You Can Win Without Natural Talent

What are you good at, what are you bad at? Ever looked out at a mill-pond day and told yourself “I hate light airs” or seen it blowing dogs off chains and muttered nervously: “I’m rubbish in strong winds.”

Maybe you’re just not talented enough, you tell yourself. 

First, ask yourself: 

What makes a great sailor? Talent or hard work? Probably both.

To win an Olympic gold medal though… surely that’s only within the grasp of the truly talented, right?

From Cart Horse to Racing Thoroughbred

Well, maybe not, if we’re to believe Tom King, who won an Olympic gold medal racing in the 470 for Australia on home waters in Sydney 2000. King and his crew Mark Turnbull won the gold after a spectacular season in the lead-up to the Games, winning the World Championships and a handful of other big regattas along the way.

The gold medal was certainly no fluke, and yet a year earlier, no one would have given King and Turnbull a hope of winning any kind of medal, let alone the gold. Yes, they’d been on the scene for a while, but this world-beating form seemed to come out of nowhere.

It wasn’t just the men either. The Aussie women, Belinda Stowell and Jenny Armstrong, also took gold on Sydney Harbour. And all this from a nation with a very poor record in the 470 class.

Not since Ian Brown and Ian Ruff had won a bronze at the 1976 Games in Montreal had Australia even had a sniff of a medal in the 470. In fact, they were so bad that the Aussie selectors refused to even send a team to the Games for one Olympiad, even though the sailors had qualified the nation.

At the 1996 Games in Atlanta, the most successful 470 nation was Ukraine, with the men and women’s teams winning gold and bronze respectively. Both had been coached by Victor Kovalenko, a seemingly mild-mannered Ukrainian, yet famed and feared for his fierce work ethic.

 From a no-hope, 470 nation to kings of the 470 in less than four years – and Australia has continued to dominate this Olympic class ever since.

The helms and crews come and go, but in Olympic, World and other major regattas, it’s always the Australians who are setting the benchmark.

THE SECRET

So, what was – and is – the secret?  Sheer, hard work. That’s what Tom King said was the secret. 

Relentless tacks, gybes, tuning runs, starts, breaking down every manoeuvre into the tiniest detail and working on each detail and the sailors could execute perfectly. “We trained, and trained until talent was no longer an issue,” said King.

“Until talent was no longer an issue.” What could YOU do, to make sure that talent is no longer an issue?

Keep a good record of notes about speed.

With Special thanks to David Dellenbaugh of “Speed and Smarts” Newsletter

Good boat speed is about consistency as much as anything else.

Of course, almost any sailor would welcome a flash of super speed, even if it’s short-lived. But that’s not what your goal should be.

If you really want to improve your speed (and therefore your race results) in the long run, you must have a systematic approach to learning everything about making your boat go fast.

In Grand Prix auto racing, does each team’s head mechanic keep a history of engine settings for every car? Of course! They’d be foolish to begin a race without a very good record of what has (and hasn’t) worked in the past.

The same is true for sailboat racing, another technical sport where speed is super important.

How many sailors keep a record of the tuning set-up and sail trim settings that they have found to be fastest over a wide range of wind conditions? A lot of top competitors have this, but I’m guessing many others do not.

There are several ways to keep track of accumulating speed information. My preference in the past has been a handwritten notebook but now it’s usually easier to keep all speed notes in some sort of electronic notebook.

This could be a text or Word file in a phone or tablet, or a document file online that all crewmembers can access, contribute to and study.

The important thing is simply having a system where it’s very easy to record, organize, add to and review your speed notes.

Start Before The Start

Start Before the Start

Get to the racecourse at least 45 minutes before the first gun, once you arrive, there are four essential things you must do.

  1. Gather your wind readings

Sail upwind and tweak sails and rig for speed, and figure out the wind pattern.

The key is to watch the compass and determine a range of headings on each tack.

If the wind is shifting through 20 degrees, you should also try to determine the timing of the shifts. Getting the feel for a pattern will help you make educated decisions while racing.

You should also be looking for other important tactical factors, such as current, potential geographic shifts, and varying wind conditions across the racecourse.

  1. Find your fast settings

Firstly, sail upwind. When tuning up with the good teams (or a designated tuning partner), compare your relative height and speed.

Make sure you’re set up according to your sailmaker’s tuning guide, experiment with different settings, and ask your tuning partners how they’re set up if they’re beating you.

While sailing downwind, try different angles and techniques to figure out what is fast for the conditions.

The benefit of tuning before the race is it allows you to gain confidence in your settings and boat speed, freeing you up to look around while racing.

  1. Research the starting line

It’s important to do more starting-line research than you think you should.

Sail to the committee boat end of the line and sight through the race committee flag, picking out an object on land that’s in line with both ends.

Then, run the line using this sight to get a feel for what it looks like to be right on the line.

The longer the line is, the greater the illusion you’re on the course side when you’re actually not.

During one of your runs, time how long it takes to sail from one end to the other, next put the bow into the wind a few times to check the line bias and to track the true-wind direction.

  1. Double-check before the countdown

Do a brief upwind sail again to see if anything has changed.

Check your compass again and make sure the boat still feels right for the conditions.

Visualize how the fleet will come off the line at that angle and factor that into your final game plan.

 

Why We Should Practice Our Starts

WHY WE SHOULD PRACTICE OUR STARTS

Former Olympic sprint champion Linford Christie used to say that winning the 100 Metres was all about starting on the B of BANG. In a 10-second running race, every millisecond counts.

We can’t claim that those last few milliseconds aren’t quite so crucial in sailboat racing, but they’re still mighty important.

If you can get the jump on your rivals even by a quarter or an eighth of a boat length, you stand a much better chance of getting out of the start cleanly and setting yourself up for a great first beat.

It’s no surprise to learn that 100 metres sprinters spend hours and hours practising their starting technique, not just pushing out of the blocks time and time again, but honing every relevant muscle in the gym to harness more of that explosive power that they so rely on.

Why is it then that so few of us do the same in sailing? Probably because starting practice is not nearly so much fun as going for a blast.

Maybe many of us don’t practise it because we think it’s either a skill you do or don’t have. But top RYA coach Harvey Hillary disagrees. “It’s just a matter of breaking it down into the different stages, working on each of them separately, and putting it all together at the end. It’s something that can be learned by anyone.”

Firstly, what are we looking for? The perfect start is about putting a number of desirable objectives together as the countdown reaches zero. Maximum speed, space around you, and bang on the line as the gun fires.

The reality is that there are other boats also trying to do the same thing, and some of them trying to stop you from achieving your objective. But let’s look at how we can help you win the battle.

Loading the chamber (2.00 min – 30 secs)

Before you pull the trigger, you’ve got to put a round in the chamber. The goal of the pre-start is to put yourself in a position to achieve those three desirables we mentioned just now – speed, space, and position.

This is all about being able to control your boat at slow speeds, and where 10 minutes of practice every time you go sailing will pay dividends in the longer term.

Notice how the best sailors in your fleet take up a position close to the line very early, sometimes a minute and a half or even two minutes before the gun.

Try doing the same on some practice starts during your training sessions, or in some races where you’re not too bothered about the outcome of your start, and get used to holding position for two minutes within two boat lengths of the line.

You might find that you need do very little to your boat or sail trim just to sit still.