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Persistence Pays Off at Farr 40 Worlds

Winner's Debrief: For Helmut and Evan Jahn's Flash Gordon team, a decade of hard work resulted in a win at the 2012 Rolex Farr 40 World Championships.

March 22, 2013
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Farr 40 Worlds 2012

Farr 40 Worlds 2012

With the father and son team of Helmut and Evan Jahn (far right, next to tactician Bill Hardesty) sharing the helm, Flash Gordon won the 2012 Rolex Farr 40 Worlds off Chicago. Rolex / Kurt Arrigo

The hardest climb in sailing is from the bottom of any serious fleet to the top. Think about how many sailors have finished dead last in a major regatta and then later ascended all the way to the top rung. It’s a small club, but one that now has a new member. Helmut Jahn has been sailing Farr 40s for more than a decade, and he knows the view from the bottom. His Flash Gordon team finished last at the class’s annual world championship in 2002 and 2004, and again in 2010, though that was against a very distilled 10-boat fleet. Last September, Jahn, 72, who co-owns the boat with his 34-year-old son Evan—they split helming duties as well—won the world championship on their home waters off Chicago. They finished all nine races between second and seventh in the 20-boat fleet. Evan Jahn talked to us about his team’s success.

What did you have going for you in this event that helped you win?
A lot of people like to point out that, as the hometown boat, we had some advantage with the conditions, but I don’t think that was necessarily true. It was uncharacteristically very windy. I’d say the familiarity we did benefit from was being at home. That really created a portion of the event we didn’t have to think about. The second advantage would be overall familiarity with sailing in freshwater, this being the first freshwater worlds, and for a lot of the competitors it was their first time sailing the boat in [freshwater]. I heard a couple of remarks that the boat behaves a little bit differently. I’m sure it does, and maybe I don’t notice it as much because I’m used to it.

There can be a lot of distractions at home regattas; were you able to shut those out?
I’d be lying if I said yes. I found myself in the office a couple days after sailing. I think there was an understanding amongst spouses and significant others saying: “We understand that just because you’re home doesn’t mean you’re really here.” It still involves getting in that zone and functioning as a unit. That was achieved by having debriefs shortly after sailing, immediately followed by a team dinner at a house. We still gelled as a unit because we were still functioning like when we go to away events.

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Your father and you share helming duties; when did that start and how does it work?
In 2006, the last time [the championship] was in Newport, R.I. Initially, I drove downwind, and Helmut drove the starts. Now I drive the starts and the upwind; we make the switch at the offset.

At the leeward mark, it becomes a little more challenging. You have to maintain the direction and performance of the boat because you could be in a very tight situation. Switching over to the tiller, like we did this past year, created a whole new set of variables. Like everything, it’s a constant evolution; we’re always realizing little improvements.

What are some of the upsides?
The biggest benefit is you don’t get as mentally fatigued. You get that 10 or 15 minutes to do another activity, which allows you to use a different part of your brain. Another advantage is you get perspective on the race. So often when you drive, you get tunnel vision, and you rely on your main trimmer or tactician or whoever’s calling breeze to paint a picture for you. It’s nice to pop my head out, look around, get a sense of what’s going on, and then jump back into it.

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With two helmsmen, you’re a man short in certain situations. How do you overcome that?
Usually—and it’s very situational—it’ll be either the tactician or main trimmer going forward to do the immediate floating, and then when we get into our heavy-air setting [when the breeze is over 24 knots, Evan Jahn drives the entire race] the mast person comes back and helps out with some of the grinding. So that puts the bowman all on his own. Around the top mark, it’s the back of the boat coming forward. Then as we settle in going downwind, it’s the front of the boat coming back.

When it comes to the pros that sail with your program, what are you looking for beyond their ability to perform their specific duties?
There are different requirements at every position. We don’t have a lot of turnover on the boat. Bill [Hardesty, tactician], this is his fifth worlds with us, Joe Londrigan [main trim] same thing. Dave Gerber [headsail trim] has sailed with us for maybe 17 years, and Matt [Cassidy, bow] has sailed with us since he was a junior in college, that must be 12 years.

