Switch Up Your Perspective: Slow Boat Sailing
Day one and I could barely keep up with the boat handling calls. I kept my head down, did my best to remember which line was which, and - Bang! My first spinnaker set sailing on a Catalina 37 and a misstep sent me crashing down through the bow hatch…
Lots to learn...
This weekend, for the first time in a long time I did a bit of my own yacht racing. It was my first time on a Catalina 37, my first time doing mast, first time sailing with this team, and first match race regatta since 2012.
We lost three out of our first four races on day one by narrow margins, but came roaring back to win nine out of the remaining ten races in the regatta, finishing second overall, winning the California Dreamin’ Match Race Series and earning a berth at Long Beach Yacht Club’s, Ficker Cup in March.
As a team, we went into the weekend knowing that we had plenty of talent onboard, but faced a huge challenge if we wanted to play in the top of the field.
The mission was simple: starting from a place where none of us had ever match raced Catalina 37s, we needed to absorb information at every opportunity, to learn as quickly as possible and keep our learning curve steep!
Whether you are a Wednesday night PHRF sailing team looking to step up your game for the 2020 season, a new skiff team working on developing some team chemistry, or an Olympic 49er team looking for that last little edge, this debrief is all about how to get the most from yourself and your teammates in high stakes, racing environments.
The Right Amount Of Criticism
On Friday afternoon, we got the keys to the boat and the race was on - one day to learn the boat before the start of race number one.
By all accounts from the back of the boat, our first lap was great. Tacking, gybing, setting, dousing - it all happened on lap number one, and with the exception of me taking a bit of a tumble through the hatch that the kite launched out of, it looked fairly smooth…
Up at the other end of the boat though, we had a slightly different perspective. Did the kite go up? Yes. Was it a beautiful maneuver? Far from it. While I was busy getting my head wrapped around which side of the mast held the spinnaker halyard and which was the jib, our pit guy, Nick had his work cut out to figure out how to pull up on the spinnaker halyard, down on the jib halyard, up on the topping lift, off on the vang, outhaul, and cunningham, and in on the foreguy… all within a boat length or two of the mark.
On any team, whether there are seven people to coordinate, or two, finding a good balance with a healthy amount of tension is key to quick improvement.
In this case, the afterguard wanted the bow guys to speed up (surprise, surprise) - they were pushing us to get each maneuver done faster and with more precision. Meanwhile, we were communicating back that they needed to slow down! Slow the turn, give more warning into the maneuvers, etc.
You can imagine (or maybe you have first hand experience) of an imbalance in this area - too much tension and things get emotional, yelling starts to happen, and team coordination (not to mention morale) tends to spiral. Too little on the other hand, and no pressure is applied to improve.
A few specific places where it is really important to have some tension are:
Between helmsman and trimmer in a straight line: Figure out who likes to press, and who likes to point, and use this to your advantage. If the skipper is always trying to put the bow down, the trimmer can be talking them up: “Good speed here, brining you up two degrees,” as the jib gets clicked in for that higher mode.
Between tactician and skipper on the starting line: If the skipper’s job is to keep the bow up and avoid hitting leeward boats, and the tactician’s job is to ask for bow down and flow on, it will help you to hold your spot on the line.
In training boat handling: Like in our regatta experience this weekend, your teammates are your best coaches because they’re sitting next to you, and can feel the same things that you’re responding to. Push each other to pull just a little bit faster, grind a little bit harder, and turn a little bit smoother in practice, so that by the time it’s time to race, you’ve pushed your limits to new heights.
As we went through the day, Chris and Berto steadily ratcheted up the intensity as we improved to keep pushing us just outside of our comfort zone, and we made steady progress.
But doing the maneuvers twenty times and hoping that you’re going to be able to execute flawlessly under pressure is not going to win you any races, so let’s dig into a few tools that will be critical in expediting the learning curve, and executing more consistently on the race course.
“Do it the same, but better,” Using routines to improve around the race course.
