2010 MC Nationals - Interview with the Champion Cam McNeil

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15 October 2010

Interview by EHood

EHood

Congratulations Cam on your convincing win at the 2010 MC Scow Nationals. You seemed very relaxed, cool, calm and collected all week. Help our friends in the MC class both veterans and new sailors understand some of your pre-regatta strategy in preparing. I guess what I am asking is what is going through your mind as you get ready the week or two going into the event.

Cam

Thanks, E. First off, thanks again to Amy Larkin and all the volunteers at Lake Lanier Sailing Club who put on a tremendous Nationals. The regatta management and hospitality were second to none. Also, thanks to PRO Lee Estes and his crew for getting in four great races in some testy conditions. We had heard great things about Lanier but I must say our expectations were exceeded. A big hats off to LLSC.

There is a lot of anticipation and excitement leading up to a National Championship regatta. Joe, Connor and I hatched our plan to attend this year’s event in mid-September and once we did it was hard to concentrate on anything else. Keeping us going were the daily e-mail chains discussing our travel and camping plans, and pondering what adventures awaited us in the Georgia hills.

With any big event—especially a National Championship—it is important to minimize potential issues that may increase one’s anxiety heading into, or at the regatta. This is accomplished through proper preparation and planning. The week prior to the regatta I did some preventative maintenance on my boat by replacing a few worn lines and bent shackles. I also scalped any part from my brother John’s boat that happened to look nicer and faster including his new tiller and rudder. Our smooth trek south was made possible by the generosity of the Verplanks and Davises who allowed us the use of their triple trailer and SUV, respectively. With such a solid travel package we were left to focus on sailing fast.

In addition to equipment checks and ironing out logistics, it’s important to mentally prepare for the various scenarios likely to unfold on a crowded race course. Pre-formulating my plan for a given situation saves me the on-the-water-deliberation that usually results in a poor decision. A few rules of thumb for me last week were:

  1. Be flexible at the start. If your setup isn’t looking good at 45-30 seconds bail out and re-set.
  2. Don’t risk a close port-starboard early in the regatta. Take the stern and get him or her on the next crossing.
  3. Don’t bang corners or try to call long laylines. Stay up the middle so you’re well positioned for shifts from either side.
  4. Avoid traffic jams at the weather mark. Approach on starboard and never tack under a pack of boats that isn’t making the mark.
  5. Stay inside of the fleet downwind. Sail by the lee if there’s enough pressure. If not, sail up for the puffs then ride them down.
  6. Be patient. If you missed the shift don’t chase it, wait for the next one.
  7. Never sail in dirty air for more than a few boat lengths. Even if you’re going the right way take a quick clearing tack.

Once at the venue, I think it is important to relax as quickly as possible. Staying relaxed maintains confidence and confidence translates to speed on the race course. Thanks to all who helped us unload the triple we were quickly set up and on the beach. Kicking back at regattas is a strong point for Spring Lakers and White Lakers and this regatta was no exception. Under the supervision of camp chaperone Scott Harestad our contingent made the most of our 4 days on the shores of Lake Lanier.

EHood

Now let's transition to the actual race strategy and those last five minutes before the start. We can skip the first race where you asked me for the time with 2 minutes to go and then you win the first race. No, seriously I think I know what your answer is going to be but help the class out on what you are looking for and what you are thinking about going into each race. If there is a particular race you have an example from at this year's National Championship please give us some details.

Cam

Yes, the first start caught a few of us off guard. Fortunately for me I was at the right end of the line (pin) and Uncle E. was close by to give me 2 minutes.

Our camp spent a few minutes each morning tuned into our weather radios for the day’s wind forecast. On an unfamiliar lake it is important to get your bearings straight and understand how the clocking wind will affect a given race course. While the forecast may not dictate where you start it is something to always keep in the back of your mind during a long day of racing.

My goals for every start are:

  1. Be on the line at the favored end;
  2. Have full boat speed; and
  3. Have a clear lane and options. These are obvious enough but executing them is another story. The surest way to be right on the line in a big fleet is to start either at the pins or at the midline boat. As you can see from the pictures there were large mid-line sags in several starts—especially the starts of the 3rd and 4th races without the mid-line boat. My four starts were pin, mid-line boat, pin, and pin.

