annapolis NOOD back in May, then recorded caliper measurements at the turnbuckles to easily replicate those base settings. Once I dialed the rig into the best base setting I could, we pretty much turned the rig tune on the water over to JoAnn. She has an amazing wealth of knowledge and experience in that department and I think the team actually trusted her more than she trusted herself! But we knew we were in the best hands possible with Jo handling the changes on the water. She has a keen eye for mast bend and a lot of our speed came from her expertise! Our normal game plan for rig tune was to set it for the given wind and wave conditions before each race, but then we’d revisit it right before the warning signal and make sure that it was tweaked just ever so slightly towards how we thought the conditions might change for the start and the first leg of the race.
Zeke mentioned the M7 main and knowing that we had proven winning sail designs that are also very easy to use in all conditions allowed us to keep our thoughts towards actually racing the boat and cracking the code of the current and wind each day. My focus on trimming was on the jib and spinnaker and, like the M7, having the BigFoot AP jib and FR-1 spinnaker in our quiver was a real confidence boost since we knew that, using that combination, guaranteed us World Championship speed. When the dust settled the top 4 teams as well as 5 of the top 6 used the same sail combination that we did so we certainly had to stay on top of all facets of our game since we weren’t the only team that figured that puzzle out! I think the overall results speak clearly for themselves as to which sails are used by the fastest boats.
Jo Ann – On the lighter days Emmy and I spent a lot of time in the dog house! It was difficult to exactly tell what was going on, but we were constantly moving positions down below to keep weight in the correct place.
Downwind, I think it was important to stay in the breeze and know where the next shift was coming from and where the leeward marks are located. As soon as we set, we’d immediately look for the leeward marks.
Emmy – I’ve been lucky enough to learn so much from this team over the past couple of years. Jo Ann and I would talk through relatives compared to the boats around us, especially as the boys were talking about changing gears. We were constantly talking about wind on the course and counting down the immediate pressure. Weight balance feels pretty natural but we would talk through making minor adjustments like shifting weight in, or Jackson coming off the rail, to a change as drastic as me (and Jo Ann) hopping down below/up on deck.
Consistency won the day at this event and, while you did win one race, more importantly you counted all single digit finishes in your scorecard. What was the focus of your game plan going into the event and how did you alter it as the week progressed?
Zeke – I’ve done a fair amount of sailing (and talking about sailing) with Jackson and I know he is all about those top 5 finishes. He rarely makes a super risky call to try to win a race, but rather he sets the boat up to be in the top 10% at the first mark and then he snipes off packs or boats for the rest of the race. He’s always trying to avoid big mistakes. We would try to start conservatively near the favored end and then play the fleet up our side of the course. We paid very close attention to the breeze and course angles in the pre-start (3-5 wind checks before each race) so we could set up to be on the favored end of the line. We never really altered our approach until the very last race of the regatta.
Jackson – A main contributing factor from our consistency came from Zeke’s excellent starting abilities. I’d develop the game plan, and then the area of the line that I wanted to start, and then he’d execute perfectly from there. Starting in low density areas of the starting line is a low-risk/ high-reward game plan, so we’d generally start near where we thought was the favored end of the line, but safely away from the pack. If for some reason the extreme end of the line was not crowded, then we’d jump at the opportunity. Making sure to pay attention to the location of the pack from about 2:30 before the start really helps to make sure you don’t mistakenly get caught up in it.
With the highly variable and unpredictable wind that we had at this regatta, it was pretty stressful at times trying to keep track of all the top boats in each race. Playing the odds in relation to where the largest number of boats in the top group were heading generally provides for a solid score line. However it doesn’t necessarily keep the second pack that escapes to a corner behind you every time. Making sure to keep your cool in that kind of situation was hard, but imperative. Things were constantly and sometimes invisibly changing on the racecourse, so I tried my best to play the cards we had at each point in time and that seemed to work out pretty well.
Emmy – Jackson had an innate view of the course, current, line and fleet and was very audible about the game plan for each race from the get-go, thus putting us in all the right spots. He was mostly conservative, which helped us manage the fleet, and was positive and patient when a shift didn’t go our way. Zeke always had the boat hooked up and going so fast (it also helps that he is incredible at starting) And on the course Jackson and Zeke were almost constantly talking through changing gears and minor adjustments to really put the boat through the water.
