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How To Make Sure Your Learning Time On The Water Is Quality Time

 

 

 

 

It has been said by many who should know, that sailing success is probably 5% talent and 95% hard work.

I have set out below some approaches that will assist you in making the most out of the time that you are training and learning on the water.

Have Learning Objectives for every time you Train or Race – 

  • Work on boatspeed by making one adjustment at a time.
  • When starting, get out of your comfort zone and try different starting techniques.
  • As a helmsperson, if you spend your time with your eyes slavishly glued to the telltales, practice also getting your head out of the boat.
  • When out training, practice tacking or gybing on every shift. This will help with your understanding of shifts and sharpen up your boat-handling skills.

Build Training Events into your Season –

  • Treat some events that you attend as training sessions and get beyond your ego by trying different things. Learn from the outcomes and don’t stress if you end up in a less than stellar result.
  • Many sailors race every week but hit a brick wall because they do the same thing race after race, they put in the hours but they don’t experiment and learn from mistakes.
  • When you do an event that you treat as a “win” event, you don’t need to experiment but simply apply the new things that you learned in earlier trainning events. 

Sail against Different People At Different Venues –

  • Techniques used in different classes and by different sailors can be adapted to your preferred class. Quite often we observe and learn from the sailors in our class and at our club, but sometimes the pool of knowledge can be quite shallow.
  • If you sail a Cat, don’t restrict your learning to that type of boat, sail in monos, sportboats and keel boats and vice-versa.
  • There is something new you will learn from every experience and what you have learned you can employ in your chosen class.

Sail against the best sailors in high standard fleets – 

  • Your learning will be accelerated by observing and talking to the best sailors. 
  • You will be surpised by how willing they are to pass on their knowledge. Great sailors realise that if the fleet improves, so do they.
  • You will always learn more and improve more quickly when you have to work hard to stay with the best in your fleet.

How To Consolidate Your Learning – 

  • After each race or event, make notes regarding observations, learnings and what worked and what didn’t.
  • If you sail in a crewed boat, have a team debriefing and talk through the race, getting each team members feedback.
  • If you sail a singlehander, go through the event in your head and make notes.
  • Before every race refer to your notes to refresh and remind you of previous learnings. 

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How To Execute Four Different Types Of Race Starts

Reach in Reach Out –

This is probably the most used starting technique because it is simple to execute and fairly straight forward. You take note of the time remaining and beam reach on port past the part of the line you want to start at.

Then you tack or gybe back when a little less than half the time remaining has elapsed, sailing back to the line on starboard tack. If you are a little early, you can luff a little to slow down or reach along the line until the gun goes. 

One downside of this strategy is if the whole fleet is doing the same thing you risk blocking each others air. This technique often works best when you are setting up for a midline start.

Port Tack Approach –

This type of start offers a lot of flexibility in finding holes on the starting line but requires heads up crew work with sharp boat and sail handling.

When there is two or three minutes left before the start, reach off on starboard tack away from the pin end and come back on port on a course parallel with the line, setting up two to three boatlengths below it. 

As you sail towards the fleet, keep an eye out for gaps and when you see one, tack on to starboard and aim for the weather end of the gap, leaving space to leeward should you need to foot off a little.

This strategy allows you to avoid big bunches of boats.

The Vanderbuilt Start –

This type of start consists of reaching away from the line on port tack heading on the reciprocal of the starting starboard tack course.

It differs from the reach in- reach out start because you are sailing away from the line on a broad reach, rather than a beam reach and this takes you to leeward of the reach in reach out starters.

The advantage of this type of start is that there is little chance of being forced over early and you also have a great view of the boats to windward.

One disadvantage is the danger of messing up your timing and finding yourself to leeward of the competition and choking on their bad air.

Dinghy Start –

This works best for boats that are quick to accellerate like centreboarders, sports-boats and catamarans.

With this type of start, you sail up to the starting line a few seconds early, luff up and park your boat in a good position.

Just before the gun, trim on, bow down to build up boatspeed and hit the line travelling fast.

The idea here is that, if you are not moving, you are not barging but you don’t have any rights either. Boats coming in from behind must give you time to get out of their way.

