Monday, May 02, 2005


In his book 'Sail, Race and Win' Eric Twiname says that too many sailors rely on racing as virtually their only way of learning. Unfortunately more racing does not necessarily mean better results. The reason is that the way to improve a technique is to experiment. You have to try out different ways of doing things to find a better way. And in the short term that experimenting makes us worse. So most people are reluctant to experiment too much during a race. Twiname's suggestion is to use some races purely as opportunities to experiment with different sailing techniques and accept that you are going to do worse than usual at first.

It was in this spirit that I entered the Laser US Nationals at Wrightsville Beach, NC last month. I knew in any case that my results in a regatta at that level would be nothing to write home about. (Or blog about). And I knew that one of my weaknesses was sailing in heavy air and especially sailing in waves. So I decided to use the regatta to work on various techniques for sailing in those conditions and not even think about my scores.

After each start I tried to get a clear lane where I could practice working my boat through the waves without being distracted too much by other boats. I tried various ways of steering through waves. I experimented with using body movement to help the boat get cleanly over each wave. And I played around with various sheeting techniques. After a while I seemed to be going faster. But the one thing that improved - even though I wasn't really concentrating on it - was my tacking. In particular to ease just the right amount of sheet in each tack and come out of the other side of the tack with the boat consistently under control. I realized that I hadn't had a consistent way of easing out and sheeting in - even though I've been tacking Lasers for over 20 years.

Weird. Is there some rule of learning that says that when you concentrate on one thing you actually improve another?

Downwind on the first day of the regatta when it was blowing in the high teens I was really concentrating on staying upright. After a while I got used to the pattern of the waves and wasn't spooked that some wave from an unexpected direction wasn't go to roll me. Prayer seemed to help a lot too.

On the second day when the wind was a little less I really got to enjoy working the waves downwind. I played around with sailing at different angles trying to improve my feel for what was "hot". I began to believe that IF I could sail in these conditions every week (instead of on boring flat inland lakes); and IF I could do that for 20 years; and IF I had started sailing waves when I was 20 years younger...I might actually get the hang of this.

The last day of the regatta it was really honking by the end of the only race. High 20s probably. I just tried to use whatever had worked well earlier in the week. Although I had said that I would not think about my results, it turned out that that last race was my best one of the week. Which is always a good way to end a regatta.

So perhaps I did learn something after all. Thanks Eric.

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