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The Inside (and Outside) Scoop - Insight on Course Locations

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A two-time Rolex Yachtsman of the Year, Olympic coach, and longtime Newport-area resident provides his insight on the course locations for the Invitational Cup. By Ed Adams

Regattas sailing out of Newport, R.I., have a choice of a variety of course locations. Evening races are held just outside of the harbor. Small-boat regattas race just north of the Newport Bridge. For big-boat regattas or major championships, the preferred location is offshore of Castle Hill, in the ocean. However, strong winds or severe seas can push the race committee to search for less extreme conditions well north of the Newport Bridge, between four islands: Aquidneck (aka Newport), Conanicut (aka Jamestown), Prudence, and Gould.

The Inside Course

There are many islands in Narragansett Bay, which means geographic wind shifts and uneven currents. The wind tends to funnel between the islands, and bend through the channels, although this effect is less pronounced in September, when the water is relatively warm. The warm water also makes the wind unstable and shifty, inshore and offshore, compared to earlier in the summer. With each breeze direction there are things to look out for and clues that can help predict what will happen.

Current is more important than wind in picking a side, although left is often preferred in a southeasterly and right in a southwesterly. The current will be weakest along the shorelines and in the shallows between Gould Island and Halfway Rock. The current changes first along the shores, and last in the shipping channel. If the wind dies completely, have your anchor ready.

If you're sailing inside in an easterly, it's usually windy and raining hard. Expect a relatively short course with the weather mark in the lee of the high shore of Aquidneck Island. It's very shifty, so stay in phase. And watch out for "helicopter puffs" at the weather mark, which drop down vertically, and then fan out in a roughly circular pattern. With the runs short and the leeward gate right on the beach at Conanicut Island, good crew work always wins the day. It's not for the faint of heart.

Usually the reverse of the east wind, but the left side is usually favored, because the Conanicut shore on the upper left is lower and further from the layline. The wind often backs as you approach the mark, which causes the fleet to over stand and causes fouls on the rounding in an ebb tide.

Like the south to southwest wind, current is important. But Prudence Island is much larger to the north than is little Gould Island to the south. Prudence divides the wind neatly in half, and leaves a large hole in its lee. There is right-shifted wind flowing out of the East Passage, on the east side of Prudence, and left-shifted wind flowing out of the West Passage. In a northwesterly wind, it generally pays to start in the East Passage righty and then work left to get to the West Passage lefty.

In a northeasterly wind you would do the roughly the opposite: go a short way left before tacking, busting through the Prudence Island hole, and getting into the East Passage righty.

The Outside Courses

This is the most common summertime breeze, usually a synoptic southwester driven by the Bermuda High—which is the result of pressure gradient differences—but occasionally a seabreeze that forms during offshore gradient. With the synoptic southwesterly, nighttime drainage leaves a morning calm. The synoptic wind fills in mid-morning, from directly offshore. This means that heading left, which is more directly offshore, gets you into more wind. So the left often pays early in the day. By afternoon, the wind has generally built and is more even across the course, and trends slowly right. Now there are other considerations. The typical starting location is off of Seal Ledge, so an early step to the right takes you toward the mouth of Narragansett Bay, and into shortlived, but sometimes significant, tidal current.

If the beat is long enough, or if the start is set upwind of Beavertail on Conanicut Island, the right side will benefit from a wind jet—a localized river of fast-flowing air that forms close to coasts—and smoother water under Point Judith. The ebb tide along that shore begins earlier, and can be especially beneficial if there is northeast-flowing tidal current from Long Island Sound wrapping around Point Judith.

In a synoptic southerly, the weather mark will often be well offshore. As you sail offshore, the wind often backs slightly, so it is good to leave enough room to do your final approach on port.

In a pure sea breeze, which forms in a synoptic offshore gradient (typically from the northwest), the wind fills seaward from the coast. It may fill quickly and with pressure, and in this scenario, the right will pay from the start of racing.

Southeast to South
This is usually a synoptic wind, and while it will slowly trend right from afternoon thermal effects, it will always be closer to the original synoptic direction as you sail offshore. This means that while the wind at the start might be south, the wind at the weather mark will be south southeast. There is no wind jet from Point Judith on the racecourse, and often the left will pay.

Northeast to East
In September, an east wind is usually the result of a coastal storm. That means overcast skies, rain, strong breeze, and big seas. If the conditions are extreme, the racing is moved into the Bay. The left is usually favored upwind, as there are smoother seas (especially in a northeast wind), less wind-blown current, and a left shift closer to shore.

On the rare day that it is sunny and you have a light northeast to east wind, it can veer into a south-southeast sea breeze, but it will not build. As the afternoon wanes, the wind will back to its synoptic direction. This wind is typically patchy and unpredictable.

North-northwest to North-northeast
This direction is straight offshore, and because the sun is low by September, it will usually persist all day. It is very shifty, but generally the puffs are righties at the start (flowing out of the Sakonnet River), and more often lefties at the top (flowing out of Narragansett Bay).

West to west-northwest
This is the most favorable offshore synoptic direction for an afternoon sea breeze. If it is sunny, you can count on a west-southwest sea breeze moving into the race area by early afternoon. But often there will be a line of lighter air between the west-northwest synoptic wind and the sea breeze. The favored side depends on where the weather mark is placed and how fast the sea breeze line is moving. Late in the day, usually the last race, expect the sea breeze to move offshore and the wind to return to the west-northwest.

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Tidal Flow in Rhode Island Sound:

Four bodies of water empty into Rhode Island Sound: Narragansett Bay, Buzzards Bay, Vineyard Sound, and long Island Sound. Narragansett Bay is relatively small, so its flow is insignificant except when you are close to mouth of the bay.

For the most part, the tidal currents are weak on Rhode Island Sound. Wind driven currents are more significant. Tidal currents are most affected by long Island Sound, which is by far the largest body of water. Long Island Sound tides run about three hours behind those of Narragansett and Buzzards Bay.

During the early ebb in Newport, the flow offshore is generally toward the southwest, around Point Judith and then flooding into long Island Sound. That flow backs to the southeast in the late Newport ebb as long Island Sound starts to empty.

When Newport starts to flood, most of the water comes in from long Island Sound, around Point Judith as northeast flow. Later in the Newport flood, after long Island Sound has begun to flood the overall flow backs toward the northwest.