- Charles River – MIT/Harvard
Charles River, the Mecca of college sailing. The River basin is shaped like a long rectangle with dimensions of less than one mile long by less than a half mile wide. The orientation has the long axis running WSW to ENE. North and northwest are always shifty, especially near the finish not far from the rotation dock. East and west winds are the steadiest with the potential for small waves if the wind is high enough. No wind direction is truly steady but winds that align with the long axis are less shifty than the winds blowing across. If there is a geographical pattern, it is that the wind tends to blow perpendicular from a shoreline. This would indicate sailing towards a shore but with a huge caution. The wind gets lighter near shore so you never want to go too close. For example, when the mark is in the NW corner, you want to stay away from the land as you approach the mark because any shift or puff from the land will only last a few seconds. Better to approach on port tack with slightly more consistent wind from beyond the Mass Ave. Bridge.
In springtime the most common wind is east. A true wind direction of 070 degrees is right from the center span of the Longfellow Bridge to the center of the Mass. Ave. Bridge. In this direction you are looking for long shifts up the middle. A NE wind has puffs and shifts off the left side but again, go too far left into the wall and any puffs will be short lived and surrounded by lulls. The pure sea breeze direction is ESE which diagonals off the right hand shore. There will be good puffs and shifts on the right but don’t bang right. These shifts and puffs will come in steps and sailing too close to the Boston shore will put you in the blanket zone of the skyscrapers.
Heavy recreational traffic is part of the game on the Charles and this includes sailboats and rowing shells mostly. While some racers are frustrated by rec sailors in their way, others take advantage. Skip Whyte, former URI great and long-time coach used to “Manipulate the blockers.” Of course if you try this you will want to avoid being obnoxious in the process.
- Fireflies at MIT
Fireflies are different but cool. They are not particularly fast as they are only twelve feet long but when sailed well they all go about the same speed and they point high. With similar speeds Fireflies are more tactical than 420s. Of course you want to sail light but you do not have to as the hull is narrow unlike a 420. As in FJs, big skippers do just fine in Fireflies.
Tuning: the jib halyard is adjustable whilst racing but it’s not that big a deal. You do not need a tight rig to point; with inboard leads and a narrow bow, the boats points high already. The MIT Fireflies have a fully battened main. As such, be careful to not over trim the main which can stall. FJs mains are trimmed harder than Firefly mains.
Boat Handling: the narrow rudder can stall easily in downspeed maneuvers. Crews will need to bare off using their weight rather than skippers using all rudder. That said, with gentle luffing, you can make a Firefly point well up on the starting line to prevent others from coming in to windward or to get clear of boats to leeward. Be careful in breeze, Fireflies are tippy with their round bottom on a narrow waterline. Death rolling to windward on the run is not uncommon but Fireflies can tip to leeward as well such as during a rushed penalty turn in a big puff.
- FJs on the Charles
The MIT FJs are lighter than most as they were made by Whitecap Composites in nearby Peabody, Massachusetts. They will plane in 17 knots instead of 20 knots and they accelerate pretty well.
The Harvard and BU FJs are older style LP boats and are more like most of the other fleets. Like all FJs, trim the main pretty hard even when you begin to get overpowered in 15 knots. Play the jib first as the main sheet helps keep both main and jib flatter. This technique compensates for a little heel to a point. Flatter is of course better than heeling but, not quite as critical as in a 420. On windy or just puffy days the main will need to play out with boom vang on. This will prevent heeling too much. The vang will keep the main flat but the jib will get fuller with mainsheet ease.
All FJs capsize easily. The single best way to prevent capsizing is to keep boom vang on downwind. Without it, the main twists at the top which directs the wind pressure force to windward instead of straight ahead.
- Mecca? Really?
The Charles River Basin is home to three big powerhouse college teams (MIT, Harvard, and BU) while many smaller teams also call the Charles home. The biggest of those is Northeastern. Dozens of small high school teams sail out of Community Boating on the Boston side but crew shells come from up river mostly and seem to use the entire river including the basin especially in spring. Although Harvard, Yale and Princeton claim some of the earliest college racing, the busy everyday college dinghy racing began at MIT from the boathouse in 1935. MIT is host to countless college regattas, a few high school regattas and boasts one of the biggest rec and phys. ed. programs among universities with some 1400 members and at least 100 small boats. Yes, the wind is shifty but the urban scenery is as special as the history.
- Wind, weather, and climate
MIT sailing has an incredibly helpful weather page on their website via:
http://sailing.mit.edu/weather/ Click on pictures at the bottom for high res up-to-the-minute views of the dock, the river and the wind. Click on history at the top for graphs of wind, temperature, and plenty of other fascinating data.