On day one we scrambled and scrapped, and eventually got it done… but through all of this, we worked on our routines.
We figured out how to shuffle our bodies around on the deck through maneuvers to maximize hiking potential for all seven teammates.
We experimented with different orders of operations in hoisting the spin pole, setting the kite, and dropping the jib to see what worked best.
We played with various combinations of jib, main and spinnaker in the pre-start maneuvers to see what would allow us to have the most control over our competitors.
After nearly every single maneuver, we had a quick discussion about how it went, what was difficult and how we could make incremental improvements to our established routines, in order to help make each other's lives easier, or make the maneuvers more efficient.
One of the biggest differences that I see between pro’s and amateurs (and probably the number one difference that I see between the top of the fleet on a local beer can race and the bottom of the fleet) is the disciplined commitment to building routines.
In 2012 I had the opportunity to sail one of Oracle’s AC 45’s with my aspiring Youth America’s Cup team. Part of our homework prior to the experience was that we connected with Morgan Larson, who sent us a maneuver handbook for his Extreme 40 team at the time. Essentially, it was a spreadsheet which outlined each position on the boat, and the role of the person in those positions during each maneuver.
Since then, every time I’ve sailed with a new pro team, we’ve had a spreadsheet outlining all of our most important routines, whether maneuvers, roles on land, or otherwise.
On the best teams, your routine starts when you arrive at the dock in the morning. The same person rigs the same line - every time. The same person tapes the shackles, the same person coils the tails, etc., etc. If everyone knows their job and consistently executes that job, it allows learning to take place at a much faster pace, because it makes it obvious who is in charge of what, and who is responsible for improvements in which areas.
When you have routines, whether they are right or wrong, you have a baseline, from which you can make incremental adjustments to see if they make things better or worse.
After our training day on Friday, we walked away with a pretty good routine for our spinnaker douses...
But a disastrous douse on the first day of racing where the spinnaker pole twisted around the jib sheets, revealed a major issue in certain tactical situations. Fortunately, because we already had the framework for the routine, we were able to talk through it mid race, pinpoint the modification that needed to be made, and adjust on future maneuvers.
This same maneuver earned us a race win on day two when we forced another team to make the same mistake, and avoided the pitfall ourselves by getting the pole away sooner.
Some routines that we implemented this weekend included:
Morning rigging operations.
Boat handling routines and orders of operations.
Explicit checkpoints around the race course where each person was responsible for “cleaning their offices”.
Starting line compass number routine, and time distance routine.
Between race re-hydration and food routine.
Creating routines is a powerful tool to expedite your learning, but there is one critical ingredient when crafting these routines: good communication.
Sailing Team Synergy And Setting the Right Tone For Communication
We went into day two ready for action, and the boys in the back of the boat came out guns blazing on the start. They maintained nice control of the competition, won the end we were looking for, and gave us a small advantage off the line.
But we were slow.
On our side of the course we sailed in more pressure, but couldn’t quite sneak out ahead, and when the two boats came back together into the same pressure, we began losing distance, unable to point with the other team.
After the race we debriefed on the speed issues. At the bow, the bottom genoa telltale was right in front of our faces, and we felt that the sail had been over trimmed for most of the race, but in the back of the boat, they were looking up at the middle and top telltales and liked the look.
As soon as all of this was articulated, the answer was obvious: we needed to put the jib car forwards to make so that the sail could get eased slightly without trimming the top of the sail.
This was an example of where communication is key. Moreover, the ability to critique each other in an objective, unemotional way can help everyone see the bigger picture.
This challenge pertains to match racers, yacht racers, skiff racers, and non-racers far beyond the race course! When criticism gets thrown around - especially in high pressure environments - there is a tendency for the criticized to get defensive and in turn become the criticizer.
The best teammates recognize that everyone onboard is dependent on one another. When you do your job well it makes your teammate’s job easier, so rather than getting frustrated with a teammate for a mistake, ask or think about how you can help to make their life easier.
