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Train Yourself To Use Your Eyes When Sailing

Using your eyes effectively whilst racing takes plenty of discipline and practice.

First, you need to ascertian what it is that you are looking for, is it a mark, a puff coming towards you and does that puff look like it is a lift or header.

It may just be simply a case of working out where you will be situated when you meet competitors coming together on opposite tacks. 

Whichever the case may be, you must learn how to visualise ways you can turn what you see into a offensive or defensive manouvre.

If you are back in the fleet, you need to analyse how you can work your way through the boats ahead.

Think about what staying on the lifted tack may do and what that may mean as you approach a mark, a small gain here may put you in a world of pain as boats come together further up the track.

Might the better tactic be to take a short dig on a knock but which will mean that you are in a better position approaching the mark compared to the boats you are racing.

The best way to train your eyes is to spend more time on the water and there is no substitute to having been in that situation before and to have the experience to interpret it and respond accordingly.

 A good pair of Sunglasses are essential because they heighten the contrast made by the ripples on the water of an approaching puff and they help you also see the direction that the puff is moving.

Get used to looking for all things that are coming at you no matter whether they are puffs, waves or other boats.

Be actively looking ahead and around the course and avoid simply staring at the bow as it goes through the water or the sails and telltales.

The simple message is keep your eyes out of the boat and be continually evaluating the ever changing chess board of wind, waves and boats on your racetrack.

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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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How To Find More Speed

 

To find more speed is largely a matter of trial and error and getting to know your boat.

You can set your sails so that they look right but to get the last fraction of boat speed you must experiment with different settings and shapes to see which ones give you the best results.

Even when you are out having a pleasure sail or taking friends for a ride,  experiment with luff, outhaul and leech tension, sighting up the sail to see what the sails look like after each adjustment.

As always, make notes about what worked and what didn’t so that next time you encounter similar conditions you can replicate the fast settings.

It is important to have reference points marked on sheets and the boat to enable you to faithfully reproduce the fast settings.

Using your vision memory of what fast settings looked like is never enough.

Whenever you make an adjustment (depending on the conditions) remember that it can take a reasonable amount of time for the boat to speed up or slow down. 

Also, when a change has been made, it often takes the helmsman and crew a little time as well to settle in to the new setup so don’t be too hasty in assuming the changes have not worked and then adjust something else.

Take time to analyse what has occurred by watching the other boats in your fleet.

Given the vagaries of the wind and water it is very difficult to decide whether a change in speed relative to your competition is due to weather, a couple of short sharp waves, your steering or your sail trim.

There is no substitute for time on the water to make you a better sailor, to improve boat handling and to be able to make effective trim adjustments.

More often than not its the better sailor who wins.

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How To Be A Great Offshore Crewmate

I have just been following the Transpac online and that got me to thinking about how you could get invited to be a part of the crew on one of the competing boats.

Considering there are only 41 boats competing from a country with a population of some 325 million, it is a great privelige to be asked to participate as a crew.

If your ultimate ambition is to crew in the Transpac, Fastnet, Sydney to Hobart or any of the other great off shore races there are things that you can do to make sure that you are asked to participate.

Success in small boat racing is one is one of the most direct routes to getting noticed but another way to be asked is to build a reputation of being a good shipmate.

To do this you must be a contributing member of the crew, thinking before acting to avoid making a mistake, being able to follow instructions and not being too shy to ask questions if you don’t understand the job you have been given.

Always be prepared to volunteer for extra jobs,and if there is a sail change called for or there are other jobs afoot such as winding a coffee grinder, don’t hold back from offering to give someone a break even if it is not your job.

When it is time to go off watch, don’t be the first one down the hatch to your bunk and make sure that the new watch has settled in. Volunteer to make coffee and snacks for the new team prior to retiring.

When you are rail sitting, hike hard and long setting an example for the others to follow, being cheerful even though you may be cold and feeling seasick.

When you are below, space is at a premium with equipment and personal belongings taking up all available space. Help up by keeping all your gear stowed in your bag or locker and stow gear or things that aren’t yours or necessarily your responsibilty.