This works particularly well in large fleets where space on the starting line is at a premium, a word of warning though you must be particularly aware of boats coming from astern and to windward.

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Racing or Time Practicing, What Will See Your Results Improve The Most?

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To answer this question I spoke with Skip Lissiman who has sailed a myriad of different boats from Pelicans through to Maxi boats with perhaps his greatest achievement being a part of the Australia 2 crew which won the Americas Cup in 1983.

Brett: the first question I had here was how important is practice to improve your sailing rather than time racing?

Skip: Well, practice is essential to upskill your crew and yourself, to get to a point where you’re capable of being competitive at racing.

We used to have this saying on the 12 Meter, the six Ps, “Perfect Practice Prevents Piss Poor Performance.”

So, the sum of it is don’t practice bad skills when you go out practicing. So, make a list of all of your weaknesses and practice those and use the time on the water to tick them off as you improve.

And so you use the practice time to work on your weaknesses and to get your crew working and your crew’s skills up to a point where you’re competitive on the racetrack. It’s important to do it but racing is also important to just make sure your skills…and work out what your weaknesses are so you can go back out and do some practice.

But use your practice time wisely so you don’t waste time and don’t over practice. So don’t say, “We’re practicing all day.” Go out and do a two-hour session, come back in, work out what you’ve done, have a debrief, then go back out and maybe do another two-hour session the same day or another day.

But more than two hours at a time, you almost…you’re tapering off. You’re never really quite getting the real benefit of your practice time.

Brett: Now you mentioned the Ps. What do you reckon makes an effective practice session and how long should it take  You mentioned two hours is there any point in going out for a shorter time or a longer time? Are there any things that maybe you should do that take longer or shorter?

Skip: You know, the old rule of thumb. When you get in a match race event, you go off and do match racing.

This is…you’ve got a maximum of one hour on the water so you’ve really got to try and work on using your time as wisely as you can. So two hours is a pretty generous amount of time to go and use on the water.

Don’t…and start your practice as soon as you jump in the boat almost if you’re really tight for time. So whether it’s roll-tacking on the way out through the marina or whether it’s, practicing your tacking skills or whatever it is. But once you jump in the boat, effectively switch on and use the time wisely.

So if you’re out there for four or five hours, then it can be quite tedious and you’re not really maximizing your benefit that you could over a shorter period of time.

Brett: And how important do you think it is to sail in other classes? Most of us have a focus on one particular class or other. Maybe you’re sailing a one-man boat or two-man boat. Is it important, to sail in boats other than your own class or maybe even mix it up and sail with other people…sail other people’s boats within your own class?

Skip: The more sailing you do with other people, particularly people who are better than you, the more you’ll learn. And the more classes you sail, the better you’ll get a feel for what makes a boat work.

So, you know, I’ve lost count of how many different types of boats over the years I’ve sailed, everything from, dinghies to ocean racing boats to one design to match racing and you never stop learning.

So the better feel you get is by sailing different types of boat and getting a feel for what makes a boat go. And sailing just the one type of boat you get very entrenched in that particular style of boat.

But you won’t get that general basic innate knowledge of what makes a boat go until you sail plenty of boats and sail with plenty of different people and just try and work out from all the different people you sail with, particularly people better than you, what their take on a particular thing is.

You don’t necessarily have to agree with them all the time and, you know, I’m the first to admit I’m not always right. And I think most people would probably…good sailors would say the same thing.

So the more boats you…types of boats you sail, I would really encourage that. Particularly when you’re younger.

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What Is The Role of A Tactician?

Being the tactician on any boat is a high pressure position with quick thinking being a pre-requisite so it’s not a job for the faint hearted .

A tactician must be a strong leader, must be a constant motivator. They are the eyes and ears onboard so they must understand every aspect of the boat.

The tactician sets the pace on the boat and when they make the right calls the boat will perform better and the racing will be more fun for everyone. 

They need to be steady, upbeat and should only speak when they have something to say. If they are not the owner, it is important to have a good relationship with them.

