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Sailor of All or Master of One?

Sometimes it's the one design sailor that finds the most improvement in their sailing. The Editor's Letter from our March 2010 issue

March 17, 2010

dave reed headshot

In the summer of 2008, I was invited on board Puma Ocean Racing’s il mostro for the team’s first-ever buoy race. The two-day Halfway Rock Regatta, held in Newport, was a casual IRC affair with Puma’s new 70-foot black shoe lining up against a few other grand-prix machines. As we motored out to the racecourse, I assumed a vantage point near the transom to take in the scenery of a professional crew orientating themselves with a new boat. Nearby, huddled around the starboard steering pedestal, were skipper Ken Read, his tactician Jonathan McKee, and the team’s four-star navigator Andrew Cape. The trio was engaged in a deep, hushed conversation, and I tried to eavesdrop, but it was impossible to decipher the topic over the noise of the wind and the engine.
Then out of the blue Read turned to me and asked, “Have you done any fleet racing lately?”

Given the source of the question-one of the best fleet racers in the history of the sport-it caught me completely off guard.

I instantly thought to myself, “Is this a trick question?”

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“Of course,” I responded, but only after a long, awkward pause.

“OK. Good. So, how does the whole starting sequence thing go? Is it five or six minutes?”

I explained in simple terms how it all goes down. Understandably, he then sought out a second opinion. He pulled out his cell phone and called his brother, Brad Read, to confirm. In that moment I realized Read, McKee, and Cape had become so immersed in offshore racing and training that signal flags and timed starting sequences were no longer part of their everyday sailing routines.

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“Don’t tell anyone that I couldn’t remember how to start a race,” Read then said to me with a laugh.
Yeah, right.

As the 2008-’09 Volvo Ocean Race played out, Read, who joins our team of Racing Editors with his regular monthly column, “Gaining Bearing,” [p. 27] got a better handle on this starting sequence business, but this rare moment with him still makes me laugh. As humorous as his question was that day, it demonstrates that even the best pros in our sport are mere mortals, like you and me. They don’t know everything. It also reveals how easily we can become one-dimensional sailors. But focusing on a certain discipline, type of boat, or one-design class isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I once thought I had to sail all sorts of boats to be a better sailor, but now I’m starting to believe otherwise.

I came to this conclusion after reading Gary Jobson’s column, “Traits Among World Champions” [p. 19], for which he interviewed a half-dozen recent world champions. One of the most revealing common traits, he explains, is how dedicated these sailors are to their respective classes, boats, or disciplines. Consider Rolex Yachtsman of the Year and Moth world champ Bora Gulari, Lightning champ Matt Fisher, or paralympian John Ruf. Each found great success by simply committing to a boat they enjoy. They stuck to it for the long haul, and focused on mastering it.

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This concept goes against a notion that’s been long promoted in this magazine: that switching things up is vital to improving, and that sailing in a variety of boats is the best way because you pick up other ideas, techniques, and tricks. While there is plenty of merit to this argument, it doesn’t apply to everyone. It’s OK to be the master of one-it worked for Kenny and his boys. They may not remember exactly what to do when the P flag goes up today, yet they emerged from the Volvo as some of the best offshore speed sailors the sport has ever seen.

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