At the change of watch, be the first out of your bunk and frocked up ready to go upstairs. Make your watch mates a coffee or snack and start a dialogue with the retiring watch about what has been happening and what to expect for your period on deck.

When you arrive at the races destination, don’t abandon the boat for the party straight away but make sure everything is packed away and the boat is cleaned up as best as possible.

Now its time for catching up with fellow competitors and your team to relive the race over a few Bevvies.

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How To Sail Better In Light Winds

If you want to improve your results in light air you need to master the four things which are listed below.

Attitude: is the biggest hurdle to overcome, you should not fear light air just because you have sucked at it in the past.

Relish the opportunity to sail against light air specialists, those that have thrashed you in the past, and treat a light air race as an opportunity to learn from them.

In large fleets in light air there are often big shake ups throughout the day and with the right attitude you will often find that you are in a position to take advantage of shifts in direction and pressure as they occur.

Don’t worry about the fact that some boats are sailing faster. Victory in sailing races can come in many ways, with small improvements from race to race being an incentive to work harder.

Boat Improvements: in light winds, sail as light as you possibly can and leave everything that is not completely necessary on the beach or dock.

Ensure that the hull and foils are as smooth as possible and with a moored boat, clean the bottom by scrubbing before leaving for the course.

Whilst racing, continually check for weed on your blades.

In a one-design boat, tune up with a crew that is similar weight to your own plus one that is lighter or heavier so you can set your boat up to be sailing in the fastest groove.

Learn From The Competition: watch other boats to see what they are doing to see if you can change something to improve.

Look at the sail shapes they are using, the position of their travellers, sheet tensions that affect the luff and leech shape and other vital adjustments that have a bearing on boat performance.

One of the biggest mistakes that sailors make in light air is to pinch particularly in short, choppy waves. To keep your speed up in these conditions, you must foot off for speed.

Experiment: make one adjustment at a time and then leave it for a reasonable amount of time to see whether it improves your speed or not.

No matter the size of your boat, experiment with the position of the crew weight, once again look around your fleet and see where the fast teams sit.

As a generalisation in light air, you want the weight forward and with a slight heel to leeward. It is only with experimentation that will you find the fastest boat attitude.

Don’t be too shy to even try heeling to weather, as some highly accomplished sailors have been able to make that work for them.

Experiment with all adjustments available on your boat but only make one incremental change at a time, ensuring that after each, you let the boat settle down to give yourself a chance to properly evaluate the outcome. 

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Losing Your Touch? How To Get Out Of A Slump

If you feel as though you are losing your touch out on the race course sometimes you need to go back and start at the beginning.

If your performance is a shadow of your past, you need to go through each one of the potential problem areas.

First, check the finish of the boat and your equipment and make sure that it is up to racing standard.

Next, go sailing and work on your steering, your sails and adjustments. If you think the problem is something you are doing, work with your team to analyse and come up with a consensus.

Once you have an answer, go out for a full training session or two to work on and fix the problem that is causing your current “go slows”.

The most important point here is don’t go looking for excuses, go all the way back to the begining and recheck everything and then go sailing to see if your performance improves.

Be honest with yourself, you may find that you are not footing because the sails are not sheeted properly or you are not pointing because you have not bent the mast to suit the conditions.

A question often asked regarding a slump is “have we peaked too soon”. Sometimes coming up to a big event it does no harm to have an uncustomary poor result to bring you back to earth.

Treat it as a wake up call and go back to the basics to evaluate where you are really at. An overconfident sailor gets too relaxed  and does not concentrate on steering, keeping the boat flat & trimmed correctly or study the sails and equipment diligently enough.

When you have a bad day, during the debrief, list at least 10 things that you could have done better and this should include input from everyone on the team. 

Once the list is put together, use your practice sessions to work on each of the things that you have identified as issues and sharpen your skills so that next time you race these problems do not occur again.

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Copying The Champions In Your Fleet – Is That Cheating?

To someone unfamiliar with our sport, two identical boats should sail at the same speed given equal crews, the same wind, and the same wave conditions.

