EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: E Scow & A Scow Owner Lee Alnes

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10 July 2013

AB: Lee, your sailing has really escalated. You are going to regattas, you are having fun, you are one of the most enthusiastic sailors on your lake and in the national E and A fleets. What is the recipe?
LA: Thanks Andy – there are a lot of factors, but the biggest change I made is in my mental preparation for sailing. I have sailed for a long time and struggled a lot over the years. I came to learn that I was not patient enough when I would get behind and I was not learning from my mistakes. In fact, I was repeating my mistakes and sometimes amplifying them. It probably sounds strange, but I needed to reprogram the way my brain was thinking about things.

As you know from your own experience there are many aspects to improving a sailing program and I knew I had to work on all of them. Competitive sailing is extremely difficult and the sport can be quite humbling on any given day. My dad used to say, “I can teach you how to sail in an afternoon, but you will spend the rest of your life getting good at it.” Like most amateurs, I don’t have a lot of extra hours in my week to go out practice sailing, so what I mostly do could be described as mental practice.

In observing all the good Inland sailors around me (and we are blessed to have such a talented group in Scow sailing), one main thing that jumped out at me was preparation. It is hard to know what great sailors like yourself are doing when we don’t see you, but we can easily see the result. To try to get a better handle on it, I broke my sailing preparation down into three main areas:

• Pre-Race – This includes preparing everything related to the boat, the sails, the covers, the lift, the trailer and the tow vehicle. It’s too expensive to sit out a race because your main halyard broke when you knew darn well there was a burr in the cable that was going to break someday (been there, done that). So my approach now is just fix stuff and fix it now. Good equipment in working order is key to success, particularly when the breeze is up, so I have a well-equipped shop and we do whatever it takes to keep things perfect. I am fortunate to be able to afford good equipment and sails, but I am not the biggest spender out there either. I really try to take good care of everything and I make my equipment last. And if you can’t afford new stuff, work hard at every other aspect of your preparation – new equipment is only one part of the equation and I often get beat by folks with older boats and older sails.

• Race Day – I noted that the good sailors arrive at their boat early and they are usually close to the first ones off the dock. If you get there early you have time to fix things, you have time to make adjustments, you have time to make good sail choices and you can overcome last minute issues that inevitably come up. My chances of winning a Club race seem to go way up if I have time to sail the upwind and downwind legs of the course even just once before the race.

• Post-Race – No doubt some races should just be forgotten, but even a bad race has good elements to be analyzed and learned from. My teams use the time immediately after a race to discuss the critical things we should change. Then if we have time, we talk about the things that worked really well. But if the time is limited between races, we just focus on what needs to change. Then, whether we won or lost, we clear our heads and start a new race with a fresh outlook.

None of this is very momentous stuff and in fact it is all very logical and even obvious. But the key is, you have to do it relentlessly to make it work.

AB: You purchased a New Melges E and ever since you have been displaying superior speed and crew work. That was clearly evident at the Lake Geneva Spring Championship this year. What has been the most important improving factor on the Melges E? Are there other things that help with the crew work?
LA: I had a pretty fresh 2009 Melges E, but when I saw the prototype of the new boat that Harry brought up to Minnetonka in late 2011 I knew right away that I wanted one. I bought my new 2012 pretty much sight-unseen knowing that Harry and the team at Melges would perfect all the little things before they delivered it to me. The boat is an incredible engineering feat and the fit and finish is superb as with all Melges products.
Everything on the new Melges E is designed with a lot of thought and experience. The spinnaker dousing system works flawlessly and this is probably the main new element that allows us to push the boat right into leeward mark roundings with complete confidence and make clean sets at the windward marks.

We almost always sail with a crew of three on the E, so having the new vang and rear traveler systems work really smoothly is critical to our upwind performance. The new sideboard setup is really sweet and it is hard to explain just how nice it is to have the boards completely under deck - you have to try it to believe it. The new Raptor flooring system is very stable and makes moving around in the boat much easier.

One nice new feature we don’t plan to use much (if ever) is the “sealed deck”. If you have your masthead flotation panels on, the new E scow will float almost indefinitely in a capsized position, which adds a new element of safety to the class. We did test it once at Mendota last year and it was really easy to get the boat righted.

Beyond the boat itself, the support I’ve gotten from the team at Melges has been outstanding. When it was decided the new vang lever was a little too long (we never even had an issue) Harry personally came to our boat at the Inland Champs at Mendota and replaced the part for us. I really appreciate that kind of attention to detail from a company.

