The DN According to Gougeon

A Runner Tracks interview with Jan Gougeon - by Ron Sherry - December 1995

Jan Gougeon is one of the winningest DN racers in the world. Runner Tracks had a conversation with him to find out some of his tuning secrets and keys to his success.

Jan remembers a lot of good times in the early days. The class was "young and full of enthusiastic sailors." He remembers using home built gear while others had the luxury of Sarns runners and hardware. It wasn’t until he got a job with Rick Carpenter that he was able to afford a set of Sarns runners and a new Boston sail from Howard, Skip’s dad.

JG: When I got my first new set of Sarn’s hard runners, it was like I had just won the lottery. I could sail all weekend long and never have to sharpen those runners!

RT: What was the most memorable regatta for you?

JG: Kleine Wittensee - 1982 World Championships was probably, of all the regattas I’ve been to, the neatest. We had a good time and the event was full of excitement and drama. You never knew what was going to happen until it was over. I remember building a wood mast. We tried it out once here and it worked pretty good, but we never had a clue as to it’s true potential.

RT: That was one of four World Cup and seven North American Champion titles. What was the key to your success...what is your secret?

JG: In the early years, there were a lot of technical things. Luckily for me, I think I was more of a technical person than a good sailor.

In the early years, the technical innovations were moving along and at the same time the sailing skills were kind of coming along. But my technical innovations were kind of saving me because there weren’t many boats in Bay City for me to race. I wasn’t as good of a tactical sailor as I was a good technician. But then, of course, as the competition became more intense, and everyone else had fast boats, you had to be better at sailing. By that time, I had sailed long enough and hard enough to improve my sailing skills.

I guess it comes down to knowing the sport. You finally get to the point where you know what runners to put on and where to put the mast. You get to the point where you know what effect you want and you change the boat to get that effect.

RT: Can you talk a little bit about tuning? I know that is something DN Sailors would like to hear about. It is really a "feel" type of thing, but what are some of the big areas you look at in tuning, or what do you try to achieve?

JG: For instance, the 1994 North American’s I won and you were there. We both did basically the same stuff. The day before the regatta, on the glass ice, I had the mast stepped almost all the way back, the plank was back and the boat was set up for going really fast. The mast was relatively stiff and I had to really get up to "warp" speed before the mast would bend. Then we got the deep, soft snow and it was so slow. I couldn’t even get up to speed enough to get everything to bend. I immediately stopped the boat, moved the plank all the way forward, moved the mast step all the way forward, put the short runners on and did just everything to get the boat to move through that "crud." The mast was just bendy enough. If I would have rigged the boat that way on the glass ice, it would have been a "turkey." But in that condition, that was what it needed to go.

I remember when we came back together again, I looked at you and your boat was the same way. We had both done the same thing. We went out and lined up on the starting line...and that was a war!

The thing is, I won four races, but no one can appreciate how close it was. No one realized that in all of the races, no one ever led all three laps. Positions were changing constantly.

I think that the first time that you ever win a major regatta like the North American’s is probably the time you remember the best. You say Holy Mackerel, I can’t believe that this is actually happening.

RT: Let’s get back to always seem to carry your mast raked further forward than just about everyone. Do you have any theories on that?

JG: Is it that obvious? Basically everything that I do with the mast is just to effect bending. But it depends on the mast. I think last year I carried it further forward because the tip was a little bit too bendy, so I lowered the sail and pulled the back rake out. Then the lower part of the mast was too stiff, so I moved the base forward a little and put some side rake in it to get the bottom portion of the mast to bend. Basically, if the mast is strong enough, you should be able to move everything around enough to get most of it to bend. I leave the mast stepped forward and just let it bend.

RT: What are some of the big innovations that stand out in your mind?

JG: I think the big things that happened were in two areas. One was the insert runner... we were direly in need of something like that because the other runners were just a little bit too short for the heavy guys. All of the sudden, with the insert runner, more people were able to sail.

