Timeline to Perfection

Olympic 470 crew Dave Hughes shares A routine training day with teammate Stuart McNay.
470 sailing
Gearing up before hitting the water is no small matter. The right equipment needs to be selected and tuned for the day’s training. USSTS/Will Ricketson

A mantra for many Olympic sailors is “train like you race and race like you train.” In other words, the goal of a hard day’s training is to make the work of the regatta as easy and intuitive as possible — easy in concept, that is, but hard in execution. This approach may suggest that all a team does is sail, but there’s a lot more to it. The work cycle is one of routine, execution and review.

Being a master of one’s routine is what separates good athletes from great athletes. It’s the heart of our profession as sailors, and time on the water is supremely valuable. We must be efficient with our time and never let our work become dull. We cannot simply punch the clock. ­Instead we must determine what type of schedule allows us to command our routine while retaining our excitement for the process. Loss of excitement for the day leads to a loss of excitement for the end goal.

We must also recognize that time is short in the Olympic cycle. There is no “later.” There is pressure to ­master all elements of our sailing, but it’s ­impossible. There’s never enough time for ­every little project. Many experiments and ideas need to be set aside. This is the crux of a campaign that sees the big ­picture and does not get lost in the noise.


Efficiency within the microschedule (the day) and macro­schedule (the months and years) is the Holy Grail of the campaign. As athletes, we are the point of transmission between these bookends. How is what we do today a component of our midrange and long-range plans? Are we focusing on the right parts of our ­sailing, or are we wasting energy in areas that are distracting us from the total effort? ­Merely plugging in the hours does not yield the entire path up the mountain. ­Giving ­ourselves those moments through which we can pause, collect our thoughts, and sharpen our ­execution makes the difference.

What is presented here is a typical training day in our campaign. This one took place in Miami as we built up to the Sailing World Cup Miami in January, but truthfully, it could have taken place anywhere, leading up to any regatta. Substitute “home” for an apartment in Denmark, and there’s not much difference.

Training Day Timeline

06:30 – Wake up, hydrate, make bed. Head downstairs to put on the coffee.


06:45-07:15 – Check weather websites, respond to email and make sandwiches for the day.

07:15-08:00 – Stretching, push-ups, sit-ups and then yoga. Stu heads out for a 20-minute run.

08:00-08:45 – Stu’s back, and he gets straight into breakfast prep. Our ­standing deal before a practice day or ­regatta is that I assemble the day’s lunch and snacks while Stu makes breakfast. This routine gives us a time for discussions ranging from boat feel to campaign what-ifs. Our Games boat is being laid up in the mold soon, and we need to ­review some of the ­systems. Can we add a purchase to the rig tension without ­compromising the throw of the control line? Is a ­continuous vang worth the drawbacks? Should the twing cleats be moved inboard an ­additional centi­meter? ­Every system involves a trade-off of ­simplicity, comfort and concept.


08:45-09:00 –Call with our sail designer. We’ve been testing a few concept ­mainsails and are homing in on two designs. Finalizing the design changes is the easy part, but ­fitting sail testing into the schedule is a taller challenge. Simply tossing a new main into the mix — even if only marginally different — distracts some unknown percentage of ­focus from training. We hang up from the call and transition into a more ­holistic debate over the merits of sail testing and defined decision dates. When it comes to equipment within an Olympic effort, you die if you don’t move the ball forward, test, and be relevant, but you also die if you lose yourself within the testing.

09:15 – Out of the house. Bike to the US Sailing Center.

09:25-10:30 – Covers off and right into basic boat prep. Tiller extension on, check tanks for moisture, check gaskets, and lay out clothes for a final dry. Our work list includes replacing a suspect spin halyard, ­swapping in new centerboard shims, and ­determining if the rudderhead needs immediate attention. Even a casual week of sailing produces play in the rudder system, requiring new bushings. We then run through all the settings, confirming the ­tension, pre-bend, rake and ­deflection at each progressive pin setting. The boat seems to be a bit stiffer today, but that is fairly normal after a less humid and warmer night.


10:45 – Meeting with our coach, ­Morgan ­Reeser. We recap yesterday and run through the week’s plan. Morgan does a consistent job of ­reviewing the long list of the week’s take-aways and prioritizing for the upcoming day. We turn our attention to video clips showing a sequence of our recent starts, good and bad, as well as a segment of downwind technique from a few top foreign teams. The World Cup starts in about a week, so the conversation turns to big-picture regatta prep and a quick review of logistics that need to be ironed out (coach boat, spares kit and so forth). The day’s plan is reiterated. It will be a mix of speed work and sail testing. We’ve formed a training relationship with the Greek and Spanish Olympic teams, so they will be a world-class reference for any tech changes we might make.

11:00-11:45 – Back to the boat. From our chat with Morgan, we’ve decided to tee up three mains: our standard, the primary test sail and a second test sail, should the day go smoothly. Not often can you test three items effectively, but you’d also feel ­silly leaving the sail on the dock if testing conditions proved perfect. Batten prep ensues. This always takes longer than expected, as we want everything to fit perfectly. There’s not enough time to deal with the centerboard shim project, but we do fit in a full clean of the rudder pintle system for good measure. We spend a quick five minutes chatting with the Greeks and Spaniards, outlining what each team wants to accomplish.

