|Stuart McCrea and his crew on the J-120 Deviation had a big year in 2016. And there is a lot of hardware to show for their efforts. The RNSYS team won the trophy for the best results for a Canadian boat in the Newport-Bermuda Race, also winning the first ever J-120 class at Chester Race Week and the Prince of Wales trophy at RNSYS. And Stuart is recognized by both Sail NS and Sail Canada as Canada’s 2016 offshore sailor of the year.
Deviation Crew with the Prince ofWales trophy at RNSYS in September 2016
So that will be a hard act to follow. But McCrea is taking the same approach as he did last year – getting his boat and his crew ready by focusing on preparation. “Your best performance is directly linked to the preparation of the yacht and its crew,” according to McCrea. “This is one aspect of our sport that is most taken for granted, as some boats and their crews believe just showing up will mean success.”
“Like the NFL, NBA, and other sports, time is spent practicing plays, scenarios, and strengthening team work to improve a team’s success. And while most of the time, our sport has us sailing during the day, hopefully under a nice sea breeze and sunshine, ocean racing adds the complexities of sailing at night and or sailing in weather most wouldn’t leave the dock for.”
McCrea’s own preparation includes years of training and competing, starting when he joined the Squadron as a ten year old. He graduated from dinghies after competing in provincial and North American championships. His experience in keelboats includes at least a dozen Marblehead to Halifax races. This will be the second as a boat owner.
Starting at the end of April, he gets the boat out and the crew together, and they spend time practicing tactics. Like the old chestnut about how a musician can get to Carnegie Hall, winning at sailing for McCrea means practice, practice and more practices. He will plan for 30 mile stints, using the time to test sails to find out which works best in which condition. Man overboard drills are also important to McCrea. “I don’t take it lightly. Everyone needs to practice this. Just think about trying to find a crew member in the dark when the boat is going 10 or 12 knots. It would be very hard.”
His regular crew includes Mathew Christie as tactician, Jason and India White, Geoff Dalzell, Robert Maclean,
Cameron Fraser and Dr. Sean Christie. Others who regularly take part, depending on the race are Giles Oland, Jonathan Ladha, and Stuart MacIntosh.
McCrea is not shy to look for expert help, either. “Last year we were able to have Andreas Josenhans and Sandy MacMillan on board for a day.” Josenhans and MacMillan are decorated Nova Scotia sailors who are world champions and Olympians who both work in different roles with North Sails.
“We were learning to understand what the boat is capable of and how to shift gears,” McCrea said. “Things happen very quickly when you are racing. If you don’t practice ahead of time, you won’t be ready to handle the circumstances when they come up. Doing these drills well in advance of the race is simply good seamanship, providing an advantage over other boats that aren’t prepared. I mean the last thing you want to do is be searching around below for a needed part as a fast approaching squall hits, or worst case trying to find the ditch bag as you and the boat are being tossed around,” says McCrea.
McCrea does focus on the safety requirements for ocean racing and makes a careful inventory and assessment of the gear needed to make sure the boat is safe. Plus he says it is crucial to review the rules and regulations of your rating organization. “Navigation and tactics come a bit later, when all the other things are tuned up.”
As the shakedown practises continue, McCrea starts thinking forward to the race and the tactics needed to win. “There is a large debate about whether you should go inshore at night, stay east or west of the rhumb line or try to grab the thermolift along the coast of Nova Scotia. Most of my success has come from staying close to the rhumb line. We have also noticed out in the Gulf of Maine there is a pushing and settling of the current that can cause some trouble.”
Deviation has all the latest equipment to help make those tactical decisions – satellite phone, a weather service that provides faxes and grib files plus the software that helps choose the optimum routing.
McCrea breaks the Marblehead to Halifax race into three important segments. "The first one is how to handle the start in Marblehead, offshore or inshore route, which will depend on the conditions of the day."
Deviation Heads Downwind. Photo by Tim Wilkes
Then he says the next big strategy decision involves Brazil Rock (the shoal that sits off the southwestern tip of Nova Scotia). “I have never gone inside the Rock but I have heard lots of stories of people doing this. Your arrival time at Brazil Rock will make or break your race. I am afraid a lot of people don’t understand the Bay of Fundy tides. They are a lot bigger than what you have experienced anywhere else. It all comes down to timing.”
The Bay of Fundy tides are generally recognized as the most extreme in the world. In Southwestern Nova Scotia, the height of the tide is 3.5 metres (11 ft). Depending on the wind conditions, when the tide is flooding into the Bay, a boat can be sucked north or west towards the Bay of Fundy. Especially if there is little to no wind to power the boat, the crew will have no choice but to sit and wait for the tide to turn to get back into the race.
“There is one last part of the race that I have found can be decisive,” says McCrea. “There’s a transition zone just inside Chebucto Head as you are approaching Halifax Harbour. I have seen the race won and lost there a number of times. Back in 2015, we came in on a tight close-hauled course running 12-14 knots with 20 knots of apparent wind. Then we gybed at Halifax Bravo (a light buoy). And then we spent several hours and five separate sail changes trying to coax the boat in by Chebucto Head. When we finally got moving, we managed to overtake a couple of boats but we felt like we had lost our advantage. In the end, Deviation was 12th in line honours and if you look at the results, a large number of boats came in after us in the next three hours, so quite a few others went through that same scenario.”
Apart from race tactics, McCrea also emphasizes to be prepared for all kinds of possible weather conditions and temperatures. Most people expect cool temperatures and fog along the coast of Nova Scotia. But McCrea also recalls a period of hours that Deviation and many other boats were becalmed on a sunny day in the Gulf of Maine during the last race. “There was no way to escape the sun on a day like that.” He also gives priority to planning for quality food and lots of smaller meals plus drinking lots of water. "I have found it very important to have smaller and more frequent meals to help people deal with the mental fatigue that comes during a long race."
A couple of other quick tips from McCrea:
Watch out for fishing boats while you are in the Yarmouth and south shore area. AIS is very important because there is a lot of commercial traffic in these waters and they don’t always follow the rules – gross tonnage is the rule they use!
Rest is paramount for the crew before the race. “I have a curfew on Saturday in Marblehead…the party is always great but I aim for me and my crew to be in bed by 10 pm. Especially if the weather gets bumpy, everyone needs that extra sleep.”
Written by Kathy Large
Stuart McCrea at the helm of Deviation.