The tactician must understand and work with the different personalities in the team. A lot of skippers react better when they are given options with others only wanting advice after they ask for it.  

The tactician does way more than choosing the boat’s route during a race, they also make final sail selections and call for crew rotations, so they must understand all characteristics of the boat.

It is important that the tactician has spent time steering the boat so that when a manouvre is called, they understand how long it will take, how the crew will perform and how the boat will react.

Different phases of the race require different duties and responsibilities so it is worth breaking the race down into segments. 

In the prestart, study the wind conditions and select the favoured side of the course working with the trimmers to select the right sails for the expected wind range.

In the start sequence watch other boats and how they may affect you as the start time approaches, keep the helmperson and crew appraised of what is happening and alert them to what you expect as each situation develops.

Once on the course after the start, keep the team appraised of what you are thinking so that their minds are completely engaged in the race and they are prepared as each tactical manouvre is called.

Another important job for the tactician once racing, is keeping the helmsperson focused by not letting idle chatter on the boat distract them from the job of steering.

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The Importance Of Being Consistent

Being consistent is especially important in big fleets where a small mistake can lose you plenty of places. With a large number of fast boats in an international championship, the chances of getting those places back is highly unlikely.

Great boat handling is particularly relevant and practice is an easy way to ensure that small but significant snafus don’t occur. Practice boatspeed and manouvres to ensure that in the heat of competition a weakness in either of these areas of sailing will not affect your end results.

Check your boat after every sail to look for items of gear that are wearing or need maintenance, having a gear failure can slow you down or finish your day altogether.

In many events the boat that wins the regatta sailed consistently and finished in every race and although they did not shoot the lights out, the aggregate of their score was enough to win.

For every venue that you sail at, be consistent with your preparation such as reading the weather forecasts, tidal observations, boat preparation and getting out on the water a good amount of time prior to the start.

Taking risks is rarely a great regatta winning strategy and keeping with the fleet is generally the right tactic. Make sure that you keep out of trouble as well.

Regattas are won by continually sailing fast and heading in the right direction and you don’t have to beat every boat that you come accross on the course.

Getting into a protestable situation is not smart, even if you think you are right, sometimes it makes sense to bail out if you get into a duel with a gnarly competitor and boat damage can ruin your race.

A disqualification will not only ruin your consistensy but it can effect your mindset negatively for future races.

Above all have a plan plus a back up should circumstances dictate the original was no longer relevant due to changing conditions or getting caught on the wrong side of the course. 

Staying calm when a plan goes pear shaped means that you are able to make a rational change to plan B and maintain consistent results rather than going off on a flier which more than often only compounds the disaster.

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A Checklist For Successful Trimming

Trimming sails is a challenging crew position which requires knowledge and experience but the trimmer also needs the ability to work with the rest of the crew.

The goal of the trimmer is to get the boat to perform at peak efficiency and to use that speed to out sail the competition. A good trimmer must recognise changing conditions and react accordingly taking weather, sea state and tactical position on the race course into account.

The best teams set themselves up for success long before leaving the beach or dock and the trimmer is an integral part of that team.

As a trimmer, when you leave the dock, have a good understanding of what the forecasted weather is likely to be and update this information when out on the course.

Once at the boat, look around your area, make sure everything is in its place and sails are packed and stowed where they are readily accessible. It is very important that all unnecessary gear is removed to ensure that the boat is as light as possible.

Inspect the sheets, blocks, winches, handles, cleats and jammers for any issues. Carry a grab bag with duct or electrical tape, lube, markers, sail repair tape and tools plus energy bars and drinks (include spares where appropriate).

Spray all moving shackles and clips to ensure that they will not seize at a crucial moment replacing any that are worn or bent. Make sure there are knots in the end of halyards, that all telltales on sails are intact and the right sails are in the right bags.

As a trimmer you can be a valuable backup to the tactician so read and memorise the sailing instructions. Carry a rule book and notice of race in a waterproof folder for reference where necessary.

Keep target boat speeds and note down what  sails are required depending on wind strengths and sea state. Have this information written on a card plus have it prominently displayed on the boat as a reference for your teammates.

