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Club Coaches Raise Game

By hiring a club pro, two U.S. yacht clubs have improved the racing skills of their members, which, in turn, has strengthened their local fleets. "Jobson Report" from our October 2010 issue

October 5, 2010
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Gary Jobson 368

There is a growing trend of U.S. yacht clubs hiring professional coaches to help members improve their racing skills. Golf clubs, tennis clubs, and ski resorts have long used “pros” to help enthusiasts advance their game. In sailing, we’ve done a good job of providing instruction at the junior level. Sailing schools and community programs focus on training new sailors and cruisers, but what about the racer who already has a boat and is a member of a yacht club? Eastern YC (Marblehead, Mass.) and Annapolis (Md.) YC are two clubs that have hired in-house coaches to grow participation and develop better sailors.

One of the most successful collegiate coaches in America is Greg Wilkinson. His Boston College team won the 2010 ICSA/Gill Coed Dinghy Championship. For the past two summers, he has coached sailors at EYC in Sonars, Rhodes 19s, and J/105s, as well as sailors in the local PHRF fleet. Wilkinson is the third coach to work in this capacity at EYC, an idea developed by then Commodore Martha Altreuter in 2005. Like Alteuter, current Commodore Robbie Doyle was a collegiate All-American and learned the value of coaching many years ago. “We worked to find money in the budget for a coach by saving money in other areas,” says Doyle. “It’s important to recruit new young sailors to come here to race. Greg is helping make this happen.”

One of the first steps was to schedule practice time. “We added Monday-night racing clinics,” says Wilkinson. “This has helped build up our Tuesday-night Laser series, and we are building a Thursday-night team-race series. So now we have racing nearly every day of the week for different groups. EYC has a strong Wednesday-night series throughout the summer.”

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AYC hired former Stanford University coach Jay Kehoe as their director of sailing. His first two years were spent building up the club’s junior program. By the third year, Kehoe added team racing to the club’s portfolio. “We entered team-race regattas hosted by the New York YC and spent the summer practicing on Tuesday nights,” says Kehoe. “We also started adult lessons, and we were sold out in five days.”

Kehoe points out the differences between working with young people and adults: “With adults, you have to be more concise and to the point. With kids, you can use a good story to make a point, while adults want hard and fast points due to their time constraints. Practice for adults has to move faster; you only get a few hours. So, you have to have drills ready to go before they reach the practice area.”

When asked if there were any special challenges to adult coaching, Kehoe laughs: “Sometimes [adults] are looking for the ‘magic pill’ and want results right away. But, there are no parents to get in the way.”

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Wilkinson likes what he sees on the water: “I was pleasantly surprised by the response I got from coaching [adults]. I was a little intimidated going to work for a club like EYC, with all its history, but once I started working with each class, it showed me that most sailors have not had coaches. Getting everyone together as a group helped because we could facilitate learning between boats. We got the leaders to speak up and help the less experienced.”

One of the problems in many fleets is that the bottom of the fleet seems to drop out. Classes that have the same winners year after year have trouble growing. Wilkinson and Kehoe both work to get the sailors with the greatest need up to speed. Says Kehoe, “Owners will buy new sails and equipment, but they need to learn how to tune their rig and understand the priorities. Coaches can do this very quickly. It helps to have a set of eyes outside a boat.” Wilkinson adds, “We draw out the leaders to talk about their rig settings, and get them to break it down so everyone in the fleet can listen.”

In setting up his program, Wilkinson recruited EYC champ Dave Curtis, along with Robbie Doyle. “Some of our members are very experienced, so I get them to look at boats to suggest rig tuning and sail-trim techniques,” says Wilkinson. “They are also helpful to me, so I can pass the information on to other sailors I work with.”

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A number of highly motivated racers have hired individual coaches to help their performance. One owner said he uses one coach for practice days and a different coach for regattas. That might be going to an extreme, but it does demonstrate that coaches return a lot of value. Hiring your personal coach can be expensive, which is why it is important for clubs to hire coaches for whole fleets. Wilkinson has also traveled to regattas like the Sperry Top-Sider NOODs to observe his club’s members competing and to make suggestions after the races.

Coaching doesn’t always have to be formal. The only time I had coaching was during my college days at SUNY Maritime. We were lucky to have Graham Hall as our coach. Many of the lessons he taught are still helpful to me many years later. But, you can coach yourself as well. I like to ask questions of my fellow sailors. I learned from Buddy Melges years ago not to be afraid of giving away information to receive knowledge. I remember struggling at a Maxi-boat regatta. The current was confusing, so I asked my friend, Tom Whidden (he was tactician on a rival boat), how he was handling the current. Since Tom and I have exchanged information easily for years, he told me how he was handling it. And, with that information, my problem was over. Of course, I’m also available to Tom as well.
Over the years. I have kept notes on my regattas. This information is invaluable when I return to a venue. Wind and current trends repeat on the water. It helps to gather all the information available on weather, tactical trends, boat tuning, sail trim, and new equipment. It can be hard to find good information, but a coach can short cut the process.

Wilkinson learns as a coach, too: “Coaching for me is a learning process, as I gauge people’s reactions to what works and what doesn’t. Every time I do it, it builds on my own ability to reach people. Learning is a year-round activity.” Studying articles, reviewing notes, talking to people, watching videos, and using a coach will help you move toward the front the fleet.

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Yacht clubs make big investments in facilities and personnel. The icing on the cake at any club is time on the water. For this reason, all clubs should take note of the example set at EYC and AYC, and consider hiring a professional coach to help sailors improve during their precious and limited time on the water. Wilkinson was enthusiastic when asked how it was going: “I was encouraged this summer. Every club needs this position. After I saw the response—people being excited about being coached and having organized practice—it has inspired me.”
And, he has inspired a lot of sailors with the experience.

How To Get the Most From a Coach
1 Write down notes on the water and ask good questions later.
2 **Ask the coach to compare your trim with other boats.
**3
Work on one thing at a time.
4 Compare notes with your competitors.
5 Coaches are most valuable during practice time.

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