Thursday, August 30, 2012


How do you learn?

How do you improve your sailing?

How do you fix the faults in your technique?

Does learning happen when you are racing, or practicing?

Or does learning happen when you are asleep, or reading, or even blogging?

Some people take notes on what coaches tell them.

Some people write down in a log book all the mistakes they make on the race course.

Some people are very organized about working on improving their sailing. They go out with a plan in mind for every training session and focus on particular skills.

I'm not that organized.

I do know a lot of things that I don't do perfectly when I'm sailing and racing my Laser.

But just knowing my bad habits doesn't automatically mean that I correct them.

Sometimes I find it almost impossible to fix something I'm doing wrong no matter how hard I try. I've been trying to do perfect roll tack for three decades now and still can't do them consistently.

But sometimes a fault gets fixed or a new skill just comes, apparently out of nowhere.

Maybe you do learn while you are sleeping - or blogging.

The human mind works in mysterious ways.

One of my persistent faults for many years has been not being able to choose the optimal way to enter the parade of boats on the starboard tack layline approaching the windward mark.

I know the theory all right. Leave it too late and you will find a wall of hulls and sails and have to duck a gazillion boats to find a hole. Go to the layline too early and you won't be able to take advantage of any shifts and you will be sailing in bad air from other boats for too long.

One thing I have been consistently bad at has been choosing whether to tack under boats on the layline or find a hole in the parade and go through it into clearer air. I'm not very good at judging laylines and have a paranoid fear of not laying the mark, so over the years I have developed the conservative habit of always looking for a gap in the boats on the layline that I can go through and then tacking above the layline in clear air. It's safe, but sometimes I have to duck a lot of boats to find the gap. Your finishes are not usually very good if you are giving up five places, say, at every windward mark.

But at the Buzzards Bay Regatta at the beginning of this month, I started tacking below the boats on starboard if I thought I was already on the layline. And it always worked. (Current was probably a big reason.) I didn't consciously decide to change my tactics in this way. I didn't think about it much. It just happened. Maybe I learned it in my sleep?

Another fault I have had is that after rounding the windward mark I tend to spend way too much time fiddling with my sail controls and my daggerboard to set them up for the run. I know that the first priority after rounding the mark should be to catch a ride on the first wave and get the boat moving fast. You can sort out the sail controls later. I know this. Several coaches have told me. I have read it in several books. But I wasn't doing it. At BBR I just started doing it. I don't know why. Maybe the voices in my head of those coaches finally made a difference.

Catching a wave
Not Buzzards Bay
Not me

After BBR I did three practice sessions in Bristol in similar conditions, 10-15 knots (or more) from the SW and waves.

In the first one I had one companion who was sailing a Radial rig. This suited her height and weight in the prevailing conditions better than a full rig, and I was surprised to discover that we were fairly evenly matched upwind. Downwind my full rig Laser was much faster.

All that carving and curving that top Laser sailors do downwind has always been a bit of a mystery to me. But on that day it suddenly made sense. I could ride waves nicely for a while on starboard tack sailing by the lee, but then I would fall off a wave and not be able to catch rides any more. Heading up on to a broad reach gave a huge increase in speed and I was then able to go back to sailing by the lee and riding waves again. I was having so much fun carving turns down the length of Bristol Harbor I didn't even notice that my friend had capsized. Oops.

The next time I went out in Bristol it was with two sailors who are far better than me. We were doing rabbit starts and racing a windward-leeward course. I wasn't usually as fast as my companions upwind or downwind but I had just been reading Clay Johnson's tips about pinching and footing on the Center of Effort blog.  He twice used the phrase, "Put them out of their misery early," in the context of discussing when to foot to blast over a boat or group of boats to leeward on a beat. "Put them out of their misery early!" I liked that. It stuck in my mind. And I did it to one of my friends that evening. Children can be so cruel at my age.

I went out later that week on my own in Bristol and this time I consciously worked on fixing a fault with my medium to heavy air tacks. I had been told by a coach some time ago that I should stop swapping my hands on tiller and sheet during the tack, but rather hike first, get the boat up to speed, and then swap hands from the hiking position. It takes me a long time to eliminate bad habits. I had stopped swapping hands too early, but instead I had developed another lazy habit of going into a rather half-hearted hike, swapping hands, and then hiking fully out. So I tried to do it properly. Sometimes I succeeded. Sometimes I didn't. But I was getting better. I think. I hope.

This week I sailed in Bristol on Tuesday evening with three other sailors in somewhat lighter winds. One of my friends was much faster than the rest of us, and over fish and chips and beer in a waterside bar later he explained some of the the things he was doing differently from us - everything from sail settings, to steering, to sheeting technique. Hmmm. Something else to try next time I go out.

So how do you learn?

Sometimes stuff just seems to get better without even thinking about it.

Sometimes you remember something a coach told you or you read on a blog, and it triggers you to start doing something new.

Sometimes you can change a bad habit by working persistently over multiple practice sessions to change your technique and do stuff a better way.

Sometimes you learn stuff over fish and chips and beer.

On the whole, I think I prefer the fish and chips and beer method.

Or the "learn in your sleep" method.

I think I'll take a nap now.


Dallas Dude said...

After reading this I believe you might enjoy reading Zen in the Art of Archery by Eugene Herrigel

Jake DiMare said...

My learning happens in three distinct phases:

1. Studying
2. Do-ing
3. Sharing (teaching)

Until I have done all three on whatever it is I am trying to learn, say...Roll tacking a Rhodes 19 for instance, I'm still just messing around.

I like that you pointed out your struggles with roll-tacking. I happened to decide this morning I wanted to know more after someone mentioned this Rhodes 19 racing last night. I googled the term and your site came up in the first 20 results.

So...In other words: Teach me to roll tack a dinghy and you'll finally master it.

Tillerman said...

Good points Jake.

This post was already way too long, but I was thinking of exploring in more depth the question as to whether blogging about how to do something actually helps you to learn it, in much the same way as teaching it does. I do think that once you have started doing something right, blogging about it may reinforce the memory of how to do it right and help you to do it right again in future.


If that is true maybe I should change this blog from "old geezer blogs about what a crap Laser sailor he is and all the mistakes he makes" to "old geezer boasts about the few aspects of sailboat racing that he happens to get right."

On the other hand it wouldn't be so funny.

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