A quick side note here. As a coach, I often work with sailors who want me to validate their opinions onboard by critiquing their teammate. Don’t be that sailor! In the wise words of JFK, “Ask not what your sailing team can do for you, ask what you can do for your team!”
The starting place for every discussion onboard needs to be that everyone on the boat is there for a reason. Everyone is a valuable member of the team, and they are making every effort to get the boat around the course to the best of their ability.
The environment needs to be created so that anyone on the team feels comfortable saying, “I can’t move that fast,” or, “I need an extra second,” or, “I need some help on this part of the maneuver.”
Again, it comes back to striking the right balance: If you can’t talk about the mistakes, you’ll never improve, but if the criticism is too harsh, your teammates aren’t going to be willing to volunteer opinions like, “I need help here, ______,” which will help you improve the routines in the long run.
As soon as we had our conversation about the jib leads the boat was blazing fast for the rest of the day!
Improve Your Sailing Tactics By Match Racing
Right now I coach a multi-time Women’s Match Race World Champion, and she (along with many others) have always told me that they think match racing is a critical foundation for top level sailors to have some experience with.
I dabbled a bit at the beginning of my college sailing career, and have some war stories to prove it (Like the time I ripped the stanchion off of a J105 when we didn’t quite have the swing! Thanks to whoever took care of that repair bill… :-/).
But to come back to the discipline after spending so many hours watching sailboat racing in the last few years was an amazing learning experience.
The focus on the racing rules of sailing, the risk versus reward equations, and the judgement calls surrounding boat handling maneuvers versus leverage were all very interesting.
One of my favorite scenarios that played out a few times was the final two tacks of the beat. The trailing boat would tack shy of lay line to try to sucker the leader into two extra tacks, and the leader had to decide whether to take the extra maneuvers, or allow the trailing boat to take the last bit of leverage.
The equation plays out often in fleet racing, but rarely in the black and white terms of match racing: is (the cost of two extra tacks) < or > (meters of leverage)*(cost coefficient of potential shift)*(probability of potential shift). A 5 degree wind shift is worth 12% of leverage, so if there’s a 50% chance of a 5 degree shift at the top, with a 100 meters of leverage left to play for at the top of the course (just under 9 boat lengths for us this weekend), you could think of that as being a risk of 6 meters by letting your opponent go (there are more complicated and more accurate ways to think about this, but that’s for another article!). On the other hand, taking two extra tacks might cost you six meters, so the trade off might be a tricky judgement call.
In match racing, it was pretty black and white from the standpoint that if there was any chance of the other boat getting a piece of you by taking that last bit of leverage, you took the two extra tacks and shut the door. But at the same time, if you had a good process for assessing the risk, and you could afford to make the high percentage move, there were big gains to be had by shifting into more of a fleet racing mode and letting your opponent do the extra maneuvers.
Trust & Yacht Racing
In so many ways, this weekend was a humbling exercise in trust. Rarely have I found myself in the front of a boat over 20 feet long. When your vision is blurred with exertion from ripping on the halyards, and you’re sweating it out below deck sorting the kite, you need to have a lot of faith that the guys in the back of the boat know what they’re doing, and that they’re making the most of your hard work!
Sailing with Chis and Berto was a great experience because they have an incredible synergy from so many years of racing together. Berto was sharp on the tactics and the match racing moves and Chris adjusted to sailing with a steering wheel instead of a tiller, like a champ, showing excellent boat control in the prestarts and on the course.
I’ve done some sailing on bigger boats in the past, but with this group, it really felt like yacht racing. Everyone was a critical cog in each maneuver, and the communication, precision and process just improved throughout the week.
At the end of the day, whether you’re sailing a dinghy or a big yacht, the high level advantages are skills that are hard to develop on big boats because they require a more holistic background of sailing experience, which is hard to get when your job onboard is one small piece of the puzzle.
