The Details Make the Dream

Not long after we stepped the rig on our 30-foot Shields, I started worrying that the 4,500-pound boat might capsize on its trailer. That's how hard it was blowing across the Seawanhaka Corinthian YC parking lot on the north shore of Long Island. It was September 11, 2002, a day of brilliant sunshine and strong northwest breeze similar to the day when the Twin Towers fell. Except this year the gusts were well over 40 knots, and Long Island Sound was wall-to-wall whitecaps.

There was no way we’d be sailing a practice race for the Shields Nationals, so most of our crew worked mechanically through sail measuring, rig tuning, and lesser chores that kept us busy; but Peter wasn’t satisfied. Borrowing some Scotch Brite technology from a fellow competitor, he spent two hours working his way around the hull until the underwater surfaces were gleaming, burnished beyond any finish we’d ever achieved. We all gathered around, buoyed by the promise of speed reflected in that shine.

Three days and five races later, we wallowed on a windless sound under a sooty sky. The Stamford-Denmark Race fleet drifted nearby, also in postponement mode, and 30 miles to the west, a colossal fleet of 1,200 Sail For America crews motor-sailed through New York Harbor.

On our boat, we were 3 points ahead and nervous as hell until Matt and Pete started testing each other on the mathematics of which end of the line was favored. The laughs they generated didn’t help me get a good start when the southwester finally filled, but maybe they kept us loose enough to bail out quickly and find a lane, and then sail two of our best downwind legs en route to a second-place finish.

Looking back on it, somebody on the team was always figuring out what to do next. Through dumb persistence, by sweating small details as if they were large, we learned to sail fast enough, smart enough, and with enough combined confidence and paranoia to win the championship. Reed and I--along with Pete, Matt, Rachel, and others--did dozens of things throughout the season like Pete’s bottom job. A few, such as adjusting our mast rake, probably made a measurable difference, but without instruments or two-boat testing, we were rarely sure. What we did learn, though, is that such persistence always contributes in terms of team psychology.

You don’t have to take my word for the benefits of positive psychological factors. Olympic trials runner-up Dean Brenner, who writes this issue’s story "Dream the Dream," explains that half the battle is simply defining your own vision. "Raise your sights," he says, "and really decide what you want to achieve." Or read how Laser World Masters champ Ed Adams describes pulling himself back together when his regatta was on the ropes. Not that these experts could help us deal with the trouble we faced after the Nationals: When we got home, our local competitors forgot to acknowledge our superiority and seemed to take special delight in beating us.

That wrinkle aside, even if you don’t plan to quit your job and spend your last nickel reaching for Olympic glory, the idea of having a goal, putting a team together, and working steadily to improve still applies. Why not shoot for the top half, the top five, the fleet title, or even the nationals? Go for it, and have some fun. Just don’t forget to burnish the bottom.