Some times it's important to stand back and take a new look at a problem in order to better understand whatever it is you're dealing with. To improve as sailors, I think it makes sense for us all to occasionally take the broader view of sailing as a sport. Whether you are a racer, cruiser, or casual daysailor, there is a sense of commonality that links us all. We all go out sailing to enjoy that sense freedom that comes with being in control of our own destiny on the water. I would imagine that for all sailors the sense of empowerment that comes from handling a boat in an ever-changing environment is unequalled. However, the degree of enjoyment that we achieve is directly related to how well we manage our craft in any given conditions on any given day.
Whenever I give sailing seminars, I usually ask whatever group it is what would make the biggest difference in their performance on the water. I've found that the responses are usually as varied as the myriad interests within the sport: tactics and strategy, sail trim, navigation, better speed, knowledge of the rules, understanding the weather. But in reality, the biggest leaps in performance, whether you're racing or cruising or simply daysailing, come from going back to the very foundation of sailing itself—boat handling. I like to envision anyone's skills as sailor in the form of a pyramid. For me, the base of the pyramid is boat handling.
More often than not, once we learn the basics of sailing, we focus our energy on the nuances of the sport and start straying from the basics. At this stage of the game, the majority of the mistakes we make come from poor execution of basic sailing maneuvers. Bad mark roundings, poor control in acceleration and deceleration, tacking, jibing, reefing, or inefficient man-overboard execution just to name a few, all force us to sail with our heads "in the boat." If our heads (really our focus at the moment) are in the boat, there is no way that we can concentrate on refining the other aspects of performance sailing like sail trim, boat speed, and strategy.
Now let me be clear about this. Performance sailing does not necessarily mean racing. Racers and cruisers alike can benefit from some diligent attention to their boat handling skills. Excellent boat handling will allow you to get yourself out of the vast majority of tight situations that you might encounter on the water. If we handle our boats well, if we can maneuver them readily in and out of tight situations, if we can best the currents, closely duck a competitor, anchor fast in a wind-blown harbor, then the confidence we have in ourselves and our fellow crew will enable us to work on the nuances.
This truism applies to every sailor: Once we hone our boat handling skills, our confidence level rises, as does our ability to put our sailboats where we want to go. So after you've achieved a certain excellence in boat handling, you can then focus on the next big piece of performance. The middle section of what I call the sailing pyramid is boat speed, and it rests squarely on the foundation of boat handling. If we are good boat handlers, our boat speed will naturally be better than those less practiced. Good tacks and jibes, solid spinnaker work, efficient reefing and steering all contribute to better speed. When our focus is no longer on those aspects, then we can work toward improving boat speed with our heads out of the boat.
Now some factors that influence speed, like the condition of the bottom, the age of our sails, the reliability of the on-board mechanical systems are things that should be dealt with in the off season. But there are others that are less evident to the average sailor. I am talking about aspects like sail trim, rig tune, and steering technique in waves. If our speed is poor, we will find our heads back in the boat. When a team can get its focus out of the boat and begins looking at what happens when a control line is adjusted, that's when improvement can take place. You need to be able to see and quantify what happens when the jib leads are moved or note the speed differentials when adjustments are made to the rig tune, and it's only then that big gains can be made in boat speed. Practice will enable a crew to improve together, and good speed combined with good boat handling will get you out of all but a small percentage of the problematic situations that might arise on the water.
Once we sailors gain a solid foundation of boat handling and are able to translate that into speed, then our heads will be well and truly out of the boat and then it will be time to focus on the finer details of racing and/or cruising—like tactics and strategy, navigation, and meteorology, etc. These are the items that sit at the apex of the sailing pyramid. Most of the books about sailing that racers will find on the market are focused on things like tactics and strategy. But if we can't get in and out of dicey mark-rounding situations, if we don't have speed off the line, if we can't effectively complete a lee-bow tack or a close duck, then we can't really make use of the tactics and strategy that are so talked about. And similarly, if cruising sailors or daysailors can't jibe and tack their boats well enough to let them concentrate simultaneously on what the tide might be doing or what other vessels in the area are doing, they'll probably have a tough time enjoying themselves on the water.
Reading and studying the nuances of tactics and strategy is one thing, but applying them in situations under pressure is quite another. And understanding that you've got the right of way in a channel is also great, but if you can't properly tack the boat, you're probably going to alarm others in the vicinity as well as any passengers you might have on board. So stand back and study the pyramid. Consider your own sailing program, whether you're a racer or a cruiser, and determine where your biggest gains are to be made. And remember, you can't reach the top of the mountain without starting at the base!
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