Coaching: Good for Sailors, Good for the Sport

After racing with Jud Smith and Moose McClintock, /SW/ contributor Jim Porter makes his case for the benefits of having a coach. "First Beat" from our March 4, 2009, /SW eNewsletter/

In the Etchells fleet (above), coaching has raised the level of competition for all boats, not just the ones with coaches on board.

In the Etchells fleet (above), coaching has raised the level of competition for all boats, not just the ones with coaches on board.Stuart Streuli

At events I've sailed lately, I've heard a lot of discussion about the pros and cons of coaching. I've been on both sides of the equation-- racing without a coach against boats with coaches, and racing with an onboard coach-- and I've come to the conclusion that coaching is good for the sport.

Over the past few seasons, I've enjoyed the benefits of having coaches on board and in crash boats. I sailed with Jud Smith for the Etchells' 2007-'08 Jaguar Cup and 2008 Worlds. For the Jaguar Cup, we did not have a coach per se, but Jud served as our onboard coach; for the Worlds, we had a dedicated coach boat and a training group. For me, the learning curve was steep, but I learned more in those six months than I had in the last six years.

In both cases, the coach held a morning briefing to give us a general sense of what to expect on the racecourse that day, touching on tides, weather, boat setup, and starting tactics. One of the best things about having a coach is that they constantly remind everyone on the team about the little things. They also help point out which factor is most important. For instance, during one very windy run in the Jaguar Cup, Jud had us focus on weight placement. We worked very hard at shifting our weight to keep the helm neutral. By trimming the kite and coordinating our movements, we were able to steer the boat with very little rudder movement.

In between races, like an NFL coach calling a timeout with a minute to go, the coach helped us refocus. At the end of day, the coach went over went well and what could be improved. Rather than simply provide answers, the coach would ask questions that forced us to determine the best plan of attack for a given scenario. By making us figure out situations on our own, the coach prepared us to better execute on the racecourse.

With Jud, one of my tasks was to find the marks, something I had to be constantly reminded to do for the first few weeks. It sounds like a simple job, but on a two-mile beat, those marks are almost impossible to spot. But until you locate the mark, you just don't know where you are on the course. After sailing with Jud, I'm now in the habit of looking for marks automatically.

One of the biggest things I learned was patience-- wait for the shift. Another thing I took away from the experience was Jud's mindset of, "What can I do to make the boat go faster?" At different times, that means different things, but by constantly asking the question, you'll always be working towards better boat speed. Sailing upwind, Jud and I would constantly review the sail trim. Our goal was to keep the boat balanced. We sailed with a plan all the time, even though that plan was constantly changing throughout the race. We were always thinking about the next move or situation.

Having an onboard coach can provide an enormous benefit during the race; having a coach boat and training partners helps you throughout the course of a series. Our group of six boats shared the coaching costs, and each boat in the group benefited from working with one another. Before the Worlds, our coach set up a starting practice and helped each boat select which sails to measure. We were able to try some new rig setups and compare with our tuning partners. Because we were sailing with a new mast, we needed to determine the best place to position the butt in order to balance the helm. We found that moving it forward a half inch provided the correct balance. Because we could monitor our speed against other boats in our tuning group, we were able to verify that we had moved the butt in the right direction. The effectiveness of the group approach is hard to ignore. Prior to our sessions, four boat in our group participated in the Jaguar Cup, posting finishes of 2, 27, 24, and 38. At the Worlds, that same group of tuning partners finished 3, 4, 7, and 11. This improvement, I feel, was a direct result of the coaching we received before and during the Worlds.

Last December, Moose McClintock invited me to sail with himself and Tom Lihan for the Etchells Piana Cup. Moose served as our onboard coach for the weekend, and he continually emphasized the importance of getting on the long tack. When you're sailing two-mile beats, getting on the long tack early has tremendous benefits. It keeps you away from the laylines and preserves your options up the course. The other thing Moose stressed was the need to hold a lane. In big fleets, maintaining your lane is crucial to keeping your options open, especially right off the starting line and after rounding the leeward mark in a pack. Sometimes we weren't going as fast as we would have been in clear air, but at least we held our lane. On the last beat of the regatta, Moose and Tom worked together to defend our lane for the better part of a mile.

The time I spent under the tutelage of Jud Smith and Moose McClintock convinced me that there's no better way to make quick, permanent improvement than by having a coach. And in the long run, coaching benefits everyone-- even the teams without coaches-- since the knowledge the coaches impart percolates through the fleet and helps bring everyone up to speed. In this way, coaches make everyone more competitive, and who can say that's not good for the sport?