What an outsider may not realise is that small changes in identical equipment can make big differences in boat speed and performance.

A couple of turns on a forestay turnbuckle can change the mast rake thus affect the helm load and balance or in the case of a side stay, it can affect mast bend characteristics and thus sail shape.

The adjustments available to a sailor are endless, ranging from the rig adjustments just mentioned through to sheet tension, outhaul, batten tension, Cunningham, and haliard tension to mention a few others.

Other than in boats with adjustable rigging systems (adjustments that can be done on the fly) most rigs are set up before you leave the beach or dock and cannot be changed once on the water.

These settings are based on your perception of what the day’s weather will be and once you are out there, you are stuck with those settings, so plenty of study of the weather patterns is important.

If you are sailing at a new venue, don’t be too shy to copy what the locals are doing to get the perfect tuning for that venue.

On the water, every change to a sail control will either give you a better or worse result and being able to ascertain the effect of these changes is incredibly difficult.

Select the most successful sailmaker in your class. They will have a tuning guide that will help you set up your mast rigging tension, fore and aft rake, and pre-bend for the various conditions.

If you are new to a class, not only follow the tuning guide but ask questions of the top sailors in the fleet and copy what they do. You will be surprised at how helpful they will be, it is just a case of plucking up the courage to ask.

Copying is not cheating and most champions appreciate being pushed harder and will be happy to help you get faster as this forces them to improve as well.

Quantifying the effect of a small tuning change is hard to do on the water and may not be apparent until many minutes after the change because of variables in the wind between boats across the course.

After establishing a baseline, it is important to experiment using your own tweaks and then learn what each adjustment does with reference to boat speed and handling.

When out racing, be honest with yourself when evaluating the changes that you made during a race and factor in a lucky wind shift that may have given you the improvement, not the adjustment.

Copying the best sailors in your fleet guarantees getting up to speed quickly and this should give you an easy jump on much of the competition. 

Therefore the answer to the question in the headline is a resounding no, if you don’t copy the fleet champions you are starting behind the 8 ball.

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How To Debrief After Every Race

A race or regatta should not be over for your team when you cross the finish line and there is plenty to be gained from the post-race debrief.

After a successful result, our self-confidence gets a boost but after a poor showing on the water, we have to deal with the psychological fallout. All is not lost though and the team de-brief can allow us to learn from what went wrong to ensure that next time you race you won’t make the same mistakes.

If you have a coach, make sure that they are part of the team meeting and this should take place immediately after the race either on the boat, in the boat park but more importantly away from the after-race festivities.

Initial points for discussion are where did you lose places unnecessarily, and why. Other things that need to be discussed are the start, your speed around the course, and the day’s tactics. 

The debrief is also a good time to constructively talk through the crew management on the boat remembering that these sessions are about how to improve not to lay blame.

Make sure that you talk about the positives that came out of the race as well as the negatives but importantly try to focus on the two biggest mistakes and talk through what went wrong adding solutions so that you can avoid them next time.

If possible have a whiteboard available and run through each individual part of the race and use a diary to make notes for future reference. Use the diary to note down information about the time of the day, wind speed, direction, sea state, current, and information about fellow competitors.

If you have model boats available, they can be very helpful in recreating on-water situations as part of the discussion. Many times observations from off the boat can vary from on the boat memories so all inputs need to be considered when arriving at a solution.

It’s amazing what a coach can see from off the boat and many things may not have been obvious to those on board so have them involved in the discussion. 

The importance of the de-brief is to learn so that next time you hit the water, you will not make the same mistakes and thus end up with a better result.

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You’re The Tactician – Now What

Being the Tactician on your boat carries with it a lot of responsibility and depending on the size of the boat and the number of team members, the way you handle the job will vary greatly.

I have set out below some of the key methods and duties needed to be an effective Tactician.