They’ve really grown as sailors while we’ve known them. It’s really important the tactician communicate well with the helmsman and the main trimmer. It’s more just a general attitude and their style. With the main trimmer, it’s more of a personality thing because as a driver you spend so much time next to them. They have probably the greatest influence on the overall speed of the boat because they’re really directing the sail trim.

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Let’s look at starting. What information are you getting during the start, and how do you handle getting the boat in the right spot on the line?
We’ve come up with a pattern that allows us some flexibility. Usually we pick an end before four minutes. But we have the ability to change the plan at two minutes [to the start] to a minute thirty. Ultimately, it’s traffic-driven on where we start the boat. We’ve learned that it doesn’t pay to get into a contest where a bunch of boats are aggressively fighting for an end. It benefits to be either leeward or windward of that and get a clean start off the line. You lose the ability to win the start, but getting off the line cleanly and being able to go straight for the next five minutes is more important.

When you’re coming in on port, looking to turn on to starboard for your final approach, how does the dialogue work at that point?
I’m focused on boat-on-boat, and Bill is looking at the bigger picture: what’s happening up at the boat, are we going to be able to fit, or vice versa down at the pin. He will ultimately make the final call [on the tack]. Once we tack, I take over boat-on-boat stuff making sure we keep our nose clean, protecting our hole. Matt’s on the bow calling distance to the line, we also have somebody on the [GPS-driven starting computer] with distance to the line and time to burn. During the last 45, 30 seconds, I have four people giving me input on what’s going on. [Primarily] I’m listening to Bill and then the bowman. Matt is good at keeping us bow-even and not getting us too far bow-out. He’s pretty conservative on starting. He’s looking up the line, he sees when everybody puts the bow down before I do, and so he’s really good at calling that initial acceleration.

You’ve been pretty committed to having Ed Adams as your coach. What does he bring?
Ed has a very distinct manner with which he approaches problems. He’s somewhat quirky, very opinionated, and highly analytical. What makes him so good for us is he’s really good at all the things we’re not. One of the first things he did when we started working together again is to create a regime. When you break a day into modular chunks, it’s very easy to change something because you’re not starting your whole day with some different plan. It just means you move this chunk to there. Compartmentalizing has really helped.

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Is the compartmentalization applied to both practice and race days?
Yes. It’s looking at what we’re going to do each day, whether it’s a practice or race day. It’s also become about finding efficiencies in how we use our time on the boat between races. You’re not just preparing at the beginning of the day before you leave the dock; before every race there’s almost an equal amount of preparation that has to take place. You’re changing the rig, you might have repairs to make, you have to get a new sail on deck, you have to get people fed and hydrated, you have to get new transits to the pin and the boat. All those things need to happen in a very condensed period of time.

The Flash Gordon team has come a long way in this class; what is it about the team’s persistence?
It’s about persistence, but it’s also about having the comfort and knowing that this isn’t your profession, you’re not [only] as good as your last race. It’s not taking it too seriously. After every bad result, you definitely feel depressed and frustrated, but that’s part of the motivation for coming back again and improving. So often what happens is people have a couple of bad results and say, “This isn’t working,” and they move on to a different class or quit sailing. What makes it more rewarding is, if you have a bad result, you come back, fix it, and do better. My dad’s really committed to the class and to the sport. There’s nothing else he wants to do with his free time, so I think that’s reassuring for everybody. The pros are still motivated to do well, and they know they’re held accountable. But at the same time it’s not as if the program is going to go away if you don’t do well.

We haven’t spoken much about your dad. What is the overall attitude that he brings to this program?
The leadership really has to come from the owner. My dad and I are co-owners of the boat. But it’s truly his program, he started it, and he creates the culture, which is we always want to go out and win. He’s very intense, very focused,. He doesn’t stop short of providing the resources necessary to accomplish a goal. He really embodies that the best is not good enough, but he also likes to say that perfection is an unattainable goal. He definitely demands things on a higher level. I know that innately as his son, but I think everybody on the team knows he’s not just out there to waste some time, to get out of the office. He’s out there to compete.

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