Off the Deep End

Andy Horton tries his hand at Moth sailing and re-learns some important lessons.

Few sailors would try what Andy Horton did. In the spring, he bought a Moth, one of the world’s most challenging boats. Over the summer, he trained on his own. The following January, he competed in his first regatta, the Moth Worlds in Sorrento, Australia. “I had never really sailed against another Moth before I got down there,” says Horton. “I was joking with my wife that I was going to a world championship halfway around the world, I’ve never sailed against another boat, I can’t tack, and I can’t jibe. Other than that, it’s all good.” Despite his shortcomings, he made the gold fleet, and although he was far from the top of that group, here’s how he approached the event.

Given my limited experience in Moth racing, my frame of mind going to the Worlds was to be completely open and focus on learning and absorbing as much as I could. The first step—and this is true in any class at any level—is to set goals. Sometimes, it’s so hard to figure out attainable goals. I hate goals that aren’t. Being new to the class, that was even more challenging. For instance, suppose I set a goal of being able to foil-tack perfectly by the end of the event. I had never foil-tacked before, so how was I to know what that was going to take? If it was another class, where if you said I want to be able to roll-tack perfectly, I’ve roll-tacked before, so I know what that might take. It’s pretty hard to set performance-related goals like that, or results-oriented goals, which are also not good to do. So, I ended up with more of a general plan of always improving, getting better every day, and learning as much as I could—and of course, having a great time.

I’d love to say I established metrics on it, that I turned on my Velocitek every day, came in every night and crunched numbers and watched video of me sailing, but there wasn’t enough time for it, and that’s the position most people are in, regardless of the fleet in which they’re sailing. Everyone has a limit of time and energy; the key is to have a good process—taking notes, thinking about it, and always trying to prioritize what to work on.

I’d arrived at the venue a few weeks early and sailed against people for five or six days. Largely based on those experiences, I assessed my skills using an Excel spreadsheet. To identify my biggest weaknesses I needed to also assess the skills of whoever would win. What do you need to win the Worlds? Do you need good boathandling because it’s shifty, short-course racing, or is it all about starting and straight-line speed?

I often create such charts by mentally working around the racecourse. If you’re doing an Olympic-level campaign, you can get very detailed about this, but for most, it’s best to keep it simple. And sometimes, you don’t know what’s going to be on the chart until you have some experience in the class. A big one in the Moth that I wasn’t aware of had to do with acceleration. Do I hang out at the starting line and with 10 seconds to go pull the trigger, or do I pull it at 30 seconds and just rip down the line? And, how easy is it to get up to speed? What’s the boat set-up for that? I also didn’t know that everyone capsizes a lot. I thought I was the only one. So, capsize recovery became a priority.

I first did a pre-regatta assessment, on a 1 to 10 scale, of how I thought the guy who would win the Worlds would score, keeping in mind that I can’t be perfect at everything. For instance, this regatta had 80 boats on the line, so it was clear that whoever won this was going to be really fast upwind. If I could just pull out and get out of trouble, and then do my boathandling in open space by myself, I’m going to be in the top 10. Whoever was going to win was probably at a nine in that category. After working through all the categories, I then graded myself and looked at the biggest discrepancies between my scores and the hypothetical winner’s scores. I was having some major pointing issues, so I graded myself a two out of ten there, which created a discrepancy of seven points I needed to reduce. Downwind, the winner would probably need an eight or nine. My downwind speed was pretty decent—I was probably around a five.

This helped establish my priorities. It told me that every time I go on the water, I needed to line up with people and go upwind with them to ensure I spent lots of time upwind training. If possible, I’d ask someone ahead of time to watch for me: “Hey, if you see me sailing upwind today, tell me what you think about my upwind setup.” I would spend my energy that night working on my mast, spreaders, settings, and battens, always focused on upwind speed. I could objectively say, this is where I am, this is where I really need to be, and this is what I really need to work on.

After my first assessment, I keep track of my progress in other columns. On my spreadsheet, there’s a column for the Moth Worlds, and if I do a regatta this summer or even just for training, I’ll add columns for those, which will help me figure out how to allot my training time. Then, just try to check something off every day. You may not progress every day in every category, but that’s OK. And seldom can you focus on every column. Trying to focus on even just five things is a lot. I always have a couple of goals in mind that I’ve learned, from watching video or talking with other competitors. It might be adjusting boat parts or it might be technique. Inevitably, something else comes up, and you learn something else from making that move—it all works together.

At the end of every day, I hit the beach, put down the boat and dolly, and literally stop and write down the freshest ideas I have—three to five specific things I learned or what I need to learn. On a big boat, this could be done on the way in. I also include a little dialogue about what I could try, how the boat felt, and so on. Writing those things down gives you a focus and creates a history that you can review.

Depending on the class, equipment can be a whole section of your spreadsheet—are your foils good enough? Is your rudder good enough? I don’t set up a spreadsheet on equipment that often, but if I was doing more Moth regattas or maybe sailing, say, a big boat with a team and doing a whole program, that’s something I would look at to help determine where to spend time, money, and energy.

You can also set up the chart to focus on windspeeds. If it’s 10 knots and flat water, you look at your matrix and realize that’s an area when you’ve not scored upwind and tacking. It’s clear that today you’d better practice going upwind or tacking.

Being new to the Moth class, I didn’t get that specific with it. I was more concerned with how I was going to minimize the damage.

My biggest takeaway—and I’ve learned it a million times, every day I go sailing—is how important it is to be fast. We all say it, but speed is everything, and that goes back to the energy and time management. A lot of people don’t like to spend the hours, but that’s what it takes to get fast. It was even more obvious at this event.

The experience also reinforced the importance of talking to people. Most good sailors are open to helping someone out. Don’t be afraid to ask. Introduce yourself, offer them a beer, and politely ask if you can have a couple minutes of their time. I went with the attitude that I was going talk to everyone and absorb everything. I must have been successful because they were joking about me on Facebook, where former Moth World champion Bora Gulari nicknamed me “Happy Horton.” I had no problem with that.