Racing is canceled. For everyone. Everywhere. Every day. For the foreseeable future. Except online. This is the new reality spreading across the sport as fast as the COVID-19 virus spreads its devastation around the globe. Shelter-in-place replaces “see you tomorrow.” Physical and social distancing replaces “see you at the boat.”
Sailors, both you and I, hunker down, protecting ourselves and others we don’t know, waiting for “it” to pass as we pass the time with epoxy and gelcoat projects, splicing and boatwork, and exercising to stay fit. We use our free time to prepare for the season to come, when—and if—it ever does. We turn to Virtual Regatta for our tactical fix, to keep our mental skills sharp, to pretend we’re really racing. But gaming gets old, for me at least, because it lacks the real elements we seek: wind in our faces, water sluicing past the hull, the companionship of teammates and competitors, the test of skill. And yes, the beverages that follow.
But humans are an adaptable lot, for better or worse, and we sailors know that when the headwind shifts, we adjust our sails or tack. We find a way to the next mark, always with velocity made good.
With sailboat racing, the learning never does stop, which is why, in the onslaught of the pandemic, we suddenly change tacks and find new ways to connect and learn: through webinars hosted by practically every sailmaker on the planet, with virtual boat tours from manufacturers, and live interviews with sailing celebrities and experts alike. US Sailing, for example, launches its excellent “Starboard Portal” with more programming than we can possibly watch and still honor our work-from-home responsibilities. Even I jump on the Zoom bandwagon, launching our “Around the Sailing World” web series in March.
With a laptop and an internet connection, I’m instantly connected —every Monday at noon—with all the racing and contributing editors of this magazine: the elusive Ed Baird, globe-trotting Jonathan McKee, plane-hopping Gary Jobson, rock-star sailing couple Taylor Canfield and Stephanie Roble, all-star coach Steve Hunt, and even our crooner and musician Peter Isler. Week after week, we continue to connect, sharing stories and videos, giving updates from our respective corners of the country, and engaging with amazing special guests. Although we’re physically disconnected, I’ve never felt more connected with those who’ve long contributed to the magazine. It’s easy and it’s fun.
Many a professional sailor, sidelined by the loss of the busy season of spring regattas, has been forced to reinvent themselves as well, some turning to virtual coaching as a means to make ends meet and uphold the continuum of knowledge sharing, which is at an all-time high. Mike Ingham, for example—a regular contributor, Olympic-medal winning coach and one-design expert—finds himself finally doing what he’s been meaning to do for a long time: coaching online. “I’ve been too busy to actually get anything off the ground,” he tells me recently. “Now, I have the time to do it and refine it, and I’m really enjoying it.”
Ingham’s model is simple. He’s crafted a series of four-week Zoom sessions on various topics such as “Creating a Process for Tactics and Strategy.” As a longtime J/24 bow guy, the J/24 speed and tuning catches my eye. Each session is two hours, followed by a virtual happy hour for those who want to stick around after class. After all, it is a social sport, and we crave interaction with our fellow sailors almost as much as high-level coaching. He opens it up to a maximum of four J/24 teams—at $500 a team—to keep it personal and interactive. With my own early J/24 season in Newport on hold, I reach out to my skipper and crewmates and suggest we join Ingham’s course.
“The first week starts conceptual, and each week gets more and more in-depth for specific conditions, including turning details, techniques and tricks I have accumulated over the years, and downwind,” Ingham explains. “So each week builds on the last. It’s designed for the whole team, and though it is often focused on the driver and trimmer, because that is where most of the speed comes from, it also includes speed roles for the rest of the team.”
When we Zoom into class on a Monday night in early May for our first session, the screen is packed with the faces of 20 or so complete strangers, connected from kitchens, bedrooms, offices, basements and living rooms in Illinois, Washington, Rhode Island and San Diego. We go around “the room” and introduce ourselves, sharing our individual “superpowers,” and then jump right into the content. Using a combination of screen sharing and good old-fashioned whiteboard, Ingham starts with an explanation of a sail’s broad seam and luff curve, and ends the class hours later with a dive into setting up the rig properly.
I’ll admit, looking at all the strange faces, sometimes distracted by objects behind them, takes getting used to. I’m hesitant to raise my emoticon hand for fear of being put into the dumb-question corner. I now know firsthand what my kids are going through with their new virtual school arrangement, and all I can say is, thank goodness I don’t have to do it all day, five days a week.
When class is over, I put my notebook away, roll out of my beanbag chair, and head to the kitchen to whip up a tequila and ginger beer for the virtual happy hour with my new friends around the country. We share J/24 sailing stories, and there’s plenty of laughs and banter as Mike noshes on the guacamole and beer his wife delivers to him off camera. When the time comes, I bid good night and “leave the meeting.” It’s late, and I’ve scored a few new tips about setting up the rig, so anticipation for next week’s class is high. Hopefully, in four weeks—when, and if, we go racing—my teammates and I will be far more advanced than we’ve ever been for the first race of the season.
Excited about our first session with Ingham’s online coaching, I send a note to our skipper, Ian Scott, which reads, “Man, we gonna be fast this June.” To which he responds, “Damn right!”
The boat will be ready. Our brains will be ready, and you can bet we’ll be thirsty, as usual. I guess you can say, as much as things change, they do remain the same.