Story by James E. Schrager
In this “top ten” list, we recap and build on lessons in boat selection, boatspeed, and how to increase your ability to retain the vast amount of knowledge you’ll need to race at the top of your fleet.
2. It takes time. Usually about three or so years of serious effort is required to be competitive. The more complex the boat, the longer the time needed to master it. Masthead rigs are easier than fractionals; unusual hull designs are tougher than boats with straightforward lines. For your boat, or if you’re thinking about buying a different boat, take into account the learning curve you face.
3. Boat speed is everything. Once you have it, all the rest can be added easily. Beyond boat speed, other topics include tactics (starting, mark-rounding, and boat-to-boat maneuvers), navigation, and sail changes. Sail selection and trimming are of course central elements in boat speed. Weather, the final variable, is a constant challenge for all racing sailors.
As to tactics—that is, your behavior when other boats are close by—my suggestion is to give everyone else plenty of room until you are in contention. Nothing much worse than a slow boat pushing others around. You will have to learn the basic right-of-way rules, know what to do when tacking upwind (boats with wind coming from starboard have right of way), and reaching downwind (the leeward boat can squeeze you up into the wind). Leave room for other boats in mark roundings while you are learning. Beyond these basics, read up on the rules for when you are fast enough to be in contention.
4. Learn your lessons. The after-action Race Memo, distributed via e-mail to crew members, is the central means whereby the skipper reflects on the lessons learned from each race. This written record encourages hard-won knowledge, which is often the result of trial and error, to be forged into consistent winning behavior.
This year, we were nose to tail with one of our fierce competitors in our invitational regatta. Suddenly, he started to pull away on a point of sail where we should be faster. Quickly we looked all around the boat: Why were we slow? We discovered we had the jib car set for beating, but were now on a reach. We reset the car and gained an immediate half-knot. Perfect fodder for the Race Memo. A lesson we can never afford to forget.
5. Starts don’t matter (yet). Starts, you will discover, can be quite risky. So while you are learning, give everyone plenty of extra room. Being a bit late, but in clear air, can be a reasonable trade-off for the newer skipper.
Charging over the line at full speed just as the gun goes off is a wonderful feeling, but if you are pinned (that is, unable to tack away) or being gassed by a windward boat, it will not be the fast way to the first mark. Worse yet is being pushed over early. The race is won at the finish, so plan your starts for a good, clean upwind leg.
6. It’s okay to lose (for a while). You’ll lose for a while, so plan on that and keep expectations appropriately adjusted—for both crew and skipper. Make sure everyone knows it’s okay to lose, but never okay not to learn something on every race. Some issues will remain mysteries, in some cases for years, but don’t give up.
We had a very odd upper mainsail backwind on our fractional rig in heavy air, and no one could figure it out. After much experimentation, we decided to crank hard on the windward running back, to straighten the mast and tighten up the mainsail leech. This is backwards from what you would do on a masthead rig, where you would add more mast bend to flatten the sail. But it worked. Every boat has her own eccentricities. Great crews insure they remember each one.
7. Match the crew to the job. Find the right spot for each crew member, something they enjoy and are willing to work hard at. Everyone isn’t a natural for every job, and if things aren’t working out, make changes.
We trained one very enthusiastic crew member to be a jib trimmer; but he resisted and things weren’t working out. We then lost two big races because we didn’t have a full time navigator. The thought of letting a crew member who wasn’t pulling his weight navigate didn’t make sense to some of the crew. But he has turned out to be a fantastic navigator, and now we can’t race without him.
8. Racing is how we learn. Realize that the best practice is always when racing. You can do only so much when not on the race course. It’s the only time when you and every other boat are really doing their best to go fast. Treat all your races the first few years as practice, and you have the right idea. But don’t take these races lightly—take them very seriously as the way to build a winning campaign.
9. Remember that this is supposed to be fun! If it isn’t, figure out why and start a program to improve yourself and your crew.
10. Winning is more fun than losing. Dedicate yourself to winning by understanding that sailboat racing is like any other highly intellectual contest. It takes a commitment to learning and great discipline to win. Anything less and you’ll be relegated to the back of the fleet.