Open Your Bag of Tricks
Open Your Bag of Tricks
There’s no magic to doing consistently well in sailboat races, but having a few more tricks up your sleeve than the other guy will always help. "Fundamentals" from our November/December 2010 issue.
When I was a young sailor, my dad used to tell me that the best sailors had the biggest bags of tricks, and that they beat you because they knew more than you did. So if you wanted to win, you had to learn more tricks. Heeding my dad’s advice, I’ve been slowly adding tricks to my own bag, one at a time. I may never use them all in a single race, but I do have 10 important tricks that consistently help me sail my best races.
1. Sail the boat at its optimum angle of heel
Figure out your boat’s “groove angle” and steer, hike, and trim to keep the boat on that angle. Find the sweet spot. The fastest teams concentrate very hard on a consistent angle of heel. And what best to judge by? Use your forestay or mast and compare it to the horizon. Doing so keeps you looking forward and allows you to see approaching waves and wind. It can also help to install one of those handy heel-angle gauges, which you can pick up at any marine equipment store. When the boat feels balanced and fast, note the angle for future reference.
2. Do more pre-start research than you think you should
You never know when a certain little piece of information may come in handy and help you win the start. Let’s begin with the essentials: find the laylines to the pin and to the boat; time how long it takes to sail the length of the line; figure out which end is favored and by roughly how much; get a line sight if possible; practice a few accelerations at a fixed object (or even better, the race committee boat or pin mark); visualize how the fleet will come off the line; examine the flow of the fleet in the final minutes; and position yourself in a relatively open space during your final approach. If you’re sailing in a venue where tidal flow is influential, do yourself a favor and check the fish or crab pots, or deploy a sponge or current stick at a few different places around the racecourse.
3. Clearly define the roles on your boat
Discuss who will do what in all of the possible maneuvers. And do this well before leaving the dock. Make a spreadsheet that lays it all out and make sure everyone has a copy to memorize. Also, determine who exactly is calling tactics, laylines, and wind. Everyone should be able to explain his or her job back to the team. Once everything is clearly defined, go practice it. If something can be changed for the better, tweak it during your debrief and adjust the spreadsheet later. Keep in mind that the goal is to do what gets the boat around the course fastest. Don’t be afraid to talk it out, make suggestions, and try different approaches.
4. Use tuning guides
It baffles me how many sailors at the back of the fleet have their own tuning matrix, or worse, none at all. This is one of the main reasons why they’re consistently in the back of the fleet. You can’t do anything right if you are slow. Sailmakers, meanwhile, are always asking the top sailors in the fleet to write down why they go so fast, and then they post the information on the Internet. Read it! Until you are better than the top guys in your fleet, do what they do, and don’t try to reinvent the wheel.
5. Accept responsibility for winning and losing
Blaming poor results on your crew, other competitors, or a host of other factors may make you feel better at the yacht club after racing, but the reality is, it’s up to you to win. Don’t hide behind excuses. Look at your racing with an open mind and work on the areas preventing you from winning. This means addressing your weaknesses, and embracing the things you do well and executing them confidently. Sailing well is much more fun than having to explain why you lost, over and over again.