January 14, 2017

Champions in the Conch

KEY WEST, Fla. – At Quantum Key West Race Week 2016, Catapult skipper Joel Ronning had a heck of a time in the 47-boat J/70 fleet; bouncing up the down the results until finishing 11th overall. It wasn’t exactly the model of consistency required to win in this pro-laden class.

Fast-forward to the Alcatel J/70 World Championship in San Francisco last September. With a black-flag discard, Ronning’s team was a model of consistency: top-10 in all 11 races to win the title by an incredible 17 points in the 68-boat fleet. Ronning, who’s competed in Key West in both the Melges 32 and J/70 classes over the past several years, returns again, this time with the target on his transom.

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Q: The level of preparation and amount of time you guys put in for the Worlds in San Francisco was considerable for a pretty simple boat. While training, what did the team learn most about the J/70 in terms of consistent straight-line boatspeed, sail trim and boathandling around the corners?

A: We ended up concluding that simple is faster. We tried a bunch of different sails and found many to be too condition specific. We ended up settling on a sail selection that was flexible and allowed us to not have to fuss too much if we got the tuning a little wrong. Given we can’t change the tuning once the race starts, we thought it was more important to be “mostly right” most of the time rather than perfect only some of the time. This setup philosophy seemed to give us consistent boatspeed and allowed us to spend less time with our heads in the boat.
Boathandling came partially from the fact that we spent so much time working on different sails and rig settings. Because of this, we naturally spent a lot of time in boathandling. The J/70 is a moderately powered boat, so if the wind comes down you can find yourself really starved for power. A lot of the power comes from the jib through the headstay sag. I’ve always found we’re better off being a little loose on the rig, rather than too tight. It’s easier to depower the sails than to try to find power in a setup that’s too stiff.

Q: How do you maintain that sweet spot between displacement and planing mode downwind in the J/70?
A: We believe that if you’re not able to be in the 10-knot range while planing then it’s probably a loser. This is also dependent on tactics and fleet positioning, but the boats go pretty well in displacement mode. Displacement is not as much fun as planing, but it’s easy to watch guys go way into the corners while we’re heading lower and only slightly slower.

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Q: What is a fast mode upwind?
A: We are more focused on a consistent heel angle so we don’t do a lot of kinetic or pumping stuff. Crew movement is pretty important if everyone’s not on the rail, then smooth, yet aggressive moves matter. The boat will go sideways pretty quickly if given a chance, so keeping flow on the foils through consistent heel angle seems to be a higher percentage move.

Q: What are your thoughts transitioning from San Francisco to Key West?
A: Hopefully we have some breeze in Key West so we can use most of what we’ve learned. We won’t have the dramatic current we saw in San Francisco, but that’ll probably mean more focus on straight-line performance.

Q: You said you were fairly conservative with your starts at the Worlds. Will the same apply in Key West?
A: The line in San Francisco was so long we had to figure out which half of the line we wanted before the 4-minute gun, forcing us to deal with a smaller group of boats, so the start process was to figure out where we would be in the 35 boats within reach and wiggle our way in. I bet we’ll find we use pretty similar approaches in Key West.

Q: What’s the onboard dialogue between the four of you in terms of time and distance?
A: We have one guy calling “sharks” for the boats that are coming from behind or on port tack. The tactician would call the position he was looking for about 2 minutes out, we’d wiggle our way in and when it came down to pulling the trigger, we’d believe in the distance the box is showing. So you’d hear “possible port-tack shark”; “Down 5”; “Up hard” and finally, “We’re racing” once we saw we had the right combination of speed, time and distance on the box.

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Q: What’s your routine in Key West?
A: We usually have a short team meeting before leaving the dock, cover what we are looking for during the day and the forecast. We like to get out to the course at least 45 minutes before the start and leave the dock based on the timing to arrive at the committee boat with time to spare. We have done a fair amount of work on our diet and hydration on the boat, we’re pretty conscious of making sure we’re all hydrated and are eating throughout the day, this really matters as the days add up. We really don’t do a lot of drinking during the regatta, we try to save that for before it starts and after it ends.

Q: What’s your crew lineup for Key West?
A: We have Patrick Wilson, Chris Stocke and Eric Doyle calling tactics. John [Kostecki, tactician at the Worlds] was pre-committed a while ago, so he won’t be able to join us. Eric was our sparring partner for much of the summer, so he really gets how we like to work.

Q: So many places, but what’s your go-to for good times in Key West?
A: The Green Parrot is an awesome joint with lots of racers. Ambrosia Japanese has some great Japanese dishes and sushi.

—David Reed