Jo Ann and Emmy ran the front end of the boat all week. Sailing with 4 how did you divide up responsibilities and how did having the extra person help?
Jo Ann – I’ve only sailed the J/22 with 4 (or 5 in the Womens’ Rolex days). The extra set of hands and eyes is key. One of us could be looking for upwind boats, logs (so much debris in the water), leeward marks etc. while the other one looked from breeze. Also weight placement downwind with four people really helps to balance the boat as we can fine tune the weight placement. Emmy and I work great together and would report different info such as puffs, relatives, compass headings etc. The whole team worked well together and really respected one another which made it easy to sail well.
Emmy – With 4 people on the boat, Jo and I would share some responsibilities – we would both talk about pressure on the course, count down immediate puffs/waves/chop and help to be “opposite” eyes for Jackson and Zeke. Downwind we would talk about big picture pressure on the course, lanes, immediate pressure, relatives for the boats around us, finding the marks and helping determine game plan for the next beat. (Jo Ann is a boss on the bow.)
The final day seemed to be quite a test for the team to stay focused on the task at hand. What would you consider your “mental tool” when you are under pressure going into the final race at a major event where you know you can win it or lose it all?
Zeke – For me, it’s faith in my teammates. When things weren’t going well and I would get frustrated, (….after an initial outburst….) I would say to myself, “What’s your job?” I had complete faith that everyone else on the team was focused on their job and I knew that if I did mine well we would come out of tight spots.
Jackson – It’s incredibly important to stay calm, cool, and collected in that kind of situation, not only before the race but throughout as well. Making sure you eat something and continue to hydrate properly can be easy to forget, and I find staying on top of that helps to keep my brain firing on all cylinders and settles my nerves a little bit. I really tried to focus on the process and stick with the normal pre-race routine that I would go through before every race. It was also helpful to try and predict what the game plan would be for our closest competitor so that we could minimize surprises, and then develop a fluid plan for how we might deal in certain situations. Knowing the point spread and where we had to finish to win the event also plays a big part in developing the game plan.
Jo Ann – I was so impressed with how calm (and quiet) Zeke and Jackson remained when we were in constant battle during four general recalls.
Emmy – Honestly, with this team I have the utmost confidence in everyone’s skills and ability to execute their jobs at a high level. My “mental tool” when I was under pressure was checking myself, going through the laundry list of jobs and making sure that I was providing the team with the information or action they needed.
OK, tell us about current. Rumor has it if you didn’t know about current when you got to Annapolis you sure knew about it by the time you left. How did the current affect the fleet, positioning and did you guys have an advantage having sailed for years in Charleston current?
Zeke – I think we absolutely had an advantage having all done a lot of sailing in Charleston. The current was certainly stronger than normal here on the Chesapeake Bay and it was a major factor in the regatta. In general I’d say the trick was always trying to be positioned up current of our nearest competitors when we could. But it really affected mark rounding and there was a lot to be gained from managing the current around the corners. We would not have won the Worlds if we didn’t nail the current at the first weather mark of the last race. We must have passed 15 boats by getting up current of the pack stacked up on the starboard lay line. It was an amazing call by my team!
Jackson – It was certainly “currenting” quite a bit! With all of the rain in Annapolis and further north up the Chesapeake before the regatta, the bay was pretty high. I believe that a few dams opened up above Annapolis as well which provided a ton of ebb tide. Some days the flood tide never actually even happened, it would just slow the ebb down a little bit. Staying out of the adverse current was certainly on the top of our priority list and having raced in the currents of Charleston provided us with the knowledge and experience for how to deal with the strong currents. Especially during the starts and mark roundings.
Jo Ann – Thanks goodness Jackson and Zeke have spent so much time sailing in current! Zeke was amazing at mark rounds despite the ripping current. We were able to get inside everyone at the leeward marks and sail around boats at the top marks.
Jackson was also incredible at strategically placing us in the right position at the top mark to gain as much as possible from the current.
