Monday, October 16, 2017

Sailing 101

By: Lars Hansen

I participated in the J/22 Fleet #1 rumble and seminar at Wayzata Yacht Club a few years ago. I noticed a few things in particular. Most of these things begin with the letter C and have little to do with sail trim or anything J/22 specific. These are things that make a better team.

The biggest thing that I saw was the lack of confidence and training. It is the skippers job to assemble the team, teach them the specifics of their jobs and empower them to do their jobs. It is the job of the crew to learn their jobs and then “own” their position. If you wait to be told what to do the moment is lost. No gains will be made and whoever was telling you what to do was not doing their job. This is a downward spiral.

Another big thing I saw was skippers giving away distance. We fight for every inch on the starting line, we buy new sails and ultralight gear to get that extra inch and yet some people drive around the racecourse willy nilly, giving up distance and speed at every turn. The skipper cannot watch over the crew, look at the wind, the sails and drive at the same time. Driving is really important. The skipper must keep the boat at full speed going the shortest distance possible at all times. This means the crew has to help.

Concentration is one of those base skills you can practice and learn to do better. It is one of the special things about sailing I’ve heard it often, “I am so focused on the race that I don’t think about anything else, I find it very relaxing”. I find you can tell a lot about the crew listening to them talk. If the conversation, when in race mode, is about anything other than the race at hand it is a distraction. I always try and redirect a crew member’s attention to the race with questions like:
  • How is the compass?
  • How is our boat speed? 
  • How does the jib look?

If they can’t answer, it’s because they weren’t taught how to do their job.

Communication is one of the most important jobs on the boat. A quite boat is a fast boat, but simple communication facilitates cohesion. Words like “made” “ready” and “HOLD!” really communicate. Sailing has a rich linguistic history. It takes time to learn the vocabulary and develop the shorthand. But it is worth it. Think how in a pressure situation a minimum number of words clearly spells out the action required, like “Bob, blow the main halyard”.  Also note by using the crew members name, only that person jumps into action, not three other people. 

The really good teams don’t discuss mechanics. They know who does what as well as how to look out for each other. A good thing to practice is crew rotation. Practice doing all the jobs onboard, especially mark roundings and sets. This lets the team members execute all the maneuvers and see the big picture outside of the boat.  Put the driver on the bow and the foredeck in the back and do some heavy air jibes.  You will learn a ton doing that.

You must practice to get better. I try to be the first boat on the race course. This lets the team practice in that day’s conditions. Practice using the spinnaker, practice using the compass and practice sailing on the left and right sides of the course. This builds confidence and a positive attitude. 

If you don’t make time to practice, maximize your time on the water. Learn to come to the boat ready to go sailing. Use the sail out to the race course to get into race mode. Put the sunscreen on and change clothes on shore. Leave the extra clothes behind. Develop a team culture of being weight conscious. 

Good communication gets everybody on the same page. I like the countdowns, so everybody has the same timing. You should practice this and do it all the time. I like the ongoing narration style. While racing upwind I might say, “I think we’re down a couple” (meaning degrees on the compass). The compass person might respond, “We are down five from base”. To which I might say, “Looking for a place to tack”—
to which the crew might say, “Hold for 5 (seconds) no clear lane”. I would respond with “copy” letting them know I heard them. Followed by “prepare to tack”, which means don’t do anything yet, just be ready. Then “tacking in 3, 2, 1” as the boat spins at a regular practiced rate. Coming out of the tack, the crew waits for the signal to squish the boat, which sounds like, “Squish or weight in 3 2 1”.  Then once out of the tack the crew might give a compass update like, “We are up 10”. The trimmer might say, “I’ve got the jib out a bump to get through this chop”. To which I might say, “Copy that”. And then the foredeck calls a “flat spot”, to which I say  “Lets go to high point mode for a couple (of boat lengths)”. The idea is to keep everybody contributing and working all the time, all on the same page.

The J/22 has been around long enough that the maneuvers have been choreographed to the point of perfection. Learn the dances, copy what the fast boats are doing. This goes for mechanics, rig tune and sail trim too. Read the tuning guide and ask questions if you don’t understand it. Do not try to invent your own techniques, save that for when you are winning every race. Every person on board should have a job. They should be given the training and trust to do their job well. I always prefer to train my own crew members rather than bringing a “Joe super crew” along.

Every crew member, skippers included, should have someone they can emulate or look up to. They need to find someone from another boat that they respect and can go to with a question like, “Where did you put your right foot during the jibe”. Or “What do you look at when you adjust the draft in the jib?” The good people know this stuff, can explain it and share it. Seek out this knowledge.

Sailboat racing is a collection of skills applied to a constantly changing field of play. For every situation there is an optimum mode or setting, this changes continuously. It is the sailors who concentrate the hardest and who properly adjust to the changing conditions that goes the fastest. I feel for example that in super light air I can out concentrate anyone. Other people get frustrated, grumpy and they slow down. I get excited to see the gains we are making. This builds confidence and we go faster. Same story in heavy air, we love big air and huge waves.  We “know” we will do well. Confidence is huge

Use all the team members. Teach them how to be helpful. Communicate, Coordinate, Choreograph, Concentrate, have Confidence and most of all have fun!

Lars Hansen
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