Monday, November 19, 2007

Solo Practice

A young Laser sailor sent me this question by email...

Do you know any good drills you can do by yourself that test your boat speed and pretty much every other component in a race, or do you know of anything that can maintain your skills over the winter when you can't sail that much?

Wow. I'm flattered that this sailor would look to me for advice on these topics. I am by no means an expert on how to train yourself to go faster. Only a few days ago I was writing a post on Boat Speed and how I am puzzled about how to improve it. But those are great questions so let me have a stab at answering them and perhaps some of my readers will chime in with better answers in the comments.

First of all I think the answer to the question as to whether there are any ways in which you can "test your boat speed" in drills by yourself is that you can't. The only real way to check your boat speed in a Laser is to tune up with at least one other sailor. Sail side by side so that you are both in clear air on the same heading and then see who is faster. Then, if you can, work out what the faster guy is doing differently, copy him, and repeat. Repeat hour after hour. Day after day. Month after month. And you will get faster.

Maybe a better question is whether there any drills you can do by yourself that will improve your boat speed and boat handling. And the answer to that question is, "I hope so." Here are just a few things that I do when I practice by myself.

  • Sail upwind for a mile or so. Focus in turn on each aspect of what you are doing. How are the sail controls set? What happens if you adjust each one in turn? Does it feel more powerful? Does it feel faster? How is your hiking style? Does it hurt yet? if not, hike harder. How flat is the boat? What is the fore-aft trim? Are waves coming over the bow? What's the best way to steer to avoid slamming into the waves? How heavy is the helm? Practicing by yourself doesn't give you the same feedback on boat speed as tuning up with a partner, but it will improve your sensitivity and feel for the boat, not to mention your fitness, which should translate into better boat speed.

  • Sail offwind at different angles from close reach to broad reach to extreme by-the-lee. Again focus in turn on every aspect of your sailing. What do you need to do to get the boat planing, or keep it planing? Can you catch a ride on the waves at this angle, that angle. Again you don't have an objective way of knowing what is right or wrong but you are building your subconscious knowledge of how the boat sails at different headings to the wind in different wind strengths and different wave conditions.

  • Pick a fault you know you have and invent a drill to work on it. A few weeks ago I wrote about the way in which Laser mainsheets can tie themselves in knots in a post entitled I Can Tie Knots With My Feet. So in my last practice session I spent a lot of time concentrating on how my sheet ends up in a heap in the bottom of the cockpit and what I need to do to keep it arranged tidily after sheeting in or tacking. I discovered one or two tricks about what to do with my hands during a tack and with my feet afterwards that would help to keep the sheet tidy and stop it getting in a tangle.

  • Do some simulated starts. Make an imaginary line between a buoy and some other point and practice using that as a start line. How long can you hold position just below the line? How long does it take to accelerate and cross the line? Can you time an approach with your watch to hit the line at full speed at the end of a one minute countdown? Try different techniques.

  • Set up a short triangle with three buoys simulating windward, gybe and leeward marks. They only need to be ten or so boat lengths apart. Sail round and round this triangle a gazillion times doing everything you would in a race. Adjust the sail controls for each leg of the course. Round each mark just as you would in a race. Make the tacks and gybes as perfect as you can. There is evidence that practicing all your boat handling skills one after the other like this works more effectively than just going out and doing, say, 100 tacks one after the other.

As I said, I'm not an expert on self-coaching, so if others have better ideas please chime in with comments.

So what else can you do in the winter to maintain your skills if you can't sail? Well, how about the following?

  • Work on your fitness.

  • Read about sailing.

  • Watch DVDs about sailing.

  • Use a sailing simulator such as Tacticat to stay sharp on tactics and strategy.

Or even better, don't accept that you can't sail much in winter. Join a frostbite fleet or travel somewhere warm to sail such as Cabarete.

Anybody have any other good advice for my young friend?


Student of the Game said...

Check out Eric Twiname's book, "Sail, Race and Win."

It has an emphasis on self-instruction -- in terms of boathandling, psychology, and other aspects.

This book is really a great read and will make you a better sailor.

David said...

Rick White's drills book also has a bunch of drills

Ant said...

I think variety is the key to on-the-water-drills. After a hard seasons racing we can get stale on doing the same old course, port rounding, gybe, beat etc etc..

You have to enjoy sailing, you have to keep fresh and very importantly you need to be ready to react. I suggest the following:
1. Do what Tillerman has suggested
2. Intersperse with doing "different" courses.. windward-leward, trapezoidal, box, E-type course, Olympic triangle to starboard etc.
3. Sail just to sail.. pick a great day and just do what you enjoy doing be that roll-tacking, surfing, running, long beat..enjoy..
4. Do psychological racing... sit at home, in bed, on the beach or wherever, close your eyes and do the perfect race from start-to-finish, if you make a mistake, rewind and do the "manouvere" again, until you get it right.. all sounds silly but works really well!
5. I used to (Optimist/420 days) do a lot of drills around start-lines.. hovering, boat control, acceleration, backwards sailing and timing of runs.
6. Don't do too much, burn-out and boredom is not a good way to start the next season!

Hope that helps..

bonnie said...

oh, great. Like I didn't already have sailing someplace warm on the brain!

Think TQ's getting some lottery tickets as a joke stocking stuffer this year.

If by some freak we actually win, I'm suggesting a bare boat certification class - someplace warm!

Tim said...

I find analysing photos of boats racing a useful way of keeping my head in the game during the winter months.

Augusto said...

Great post! Greetings from Uruguay. Augusto.Sail number: 186996.

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