Deciding the favored end of the line is probably the trickiest part of starting. My method last week was to luff in the middle of the line and watch boats sail to weather. Not only does this save time and energy but I think it gives you a better perspective on the angles of sail and how the puffs are moving down each side the course. Every few minutes I would test the angle of starboard tack off the starting line. The lower the angle the more apt I was to start at the pin. Another method is to get a buddy and have one come off the weather end on starboard and the other come off the pin end on port. Whoever crosses ahead came from the favored end. Joe, Connor and I were constantly sharing ideas and observations during our pre-start routines which also helped a lot.

Having full boat speed at the gun hinges on whether you have a hole to leeward and whether you trim in early enough. I like to come back against the grain at about 1:30-1:00 so I can pick my spot, rather than set up too early and have other peoples’ actions determine how my start materializes. As I said earlier, it’s important to be flexible in your starting routine. If it’s not looking good bail out and reset. To create a hole leave your sail out luffing as far as possible then at about 20 seconds trim in, get a touch of speed and head up. This way when you trim in and go at about 10 seconds you can dive back down and hit the line with speed.

Creating a clear lane simply means having clean air off the line. This is hard to do in a fleet of 75 but the strategy is basic: beat the boat to leeward and the boat to windward of you. If you can do this you’ll have your bow out in the fresh breeze and you’ll immediately be gaining ground on the fleet.

As an example of how I brought all these techniques together I’ll quickly explain my start in the 4th race. For this start the winds were SE around 10 mph. However, the forecast called for it to switch counter clockwise to the ENE and then die. So all else being equal I was thinking the left side of the course was the place to be. The line was square and there was no mid-line boat. Since I haven’t perfected the “Andy Burdick mid-line sag start” I was deciding between the ends. At about 3 minutes I was luffing in the middle of the line when a noticeable left shift came through. I reached down to the pin where I found Joe who had already picked up on it. Both of us spun back against the grain at about 45 seconds as boats were already setting up. Joe flopped to starboard before I did. At this point starboard tack had totally imploded and the first ten boats weren’t going to make the line. I went a few more boats up the line before tacking to starboard at about 25 seconds. From the moment I tacked I was working the boat to stay powered up and moving forward so I didn’t get sucked down. I trimmed in at 15 seconds, shot the pin and was the first boat to clear the leeward end of the line. On my hip were Jeremy Pape, Jack Kern and E. Hood. After a few boat lengths we all tacked, cleared the fleet and rode a long port tack in the fresh lefty up toward the mark. Despite his jibe around fire drill, Joe managed to punch off the middle of the line on port and come back to get 3rd in the race.

EHood

Your dad Doug and I grew up as great friends but race course rivals when we were young growing up in West Michigan. You seem to be running with some young guns from West Michigan. I mean Joe Rotunda who you came down with finished 2nd. Then Connor Davis whom you also travelled with won the Youth Division. Tell us a little bit about sailing in West Michigan, club racing there and some of the sailors you have sailed with over the years to help elevate your game.

Cam

You’re right, E. West Michigan—and Spring Lake in particular—has produced a long and storied line of accomplished MC sailors, many of whom were pioneers of the class. The Verplank, Reuterdahl, Eggert, Fox, Hatton and Walborn families have all made their mark on the MC class and continue to be instrumental in mentoring and supporting the next generation of sailors rising through the ranks. On White Lake the Getz, Marvil, Penn, Bedau and Gill families are all longtime supporters of our MC fleet and continue to inspire our young sailors. Growing up sailing on both White Lake and Spring Lake I had the privilege of learning from the best sailors on each lake and I owe much of my success to these experiences.

