Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Boat Speed

Boat speed. How do you get it? Where does it come from?

We racing sailors can become confused over all the aspects of sailboat racing. Weather forecasting. Boat preparation. Strategy. Tactics. Rules. Psychology. Physical fitness. So many things to think about. So many ways to gain on our opponents. So many ways to screw up.

But deep down we all know that there's only one skill that really matters. Boat speed. Some people seem to have an innate skill to make a boat go fast. The rest of us are totally mystified as to how they do it.

Do you remember the series of posts I wrote back in early 2006: Dave Dellenbaugh's Top Ten Tactical Tips? Dave's first tip was Fast=Smart. Boat speed trumps all. If you have boat speed you will look like a tactical genius.

At the Laser Masters Worlds I was pleasantly surprised to discover that my boat speed upwind in waves was better than about half of the other sailors. At previous Worlds that had not been true. It was the primary reason why I managed to finish in the top half of the fleet (just). Forget all the other stuff, tactics, strategy, mark roundings... You have to be faster than your opposition if you're going to beat them.

But why was I better than the tailenders this year? And why were the guys at the front of the fleet still significantly faster than me?

When you are learning to sail and beginning to race it's pretty easy to find the keys to improve your boat speed. It's in all the books, or the advice that any experienced racer can give you. Sit further forward in light air. Sail flat. Hike hard in heavy air. Simple stuff. You do it and you go faster. Then after a year or two you stop improving. You reach a plateau somewhere in the middle of the fleet. The guys at the front of the fleet are faster, but you can't see why.

What's the reason those guys at the front are faster?

Is their equipment better? Maybe. Even in a strict one-design boat like the Laser, perhaps the fast guys have newer stiffer boats, smoother foils, newer sails. Aaahh, yes newer sails. I thought I had discovered the reason for my dismal performance at the Laser North Americans early in the season. I was using an old sail. I bought a new one. My results improved. It could have been the sail. Or perhaps I learned something subconsciously at the NAs that improved my speed. How would I know?

Are those guys at the front really faster? Or are they just better at reading the water, sniffing out the wind, predicting the weather, knowing where the next shift will come from? I think there's an element of truth in that, especially on flat water, such as on the North Jersey lakes where I sailed for many years. On flat water it seems that the boat speed of the sailors in the top half of a fleet is pretty similar. I once asked one of the best sailors on those lakes what it was that one of the other top sailors had that made him such a consistent winner. "He sees the wind so much better than everyone else," was the answer.

On the other hand, in waves it's different. Some people seem to know exactly how to steer upwind to avoid being slowed down by crashing into wave fronts and how to ride the waves downwind faster than mid-fleet duffers like me. You can read how to do it in books. You can even watch it on videos. But that doesn't mean you can do it like the fast guys. It's a feel thing. They have it. I don't.

So how do you get that "go faster" thing? That feel. We touched on one solution a couple of weeks ago in Big Fleets and Small Fleets. Stuart Walker says if you want to improve your boat speed you have to race in big fleets. Because that's where the fast sailors are.

Downwind at the Worlds in Roses I could hold my own with the other mid-fleet guys. But if one of the sailors normally near the front of the fleet ended up back with us, because of a disastrous start or going the wrong way on the first beat, he would leave us in his wake upwind and downwind. How?

For some years now the conventional wisdom for sailing Lasers upwind in waves has been to work the boat through the waves in a kinetic technique pioneered by Robert Scheidt; and downwind in waves it has been all about sailing "hot" angles, sailing by the lee, S-curving. But wait...

Doug Peckover posting on the Laser forum about the Masters Worlds was watching Mark Bethwaite's technique...
Why Mark Bethwaite will win: I’ve been watching Mark sail in a breeze and in lighter air today, both upwind and downwind. He is winning on boat speed in a very unusual manner that I have not seen before. Others are throwing their weight around, sheeting out to go around waves, carving downwind, etc. Mark does none of this. He does not move his body or trim the main – he only focuses intently on the waves just in front and makes rapid, minor steering adjustments. That’s it – nothing else. Mark has learned a way to sail Lasers that is faster in all of the conditions we have sailed in so far. Definitely a minimalist approach – very efficient, clean, and fast. Rob seems to be using the same technique and is faster than last year when he came 2nd in Korea. My guess is that they have learned this from Tom Slingsby who is the current open world champ. They all live in Sydney and have been training together.
I take three messages from this post of Doug's...

