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Optimizing Your Practice

Having the proper attire for the activity is an elemental step toward getting the most out of your practice time.
When I signed on for a three-year Olympic campaign, I knew practice would be a huge part of the time my team would spend on the water. What I hadn't realized was how much work we would put into learning to practice, especially while working on our own. US SAILING's Head Coach Gary Bodie calls this "practicing practice." According to him, understanding and using fundamentally sound practice techniques is a basic and essential aspect of any successful sailing campaign, and really the secret behind getting the most out of your time on the water. So over the past six months our team has gradually figured out the details. I've condensed the lessons we've learned into five simple steps. Here they are.

Step 1-Gearing Up    It's more important than most sailors realize that you dress appropriately for the conditions and the activity. Too cold or too hot; either extreme will drastically decrease your enjoyment of even a short day on the water. Think of dressing appropriately as the first part of your practice session. While standing on the dock, try to predict what attire will work for you for that day, particularly relative to your position on the boat. I had to reduce substantially my wardrobe when I moved from crewing back to the helm, since I was drier and warmer in all conditions. (Ask my team about "Carol's closet" and they will tell you that I still leave the dock with too many extra layers.) In general, dress more warmly for practice than for racing, since the intensity level is lower.

Step 2-Getting Organized    The first choice you need to make is, are you practicing or are you just going out for a sail? If you just want to go sailing, then by all means enjoy it. But make sure everyone knows that so they are not expecting a hard-core tacking drill. If you want to practice, make a plan. It doesn't have to be detailed, and you don't have to stick to it, but even a vague idea of what you want to work on that day, or that hour, will help you focus, and ultimately accomplish more with the time spent.

You can accomplish a lot if you're out on the water without any other boats to sail against, but it's best to concentrate on maneuvers rather than boat speed.
It is virtually impossible to make any gains in boat speed unless you have another boat to line up against as a gauge. If you are practicing by yourself, working on basic boathandling skills and maneuvers is probably the most rewarding and effective approach. Practicing tacks and jibes can go a long way toward helping you avoid basic mistakes on the racecourse, and that's true even for a seasoned team.

Step 3-Getting Focused    We've discovered that starting off our practice sessions by working on a specific boathandling issue helps us focus. Dependable boathandling involves teamwork and coordination, which take time and repetition to develop. The only way to change ingrained habits is through repetition, but repetition is also what gives practice a bad name; it can be very, very boring. We try to establish a time frame for practicing a particular skill and then move on to something else.

Let's say we choose jibing as the boathandling item we want to work on first. Just going out and jibing repeatedly without discussion will not teach us very much; we may ultimately stumble onto better jibing techniques, but we won't really know why. So we position the boat in a way that we can warm up with three or four jibes, and if they basically get the job done (the spinnaker doesn't collapse and the boat doesn't wipe out), we have a brief discussion regarding what to try next to improve. If we start out and there are serious problems, we identify those and work on them first.

"The key to improving your boathandling is to work toward consistency."
The key to improving your boathandling is to work toward consistency. I have learned that I steer more when I jibe to port than when I jibe to starboard. I'm working on that, but my trimmer and bow person have also learned to compensate by rolling the boat less onto port! Good boathandling truly requires a team effort, and working together helps to cement the team.

Mark roundings are a great skill to practice when you and your team are out there by yourselves, and they're almost always one part of the racecourse where gains can be made. All you need is a crab pot, or a navigational aid (surrounded by enough navigable water), or an actual race mark that is not actively in use by another group. Windward mark roundings and leeward mark roundings involve different skills, so treat them as separate maneuvers. Try a couple of roundings and discuss in between what you could do better to coordinate sail trim and the rate of the boat's turn. Don't be afraid to try something a little different, even if you don't think it will work; you might come up with something great. That's how innovative maneuvers like the so-called Mexican (spinnaker takedown) end up getting discovered.

