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Early Westbound Leg from SB
Posted 11/26/2013, last update 11/27/2013
A number of pilots have asked me why I typically do an early westbound leg in Santa Barbara when my LZ objective is often the other direction.
The days are pretty short in the winter and a little longer in the spring. Even with a short soaring window, we are often course limited rather than time limited. The easy more predictable section of our local range is from the VOR to Santa Paula Peak. Going west to the Painted Cave Windmill yields more easy miles. Painted Cave can be a stretch, but I like to challenge myself early in a flight to set the tone and build confidence in the day. It is sometimes better to turn earlier. La Cumbre Peak is an obvious start gate. Using the VOR spine as a turn point exposes you to less risk of flushing compared to reaching for the windmill, which is down lower in the pass, so you often need to claw back out. The actual VOR is a good compromise for pilots who want to reach a little further for an obvious turn point but don't want to risk flushing.
The order of turn point difficulty from easiest to hardest is
You can also continue westbound across San Marcos Pass, but that is another discussion.
In addition to increasing the course length, I often launch from the Skyport, so going west is uphill, which is more conservative that running toward lower terrain early. I tend to launch early, and flow is often from the east before the west is drawn in, so it is frequently downwind early. Going west early and penetrating a bit into the border between the east and west will often result in a tailwind both directions. Although the flow is frequently from the east early and from the west later on, it is uncommon to experience the reverse where it is west early followed by building flow from the east. An occurrence that we do often get is east up high and west down lower. In that case, you want to stay high on the westbound leg and stay as low as you dare on the eastbound leg.
The mountains behind Santa Barbara are higher than the range a few miles to the east behind Montecito and Summerland. The higher range has more land between it and the ocean, and the Rivera is particularly good a blocking the marine air. La Cumbre Peak, the R&R, and the Thermal Factory often work better than Montecito or Ramero, so going west early gives the lower range more time to heat up. It is more conservative to go west initially. The better lift plus the tail wind and extended course add up.
You do want to be vigilant early, especially on post frontal days. The Peak is well protected, but the Alternator less so, and the VOR ever less. Painted cave is down in the potential venturi flow path through the pass. It can be working good at the Peak on a post frontal day, but blowing from the north through the low venturi of San Marcus Pass, so be alert for signs of NW wind on post frontal days when pressing west, particularly past La Cumbre Peak. You may hit west before La Cumbre Peak, but doing so east of the Peak will usually spit you back into protection. Be willing to turn early if you encounter NW flow. It's not worth risking a flush for a few extra miles at the start of a good day. On one of the better long distance XC days that I can recollect, Craig Warren had the first and only 100 mile flight from Santa Barbara (on a HG). I pressed upwind on the speed bar for Painted Cave and was surprised to encounter increasing velocity the lower I got. I flushed out and had to land backing up below the Pass.
I usually do westbound leg from the Skyport before returning eastbound, but not always. There are days when the west wind is forecasted to build and it's already showing west at launch. In those scenarios, I'll get on course eastbound directly to try and beat the wind that tends to sweep through from the west. Since it is common for an early flow from the east to give way to west wind in the afternoon, going right is somewhat dependant on what time of day you launch.
I can often do an early westbound leg and still catch the pilots who went left from the Factory not so much because I fly a fast glider, but because I'm flying downwind to the switch zone and then going downwind again on my eastbound leg while the eastbound pilots are making slow progress plugging into the early flow from the east along a section of range that doesn't work as good. By the time the west finally pushes through, I'm often in sight of the upwind pluggers despite giving them a dozen mile head start.
One final note if you are a greener XC pilot following more experienced junkies going west early. For the salty pilots, the protocol is the lead pilot marks the turn point, but if you are a budding XC pilot, when the leaders turn and come back eastbound, don't feel obligated to push to round their turn point. They are likely faster than you, and if you push for their turn point you will likely fall behind and loose them on the eastbound leg. Once they turn, you should turn also and be ahead of them. If you are little slower, you will still have them in sight when you want course markers behind Carpinteria.