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The Debrief

Post-race debriefs may seem un-cool, but they are an essential part of any race day. Editor's Letter from our September 2011 issue.

August 22, 2011
Sailing World

Sailing World September 2011

“Send up six!” shouts Lance Smotherman, skipper of the Great Lakes 70 Details. “And tell those guys down there to get their asses up here. Debrief.”

Up the companionway comes a utility bucket piled haphazardly with cans of cold beer, and, eventually, the last two of 14 crewmembers.

With everyone finally gathered around the expansive cockpit, Smotherman, a towering figure with a booming voice, standing between Detail’s chest-high wheels, kicks off the day’s rehashing.

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“OK. First, I want to thank you all for the excellent jobs you did out there,” he starts. “I feel really good. I feel we’re getting faster upwind. Downwind—we’re still really fast—so let’s keep working on that.

“Now, I don’t want to drag this thing out like we did last night,” he continues, “and don’t think we’re being a bunch of wankers by having these debriefs—it’s important we get things right.

“OK. Who wants to go first?”

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And so the session goes, each of us contributing our thoughts on what went right, what when wrong, and what needed to be fixed. It goes on for nearly 45 minutes. Meanwhile, every other crew in the marina has put away their boat and either left or turned their focus toward the party.

As I await my turn, I find myself dwelling on Smotherman’s earlier comment about being wankers. When did a post-race debrief become so un-cool? Why are we the only ones still dissecting what happened out on the racecourse when everyone else is off having fun? Sure, maybe a Sperry Top-Sider NOOD Regatta isn’t the Audi MedCup or the Melges 32 Worlds, where the debrief is as an important part of the day as breakfast. But the debrief is an essential part of any race day. It’s the best way to learn, to discuss new ideas, and most importantly, to solve problems. A debrief can be comical, insightful, serious, or light. The only thing it can’t be, a pro sailor once told me, is personal. And on Details, it isn’t. Because most of these guys are friends first and teammates second, no one is afraid to admit mistakes, and conversely, no one holds back their criticisms.

For example, when the soapbox shifts to the head of the “Foredeck Union,” his gripe is legitimate: “Communication, or the lack thereof, from Fantasy Land really sucked.” The grievance stems primarily from the day’s messy Mexican spinnaker take-down. [As the 70-footer approached the leeward gate marks at 12-knots, three boatlengths out, the bow team looked to the tactician and asked, “What are we doing?” After a long pause, his response was, “I don’t know.” You can probably guess how the douse went from there.]

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From my position as pit assist, I had a good perspective, and second the foredeck’s complaint. “The bow team could use a little warning . . . maybe a countdown might help,” I suggest.

Better communication is the common theme, with the crosshairs targeted squarely on the boat’s tactician, a talented young sailor calling his first regatta on the 70-footer. He was guilty of thinking through maneuvers in his head, but failing to relay them to the front of the boat in a timely manner.

By the time it’s his turn to speak, there’s nothing left for him to say, except, “I’m sorry. I’ll do better tomorrow.”

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And you know what? He did, and the douses were perfect.

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