PHRF Racing Part 2: Becoming an Expert Racer

by Jim Schrager

(This article appears on page 83 of the July issue of Spinsheet)

The heart of sailboat racing in the United States is the thousands of PHRF racers who take to the seas in serious competition most every week of the summer—and in some harbors, the spring and fall as well. If you are just getting started, or want to go faster, here’s a plan for how to get there.
In the first installment, boat selection and making boat speed a top priority for the beginning racer were covered. In this column, we tackle the tough challenge of how to categorize and remember the vast compendium of knowledge every racer must know to be in the top of the fleet. This topic of developing elevated expertise should be of interest to everyone who races, not just the new skipper.

On Expertise
Anders Ericsson, one of the world’s leading experts on expertise, studies how people become highly skilled. His number one finding may surprise you: experts are made, not born. Through study after study, starting with chess and continuing into most major sports, he’s seen it isn’t just natural ability that separates experts from novices. It is desire and a special kind of practice.

“Thoughtful practice” means you analyze every mistake you make, with brutal, blatant honesty, and provide feedback to yourself and your crew on how to do better next time. Ericsson has shown that experts develop “expanded memories,” primed and ready to be deployed when needed. But how to develop this for PHRF racing?

Of course, you talk about the race during the battle and afterwards with the crew. But for us, it wasn’t enough. So I got into the habit of writing a “Race Memo” after every race. It discusses what we did well, what we need to work on, and interesting changes we’ve seen in other boats. The start is covered as are mark roundings and boat speed lessons we can’t afford to forget. When we lose, we propose why and how to fix it next time. When we win, the Race Memo reminds us of why that happened so we can repeat it next time. When we are perplexed and can’t explain an outcome, we note that as well, so we can keep thinking about it. In essence, it makes sense of the race.

As the memo is sent on e-mail, it is usually the topic of conversation among our young crew. At times, the responses are as interesting as the memo. In the next installment of this series, we’ll present an actual Race Memo.

When we started our current PHRF campaign, I had been away from racing for about a dozen years. The crew consisted of me, our two teenaged sons, and a vacillating set of their friends with widely varying interests in learning about racing. No one, other than I, had ever raced a sailboat before.

The first year was mostly a disaster. We were dogmeat in many different wind and water combinations, especially heavy air. This really hurt as we race an older, heavier boat that should do well when the wind pipes up. We showed some speed in lighter air conditions, but it was hard to win. Competition was fierce. The second year, we improved but still had far to go, just barely scraping into third place in one of the two regular race series. In our third year, we started slow but worked hard and won first place in the Spring Series, in spite of serious competition from two well-sailed, lighter, “racier,” boats, having to fend off the winningest skipper and boat in our harbor and the usual gaggle of smaller boats that always have a chance to correct out on handicap.

You can win at PHRF as well, if you realize that like any other demanding sport, it will take time and effort. The secret is being thoughtful about how to improve. Make it a habit, and after a few years, you’ll see the benefits.

Next up in our third installment is an actual “Race Memo,” and we’ll conclude in part four with the top ten list of PHRF racing tips to improve your game, based on the subjects covered in the first three installments.

Find the full four-part series here.