Wednesday, May 04, 2011

American Laser Sailors

This morning I discovered an anonymous comment in my spam folder that must have been made a couple of weeks ago on my post Greece? Belarus?. That post drew attention to the relatively low ranking of the USA in the ISAF World Sailing Fleet Racing Rankings. If the comment is genuine (and I have no reason to believe it is not) it represents an informed, but perhaps controversial, critique of the state of US Laser sailing. Rather than letting it be lost in the comments to a three-week-old post, I thought it worthwhile to repost it here.

Just remember these are not my observations. Don't shoot the messenger!

Having raced many Laser sailors from the US in both the US and elsewhere in the world I have an opinion on why the US considering its size has no depth of talent at least in the Laser class.

To put it simply many US sailors think they are far better than they actually are and the further down the fleet you go the lazier and more self entitled they seem to get. They usually do mainly gym work to the exclusion of actual sailing and they usually lack skills on the water.

I find some US sailors satisfying to race against because they seem to have the attitude that they should always be further to the front of the fleet than they usually are and when they are are being passed downwind etc they cuss and do some really stupid things for eg, taking you up to weather to the point that they ruin their own race, and allowing you to slide past in the process. It never seems to occur to them how that thin weedy looking dude from FRA could be faster than an American.

You have or had guys like Ross and his blog as one good example. It is considered bad form in the US to say to someone that you suck and your dreams will be forever that, just dreams.

There is not enough clear feedback to some, that they need to do a lot of work to do well, I do not say win, just do well. Years of training and learning how to put together a regatta. One guy I raced against from the US who no longer sails Lasers actually got to go the Olympics representing another country even though he could not even finish in the top 10 in a local district event out of only 60 boats. He used to walk around the boat park earlier on, in his team gear as if he was some top elite sailor and then proceed to have his ass handed to him by local club sailors.

The top US Laser guys are very good sailors but they appear to lack that extra thing you require to win. Not simply a desperation to win but an all encompassing understanding that winning is only possible if you have done all the work and are prepared to push yourself to the point of breaking 4-5 days a week for years.

On rereading what I wrote I will say that many US sailors particularly those on the circuit are a pleasure to race against but you do have a large number of Laser guys that seem to struggle with the whole concept that world is a big place and there are plenty of sailors they may never have run across before that are more than equal to the best the US has.


O Docker said...

For a very different take on why US dinghy sailors might be suffering in international competition, here's an opinion from NPR sports commentator Frank Deford.

Deford wasn't referring to sailing specifically, but rather to how the US has been doing poorly in many individual sports lately. He blames the overwhelming popularity of team sports in the US.

Tillerman said...

Interesting observation O Docker. I suspect there's some truth in that. Certainly in the town in the US where my sons went to high school, it was hard for them to make their American friends understand that sailing was just as much a "real" sport as pointy football is.

Assuming that Mr. Anonymous's assertion that "many US sailors think they are far better than they actually are" is true, I wonder if there is a similar explanation of something in American culture that creates this attitude?

Sam Chapin said...

Well someone is always better and someone not as good. It takes a good mix of a lots of things to be tops in the world--- USA dosen't have to be first or better. Sail your race and improve on it if you want or be happy with what you have. Glad that fellow is a "good sailor".

O Docker said...

And your kids probably grew up less than an hour away from a shoreline with an active sailing community.

Imagine how their explanations would have been received by schoolmates in Kansas or Oklahoma.

Growing up in the fifties and sixties, we were often taught that the US led the world intellectually and culturally, and that the only sports that mattered were baseball, basketball, and pointy football. These assumptions have not won us many friends abroad or helped us to understand the rest of the world very well. I don't think such attitudes are as prevalent today as then, but they're by no means gone.

It's taken us a while to learn humility and a more global perspective from Europeans such as the French.

Baydog said...

I actually ran into problems in High School when football practice "officially" started September 1st. My coach didn't understand that the first Saturday in September often meant the last Bay race in the summer series, and whether or not you were in the running for a trophy, in order to qualify, which meant nothing to an All-American college football quarterback/coach, you had to sail the last race. I was always taught to finish what you started. Team sports were great, but few of my friends understood the concept of sailboat racing and the satisfaction an individual got out of racing single-handed.

I can understand what Anonymous wrote, but in a way, it was a little insulting how I perceived his view of some American
sailors. Look, you're either a good sport or you're not. Poor sportsmanship doesn't discriminate. There are assholes from every country acting the same pissy way.

BlueVark said...

Am I correct in thinking that much of US collegiate sailing is based around team or match racing. If so could this have an impact on US sailors having the correct mindset and tactics for individual racing in large fleets?

Tillerman said...

I think the opinion is a "little insulting" as you say Baydog.

But I posted it because I think there is at least a grain of truth in it. Certainly you do occasionally come across certain individuals (Ross Bennett being the most extreme example) who are all hat, no cattle.

But whether that is anything to do with why American sailors don't win more gold medals at the Olympics, or why American men Laser sailors aren't the best in the world is open to debate.