  1. Only one person should be designated to be the Tactician.
  2. The Tactician must have the authority to call for manouvres and put together the boat’s strategy in advance.
  3. They must make sure that the boat stays in the vicinity of the bulk of the fleet, flyers rarely pay off.
  4. The boat must be kept in clear air and the Tactician’s job is to continually plan what is ahead so you don’t sal into trouble.
  5. A good Tactician will anticipate and then communicate the next move so the crew can be prepared both physically and mentally.
  6. They must be ready with new ideas to improve boat speed, only making one adjustment at a time.
  7.  Watch other boats in the fleet and compare the relative performances, only communicating the bare minimum.
  8. The Tacticians job is to understand the Sailing Instructions, the course and have an up to date knowledge of the rules.
  9. Early warnings are essential to avoid mistakes, crews don’t like surprises.
  10. They need to constantly monitor wind speed and direction.
  11. In a tight situation, a Tactician should ask the helmsperson to look at the other boats.
  12. Discuss tactical options with the team before and after the race. 
  13. It is advisable for the Tactician to helm the boat in various conditions so that they have an idea about how the boat handles.
  14. Always present options with clear recommendations.
  15.  Go with your first instinct.
  16. Wherever possible, give an explanation for a manouevre, as an example, “we are gybing to clear our air”.
  17. Avoid long silences as that may convey that your mind has wandered from the task or you are worried about what is going on in the race.
  18. Congratulate the crew when things go well.
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Sometimes It’s The Little Things That Make The Most Difference

Often the difference between mid-fleet hackers and great sailors is simply the fact that champions pay attention to the little things.

I have listed below, some of the things you need to pay attention to. I am sure you will be able to add many more but you catch my drift about how little things matter.

Before the race:

  • Have your clothing sorted to suit the conditions, it is better to overdress than underdress.
  • Spray moving parts with lubricant, check marks on sheets and remark if faded. Check all fastenings and shackles are tight and for any wear which may result in failure.
  • Check the notice board and re-read the sailing instructions.
  • Check the course and if the course uses fixed marks, take notes of headings and landmark features.

On the Starting Line:

  • Get a line sight.
  • Stay above the line as long as possible and continually take wind readings.
  • After a general recall watch to see if either end of the line is moved. This will render your earlier line sights redundant.
  • Check for current on the start line by observing the pin or committee boat.

On Windward Legs:

  • In waves, pick the path of least resistance.
  • When feeling slow, ease the sails, when in doubt ease them out.
  • Keep the boat flat.
  • When tacking in choppy conditions, look for a flat spot.
  • When sailing in chop, set your boat up for more power when sailing directly into waves.
  • When converging with another boat on the opposite tack, plan a long way out how you are going to handle the cross.
  • If you decide to duck another boat, ease your sails and keep the boat trim perfect with no sudden steering.

At Marks:

  • When nearing the starboard tack layline, be wary of tacking into disturbed air and avoid tacking too early, leading to a double tack to make the mark.
  • When rounding the weather mark, get the boat settled first and observe the position of other boats before setting the spinnaker.
  • At the leeward mark, don’t tack immediately if there is a large number of boats approaching. You will only sail into a wind shadow and disturbed water.
  • It is better to drop the spinnaker early rather than late. A boat sails faster downwind without the chute than upwind with it up.

Starting the Run:

  • Before reaching the mark, work out whether you will bear-away set or gybe set, don’t wait until you round the mark to decide.
  • Consider what effect current has on the course and start the run bearing this in mind.
  • All else being equal, it is better to gybe onto port at the start of the run as this will give you the inside and starboard advantage coming into the leeward mark.

The Finish:

  • Always finish at an end. If the line is not square and you finish in the middle, you have sailed extra distance.
  • If the line is square and you finish in the middle you are at a disadvantage in a close situation because you aren’t as sure when to shoot head to the wind.
  • If your start-finish line is in the middle of the beat and the wind has been steady, the end that was not favoured at the start will be favoured at the finish.

Other Little Things to consider:

  • Keep the boat dry at all times during the race.
  • Continually check for weed on your appendages and avoid patches of weed on the course.
  • Keep a lookout all the time and in particular, observe the flags on the committee boat at the start and flags on boats at marks for changes of course.
  • If you are looking in the boat at controls or sweating about a dragging sheet your concentration has lapsed and you are not sailing at your full potential.

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