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No Matter What Kind of Sailing

June 4, 2002
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This regatta was going to be intense; only two boats from the Middle Atlantic District would qualify for the Intercollegiate Singlehanded Championship. The elimination series was held on my home waters off the SUNY Maritime College in a nifty new boat–the Laser. Although I’d sailed it only once, at 6’2″ and 178 pounds I was the right size for the boat. Yet after two races I was in 12th place out of 16.¶ Back at the dock my coach, Graham Hall, said calmly, “You look like you’re trying too hard and only thinking about qualifying.” Then he said, “You’re out of the series right now, so just go back out there and try to make one improvement at a time.”

“But what about my boatspeed?” I asked.

“Oh, don’t worry about that,” he said. “Just go have fun!”

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The idea of “having fun” didn’t quite hit me at the time, but somehow Hall’s words loosened me up. I regained my confidence, and my sailing career changed dramatically. I went out, had fun, and won the next race. In fact, I won the next 10 races.

At the Intercollegiate National Championship two months later, I had trouble in the first two races. This time we were racing Lasers on San Diego’s Mission Bay. Observing my problem, Coach Hall suggested a tactical adjustment, “Don’t be the first to tack after every start. Wait until you have a clear lane. Use a boat to leeward and ahead to push away traffic. Think of a football running back using a blocker to gain more yardage.”

The philosophical shift for me was to be more patient and look for good lanes. For the first time I understood how to use competitors as “blockers.” I went on to win 10 of the next 14 races to take the championship. A week earlier I’d won A division in the dinghy championship; a month later I was named College Sailor of the Year.

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That summer I was invited to sail in a unique new event, the Inter-Class Solo Championship, created by Leeds Mitchell of Barrington, R.I. Ten top sailors raced for three days, each day in a different fleet of singlehanded boats–Lasers, Marshall 15s, and Hobie 14s. After leading for most of the regatta I lost to Robbie Doyle by 1 point. I was disappointed, but Doyle offered some soothing perspective, saying, “The same thing happened to me at the Olympic Trials.” (In 1968, Princeton senior Carl Van Duyne edged out Doyle, a Harvard freshman, in the U.S. Finn Trials). I felt a little better, and also realized the importance of being respectful of your competitors when things do go your way.

After the award ceremony I had another good moment when 33-year-old Ted Turner (who finished sixth) put his arms on Robbie’s and my shoulders and said, “Boys, I hope we sail together one day.” Five years later we were on Courageous defending the America’s Cup.

For me, the keys to getting to that point–30 years ago–were goal setting, practice, and good coaching.

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During my sophomore year at Maritime I wrote down these simple precepts:

1. Set high goals
2. Aggressive attacks
3. Take it as it comes, but keep plugging
4. All out — never halfway
5. Never give in

Between September 1969 and September 1972 I spent 492 days on the water. Every day I worked on boathandling by sailing continuous figure eights, practicing timed runs, and tacking and jibing endlessly. Figure eights rounding a set pair of buoys gives you practice at jibing, tacking, windward roundings, leeward roundings, and acceleration. Precise maneuvering ability gave me an edge when around other boats, and to this day, I savor every crisp roll tack.

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During my first two years of college sailing, I frequently found myself in the protest room. It took me a while to realize that no matter how “right” I felt, 50 percent of the time the protest went against me. Fortunately, the 720 rule came into use that year. We all learned that it was better to make your turns than lose in “the room.” As I learned to avoid confrontation, my results soared.

In 1972 there were many great sailors to race against in college, and many are still active today–Bruce Nelson (Michigan), Augie Diaz (Tulane), Bill Campbell (Navy), Steve Cucchiaro (MIT), Derrick Fries (Michigan State), Jeff McDermaid (UC Irvine), and Doug Rastello (USC). As a result, I was probably never sharper than the day I graduated as a college sailor. But as I’ve taken on more challenges, experience has moved me up the learning curve even if I’m not as sharp from sailing daily.

But I’d already learned the most important lesson, which I’ve passed on at the end of every lecture I’ve given (more than 1,700 since I graduated): “No matter what kind of sailing you do, have fun.” When I started having fun, that’s when it all came together.

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