Nevertheless, the learning undoubtedly translates both directions. Spending the weekend focusing intensely on one single aspect of the boat - just that mast role - got me far more tuned into spinnaker pole height and shape. While the trimmers adjusted lateral sail shape, Nick and I played the spin pole to set the vertical sail shape, and the impact on speed was awesome to see.
How to make the most of your final 15 minutes of practice.
In a recent debrief I wrote about the Pareto Principle (click here to read about it), which says that you learn 80% of a skill with 20% of your time, but it takes 80% of your time to master that final 20%. So often what I’ve found is that you can expedite that learning curve by simply switching your perspective. Get outside of your comfort zone and do something different.
Go sail a slow boat for the weekend, and observe the tactical game at a little slower pace.
Go do some offshore racing and learn about navigation.
Go do mast for a match racing team…
Even on a micro level this is super important:
One last trick that we used to super charge our learning curve at the match race this weekend was to film our practice using a GoPro, and review that footage in the evenings. This helped everyone on the boat to take a step back from their position, see the big picture and see what our teammates were dealing with.
Why wasn’t the pole tip going up faster? Well, often times it was because the spinnaker halyard was around the spreader tip, slowing the hoist, so if the bow guy could free that up, the pit man would be free to get the pole up.
Why wasn’t the kite filling sooner? Because the bow team only had so many hands and, a bit of support from the trimmers to open the jib clutch would go a long way!
Here’s an easy trick to make the last 15 minutes of every practice more efficient: One of the most common places for teams to lose focus is on the sail in. You’ve been practicing hard for hours, coach tells you to send it in, and brain goes into neutral.
An easy way to change this habit by incorporating the ideas in this debrief, is to make switched-sailing at the end of the day a part of your routine - skipper crewing and crew skippering forces you both to get outside of your comfort zones, to reflect on how the boat feels from the other person’s perspective.
Who knows, you might uncover a new way for you to help your teammate by spending a while in their shoes!
How To Win The Final Race Of The Regatta
In the last race of the weekend we saw it all come together: the starting lessons, the boat speed tweaks, the boat handling, and the communication.
In the pre-start we took control mid way through the sequence, and started with a small advantage, going to the side that we liked for pressure. Our opponent split tacks, and we came back slightly ahead, but with not much in it at the top mark. Our set was beautiful with the trimmers stepping in to help with halyards, and the kite snapping full within a boat length of the mark.
The race was still tight, so we gybed once - twice - then a gybe-to-hot (one of the more challenging maneuvers we had practiced).
We busted through our competitor’s wind shadow to establish an inside overlap at the mark, executed a sweet douse, and took control of the next beat. Speed was great, and on each tack we extended away.
Why do you sail?
I like to ask that question to the people that I coach, and even more so, I like to ask parents of sailors why they pay so much money for their kids to sail!
At the end of the day, I think that the people who are lifelong sailors love this sport because of the challenge, the self reliance demanded by the ocean, and ultimately the personal growth that those produce.
This weekend was a perfect combination of all of those things, mixed with some amazing camaraderie and great competition.
For me, the last race is always the most fun to win, because in a small way, it hopefully shows that you’ve learned something over the course of the regatta. I went into this event with no expectations, and our team set a goal to be the most improved team each day. From the speed, to the boat handling, to the comms I think we definitely achieved that goal.
Thanks to everyone who made it happen, especially the dudes on @darkhorsematchracing, Chris Weis, Berto Stevens, Haydon Stapleton, Dylan Finestone, Nick Wies, and Alex Burrow. Give ‘em a follow on the ‘gram. To the Del Rey Yacht Club for supporting the team. To Bronny Daniels for the great shots. And to Jess Gerry and the Long Beach Yacht Club for an awesome weekend of racing.
No skiff clinics planned for next weekend, so I’ll try to get an interesting debrief posted, possibly with an interview from one of the Skiff Squad alums, but then we’ll be back on the water in San Diego the weekend of November 16-17, so stay tuned.