  • As Yogi Berra said, "You can observe a lot just by watching."

  • One way to improve boat speed is to train with people faster than yourself.

  • Just when you think you've worked out how to go faster, someone else will invent an even better technique.

So what can I do? Will my boat speed improve if I just practice more and race more? Is it all about time on the water? Would coaching help? Once you've reached that mid-fleet plateau, can a coach spot what you need to do to go faster? Is boat speed even something you can improve through conscious effort? Can you see a faster sailor doing something different, copy them, and magically start going faster yourself? Or is boat speed something you learn subconsciously.... through the seat of your hiking pants perhaps? Or is lack of boat speed genetic like... premature male baldness? Is there a Rogaine fix for lack of boat speed?

What do you think?


Tim Coleman said...

I wanted to say something about this but ended up writing 'war a peace' which was a bit much for a comment so I put it on my own blog.
See what you think. http://snettbish.blogspot.com

Anonymous said...

1) In the Laser, fitness (and hiking specific fitness) translates to boatspeed. With the new Aussie style, I suggest that they are flatter and flatter longer. That comes from fitness. This is an endurance technique. The Scheidt technique is about power. Being able to do both, and fit enough to do both, is next on your list. (It's on mine!)

2) All of the boatspeed in the world can't make up for stupidity. Going the wrong way is still a losing move, even if you get there faster. I can cite many examples from the Trials - and not just my own stupidity, but some brighter guys as well. This also includes the courage to sail your own race, and not follow the "group-think".

3) Making a Laser go faster does include technique. Technique requires practice. Often, we only sail in a limited set of conditions, so we only practice certain techniques. The solutions here are a) sail in a wider range of conditions than you normally might (eg higher/lower windspeeds) and b) travel to sail someplace else.

I'm sure I could keep spewing, but this is enough for now.

Anonymous said...

Can someone elaborate on the difference between Brian's "Aussie Style" and the "Scheidt Technique"?

Anonymous said...

Anonymous: I think by "Aussie Style" Brian is referring to that described in the quote in my post about Mark Bethwaite.

And the Scheidt technique upwind is described in the link just before that to Poetry in Motion.

Anonymous said...

The whole boatspeed thing is very interesting one. Many new racers, indeed many people who have been racing for a whil too, have no concept of what boatspeed is. These people are locked into the mode of thinking that assumes the good guys A) have better equipment and B) know where to go on the race course. While both of these might be true, the fact is that good racers are moving through the water faster than the not so fast ones. For some people this is a natural gift. Others are relegated, no matter how hard they work at it, to be mediocre racers at best. I have always called this "tillerhand". A good friend of mine is a top college sailing coach, and he says that many students who come in as freshman have no idea what boatspeed is. I find this astounding, but I am confronted with it every Sunday when people ask me which boats are the fast ones etc. Explaining that the best sailor sailing the crappiest boat in the fleet never seems to satisfy these guys; they don't understand that boats are moving through the water at different speeds, and the good guys are simply going faster. As the other commenters have noted, sailing fast in certain boats (in this case a laser) involved doing certain things like being in very good physical condition and understanding how to tune the rig given different conditions. Getting those two things alone correct will pay dividends for anyone sailing a Laser...BUT that intangible "tillerhand" effect is real. Guys like Mark Mendelblatt and Mark Ivey can jump into almost any boat without ever having sailed it before and be immediately competitive, and they have been that way since they were 8 years old. I think ulimately that is why sailing is such an interesting sport, as it takes an incredible amount of thought, skill, luck, patience and finally talent to make things happen. It is this multidimensionality that sets it apart from other sports who don't have anything approaching "tillerhand"

Anonymous said...

Well said eliboat. I like that word "tillerhand". It's what I was trying to say in the post. Some guys can just make a boat, any boat, go faster than us mere mortals. I still don't know how.

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