This is particularly important so that everyone can understand what sail should be set and when meaning each crew member will be prepared as conditions change.

Trimming sails on a dinghy or being part of the crew on a Maxi is equally rewarding. Define the mission, set parameters, prepare your trimming area, stay focused and constantly reviewing your fastest trim will make sure you are successful.

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Useful Tips For Racing Sailors

 

Boat Preparation – To win you must be the best prepared, and a lack of attention in this area can mean gear or boat breakages and to be able to win you must be able to finish.

Beyond that, you must have competitive equipment, efficient systems and excellent hull finish. Carry spares for things that can be repaired on the course along with tools that are needed to effect those repairs.

Financing an Event – Look at your season and pick out the events that you would like to do. Work out whether you can attend each one and compete at the top level required with the finances you have available.

If you find that you are having to make the money stretch by scrimping on accomodation, food and equipment options, consider doing fewer events but dedicating more resources to those events.

You will find your stress levels will be reduced and the fun levels and your event success will greatly increase.

Mental Stamina –  Are you able to keep going when things get really tough or do you let frustration get the better of you? Sleep and diet are not only important for your physical well being but they are important for your mental state as well.

When you train, work as hard as you would if you were racing and eat and hydrate the same way as well. Many of us practice specific things but don’t push ourselves as hard as we would if we were racing.

If your class does 3 x 45 minutes races each day, some of your training sessions should be for the same amount of time, that way you build the necessary mental stamina to carry forward to race day.

Concentration – In sailing, because there are so many variables, you are not able to concentrate on every variable all the time.

The best sailors pick the variables that need the most attention given the current course and conditions and disregard the ones that won’t make much difference.

There are always plenty of distractions at your club, a regatta or around the boat park, try to concentrate on the days racing by thinking about the weather, the course and what you need to do to succeed.

Many top sailors I have spoken to use headphones prior to heading out on the water and play music suitable for the day to set the mood and block out unwanted distractions.

Keep a sailing Log – All of us have plenty going on outside sailing so trying to remember settings that worked in particular conditions. This becomes especially tricky when you may not encounter those exact conditions again for many weeks or even months.

The act of writing things down helps your memory. Keeping a sailing diary enables you to refer to it to when you encounter the same conditions again. 

Body Weight – Many boats and classes we sail have an upper crew weight limit or ideal weight for best performance and many competitors get involved in yo-yo dieting to meet those weight requirements.

Changes in weight need to be gradual and balanced otherwise it can affect your ability to perform at your peak.

An ideal situation in a class that has a particular weight range to be competitive is to be somewhere in the middle but of course this is dictated to a large extent by our physical size.

When choosing a class of boat to sail, it makes sense for sailors to select a boat matched to their natural size.

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How to Understand The Effects of Current in Sailboat Racing

Firstly you must understand what current is, how it acts on your boat and  its effect on windspeed and direction. 

Currents are driven by three main factors:
  • The rise and fall of the tides. Tides create a current in the oceans, which are strongest near the shore, and in bays and estuaries along the coast.
  • Wind. Winds drive currents that are at or near the ocean’s surface.
  • Thermohaline circulation. the movement of seawater in a pattern of flow dependent on variations in temperature, which give rise to changes in salt content and hence in density.

Current Characteristics and Causes:

Current is faster in deep water and slower in shallow water so sail out to deeper water when the current is with you and sail in shallower water when you are sailing against the current.

Sustained, strong breezes push water in the direction of the wind; when the wind subsides, the water flows in the opposite direction.
     

Pressure systems also create current and influence tidal flows. Lows increase the height of high tides and prolong flood currents; highs push the water away, which increases the strength and duration of low tides and ebb currents.

Current is strongest around prominent points and in narrow openings such as harbor mouths. There are usually back eddies on the down-current side of  islands, shoals and points. 

When a tidal-induced current begins to change direction, it changes first along the shore lines and later in mid- channel.

Working Out Current:

One way to predict what the current will be doing on the race course is to use published charts and tables. These give a fairly accurate guide to the velocity and direction of current that is caused by tides.