I was fortunate to grow up among a very talented group of junior sailors including Joe, Rob and Jamie Kimball, Matt Cassady, and my brother, John. After several years of heated Junior Butterfly racing we transitioned to MC’s and frequently team up on C’s as well. All of these guys have had great success in the MC and various other scow classes. John won the MC Nationals in 2006 on Lake Norman and Jamie won it in 2007 on Torch Lake. We stay sharp each year by sparring with local hot shots Chris Eggert, Brien Fox, Pete Fox, Dave Fox, Justin Hood, Kyle Verplank, Brett Hatton, Andy Molesta, Todd Bosgraaf, Doug McNeil, Bob Currier, Brian McMurray and Ted Keller. Needless to say when all the guns get on the line the racing is intense.

At the end of the day what stands out about the West Michigan sailing crowd is the camaraderie and lifelong friendships that sailing has forged among us. There is also a uniquely strong devotion to perpetuate the sport by supporting junior sailing and encouraging new families to get into sailing. The thriving junior sailing programs at both White Lake and Spring Lake are a testament to this.

Keeping with tradition, Connor is part of of a strong and growing junior MC fleet in West Michigan. It was neat to see him do so well at his first Nationals and I know he’ll be beating up on me soon. I told him I was 56th at my first Nationals in 1996 at Torch Lake, so he is way ahead of my curve!

EHood

If you could simply name the top 5 things you think are the most important contributions to your success this year winning the National Championship what would they be?

Cam

  • The invaluable practice I’ve had all summer against the speedy West Michigan sailors.
  • Getting off the line clean then sailing smart and conservatively the rest of the way.
  • Superior boat speed thanks to my North ZMAX. The ZMAX is a versatile sail that tops the competition in all wind conditions. It provided power in the light stuff and was easy to flatten out in the windy 3rd race. This sail is built for success.
  • The pre and post race pow-wows with Joe and Connor where we discussed strategy and what worked or didn’t work that day.
  • The relaxed atmosphere of the campsite, our convenient beach launch, and the late night Dominos deliveries.

EHood

The strength of our class always has been sharing and I know you come from a long line of McNeil’s including Doc and Doug that have always given back. Okay you are the National Champ and you have the podium. If there is anything you could share to help our class sailors out both veteran, new, older, younger, male, female what would it be?

Cam

You mentioned my family and I’d like to briefly touch on the importance of the family support I’ve had throughout my sailing career. My grandparents Doc and Nancy McNeil were avid fans of scow sailing and their support allowed my family’s various campaigns to take shape. From our Butterfly days and into the MC and C boat, Doc and Nancy travelled far and wide to cheer us on at regattas. My parents have been there every step of the way as well, although they learned to be a little less “hands on” than Doc was. The lessons and tips my dad has passed on from his years of dueling against E. Hood, Bill Metcalf, Brett Hatton, Andy Burdick and others are forever engrained in my mind (I think I can recount every C boat Westerns regatta since 1975). The family support I received over the years is the #1 reason I have progressed to this point.

I would be remiss to not mention the support I get from my girlfriend, Lindsey. She puts up with me devoting many summer weekends to sailing and I want to thank her for that. Sailing is much more enjoyable when you know you’re not in the dog house when you get home.

Now to answer your question I’ll make two quick points. First, it is incumbent upon all MC sailors to do their part to help grow the fleet. Make MC sailing inclusive, not exclusive. If you are the club champion help others in your fleet with rigging, tuning, boat handling and sail trim. Hang out after the races to de-brief with the fleet over a cold one. Start a junior MC fleet at your club—even if it means getting sailors to lend out their boats for a day. If you’re buying a new boat sell your old one on the lake. A few simple initiatives such as these can quickly grow your MC fleet.

Second and most importantly, remember that sailboat racing is about having fun. It’s great to be competitive but win, lose or draw sailing is about enjoying the beautiful lakes we sail on, spending time with great friends, and meeting new friends who share your passion for sailing. If you happen to sail well enough to get a trophy, or better yet win a regatta that is icing on the cake!

EHood

Cam I can tell you as a MC Class Leader for so many years that myself along with so many others in this class applaud your convincing win but more importantly your great attitude, character and sportsmanship. Congratulations from all of us in the MC Scow Class.

Cam

Thanks again, E. And thank you for all the work you’ve done over the years in conjunction with Melges and North Sails to build and support the MC Class. I look forward to seeing everyone at the 2011 Nationals on Lake Keuka, NY.