I find it hard to believe that our top sailors like Clay Johnson, Brad Funk, Rob Crane, Kyle Rogachenko are under any illusions about how hard you have to work to reach the top in an Olympic class. Perhaps the criticism in the comment is more aimed at the next echelon of sailors who may be Olympic hopefuls but who are not making the commitment to get there?

Tillerman said...

BlueVark, there is team racing in college sailing but most of it is fleet racing.

However there is another argument that college sailing contributes to USA's relatively weak Olympic performance. College sailing is short course racing in slow dinghies. Olympic sailing is long (for dinghies) course racing in (mainly) high performance boats. Ergo, US college sailing is not the best preparation for Olympic sailing.

On top of that most American kids who sail go to college. Whereas my impression is (and I could be wrong) that talented young sailors in other countries (e.g. the UK) skip college and start competing internationally in Olympic class boats instead.

John in PDX said...

I think that our favorite frenchy probably mirrors some of Europeans view of the ugly Americans. There are many in Europe who do not.

But - many Americans have a poor view of Frenchmen. Not always deserved.

"they cuss and do some really stupid things for eg, taking you up to weather to the point that they ruin their own race, and allowing you to slide past in the process."

I too have been taking this advice and not getting into a position against racers who like to use these type of tactics. I don't think it is just an American tactic. It's an Ego Tactic.

I usually find that staying close until they make the Ego Error helps my position.

Here is a question for you wet sailors:
Do you ever get electronics envy or do you feel superior because you sail pure without them?

I am going to tryout 'Race Starter' on my iPhone tonight.

Tillerman said...

We feel superior. The less money we spend on electronics, the more we can spend on beer.

Skippy said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
John in PDX said...

Ahhh, the Homer Simpson theory! BEEERRR!
I knew you wet sailors were smarter. I just didn't know how much.

Pat said...

We were on a boat today. There was beer on the boat. We drank some of it. But we still had no illusions of being great sailors.

Caveat lector said...

Hi Tillerman. I wrote that comment you posted and certainly did not mean to come across as offensive.

I have had a few run ins with some very aggressive but not particularly fast sailors from the US after I have had a bad start or first beat which has colored my opinion possibly.

I do find that different cultures do behave differently on the water although I am of course generalizing.

In regards to the US and its performance I presumed you were talking about finishing top 3 in any big event up to and including the games. I do not think the US has any depth in its local Laser racing and I do not mean that in an insulting way. I do think that some US sailors do underestimate many of their competitors. I am not referring to guys like Clay who have been around for a while but the ones further down who were champions at home and do not deal well with being a small fish in a big pond. I think that is why so many US guys attempt the big events and then vanish as it is ego destroying to be hidden in the depths of the silver fleet when you believe you should be near the top of the gold fleet.

It seems no one thinks to tell these sailors, "Nice! 80th is not a bad result. You should have a good long list of things to work on going into the next event and you can aim to get out of silver next season, building on these experiences."

When you have come from a background where you are a district champion and are praised to high heaven of course it can be hard to take.

I think in some countries you have your ego broken early on because of the high level of the racing. I am not referring specifically to Ross Bennett btw as that was always going to end badly wasn't it, but the sailors a bit quicker than him that have enjoyed some local success.

If you want to do well in Lasers you have to travel and you have to be prepared to learn. You can not race in the US and then expect to step outside and win as it is different racing.

I do think you have to be prepared to suffer to achieve in Lasers and I think some US sailors and many other sailors from cultures where the participants are from predominately well to do families do not take kindly to the effort required to do well. I will not mention specific nations but I know quite a few of the coaches from a number of countries throughout the world and many of these coaches have the hardest time getting their sailors to put the effort in.

Plenty of sailors tend to focus on sailing camps/clinics as if they are some magic bullet of success. If you tell these guys that they have to sail 5 days a week plus gym plus diet they will not do it.

I have not met a single world champion in lasers, and I have met and raced all of them with the exception of one since Stuart Wallace won, who did not sail many thousands of hours. All of them as they developed, sailed nearly every single day. I am not talking a quick 1-2 hour session either. I am talking about sailing hours upon hours everyday day sometimes until the sun sets, and often alone as their training partners dropped away. That is the one common theme of all of them. You could not tell where their body ended and the boat begun. The boat and the sailor were to all intents and purposes one and the same.


Caveat lector said...

I bet you any money you like that the top sailors at the worlds have put in hundreds of thousands of miles sailing and as you progress down the fleet the time spent on the water gets less and less until you get to the weekend sailor.

I do not think there is any short cut to the top through coaching or clinics. It may fast track you to some degree but at a certain point you have will to put in countless hours on the water to win. It is that simple.

So leaving aside the issue of the US and performance it comes down to that at the end of the day. Spend 5-6 years sailing nearly every day and competing against the very best you can find and you will be a champion.

Is it possible that the lack of performance simply comes down to an underestimation of what it takes? That natural talent is really just a lot of blood, sweat and tears.

If this has offended anyone I do apologise. It was not my intention.

As for being anon, the original post I sent from my phone and did not wish to log in to any account.

Now I choose to remain anon as we live in a time where any opinion that could be construed as offensive can find the real life of the originator of that opinion exposed when it is no ones business but there own if they choose to not disclose it.

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