RT: Aside from the insert runner, the other big innovation had to be the bendy masts.

JG: Right. I remember in Hamilton, I put the aluminum mast on and won the Nationals. With the first aluminum mast, I didn’t have a clue... I just threw the thing up there and I won! I don’t know why, but I won. As a matter of fact, it was blowing kind of hard and I never had done well in heavy air. It was blowing hard enough that they asked me if I thought we should race. I said, "well, it’s blowing pretty hard." They said, "Gougeon, you just don’t want to go because it is heavy air. I said, "let’s put the boats on the line and we’ll go." I won every race with an aluminum mast! That was the first time a boat with an aluminum mast ever won anything. So everyone ran out and bought one.

Then you got the Norton Wing Mast and discovered ("stumbled on") what was making them go fast. I sailed your boat and said, "Ah Hah!" Then I went back and started sailing with one. We figured out that the way to make them go really fast was to bend them. I remember the first time when we started messing with the Norton Wings. They would bend way out there and we would go into warp and that was that. You knew if you got them to bend just right... you were kicking butt! I mean, you just knew when you got into that groove, you had serious speed. I went through three of them in one winter, and that was when I built the wood mast. I went back and said, what I really want is a wood mast that is like a Norton Wing Mast, but made with fiberglass so it will bend a lot without breaking. So I built a wood mast and laid a 1/4" thick, uni-directional schedule of fiberglass in each sidewall. That mast went a long time.

RT: Was that the mast you sailed in Germany in 1982?

JG: Yeah. It was really bendy and I didn’t have an adjustable mast step. The mast was all the way back and I still didn’t know everything about it. By the time I got to the Europeans, I had changed the set-up. I had the blocks in the wrong place... and it just wasn’t very fast. If I had just left it alone, it would have been great!

That was when we started experimenting. We tried raising the hounds and blew up piles of them. Next we tried a softer tip but soon went back to a more normal tip. My last couple of masts have been Maple Veneer with some carbon inside. They’ve made it through a season now without breaking, so I think they’ll be pretty good.

RT: What changes would be good to help the class in the future?

JG: If you want the class’ mast problem to get solved, there are a couple of things that we could do. One is to just eliminate rules regarding how the mast has to be built. Keep the dimension and weight limitations the same and then say you can build it however you want. You don’t have to specify that the wood has to go the the edge or anything like that. For example, you could take a piece of wood and put carbon on it until it bent properly and then glue Styrofoam on it to get it out to 2". Or you could take a 1.5" aluminum mast, put carbon on it and a little bit of Microlight, or something on the outside, to get it out to 2". There are many solutions, if you could just eliminate the wood specifications.

I guess, some day, I would like to see some standardization of the runner specifications. So T-runners and insert runners would have to be the same thickness. With T-runners, the only advantage is that they can be 1/32" thicker or thinner than the inserts. We could eliminate the need to carry so many runners which would make traveling to race much easier. You don’t want to limit it so that it would hurt the big guy or the little guy, and it wouldn’t take you 20 years to accumulate enough runners to be competitive in all conditions.

RT: Leon Le Beau told me a story about how you used to drive to regattas and actually sleep in your cockpit with just a blanket over you.

JG: Yeah. We used to leave after work on Friday night and drive down to Stu Sills. I remember driving to the ice at 2:00 in the morning. We drove down to the park and parked in the lot or on the ice. I unloaded the boat because I was kind of excited to have a boat ready. I really wanted to go sailing, but I knew I had to wait a little while. So I just put my sleeping bag in the cockpit and I laid down to go to sleep. I didn’t really need to go to sleep, but I did, and when I woke up, there were people all around and I was covered with snow. As I was trying to figure out how to get out of my sleeping bag, I scared poor, unsuspecting Stan Woodruff, who was setting up his boat right next to mine.

RT: That was classic... one of many great stories in the life and times of Jan Gougeon.

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