What does it take to make it to the top of the skiff fleet here in the United States or internationally?
Werk, Werk, Werk, Werk, Werk…
This conversation begins and ends with the importance of putting in the hours on the water. At the top of the fleet, tactics and creative thinking on the race course are really important - your pram experience or time onboard other boats will pay off. But the price of admission jut to play the game in the 29er fleet, is hours and hours of boat handling and boat speed work.
Many teams have a tendency to try to get too fancy, too quickly - working on racing instead of boat handling, or full maneuvers instead of skill details. When it comes to learning the 29er, slow is fast: take your time to develop the foundations, focus on the details, and you’ll progress far more quickly than if you try to get too complicated, too soon.
But it can get boring focusing on the fundamentals - you just want to go rip around! One of the most important things you can do as you work towards putting in your first 500 hours in the boat, is to keep things fresh and exciting.
Let’s dig into the mind set of a championship team, and then talk a bit about how to mix things up to keep them exciting.
Learn Laser Beam Focus
Focusing on the same thing - the same skill or the same technique - day after day can be a sign of intense focus, or it can be a sign of just going through the motions. Focus is important to refine the details, but learning how to engineer productive, focused practice times will turn repetitive reps into steady improvement with new, fresh lessons each time you revisit the skill.
In one word, the mindset of top teams is often, “curious”.
Every skill, every drill, every little detail of boat speed can most often be broken down into smaller, more fundamental details. Upwind weight movement can be isolated by pulling the rudder out, and learning to sail the boat rudderless-ly. And rudderless sailing can be broken into sail adjustments and heel adjustments. Heel adjustments are made by skipper and crew working together, and can be big, fast movements, small slow movements, or anything in between. Each of these movements will have a different impact in different situations. If you can get curious about those tiny details (“When I feel x, which of those movements works best to get the boat going straight again?”), you’ll start to learn real, meaningful lessons, which will accumulate over time.
If you’ve been focused on the same technique for a long time, and you just can’t seem to get it right, try digging deeper into that skill.
Gybes not coming together? Focus on just the entry, and get curious about the kite float, the heel into the maneuver, or the smoothness of weight movement as you get ready to turn the boat.
Not seeing improvement in your speed? Work on stability by isolating main trim first, and then weight movement.
We’ll outline some great drills to help isolate all of these skills later in this post.
When you walk away from the boat park each day, a good exercise is to ask what lessons you learned that day. If your answer is vague - “I got better at tacking,” or, “I did a lot of rudderless sailing” - then you probably weren’t specific enough in your focus that day.
Work on articulating specific lessons like, “I learned that when the bow starts to bear away in rudderless sailing, and I trim main to get it to come back up but nothing happens, I need to heel to leeward and keep the main eased to reattach flow until the bow starts to come up. Then I can pull the boat to windward and trim main simultaneously and the course will straighten out.”
Techniques, Skills and the Pareto Principle
I talk a lot about the difference between techniques, maneuvers, mechanics and skills, so let’s clarify for a minute.
Techniques are big picture race course skills: straight line speed, tacking, gybing, mark roundings, starting, etc. Tacking-on-the-whistle is a technique drill, requiring you to keep the boat moving fast, while executing a specific maneuver, and exiting with good speed. The maneuver in the tacking-on-the-whistle drill is obviously the tack, while the technique includes the tack, but also includes the transitions from straight line, to tacking, and back to straight line speed.
Each maneuver can be defined by a set of mechanics. Where do your hands go? Where do your feet go? What moves first? Second? Third? How does skipper stay in sync with crew and vice versa?
The most granular level of any technique are the underlying skills. Skills are things like steering the boat with the sails, balancing weight for smooth movements, the main sheet hand-pass between the skipper and crew. There are hundreds of skills in each maneuver.
The Pareto Principle says that 20% of your time is spent learning 80% of a skill, while true mastery of that skill requires the other 80% of your time. In other words, if it takes 100 hours to master tacking, it might only take 20 hours to learn to do tacks that are 80% as good as the best tacks in the fleet, but then it takes another 80 hours to really achieve that top level.
In my experience, most people burn out before they ever hit that 100% mastery, and revert to just going through the motions.
The key to mastery is keeping things fresh and exciting! If you’re seeing rapid improvement in a full technique, keep focusing on it, but as soon as the progress starts to slow down, switch things up, and instead focus on an underlying skill.
Working on starting, but feel that you have plateaued? Switch the focus to down-speed boat handling, where you see big improvements again. Once you start to plateau in downsized boat handling, switch the focus to acceleration moves. Plateauing there? Switch the focus to transitioning flow from forwards to backwards. Plateauing again? Try some time-distance work. I could go on…
The point is, within every individual technique, there are so many underlying skills, and so many interesting ways to break it down, so if you find your learning curve slowing down, mix it up and keep it fresh!
If you’re going to mix things up in practice, it’s useful to have some good skill drills in your pocket to whip out at the right time.