And of course we get the same great service and attention to detail from the North Sails team in Zenda. I have developed a sail rotation plan for our team that allows us to fly pretty fresh North Sails at all important regattas we attend and this certainly helps with speed.

AB: Your A Scow team rocked at the A National Championship this year. Teamwork put you into a great overall position. How do you manage this with a 7 person crew? What is the key?
LA: Thanks for noticing - and congratulations to Team Silverhawk for your repeat win at the event. In the A scow, good preparation has been crucial to improving our results and of course having great crew members on board who communicate well is critical. We are not the best funded A Scow on the circuit so it really is a matter of teamwork and preparation. Even though the original A Scow was designed in the late 1800’s, the modern Melges A Scow is remarkably well balanced and handles really well. In lighter breeze it can take a long time to get up to speed but the boat will coast a long time. So I’ve learned that good teamwork (particularly balancing the boat and sail trim) is absolutely essential to maintaining boat speed through all the subtle changes and transitions. No aspect of the teamwork element can be ignored and it’s a huge amount of work and time investment to get good at it, but the camaraderie that can develop when you all work together on an A Scow is tremendously rewarding for me.
I think most A Scow mistakes are made when rounding the marks, and they are caused by the skipper trying to do things that can't be done. So, I pay close attention to what my crew can do, how they are doing, and I try really hard to put them in situations that they can succeed. The skipper needs to compensate for what is going on in the front of the boat, without having your “head in the boat” too much – it's a tough balancing act. Our process of constantly reviewing what works and what doesn’t has allowed us to freely communicate and keep trying things until we started to click.

The National A Scow fleet is especially fun to compete in because everyone has been totally supportive of our efforts. I have gotten a lot of help and advice from folks like yourself, Harry and Buddy Melges, Todd Haines, Rob Evans, John Dennis, John Porter, Terry Blanchard and many others including Fletcher Driscoll who helped me get my start in the class and continues to support and mentor me. Everyone in this fleet knows how challenging these boats are and they all respect and help each other. When we head out to a windy race at a regatta and all the spectators are watching us leave the dock I feel a huge sense of pride and accomplishment that our team has worked to get where we are. It’s an honor just to be competing within this fleet. Unless you sail one of these incredible Melges A Scows you can’t quite get that feeling!

AB: Scow sailing on White Bear Lake, MN has been a long standing tradition. Your family has been a strong part of the ILYA tradition. Can you explain the importance of this and what motivates you and your family to keep scow sailing alive in your area?
LA:
My parents moved out to White Bear Lake in the late 1950’s. They had never sailed before but it wasn’t long before some neighborhood friends invited them out to crew in races. In 1961 we got our first X boat. In those days our Club had two “Parents X” series of races that my dad would race in and the kids would use the boat for the usual youth sailing races. I learned to sail by crewing for my dad in those parents’ series on Wednesday evenings and Sunday mornings.

By the late 1960’s my dad got himself a C scow while I raced the X and my sisters moved on to crew on Roy Mordaunt’s E scows. Over the coming years our family raced C’s, E’s, M-16’s, M-20’s, MC’s, the old J scow, Johnson 18’s and Lasers. We almost always sailed together as a family. We learned that sailing was a great lifelong sport, that it built great character, and brought us all together back to the lake every summer from wherever we were in the world. Today our extended family has a Melges A, E, C, 3 MC’s a Laser and an Opti and we keep them all busy!

In 2011, I decided to get back to an “all family” crew on my E scow and brought my nephews Andy Kruse and Mark Dunsworth on board. It’s really been fun and rewarding to sail with these guys because they are both excellent sailors, but its been amazing to discover that we all learned to sail in a similar manner, we share the same attitudes and we have the same work ethic on and off the boat. When we got our first Inland race win last summer we all knew my dad was watching from above. I suppose some family members just argue on the boat but that has never been the case for our family. For me, the best times will always be when our family is together on a scow doing what my dad envisioned so many years ago.
Growing up on White Bear Lake was special because of the scow history and legacy. At a young age I thought every lake had 3 or 4 boat works cranking out sailboats. Every Saturday morning my dad would take us across the lake to drop in and see what was being built that week. I feel joined to that legacy and history and it’s really nice to represent the White Bear Yacht Club wherever we go.