When you cross the finish line you’re not done racing. Hold off on any debriefs. Instead, get right into cleaning up the boat and getting it ready for the next race (even if it is the last race of the day). If this will be a new routine for you, make a checklist that includes things such as flaking the jib and bagging it, running the spinnaker tapes, coiling lines, and tuning the rig if you have any changes in mind. Once you’ve done all of this, only then can you make your way to the starting line and break out the food and water. Stay close to the race committee boat in case they fire off another race quickly.
Once everything is set to race and everyone is relaxed, you can have a quick debrief—focus on what needs to be improved for the next race, even if you finished first. If you had a bad race, figure out why and make a plan to improve it. If you had one obvious thing that went wrong, there is no need to over think the situation, understand what went wrong and move on.
To do well consistently, it’s important to have an honest look at how you’ve just sailed and what paid on the racecourse. It’s key to have an open mind: the tactician may blame boatspeed for bad results while the speed team (trimmers) may say tactics were to blame for a poor result. Either way, look at what is actually going on before you can address specific issues.
When reviewing your race, break it down into three simple categories: the start, your speed, and then your tactics—in that order. Did you get off the line? Were you going fast? Did you go the right way and make good decisions? Answering these three questions will shed a lot of light on your race. Usually, to finish in the front you have to do well in all three categories. If you’re lacking in one of the areas, but do well in the others, you can still pull off a good finish, but your goal should be to nail all three.
An effective post-race debrief might start off with something like this: “We had a bad start and got forced right, the left paid and we got behind. Our speed seemed fine so if we can get off the line we will be OK. What do we need to do to improve our next start?”
Or it may sound like this: “Our start and speed seemed OK; we just missed a few shifts. We need to do a better job of playing the shifts.”
Debriefing in this logical, and factual approach helps get to the bottom of what needs to be addressed, and can help you think about the racecourse for the upcoming race as well.
Let’s assume you have “issues” that need to be dealt with. If you had a bad start, figure out what you have to do to start near the favored end in an open space. Think about your final approach and how and when you need to accelerate. Practicing a few starts, with timed runs, and doing more line research can help improve for the next one.
If you had tactical issues, determine whether you were sailing in the most wind available on the course. Make sure you know which is the long tack—is your bow aiming at the mark most of the time? Evaluate whether there were any other racecourse features such as current or a geographic shift that you missed. How was your lane management: did you keep the boat in clear air as much as possible?
And finally, talk speed. You must be fast to do well in sailboat races—there’s no disputing that fact. And speed can be the most illusive of the big three. If you have speed, you can make a few tactical mistakes and still be just fine. Without speed you have to be perfect in all other areas and you still might not do well. When addressing speed issues you should quickly discuss how the helmsman is driving, how the sails are being trimmed, and whether the rig tune is correct for the conditions. If the wind changed velocity and you got caught out of tune, or you were not going well upwind, adjust the rig and make sure you note how many turns you made—if it ends up being an improvement you can add it to your tuning guide. The simplest way to quickly improve is to copy those faster than you. Don’t be afraid to ask the fast guys what they are doing and then imitate their settings or technique.
Once you’ve tackled these three elements you can get right into the mechanics of your first race pre-start routine. While the race committee gets ready, use that time to do wind shots and short sails upwind. This will help you stay in the game and not lose track of the wind patterns while also helping your speed. Check the current, if necessary, and then get your starting line sights and laylines. The key is to stay active and do plenty of research, improving your chances of success. Before you know it you’ll be rolling right into the next race and as ready as anyone else on the water.