This article was originally published on SailNet in October, 2000.
There are few sports that require the diversity of skills that sailing demands. Mastery of our sport can be a life-long pursuit, and if you choose to work toward that, you’ll never want for new discoveries or chances to further refine the skills you once thought you had perfected. Some sailors are lucky—they have teachers and coaches to help pinpoint the skills that need help and these instructors can also offer ways to improve existing strengths. But many of us must coach ourselves, searching for new ways to examine our performance and improve the parts of our game that need work.
Whether you are an Olympic athlete with access to the top coaches, or a weekend warrior with little opportunity for outside assistance, there are a few tricks that you can use to deconstruct your game as an initial step toward improved performance. Combined with hard work and determination, these tricks can ultimately help you improve your results on the racecourse. Everyone has heard the phrase "speed kills." I don't know when I first heard it, but it rings true for what we do on the water—the guy with the best boat speed will almost always "kill" his opponents. If I could have proficiency in only one of the three skill groups mentioned above, it would always be speed. Remember, an unguided missile usually beats a smart turtle in our sport every time. And for me, after speed, it's a toss-up between boat handling and tactics, depending on the type of racing you do, how short the courses are, and whether your boat has a spinnaker and a trapeze.
As a coach, I like to break down sailing into three skill groups—speed, boat handling, and tactics. It should be obvious that without solid skills in each of these disciplines, a person will rarely have much success in sailboat racing. However, emphasizing the right skills at the right point in your development can help you to climb the ladder faster.
The single biggest mistake that I see most junior sailing instructors, high-school coaches, and college coaches make is to start off by teaching boat-handling skills first. While basic tacking, jibing, and acceleration techniques are necessary just to turn the corners on a racecourse, many of the concepts needed to understand proper boat-handling techniques are hard to grasp if they aren't first introduced in the context of straight-line speed. To perfect tacks, jibes, and acceleration, a sailor must first understand through experience the concepts of helm balance and rudder load, pressure on the sails, steering with weight and sail trim, crew-weight positioning, and kinetic responsiveness. These concepts are best taught in a straight-line, speed-tuning environment where experimentation yields immediate results. And once a sailor understands and feels these forces on the boat, the process of learning to squeeze maximum potential out of tacks and jibes is much easier.
When you are just learning to sail, or learning a new boat, that’s when this principle is most important. When I coach or teach, I recommend beginning with a lot of straight-line sailing so that you get the feel of your new boat. You’ll gradually learn how quickly the apparent wind accelerates and decelerates in the puffs, and you’ll get to know how the helm reacts to heel and crew position, and how sail trim affects the helm. As you become confident in your basic sail setup and helming skills, then you’ll be ready to move on to refining your boat handling.
If you ever have the chance to witness a collegiate sailing practice session you will probably see the team executing tacks in rapid succession with the coach urging the sailors on between his whistle blasts. While drills like this that emphasize the repetition of boat-handling skills are great for sailors who have mastered all the mechanics, they are often detrimental for sailors who are just learning the proper mechanics. When you practice things like tacking, it is usually much more valuable to get the boat up to full speed, execute your best tack, then stop and talk about how it might be done better. This is true whether you're sailing with nine crew or just out by yourself on a single-handed dinghy. Taking the time to do it right, analyze, and then try it again is the quickest path to perfecting proper sailing mechanics. Only when you feel comfortable that everything is right should you accelerate the task and work it into a repetitive format.
|"Taking the time to do it right, analyze, and then try it again is the quickest path to perfecting proper sailing mechanics."|
Tactics and starting-line maneuvers present an interesting challenge for coaches and instructors. Sailing the least distance in the most wind and in clear air is the critical objective in our sport, but many people make tactics more complicated than they really need to be. Collegiate sailing does a good job of teaching the fundamentals of tactics, starting, and strategy by way of endless repetition on short courses. But sailing is more like philosophy than science. Because the wind and the racecourse conditions are ever-changing, no hard, fast rule for performance will ever apply. Nonetheless, experience teaches us that there are certain things that generally hold true, and if you can distil your basic tactical arsenal into a few important concepts, you will have a great point of departure for learning the infinite nuances involved in this aspect of the sport. Here's an example: If you are reasonably fast and can tack with competence, then a clear-air start, on the line with speed, in an uncluttered part of the starting line should lead to a front-row position. Half of the fleet usually fails in this regard. After that point, if you tack when the majority of the fleet tacks, keeping your speed up and your air clear, you will usually find yourself in phase with the wind and sailing among the top 25 percent of the fleet.
Undeniably, the best way to improve tactically is to find an opportunity to engage in multiple, short-course races. In each contest, the tactical concepts at play will become apparent if not during the race, then afterward as you discuss what happened with your competitors and your crew. All you have to do is to make brief mental notes while you're racing and review them afterward. If you do this with your crew, you'll get the benfit of their outlook. If you also do this with your competitors, the potential for information that can lead to improvement increases almost exponentially.
Around the US, there are various clubs and sailing associations that can provide this format of racing, but you’ll likely have the best luck with a dinghy fleet that sails year-round. Those fleets that sail throughout the colder months—frostbiters they call themselves—usually consist of a core group of competitors that sail numerous races over the same short course on a given day. Frostbiting like this presents one of the best opportunities for making improvements in your game.
Years ago when I trained in the Tornado Class, I was lucky enough to have access to the US Sailing Team sport psychologist, Jerry May. May admits that he doesn't know that much about sailing, but he is very smart when it comes to what works in athletic preparation and motivation. I told him about the first event of our campaign where we had finished second in a highly competitive field. Our speed was fantastic, our tactics were great, but our boat handling was atrocious. I told him that my goal was to work for a full month on boat handling and his response to that plan was surprising. He warned me to be careful not to work only on my weaknesses. According to May, it's your strengths that lead to success. While everyone must strive to improve their shortcomings, it is perhaps more important to continue to refine your strengths. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to realize that it's no fun practicing skills you aren't good at all day long. So make sure to spend equal time on the parts of your game that shine. If nothing else, it will make you feel better about your time on the water.
When it comes time to look critically at your sailing and make a plan of attack for next season, prioritize your needs. Make sure speed is an important part of your plan, and keep working on your strengths as well as your weaknesses. It will make the whole process a lot more fun.
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