Another way is to look at fixed marks or buoys like the starting pin. Be careful not to confuse wave action with current and anchored boats will also give you a good idea about current flow.

Another important clue about current is the appearance of the water surface. When the current is flowing toward the wind, the water will be choppier than usual. When it’s flowing away from the wind, the water is smoother.

Look also for distinct lines of separation between different water surface textures.

Racing In Current: 

When starting a race in current, be sure you have a line sight to help you judge the position of the line. When the current and wind are going in opposite directions, you’re likely to end up with multiple recalls. This is a great time to start at the leeward end (assuming you want to go left) because it will be easy to make the pin.

However, don’t start right at the committee boat, because it’s too easy to get caught barging. And be careful not to be over early, since it will take a long time to get back against the current and re-start.

Current affects your course over the bottom and therefore changes the laylines to any windward or leeward mark. When the current is pushing you away from the layline, it’s easy to under lay the mark and lose distance by trying to pinch up to the mark. The safest route is to overstand slightly — this will keep you clear of the mess of other boats and eliminate the need to make extra tacks.


When the current is pushing you toward a layline, the biggest potential mistake is overstanding. Prevent this by approaching to leeward of the “normal” layline or by avoiding the starboard layline completely until you are almost at the mark.

On reaches and runs, current will usually cause you to sail a longer course than necessary. Stick to the rhumbline and gain valuable distance. The best way to do this is by using a land sight.

If you can see land behind the next mark, use this to set up a range so the mark stays in the same place against the land. In the absense of a land sight use a compass bearing to the mark and steer a course so this bearing remains constant..

Myths Regarding Current:

There is no such thing as the lee-bow effect, if you are sailing upwind directly into the current, you can’t gain by pinching to get the current on your lee bow.

Another Myth is the belief that the direction of the current favors one tack over the other. As long as the current stays the same for all boats, it doesn’t matter whether you take the up-current or down-current tack first or last.

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How Can You Recover From A Disastrous Start?

Its important to remember that a bad start is not the end of your day, patience and keeping a cool head will generally save you from a total disaster.

If your start has gone wrong, don’t panic and look for a clean exit sooner rather than later.

Be patient though, a hasty change to your pre-determined plan without considering all options may actually place you in an even worse situation.

Two things that are critical to an effective recovery are that the helmsperson must continue to sail the boat as fast as possible all the while deciding where to get clean air.

Depending on your situation though, sheets should be trimmed for footing or pointing, you need to make decisions based on what you are seeing up the track.

If you find yourself in the second row, you need power because there is less wind and more chop. The backstay needs to be eased, Cunningham released and jib leads moved forward to give you a fuller, more powerful headsail.

The most common escape starts with gentle pinching in an attempt to get above the boats to leeward , to do this, move the traveller up and sheet a tick or two tighter than the conditions require.

This cannot be maintained for too long though and the desired result is an escape to clean air with the goal being to find a lane which you can live in for at least two minutes.

If you need to tack for clearer air, make sure there is no one that will tack on your wind, watching the boats around you for crew movement that may indicate a change in their direction which will affect you.

Once you have a clear lane and are now going in the planned direction, look at the fleet to see if that plan is falling in to place and if not be prepared to alter the plan to suit.

If you have a bad start near the weather end it is easy to tack away to clear and then tack back again as soon as there is a lane if you are looking to go left.

A poor start in the middle of the line in more difficult to extricate yourself from and generally occurs when you are late due to line sag or when a port tack boat tacks under you and establishes a lee bow.

Generally it is a mistake to foot off below the boat on your lee bow but conversely do not tack too early because you will then have to dip the boat to weather who then has a chance to tack on your air.

If you have to bail out at the leeward end there are few options as clearing out to the right is rarely an option as you will have the bulk of the fleet on starboard tack to deal with.

If you are at the pin end and your plan was to head left, crack off a little to get speed and get to clear air as soon as possible.

Cracking off for clear air, generally only works if there are a small number of boats below you otherwise it will take an eternity to reach clear air if in fact you ever do.

If you are forced to bail out, be patient and wait for the proper clear lane to get right, all the time keeping the boat moving fast.