Emmy – I never thought that the current in Annapolis would be as bad as it is in Charleston but this week proved me wrong. We were talking a lot about where we could get current relief in shallower water and would talk about relatives to other boats when we crossed current lines. I think with all of the current, especially on the last day, our experiences of sailing in Charleston shined (especially Jackson’s hard left, port layline call in the first beat of the last race that helped us cross the fleet sitting on the starboard layline “treadmill”).
What were your rig settings. Did you stay on the looser side so you could power thru the lulls? Or were you in the same settings most of the regatta?
Zeke – We checked and adjusted the rig tension a lot. Jo Ann always nails the rig to perfection but for sure we encouraged her to keep us set up for the lulls. We felt we could get away with being slightly too loose if the breeze came up by pulling the back stay on and hiking hard, but it was imperative to be set to get through the lulls.
Jo Ann – We always tried to have the rig tune set up “perfectly” (That’s what I would tell Greg in the olden days….”The rig is perfect!” ) before the start. I would want to keep looking at the rig every 2 minutes or anytime the wind velocity changed to make sure it was still perfect. I tried to always look at it in the lulls so it would be set up for the lulls. I guess you could say we might have always been on the looser side.
Going into the last race we were anticipating the wind dying so we set up a little on the loose side, as it turned out the breeze picked up which was not ideal.
Emmy – Jo Ann is the rig master and really had us hooked up all week. With the breeze on the lighter end, we would bet on it dying out more than building so we mostly would keep it on the looser side.
World Champions know stuff the rest of us don’t so, at the risk of giving a way all of your secrets, can each of you tell us 2 things that you felt were the key to your win and one “tip” or “secret” that every J/22 sailor should know to help them move up in the fleet?
Zeke – There is nothing like the magic of a good team. Pick the people who you LOVE to sail with and who you have fun with regardless of the result. Then focus on your communication and be honest with one another about what you like and don’t like. Take the time to build confidence in your boat speed and then let good conservative starts and top notch speed do the work for you.
In terms of trimming, be willing to make changes and always set up for speed before height. The J/22 will not go upwind until the flow attaches to the keel, so don’t even think about pointing until the boat is moving. Once it’s moving, focus on getting the boat DEAD FLAT with 0 helm. Now the keel is doing the work for you! You’ll learn to feel the boat starting to lose flow before it happens at which time you need to go back into speed mode. It’s all about changing gears and sailing as flat as you can!
Jib trim is imperative. Make sure your jib trimmer is always ready to ease or trim to keep the tell tales straight back. The helmsman can’t appropriately correct for shifts or puffs if the jib isn’t reacting first.
Jackson – Making sure you’re having fun always seems to make the boat go faster. Our teamwork was a major part of our success. I can’t think of any other sailors I would have rather been on the boat with for this championship. We all have a ton of respect for each other and we’re great friends. I think that’s really important and it makes for excellent chemistry on the water. There are definitely times when we disagree with each other, but it’s quickly and easily forgotten due to the nature of our relationships.
Playing the jib sheet constantly helps the boat go fast and stay fast, even as much as 2-6 inches at times. If we sailed into a header, I’d trim the jib in to help bring the bow down as Zeke brought the boat down to the proper course, then ease it into acceleration mode before trimming back into the “5th gear” setting. If we sailed into a lift, I’d ease it out to the proper trim according to the telltales in the middle of the luff, which would allow the bow to ride up back to the proper course, then trim back in to the “5th gear” setting. Also keeping the jib sheet moving through the pressure changes proved to be very fast as well. My eyes were on the leech telltale of the jib (through the main window) fairly constantly when the boat was going straight and not encountering any pressure or angle changes. I’d look to have it flying 100% of the time, while also making sure I had it trimmed in as tight as it would allow. When the leech telltale starts to raise up 15 or so degrees from flying straight back (but still flying and not stalling), I’d know that it was at maximum trim.
Eating the most delicious wraps I’ve ever had in my life (thanks to Emmy!) also didn’t hurt!
Jo Ann – For me this team had fun, we were always hanging out together and enjoyed each other. We all drink the same cocktail (Ed: The cocktail of choice for Team Uncle Fluffy is “The Fisher”, which is vodka, water, splash of grapefruit! Is this the next big thing?) and I