Heeled to Windward Drill (HtW)
For straight line speed, there’s nothing better than learning to lock in the heel of the boat by isolating just mainsheet trim, or by using just weight movement. You can achieve this with a heeled to windward drill, where the goal is to lock in the windward rail, just above the water.
Progression #1 - Start with both skipper and crew sitting inside the windward rail, with skipper trimming main. Try to drive the boat to the tell tales, and keep the heel steady without moving weight, by using just the mainsheet.
Progression #2 - Pass off the mainsheet to the crew and repeat progression #1.
Progression #3 - Get the crew on the wire, raised all the way up, and pass the sheet back to the skipper to work on stabilizing the boat. Weight movement is now allowed, but try to keep it to a minimum, still prioritizing mainsheet movement.
Progression #4 - Pass off the mainsheet to the crew and repeat progression #3. From this one, you can try a few tricks, like lifting your feet off of the rail and floating on the trap wire, or doing a “barrel roll.” Remember to keep steering to the tell tales!
Progression #5 - Now that you’ve isolated the mainsheet, let’s switch to isolating weight movement and steering. For progression #5, pin the mainsheet, and start by only moving weight to keep the boat heeled to windward. If it’s windy enough that weight movement isn’t enough, try bringing in some steering.
Once you’re killing the HtW drill, ratchet up the difficulty by pulling out the rudder. The drill is pretty simple - take your rudder out, and try to sail around a race course!
In the beginning, the boat will want to tack every time you trim the mainsheet, so the two biggest pieces of advice are to heel to windward, and try to balance weight movement with mainsheet trim as you bring the main on from a full luff, so that the heel angle doesn’t change.
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Figure 8: Awesome for boat control practice in heavy air and for footwork mechanics in lighter stuff, this drill emphasizes economies of movement. Focus especially on trying to nail your footwork when you come off of the wire in each bear away so that you have a nice wide stance to work from in the middle part of the maneuver. The challenge here is that load goes from one side of the foils to the other, so it's important to be able to transfer weights smoothly. The most common mistake is to transfer weight to the new side before the foils are loaded enough to support your weight; be patient, and don't leave your stable stance in the middle of the boat until the sails can support you.
Keep in mind that trimming the mainsheet should head the boat up. If it doesn’t then chances are good that the main is stalled, and you need to ease and start again.
There is soooooo much to learn from this drill, so get curious and keep at it!
Figure 8 Drill
In windy conditions, boat handling often wins the day. There’s no better way to isolate some of the most difficult coordination aspects of boat handling, than setting up a starting line, and sailing a figure eight track around the starting marks.
As you get better, try moving the marks closer together. Be sure to practice the figure eight in both directions - tacking around each mark, and then gybing around each mark.
There are so many great drills that we can’t go into all of them, but a lot of good drills evolve from identifying a skill that you need to work on, and thinking about how you can isolate that skill in an exercise. Be creative and come up with your own skill drills to move the needle on the skills that you need the most work on.
Okay, so you’re hitting the water, logging the hours, and keeping it interesting by working on new skills and new drills all the time. Nice work!
The challenge now, is that you can’t get on the water every day, so you need to make sure that every practice session counts! How can you milk that extra 10% out of a single day of practice?
Have you watched Tom Versus Time?
Tom Brady watches replay video like it’s his job… Because it is. And even though it might not be your job, you should too!
Take matters into your own hands by taking a GoPro or another action camera on the water with you every time you head out there, so that at the end of the day, you’ll have plenty of video to review.
What should you watch for? Again, the key is digging into the details. When you’re watching video, it’s best to pick a specific technique, or idea that you’re looking to critique.
If you’re focused on gybes, find all of the gybing clips, and watch each one several times. Focus on the heel, the steering, the trim, the weight movement, the timing of skipper and crew… All of the individual skills that go into each technique should be evaluated with the question in mind: what changes will help make the technique more repeatable and more powerful.
One of the best things you can do, is to find a clip of a top team to compare to. What do they do differently? What do they do the same? WHY do they do what they do? These questions will get you pointed in the right direction, and give you something new to try next time you hit the water.
Hours On The Water
How many hours does it take to get to the top of the fleet? That depends on the fleet, and your racing skills that you’re bringing in from past classes, but in our experience boat handling mastery takes about 500 hours of dedicated practice.
If you sail ten hours per week, you’ll get there in a year… So you’ll need to make sure that the process is fun!
Training in the skiff can be punishing at first - lots of swimming and the occasional break down if your equipment is not well maintained, but if you keep things fresh and exciting you’ll find that you make progress quickly.
Every time you capsize, the boat is giving you immediate feedback, “What you just did, was not right!”
Celebrate the small victories, and try to walk away from the boat park every day with some specific takeaways in mind. Before you know it, you’ll be making gybes in tough conditions, tacking like a pro, and ripping around the race course!
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