Once you have completed your specific boathandling drills, you should try to put it all together and go around a makeshift racecourse. Try to find two marks that are approximately parallel to the wind. This will allow you to sail a short windward-leeward course. One of the benefits of a short-race simulation like this is that it will force you to tack when you're thinking about a lot of other things (like laylines or getting the pole up). Tacking while distracted is much more realistic than specifically practicing tacks and thinking only about where to place your feet and how much to trim the sheet. With the short-course simulation you will quickly find out whether you and your crew return to your old habits, or if you have become comfortable enough with the new techniques you learned and can start using them when your team is under a little pressure.

The objective when practicing starts is to work on timing, which requires clear communication between the trimmer(s) and the driver.
Step 4-Practicing Starts  
 I can't over-emphasize the importance of starting well, which is why we practice our starting technique at some point during almost every session on the water. It's easy to practice starting skills with only one buoy and one boat. Although you will never (or always, if you prefer) be over early, lining up next to a fixed object is the best way to help the person on the helm get a handle on the time-distance equation, which is the most critical aspect of consistent starts. It will also give the rest of the team a chance to practice the skills they need to help you get off the line at speed.

Here’s how: Find a mark, which can be a crab pot, lobster pot, government mark surrounded by navigable water, or other fixed floating object. Think of the mark as the windward end of an imaginary starting line. (If you can find two marks that sit approximately perpendicular to the wind, that's even better.) Start a short countdown (two to four minutes works well depending on your boat's size) and let everyone know the plan: to have the bow at that mark, at speed, when the countdown ends. Although it is harder to judge your setup without other boats around, this drill will quickly teach you about acceleration and how best to set up your boat for "parking" on the line if that becomes necessary. I recommend you do this four or five times in succession, but don't let yourself burn out on it.

Step 5-Joint Practices     Having two or more boats on the water can make practicing more fun, but it also makes the coordination more challenging. You can work on any of the skills listed above, and you may get some fresh ideas from watching the achievements (or problems) of your training partner. Still, it's best to have a general plan in mind before you leave the dock, since it may be hard to communicate in any detail on the water depending upon the conditions.

Two-boat testing is the best way to develop better boat speed, but remember it is deadly dull for anyone but the driver and those controlling sail trim. Try to involve as many members of the crew as possible by asking for information about headers and lifts, the boat's height and speed, and any differences between the two boats. And remember, if you want the crew to keep talking, you have to make it clear that their input is making a difference.

It's always productive to take breaks during a practice session to discuss what's been learned and what should be worked on.

If you are lucky enough to work with a coach, make sure he or she knows what you are trying to get out of your time on the water. Establishing concrete ideas (and discussing those ideas beforehand) will enhance your learning opportunities and help you minimize any disappointment.

At the end of the practice, spend some time debriefing with your team and write down what you think you learned and what you still need to work on. Adopting this approach will help you quantify your practicing, which will help you remain focused for your next session and get more out of it. Of course that feeling of accomplishment will make the after practice beverage taste all that much sweeter.

So what's the most important thing you need to bring to practice? Just like racing, it is your attitude. For those who drive boats, there is a natural tendency when steering to think you have all the answers to the boathandling problems. In reality, it is very easy for the driver to get caught up in the mechanics of the job and miss the big picture. The rate of your turn or the angle you come out on can drastically affect the jobs of your teammates, but you may not even be aware you have made a change. It is usually very obvious to the rest of the team if the helmsman is the source of the boathandling problem, but crews (especially if they are new) often hesitate to speak up if they are not specifically asked for input. All sailors should be open to criticism during practice, and skippers in particular should welcome it. Remember, you're out there trying to make yourself and your teammates better, so make and take all comments constructively, and that will help your collective learning curve the most in the long run.

The other thing to remember about practicing is that you once you get all the kinks worked out, you should try to achieve the same level of intensity that you bring to your racing, at least for some portion of the practice session. Doing that will make the practice more fun, and the harder you try, the more you will learn.

Suggested Reading:

Two-Boat Tuning by Dean Brenner

An Approach to Self-Coaching by Zack Leonard

On the Road at the CISA Racing Clinic by Zack Leonard


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Carol Cronin is offline  
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