Vows of Improvement

In April, Sailing World associate editor Chris Pastore headed back to school at Florida¿s Captiva Island hoping to raise his sailing to a new level and find, in his fiancée, a partner for the climb.

When I was 12, I liked sailboat racing more than girls. Well, that didn’t last long. Nevertheless, I stuck to it--sailing, that is. As for the latter, I recently worked my way to the top: marriage. My wife, Sue Detwiler, and I had sailed together quite a bit before we were wed and we even did a little cruising during our honeymoon last summer. But when it came to the competitive side of the sport, we’d never been on the same page. So when I was given the opportunity to take Sue along for a two-part, seven-day program of intensive race training on Florida’s west coast, I thought I might’ve found a solution. "It’s for work," I told her. "I have to go; you should come too." I went there to find out how much value there might be in an average adult racer going back to school. But my ulterior motive was that Sue have fun, gain some confidence, and--just maybe--become as hooked as I am.

In the five years since I graduated from college, my sailing has improved slowly, albeit unevenly, through a hodgepodge of sporadic tips and casual observations, and a steady diet of self-help articles. I knew there were areas in which I needed improvement, and I was ready for someone to point them out and help me correct them. Using the North U. course books, part of a racing improvement curriculum developed by Bill Gladstone and North Sails, that were delivered a month before the program, I prioritized my weaknesses: Downwind tactics and oversteering were at the top of the list. Sue grew up sailing with her parents and had taught basic sailing at a Girl Scout camp. She wanted to learn to fly a spinnaker and gain a better understanding of the rules.

On the last Sunday in April, we traveled from Providence, R.I., to Captiva Island’s South Seas Plantation, a 330-acre all-inclusive resort on the island’s northern tip. The resort serves as home base for Steve and Doris Colgate’s Offshore Sailing School, which ran the weeklong program in conjunction with North U. The accommodations were cushy, to say the least. Our condo overlooked the Gulf of Mexico on one side and a golf course on the other. After a less-than-balmy early New England spring, the hot sun and warm water were godsends.

At 8 a.m. on Monday, we met the 11 other students who’d signed up for the two-day Fast Track, a crash racing primer or a refresher, depending on your experience, that preceded the four-day North U. program. Offshore’s head racing instructor, Beite (pronounced "Beat") Cook, introduced himself and the other instructors, two Maine-based sailmakers. Beite is a grown-up version of the instructors I’d had as a child. Thin, tanned, athletic, and laid-back, he has the enthusiasm and confidence of a 20-year-old hotshot but without any pretentiousness, though he never hesitated to tell you exactly what he thought. "No, Chris," he said during one tactics discussion. "That’s a bad call." Beite jumped right into his lecture on sail trim, outlining the function of the basic sail-control lines, then moving on to the cause-and-effect relationships among them. After three hours of classwork--a grueling test of my attention span--we finally went sailing.

We set out on three Colgate 26s, Jim Taylor-designed keelboats that carry a fractional chute and 283 square feet of upwind sail area. At 2,600 pounds, the 26 is big enough that it doesn’t require the agility of a dinghy sailor, yet responsive enough for weight placement to be important. The most distinguishing feature of the Colgate 26 is the stern scoop, designed to enable the seemingly omnipotent instructors to watch and critique your every move without being in the way.

For the Fast Track course, Sue and I sailed on different boats. She was teamed with three other students, while I worked shorthanded with Jim Horan, of Orlando, Fla., and Bill Gibson, from Basking Ridge, N.J. I immediately realized the value of dedicated, professional coaching. During this first session, Beite quickly identified the most obvious flaws in our technique and took the time to fix them. I was oversteering through the tacks, so we did 25 tacks while Beite commented on my form. He corrected hitches in my footwork and how I passed the tiller behind my back. I identified the feel of a good tack and then, through repetition, imprinted it into my memory. If I slipped into my old bad habits, he let me know--loudly. For the past five years, I’d crammed practice into the brief span of time between when I left the dock and when the first gun sounded. Compared to a half day of non-stop drilling, calling that warm-up period a practice session was like shaking someone’s hand and saying you had a conversation.

