I think I've worked out what I'm doing wrong. Well, at least one of the things I've been doing wrong. All these years I've been sailing at below my true potential because of one simple thing.
It dawned on me when I recalled the other day something I had been told by a sailing coach many years ago. Something about taking snapshots not videos when you are racing. His point was that you need to pay attention to a lot of factors in a race and that you need to keep switching attention among them all, not get focused too long on any one issue.
When I thought back to racing last week I remembered his advice. There was one race where I had a superb start near the favored pin end of the line, heading towards the left side of the course which had previously been the strategically optimal way to go. I was concentrating on my boat speed and the boats around me and not letting the waves slow me down and maintaining a good lane with clear air and feeling good about being the leading boat of all the pack on the left ... And it wasn't until way too late that I looked over my shoulder and saw that stronger wind had filled in from the right side of the course and the boats that had gone right were already 100 yards ahead of me. Aaaagghhh!!!!
Did I look upwind before the start? No.
Did I look around the course after the start? No.
I was just way to focused on boat speed that I forgot about the big picture.
Of course there are a lot of things that a single-handed sailor like me has to be dealing with all the time. Sail trim. Boat trim. Boat balance. What are the boats close to me doing? What are they likely to do? Am I being headed or lifted? What is the wind ahead of me doing? What is the wind on the other side of the course doing? Are the boats on the other side of the course doing better or worse than me? Where am I in relation to the next mark? And so on.
So when I went out to practice on the local reservoir on Saturday I concentrated on using the "snapshot" approach. Switching my attention every few seconds between all the variables. Telltales look OK? Boat flat? What's the wind ahead doing? Where's the next puff? Am I being headed? Big picture wind - where is it strongest?
I'm sure that good sailors do most of this unconsciously. They are constantly receiving and processing this information all the time without having to think about it. But given my tendency to concentrate on one thing and forget everything else I found this snapshot exercise useful.
Then while racing yesterday I tried using the same technique. 2 minute signal - check out the wind. 1 minute signal - check out the wind again. Then once we're racing keep taking the snapshots. Telltales. Snap. Boat trim. Snap. Wind ahead. Snap. Wind over my shoulder. Snap. Wind other side of the course. Snap. Windward mark. Snap. Boats nearby. Snap. Boats other side of the course. Snap.
And it worked. My results were dramatically better than the previous week. I went from about being a third of the way from the bottom of the fleet to being in the top third of the fleet. OK, there's still plenty of room for improvement. But if I hadn't missed that persistent shift on the second beat of the fourth race...
Oh well. There's always next time.