11:45 – Off the dock. We head out of the channel while tying on the clew and cunningham and doing our usual on-water prep. By noon, the kite goes up. Our group quickly congregates, and we get right into downwind mode. There’s more starboard than port to get to the course area.

12:00-12:35 – Sparring downwind followed by hard racing until one team pulls ahead. Reset and repeat. Depth on port and an up-bow on starboard are the evident keys to the mode. Take a break.

12:35-13:25 – Upwind tuning. Two more boats have joined; we now have a fine quorum for speed comparisons. Rabbit starts begin each tuning segment, and we all play hard, through enough of both the right and left shift until a victor becomes obvious. The tune ends with the lead boat tacking to cross, as demonstration of how much gain was actually made, if any. Many times, a perceived gain is hard to realize, so properly assessing the tack-and-cross feeling of the day is paramount. Break.

13:25-13:45 – Downwind again. Same instructions as before, except this time the directive is for us to always be the middle boat. Therefore priority on down-bow modes is a bit higher. Wind has continued to be a steady 14 to 16 knots.

13:45-14:00 – Change mains. Prep for upwind tuning alone. Wind has increased a couple of knots. It’s become ­apparent that the change in ­velocity has shut down our ­window for a perfect sail test, but the ­information gleaned is still ­relevant. Some issues with the main are apparent, and we try our best to problem-solve with ­changes in the mast step and tandem spreader. The sail immediately looks better. We pause for a hurried granola bar and water break.

470 training
On the water, drills and tuning ensure the right settings are in place. USSTS/Will Ricketson

14:00-14:30 – Back on track, we join with the smaller Greek and Spanish groups again for a speed check. Both teams have made tuning changes as well. All three boats are clearly going fast, though we’re still not entirely satisfied with our setup and decide to go back an additional turn on our spreaders.

15:35-15:50 – Solo work on the test main. One additional chock and we’re good. Morgan snaps a series of ­photos. We stop to go forward on the spreaders and take the chock out. More photos.

15:50 – We turn back downwind to rejoin the larger group. At this point the practice racing is over, and the peloton is now making its way upwind.

15:55-16:35 – A rabbit start begins the race to the harbor. Our speed seems to check out after the last batch of changes, so we’re pleased. The Greeks seem to have a click of fast-forward on us during the ­initial stages of each puff. They are known players in this condition. Perhaps we have too much centerboard down. We play the left side of the group and make gains. The Greeks cross over to a righty puff. We also cross over, but don’t dig into the shift enough to realize the advantage. Things are bow to bow on the final cross, and we lee-bow. The session is over. A few tacks back to the Sailing Center with the Greeks, followed by some dockside banter as one person from each boat digs through a mountainous stack of dollies in search of his team’s.

16:40-17:00 – Decompress, jib down, and wetsuits off. We check our tuning and assign priorities to boat work for tomorrow. We discover that the gooseneck rivets are showing movement, and we decide ­another mast must go in for repair tonight to be ready for tomorrow. A bit of a bummer, since this will add an hour of work, but it must be done. All told, we had planned to switch out masts in two days’ time, so in some ways this merely bumps up the schedule.

17:00-17:45 – Debrief with Morgan. The discussion focuses on technique, and from there transitions to a review of Morgan’s mainsail photos. He’s already cropped and selected the valuable images. For tomorrow, we all agree that to reduce variables, we must return to the No. 1 main in light of the mast switch.

17:45-18:35 – Take the mast down, inspect it, and rinse. Shrouds, ­spreaders, traps, compass and watch ­attached to the second mast, and up she goes. The repair to the first mast requires more than expected. We clearly dodged the bullet today with a potential on-the-water failure.

18:35-19:55 – Cover the boat. Backpacks on, Stu heads to the grocery store to provision for the week, and I head to physical therapy. I fractured my hand at the World Cup in Weymouth in June 2015. With all the sailing, the healing process has been slow.

20:10 – Back at the house. Stu has the grill started. I jump in as the house “grill master,” a normal ­assignment, while Stu finishes up as sous chef. Summer squash, zucchinis and onions ­accompany chicken and steak. Thomas Barrows and Joe Morris, two American 49er sailors, join us for dinner. The conversation starts with concepts of lower mast bend in the 49er but centers on the pending Olympic trials. Having coached Erik Storck and Trevor Moore at the last Olympics, I love revisiting my experiences and lessons from the 49er. So often, the 49er and 470 share common themes, even though execution may be wildly different.

21:15 – Dinner wraps up. The 49er boys head home. While cleaning the last dishes, Stu and I jump back into a discussion about ­today’s mains. After 20 minutes, we both agree we’re spent and should seriously consider getting to bed soon.

21:20-22:10 – Back on the computer, as we’re not quite done. Two final ­details need to be sorted. First, we iron out our packing list for ­separate containers, one heading to ­Barcelona and the other to Rio. Both containers will be sent shortly after the Miami event, and any orders for additional equipment must be placed today and tomorrow. Second, Stu and I also race on a Melges 24 team, and our next event is on tap in March. However, that regatta’s sail order needs to be firmed up next week, so we dive into a quick review of inventory. All the while, the background conversation returns to lessons from the day: Could we have pinned up earlier? Which of the bow-up modes felt best downwind? Let’s try such-and-such technique tomorrow.

22:15- 23:00 – OK, that’s enough. It’s time to turn in. I make a valiant yet ultimately failed attempt to finish off a magazine I started on my last flight. Rinse. Sleep. Get up tomorrow and do it again.