The night before North U. began, we were introduced to Dobbs Davis, our North U. lecturer. "You guys have been focusing on the physical part of the game," he said. "Now I’m going to hit you with the mental part. Get a good night’s sleep tonight because tomorrow’s going to be a long day." Dobbs, like many professional sailors, has a business that spans the breadth of the industry and is tied together by e-mail, a perpetually ringing cell phone, and a great affection for the sport. Depending on the time of year or even the time of day, Dobbs can be found sailing, coaching, writing, judging, or running regattas. He’s intense, and he talks fast.

True to his word, Dobbs fired up the projector at 8 a.m. on Wednesday morning, and using the animated North U. Trim CD-ROM, we spent two hours looking at, and electronically tweaking, genoa cross sections. After the lecture, Sue teamed up with Jim, Bill, Beite, and me, Dobbs dropped turning marks, and the racing began. The instructors adopted a no-more-Mr.-Nice-Guy attitude, forcing us to step up our individual performances. Dobbs kept track of every move on video.

When I signed on for this course, I figured I’d pick up a few pointers, while Sue would show significantly more improvement. I soon realized I’d underestimated the size of the holes in my game. I can read about tactics and strategy until I’m blue in the face, scrutinizing every word until I’m sure I understand it. But if I’ve never been confronted with a particular situation on the racecourse, I won’t recognize what to do until after I’ve missed the opportunity. In layman’s terms, I’m the guy who realizes there’s free refills with a small soda after I’ve already paid for a large. But through repetition--and a teacher putting me on the spot--I was forced to think on my feet. I was also able to revisit and examine all those questions that had popped into my head at inopportune times during regattas, but were quickly forgotten afterward.

During the final race of that first day, Dobbs moved the leeward mark to the right corner of the course while we were sailing upwind. We rounded the windward mark in first, bore off, set our chute, and sailed 10 boatlengths before the second boat rounded. But our lead evaporated when the trailing boat jibe set, pointed right toward the leeward mark, and quickly passed us. It felt like someone had slapped me upside the head and said, "Duh! Now do you get it?" When Dobbs had moved the mark, the course had shifted to the right, and we were sailing to the left, away from the mark, and losing ground. After seeing how the tactics changed when someone physically moved the marks, applying the same concept to windshifts made a lot more sense--moving the leeward mark to the right corner had the same effect as a persistent right-hand shift. The downwind sailing angles at which I’d once made educated guesses suddenly clicked, and a slew of basic tactical concepts on which I’d always been less than confident came into focus. Sue looked at the boat passing us to port and asked, "What just happened?" Beite explained the jibe set and why it was the correct tactical move, and it seemed to make sense to everyone else, too. For me it was a big leap forward.

The next three days were crammed with information. Dobbs laid on the lecture material ashore, and Beite kept a frenzied pace on the water. All our moves, good and bad, were preserved on video tape for critique when we returned to the classroom. Sue fared well. She asked a lot of questions and began to call laylines, puffs, and chop, and make sail-trim and tactical decisions. Her bow work was especially good. She could jibe the pole and understood how the whole system worked.

On the last day, our instructors gave their vocal chords a rest and became our laconic race committee. Sue, Jim, Bill, and I were left to our own devices. Dobbs called the skipper’s meeting for the North U. regatta--the culmination of all our efforts. We rigged the boat, ran the tapes on the chute twice, and headed out to the course. In 8 to 10 knots, we sailed four races. I’d been racing longer than most of our competition, so we might have had a slight advantage. But we swapped positions after each race, so there was ample opportunity to confront all of our weak points. In the second race, we got a 10-degree right shift as we approached the windward mark. The course had been relatively square, so I called a jibe set. It was a textbook situation, but I recognized it in advance and made the call. I loved it.

On the final night, after the regatta, Offshore Sailing School and North U. hosted an awards banquet. We didn’t discuss the spinnaker wraps or how the pole was somehow raised upside down and backward. We just ate, drank, and pumped up the day’s stories--the good parts. We’d won the regatta, and Beite seemed proud; it made him look good. I was glad we’d won, but more excited about what I took home. I’d improved my steering, developed a better eye for sail shape, gained a new tactical understanding of the sport, and got in a lot of quality preseason practice. I also flew north with a renewed enthusiasm for improvement. I still couldn’t see the top of the ladder--if anything, I felt it was farther away--but I was excited about the next steps I’d be taking in that direction. As for Sue and me, I think we’re almost on the same page. I won’t claim we’ve reached any kind of blissful racing epiphany, but she says she had a good time. A few months later, we both said "I do," and, yes, currently the racing component of the marriage is secure.