This week a number of really good racing sailors are learning humility as they get schooled in the waters of Hamilton Harbor Bermuda. The Colorcraft Gold Cupthe final event on the Swedish Match Cup Grand Prix Tourhas attracted some of the top names in the sport to this little island nation in the Atlantic. Because only eight non-seeded sailors can advance from the preliminary rounds to the actual competition, some top-skilled Americas Cup veterans like Dennis Conner, John Cutler, and Chris Larson are finding themselves in the unfamiliar position of being out of the money even before the first starting gun sounds for the quarterfinals.
The caliber of competition is certainly one reason behind these unusual results, but another factor at play is that this event is annually staged aboard International One Designs. These narrow, elegant, relatively heavy 33-foot boats with their full keels and attached rudders are a far cry from the more contemporary vessels that these racers usually have beneath them as they go around the buoys at world-class, match-racing events, and getting used to the IODs more-stately performance characteristics is not something easily accomplished. "I live in St. Petersburg, FL," said seeded competitor Ed Baird, "and we dont have anything like an IOD class boat there, so its nearly impossible to practice for the Bermuda event. Instead we have to research boatspeed ideas, talk to locals about how they sail the boats, and remind ourselves that these boats are unique. And boy are they unique!"
Another would-be finalist at the Colorcraft Gold Cup is 22-year-old Seattleite Dalton Bergan, who surprised a lot of onlookers by going 3-1 on the first day of competition. Despite his status as the 1999-2000 College Sailor of the Year, Bergen is basically unknown on the match-racing circuit, yet he beat the likes of Cutler, Larson, and Cameron Appleton (formerly of Team New Zealand). His secret weapon? Bergen and his crew did their homework by spending time training aboard two borrowed Six Meters before traveling to Bermuda. "We just pretended they were IODs," said Bergan. "That was the best we could do in Seattle." One of Bergans crew, Clay Bartell, put the lesson in perspective: "After the Six Meters, these boats [the IODs] are just like sports cars! The Six Meters are 3,000 pounds heavier, with smaller rudders, longer bows, and more complicated rigs."
What Bergan and his crew did with the Six Meters was accelerate their learning process and augment their adaptability as racers. According to many sailing coaches, competing in other classes is one of the quickest ways to improve your overall racing skills. Consider that when you do this youre thrown into what is essentially unfamiliar territory, forcing yourself to absorb new information regarding the optimum trimming and sailing techniques for that particular kind of boat. In the aggregate, this kind of experience helps to emphasize one of the most valuable lessons of competitive sailingthat we must all maintain an open mind regarding performance because were only as good as our most recent finish.
Its easy for sailors, particularly those who own and drive sailboats, to get into a rut by sailing just one kind of boat. After a while that kind of boat just becomes such a comfortable fit that you stop asking yourself, What can I do to sail better? Getting into an unfamiliar boat will keep you on your toes as a performance sailor because it will require that you be particularly observant to figure out how the new vessel responds. Once you realize that the sailing techniques you formerly relied upon are only alternatives, not hard, fast rules, youll be well on your way toward becoming a better sailor.
Jumping into a new class may be intimidating at first, but intimidation is only an initial phase. Knowing this will help you make the most of this learning opportunity and help you to enjoy what could otherwise be an awkward situation. Above all, you should avoid burdening yourself with unrealistic expectations about how you might fare your first time out aboard a new boat. Remember, Michael Jordan had no mortal equivalent on the basketball court, but in a baseball uniform he became just another guy on the roster, no more than a farm leaguer. The idea, after all, is simply to learn, so just try to absorb as much as you can about how the good sailors in this new boat set things up and how they sail the boat. You can start by asking questions, and as a rule of thumb, youll find that most everyone who sails that new boat will be more than willing to help you learn.
Then, when you eventually get back aboard your usual boat, you wont realize it, but unconsciously youll be distilling what you learned aboard the other boat and applying it. Its only human nature for you to make comparisons, and these will help you fine-tune your performance.
After winning an Olympic silver medal in the Mens 470 at Sydney in September this year, Paul Foerster came home and found himself steering a Vanguard 15 with his wife Carrie as crew in US SAILINGs annual Championship of Champions Regatta, held at the Houston Yacht Club. Foerster is undoubtedly a superb competitor to begin with, but having sailed in a different two-person boat gave him a good perspective for jumping into the V-15. "To me," explained Foerster, "the more I sail, the better I become. So training and racing in the Olmpics obviously made me a better sailor. It also helped that the 470 and the V-15 are of similar to sail." As you might imagine, Foerster and his wife won that event.
So call up a sailing friend, or head down to the nearest sailing center or yacht club and look for a spot racing on a boat youve never been aboard before. No doubt therell be an initial awkwardness, but just be observant and ask a lot of questions, and youll find that the learning will start even before you leave the dock.
- The Philosophy of Cross-Training by Dan Dickison
- Team-Building Basics by Betsy Alison
- The Pre-Race Checklist by Dan Dickison