About the only sport I really enjoy watching on TV is baseball. And I have noticed that, in that sport, there is much attention given by commentators, coaches and players to something called "mechanics."
No wait. This post really is about sailing. Please bear with me.
So what is this "mechanics" thing? Well, I guess it refers to the whole physics of the sport. How to use a machine, the human body, to transfer energy to the baseball in the most efficient and effective way, whether you are batting, pitching or throwing. Go to any website about baseball mechanics and you will find much discussion about angular momentum and torque and similar mechanical concepts. And they are full of advice to the player on exactly what to do with their hands, their arms, their legs, even their toes; and when and how to move all the various body parts in unison to achieve that perfect swing or pitch.
It all sounds very analytical and... well, mechanical. Nobody can possibly remember all that advice about what to do with every body part in the fraction of a second they actually have to hit the baseball. So that's why they practice. Tweak the mechanics. Practice it until it's natural.
No really, this post is going to get around to sailing soon. Don't go away.
At the highest levels of the game, coaches still seem able to fix a player's "mechanics." A batter will be in a slump. He takes a few days off from playing and works with a coach to fix something mechanical. A longer stride perhaps. A shorter swing maybe. Then, as soon as he's fixed it, his performance improves dramatically. There are even rare occasions when a pitching coach will correct a pitcher's mechanics in the middle of a game.
"Mechanics" is not a word that I've heard much of in sailing. But during my recent vacation I was lucky enough to work with an excellent British Laser coach, Tom Hayes, who gave me much helpful feedback. And it dawned on me afterwards that a lot of the things he was telling me about were the "mechanics" of sailing (although he never used that word.) How to sit in the boat on a run and where to place the feet. Where to hold the hands on a beat. How to use the hands to sheet out most effectively when rounding the windward mark. All about using the machine of the body in the mechanically most effective way.
But is there a right way and a wrong way to sail a Laser... or to hit a baseball for that matter? Look at baseball players. They all stand at the plate in different ways. They all hold the bat at different angles. Some like to crouch. Some stand tall. All the different ways seem to work at times. (Except when they don't.) Isn't the same true of sailing? Aren't there lots of different ways to sail a Laser and still win races?
Well, I guess there probably is a standard model of how to perform in both sports. And if you are a beginner or a mid-fleet mediocrity like me it's probably a good idea to listen when a coach tells you how to correct your mechanics. If you are a Derek Jeter or a Ben Ainslie and you find something works better for you than the standard method, then good luck to you. We mere mortals are better off sticking to the textbook style.
But it's hard to change your mechanics, especially when you've been doing something the "wrong" way for the best part of thirty years. But that's what I was trying to do in Menorca. Picking up tips from Tom in the lessons in the mornings in the first week, and then trying to sail with different "mechanics" in the races in the afternoons. (I could only do that in fun races like that which didn't really count for anything. In the excitement of a "real" regatta I would forget the lessons and revert to my bad old habits.) Then in the second week I would sometimes take out a Laser in the afternoons on my own and just sail up and down the bay, working on those mechanics, trying to make the right mechanics part of my "muscle memory" (if there really is such a thing.)
So why don't people talk about "mechanics" in sailing? Is it just a different word for "boat-handling"? Not really. When people teach you boat-handling they inevitably focus on the boat. "Sail the boat flat." "Roll the boat to windward as it passes head to wind." They don't always talk about what you need to be doing with your arms and legs and feet and hands and butt to make the boat go fast. Perhaps it's really only an issue in light little boats like the Laser where bad mechanics can have such a large impact on performance?
I seem to have been rambling on for more than long enough on this topic - which may not even be a real topic at all. What do you think? Is there room for a new book on "The Mechanics of Sailing" (that wouldn't be about winches and pulleys and swing keels)?