At World Cup Miami, one of the main takeaways for both teams was that we need to get better at finding the rhythm between main sheet, steering, and weight movement in both under powered and overpowered conditions, and this February camp was our first opportunity to work on that skill as a team. We had a few practice days in challenging, light and lumpy conditions in the ocean, which did a lot to solidify some of those ideas, and then we got to test them out with the Kiwis on the water. This debrief will focus on the main sheet technique, looking at it from various angles to hopefully provide some theoretical context to the technique that we're trying to master, and some thoughts on how each team can get there as quickly as possible.
Feel is often lauded as an elusive, almost mystical aspect of the sport of sailing - a factor that some people just naturally have, while others do not (or don't have as much of). This is not the case! Speaking as someone who used to have very little feel, but learned to develop a very sharp sense for it, this is a factor that can change your game, and is absolutely a learned skill.
The first step to demystifying is to define what we mean by feel. At a general level, feel is the intuitive sense for what the boat and wind are about to do next. This general understanding actually feeds the "mystical feel fallacy" because it seems like people who have feel can predict changes in an invisible force - wind - by either interpreting patterns in the water or feeling it on their skin. The truth is slightly more complex, but less mystical. When we break down feel into its mechanical components, it is part visual (seeing wind on the water, seeing tension in the sail cloth, etc.), part audible (sound of water tapping on the boat, sound of boats around you going through the water, etc.), and part tactile (feel of the rhythm of the waves, feel of stabilizing muscles in the body working to keep you stable, feel of the stability of the boat, etc.). It has been my experience that 90% of sailors tend to hone the visual aspects far more effectively, than any of the others, and thereby become reliant on those factors. You can test this by sailing with your eyes closed for a few minutes; are you able to sense a stable boat with your eyes closed? Are you able to predict what is coming next? If not, we need to tune into the other senses. Ultimately, feel is intuitive, meaning that the end result is not something that we can isolate, but something that it is a combination of these three senses. If we work on fine tuning each sense individually, our overall feel will improve and we will be able to predict changes more effectively, not just by seeing them on the water or in the sails, but by seeing SOMETHING on the water and associating it with a subtle change in stabilizing muscles, an ingrained theoretical understanding of apparent wind, and a slight change in sound.
A few great feel drills that you should be incorporating into training are:
Eyes closed sailing - One teammate close their eyes, then the other, then both. Work on feeling changes in your hiking muscles. Work on hearing changes in the water. Focus on one factor at a time to slowly improve "feel" in each area.
Rudderless sailing - Ingraining a deep understanding of apparent wind, and how the boat responds to sheet and weight adjustments is critical. When you pull the rudder out you get immediate feedback.
Yoga - Focus on mindful movement will help the tactile aspect of feel in the boat.
Heeled to windward sailing - For honing the overall feel mechanism (no one component individually) this is a good exercise that delivers instantaneous feedback.
Why does feel matter so much? It allows us to anticipate what apparent wind is doing without needing to wait for the obvious signs like sails stalling, power crashing, etc. and the more tuned into this we get, the more successful we will be at adjusting sails, weight and steering SOONER when small changes occur, which will allow us to make smaller changes and ultimately keep swinging more weight around the race course.
How Does This Effect Technique?
Okay, so we have dissected what "feel" means a little bit, and we're working on honing it; now how do we actually apply that to make the boat faster? I'll argue that the key here is all about making small, precise adjustments earlier to eliminate the big clunky adjustments later. Part of this adjustment can be made mechanically, by just telling ourselves to always be moving the sheets a little bit, but the underlying theory behind this is that small changes are always happening, and the better we can get at feeling those tiny changes and adjusting accordingly, the less likely we are to need to make the big adjustments later. The change to technique often starts with crews.
In under powered conditions, it's important to keep in mind that crews are driving the boat. The sails are our engine, and while heel, and steering are both important factors in getting the most out of that engine, if the engine itself, is out of tune, there's little else we can do with steering and weight to maintain speed. As a result, I like to say that sails lead weight and steering. When we take video from outside of the boat, and you go back to watch it, a big feedback loop to critique is whether sails are leading weight, or weight is leading sails. This is true in both over powered and under powered conditions.
Under powered example: In under powered conditions when the boat looses power, we want to ease FIRST, as weight swings in - too often we dive in with weight while keeping sails choked, in hopes that the boat will just power up again. This comes back to making small adjustments more frequently, as this is usually a bigger sign that we needed to ease slightly 5 seconds ahead of time, but just didn't feel the drop in pressure soon enough.
Over powered example: In over powered conditions if we start steering up as a puff hits without trimming main sheet on, we loose pressure on the leech of the main sail, and when the puff begins to fade, inevitably we trim on the main sail, the boat doesn't respond, and we end up crashing to windward, pulling on the helm to get the bow down, and losing half a boat length. Every time. Period. This is a result of feeling the pressure gain from the puff too late, and responding to the big change rather than starting early with the tiny change. If we respond early, we feel the initial pressure gain, and we trim on to anticipate the boat's acceleration and therefore the forward apparent wind shift. If pressure continues to increase we might need to ease momentarily to keep the boat flat, but immediately begin trimming on again to anticipate the forward apparent wind shift.
In so many other boats that we sail, this refined sense of feel falls on the helm to tune into, and in big boats, it's muted by the size and momentum of the boat, but it is mission critical that in the FX our crews put in the time practicing feel, and intentionally working to refine these fine tune adjustments if we are going to compete at the top level.
If I had to sum this up in one line it is: smaller adjustments, more frequently, more in tune with small changes that you FEEL occurring in pressure, sea state, and ultimately apparent wind.
Note: Big improvements in all of this at the last camp, but it needs to become more consistent and more of the norm. Focus intensely on this when you have a chance to practice by yourselves.
My final note is on apparent wind, which I think we all need to be continuing to wrap our heads around to apply to every technique that we ever practice. In a skiff, where the apparent wind can quickly double in certain conditions if the boat is being sailed well, it is a critical component of boat speed. Especially with mylar sails that don't visually change as easily as dacron sails in changing pressure, we need to learn to anticipate changes based on the feel of the boat. If we wait for the big tell-tale signs of apparent wind shifts (stall, power crash, etc.) we have waited too long.
When you're feeling good about it, I'd like all of you to take the quiz below, so that we can figure out where we stand, and specifically, what would be good to talk about.