Tuesday, October 11, 2011


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)?


Anonymous said...

Fun post.

I don't know much about sailing, but it sounds cool.

I'm mostly replying to your comment about is there _one_ right way. To that I would respond, of course not, but there are better mechanics different body types use to optimize the same physical problem that take advantage of their attributes, or make up for their deficiencies. Also, there are a lot of bad habits in baseball... better analogies would be found in cycling (for various disciplines), rock climbing, kayaking, etc.

Doc Häagen-Dazs said...

Tillerman, thank you for this bit of fresh thinking. I'll be as brief as possible.

Unlike baseball where the size and weight of the bat can be varied according to the physique of the batsman, Laser hulls and sails are fixed according to one-design rules. (I was always overweight in that class and would have welcomed a Rooster rig, but that is beside the point.) I raced against lighter, smaller, and usually better men and women. For everyone, mechanics had to fit physiques.

When it comes to crewed boats, one speaks less of mechanics and more of chemistry: how well does each team member know what has to be done? Know his/her assignment? Know when it's necessary to help or back up a team member? A well-raced yacht is a beautiful organism: hull and rig are skeletal; the crew are flesh and blood.

O Docker said...

Reading your blog, I keep thinking about the few times I sailed a Laser when I was first learning, and about why people are drawn to this boat that is so difficult to sail.

I also think about how different that kind of sailing is from larger boats, where the sailor's weight placement has a far smaller effect on the boat's trim.

I watch beginners clumsily capsizing (like I did) and the pros who are so in tune with the boat that they look like ballet dancers. The slightest movement of an arm or leg affects how the sail interacts with the wind and the hull with the water.

I keep coming back to the analogy of the pole vaulter who relies on a simple device to perform his sport, but whose body and athleticism are responsible for success or failure. The sailor's body is really the most important part of the Laser.

So, I can understand how this whole business of mechanics must be at the heart of sailing such a small boat well.

Tillerman said...

Great points everyone.

Anon - I think you are right that sports other than baseball may be better analogies for the role of mechanics in Laser sailing. Baseball is notorious for very small adjustments in mechanics having huge effects on performance. I'm not sure it's quite as extreme in sports that don't involve using a round bat to hit a round ball moving at over 90mph.

Doc - take your point, but actually Laser sails can be varied according to the physique of the sailor. There's the 4.7, the Radial and the Standard Rig to suit different sailor weights, not to mention the (not class legal) Rooster 8.1 for even bigger guys. But I take your point: mechanics do vary for different physiques.

O Docker - so right as usual. I think I'm only starting to understand how very slight difference in mechanics do have a much more important impact on boatspeed in a Laser than I had previously imagined.

Fred said...

Great post.
You are talking the right thing. 30+ years of having self taught the wrong mechanics just does not go away. And it never seemed overly important on the more heavy boats.

E.G. I am only now trying to get to grips with the four ways of hand movement on the tiller whilst tacking. Over, under, cross and the last one having the thumb directed to the rudder whilst steering from the back hand. Than change sheet and tiller. You are laughing? Geez, big problem for me on the Moth. Not so for others who started sailing with the right mechanics. Who had a coach in the know.

Tillerman said...

I feel your pain Fred. One of the boats I sailed in Menorca required you to flip the tiller extension backwards when you tack (as it was too long to do the usual Laser method of keeping it forwards.) It was very awkward trying to work out the slick way to do this and which way to hold the extension at various phases of the tack. I guess it's good for our old brains to struggle with such issues before they are totally calcified.

Baydog said...

My mechanic says that sailing is just too much goddamn work, like almost everyone else.

Baydog said...

And what's a mechane? Shouldn't it be spelled machinic?

Pandabonium said...

I have too many fused synapses to think about this. May as well be discussing the relationship of string theory to Laser sailing.

But I'm sure you're on to something.

Noodle said...

It won't be easy to cover this in a book. Mechanics for a Laser are way different from mechanics for a Moth - or a Farr 40. Interesting subject. Many boat specific books touch upon it.

J World Sailing said...

First off, we love your blog... thanks for all the great posts! This one resonated with me, so I feel compelled to chime in.

We coach a lot of racers of all ability levels... and we talk about mechanics all the time. It's my belief that getting good at sailboat racing is fundamentally a two-step process:

#1 Get very good at SAILING the boat... then...

#2 Get good at dealing with the environment and other boats (strategy and tactics, respectively).

The first of these steps is exactly what we refer to as 'mechanics': precise sail trim, spinnaker handling, shifting gears, efficient mark roundings, etc etc. Once you are very good at sailing the boat, then you are ready to 'mix it up' with other boats.

I'll also mention that at the higher levels of coaching, we find that the mechanics cease being the focus. On experienced teams, they know where the jib leads should be, how much backstay to have on, and just how to do a floater takedown on a dark and windy night. Then, it becomes about communication, workflow, teamwork, and chemistry (as Doc called it).

Anyway, just my thoughts... thanks again!

Wayne Zittel
J World Sailing

Tillerman said...

Excellent points Wayne (and thanks for the kind words about my blog.)

I think the problem is that so few of us follow your two steps sequentially. We buy a boat and start racing and try and learn how to sail the boat and how to deal with strategy and tactics all at the same time, and as a result we don't get very good at either.

I think Eric Twiname, in one of his books, recommended that the best way to improve many sailing skills (specifically the ones in your first category) was not by racing but by such things as solo and group practice and attending coaching seminars.

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