Once on Port tack, you can look for another lane to tack back to the left.

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Olympic Gold Medallist Tips For Boatspeed and Changing Gears

Who better to get help with boatspeed issues than Mat Belcher, current Olympic Gold medallist in the 470 class from Tokyo 2021.

I have copied below excerpts from an interview that I did with Mat in 2017 while he was waiting at the airport to travel to yet another overseas regatta.

Brett: Where would you look to change gears, before or after a puff hits? If you can see a puff coming towards you, do you start to make a few changes before or wait until it gets there?
 
Mat: Yeah, we do, we’re constantly…and I don’t know whether, I guess, my experience in this kind of thing is so relevant across classes because we’re constantly changing gears.

Every five seconds we’re doing something, whether the gust is approaching, just before the gust, during the gust, after the gust, during the lull.

I think the gusts are very important, but equally important is also the lull.

 That’s quite a critical…and usually, that’s actually where you lose most of your opportunity to gain is actually during the lull and responding in time to make sure that you’re continuing your speed that you’ve harnessed, all the power, and really trying to get through that lighter period.
 
Brett: So how do you power up and power down with special reference to the order you do things in? What’s the best way to power up? 
 
Mat: It’s really quite boat-specific… 

I think you’ve got the usual basic controls. You’ve got your out haul, you’ll let your Cunningham off, you’ll let all the vang off, and you can put your center board down, you can put your jib track forward.

There’s so many different things, and depending on your boat if you can control your rake, you can maybe bring your rake up to match.

You can move forward a little bit in the boat.

You can also possibly move your main sheet bridle a little bit more to windward, depending on what type of class you’re sailing.

Brett: There’s a lot to remember, and I guess it all comes back to that time in the boat so that all becomes second nature, you don’t have to think about it.  The other thing is having a system that works properly…
 
Mat: Yeah, well, we talked about time, that’s a critical part, spending time in the boat, but it’s also your understanding.

So typical…for me, it’s typically that I sail a lot of different classes, and when we have discussions about what different controls do on the boat, it surprises me that a lot of people just don’t know.

They don’t know when they pull that rope, what’s the effect or what’s that going to do?

It’s very difficult if you’re in a racing environment or you’re trying to do it quickly, and the gust is very short, to do all these controls.

If you don’t know what it’s going to do, that’s quite a limitation.

Typically when you buy a new dishwasher, or you’re buying something, you don’t read the manual. I don’t read the manual at all.

My wife always tells me that “you got to read the manual, how do you know how to put it together?”

It’s the same with when you get a boat for the first time or you’re sailing a 505 for example.
 You’ve got to really know and have the feel and play around, and just use all the controls and see what they do, and then you’ve got a much better ability with your added understanding of them.

Practice, keep changing.

Brett: What are some of the common mistakes you see racing sailors make when they change gears?

Mat: Different people obviously make different mistakes, but I think trying to stick to the basics is critical, to make sure you’re doing things you know and know you can do well and quickly.

That would probably be depending on whatever level you are, it’s just making sure that you do the basics, and if the basics is just changing the vang tension or just then transitioning to your Cunningham and then maybe your center board.

If you have a two-person boat, then look at your weight control a little bit, fore and aft in the boat, and just really do the simple things right, you can’t really go wrong.

If you have the time and more experience, then you can really start to refine that to get that extra meter or extra half a meter, but the basics, from what I see most commonly, is that people just…they’re trying to look at the small details and over-complicate it without actually doing the simple things.

Brett: If you had to help somebody in middle or towards the back of the fleet most of the time, what is the one thing you would say to them that they need to do to start moving up the leaderboard?

Preparation.

So really focusing on your boat preparation or your crew preparation, the biggest thing for me, is that most of the time you come to an event, everything’s already done.

It’s the work that…I guess at our level, is done outside of the racing environment.

It’s preparation, it’s the sail testing, it’s the time in the gym, it’s where you staying in accommodation, it’s the training coming into it, the loading, and really looking at the detail.

Its usually things you can’t see that actually make the difference, and for me it’s just preparing, preparing well.

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