Become a Student of the Weather – Part 1

Because I am not a student of the weather but now knowing what I should have realised much earlier after speaking with a lot of high achieving competing sailors, that no race planning is complete without gathering as much information as possible prior to heading out to race.

To that end I have put together a 2 part interview that I did on this very subject with Professional Sailor and International Sailing Coach Andrew Palfrey. The questions and answers from that interview are below.

How do you collect data about weather and wind at a regatta venue especially historical information prior to arriving?

I think the “gold standard” is to try to make contact with a respected local. The main things to speak to them about are:

a. What are the two or three biggest factors to concern yourself with in terms of race-course effect (ie: tidal? Geographic features that effect the wind?, the characteristics of sea-breeze evolution? etc etc). You just want to hone in on the big things.

b. What are the best forecast resources locally? Again, this will save a lot of time. We are so much more fortunate these days in regard to the amount of resource available. The down-side can be that there is too much info. You need to hone in on the best resource.

c. In the lead-up to the event, touch base with this person again and discuss the weather map and what he/she might see as important over coming days.

Do you put together a plan for the days racing with regard to the forecast?

First thing would sail choices then also the sailing kit to take afloat. Sounds simple, but if you are not comfortable, you’ll find it harder to get the most from yourself.

Spend the morning continuously checking the sky and water to see if the forecast is playing out – you want to know if the forecast is accurate, in order to gauge the confidence to have in it.

Obviously forecasts are general and not necessarily specific to the regatta venue, what notice do you take of the forecast?

Depends on all of the above. If you have done the homework and have done some validation in order to gain confidence, then it can be quite a weapon. If not, well, you’d take it into account, but more likely to sail the fleet and place the boat conservatively.

How do you call wind shifts and what feedback do you want from your crew?

Its important to get a feel for the range of shifts and what you’d class as mean headings on either tack. This gives you a framework for the decisions during the race.

Re feedback, it is critical to know your position relative to the laylines and relative to the fleet.

How long before the start do you collect data on the wind?

From first waking up in the morning. I want to know if the forecast is playing out accurately to start with – or more likely, which forecast to start with has it more accurate.

Can you tell whether a puff is a lift or a header before it gets to you?

I think I have a reasonable eye for that. Not as good as some people I have sailed with!

But I think this is a constantly “improve-able” skill. eg: During the per-race tune-up, I will develop my instincts by looking at an approaching wind line and take a stab at whether it will lift, head or stay the same direction.

The resultant change (if any) in the True Wind Direction will go in the memory bank for later when I see a similar looking wind line approaching.

Other things help with this “instinct”, ie: if we are already one one edge of the wind range, odds are that the next shift will be back towards or beyond the mean.

In an oscillating breeze how do you work out when to tack?

Again, where are we on the course with relation to laylines? I’d be more likely to tack from port to starboard on a “mean” heading if we only have a few percent left of starboard tack in the leg.

Where are we in relation to the fleet? If 90% of the fleet is to our right – and on port tack, you’d be silly to continue on starboard tack for too much longer looking for more left shift unless you had established in the pre-race tune-up that gusts are not moving down the course.

Where is the True Wind Direction in relation to what we consider is our “range” of shift.

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5 Sailing Tips

Tip 1: Stay Focused

A lapse in concentration at a critical time in a race can cost you several places and although this sounds obvious it is impossible to give 100 percent concentration all the time. 

If sailing in a crewed boat don’t let conversations wander away from the race and this is just as important for the time on the water before the start.

A similar situation is relevant in a single hander, once you are on the water get in to race mode and avoid seeking out mates for a chat prior to the start.

This concentration on the job in hand is equally important as the race nears the finish line as it is prior to the start and those competitors who stay focused to the end are the ones that often pull a rabbit out of the hat in the closing stages of a race.

Tip 2: Nutrition and Hydration

Whether you are racing around the cans in a dinghy or one design keelboat or doing a Sydney to Hobart the correct food and fluid intake is essential to your performance.

Without the right type of energy in the form of carbohydrates to cope with the job in hand, you won’t be able to perform at your best.

After a period of intense effort and concentration followed by relative inactivity even the fittest sailor will feel tired and make poor decisions.

Remaining correctly hydrated is really difficult if you are working hard on the boat and quite often by the time you are thirsty you have generally been dehydrated for some time and dehydration affects your mental acuity.

If you have ever watched the Tour De France notice how often the riders take sips of fluid and have a snack. Our sport  is no different to the riders who tackle climbs and then downhills when they can rest a little.

Sailing also requires bursts of energy followed by periods of relatively less energy needed, so fuelling reularly throughout the race is essential for peak performance.

Tip 3: Develop Your Knowledge

Be a student of the rules and read articles and books on tactics, sail trim and class specific blogs and articles. 

To get better results in your sailing, learning should be incremental and ongoing, many of us get stuck and turn up each week expecting better results without having put in any effort to improve our knowledge.

Most of us have busy lives and have little free time for studying our sport so each week concentrate on one specific topic and work on that.

Tip 4: Mix It Up

Sail on different classes of boats, sail with different people, swap positions on the boat and sail at different clubs wherever possible.

You will be amazed at what you will learn and bad habits and weaknesses developed from sailing against the same people at the same club in the same waters will become obvious.

When you come back to your regular boat and crew you will re-evaluate many aspects of your sailing and the new found skills and knowledge will re-invigorate the whole crew.

Tip 5: The Blame Game

Sailing like many other sports is as much about mental preparation as it is about the physical and many wins, decent regatta places or potential miraculous recoveries have been thrown away by blame causing arguments in the boat which distract from concentrating on the race.

If you believe that your boat is slow, you aren’t fit enough, you are too heavy or too light or you or your crew is tactically weak and you have a bad result, it is easy to fall back on those reasons to justify what happened out on the water.

Blaming a member of your crew for a mistake that cost you places, through to anger at the sailor who barged you on the startline putting you at the back of the fleet is counterproductive and takes your focus away from the race, get over it quickly and get on with sailing.

In those situations, an after race de-brief away from the heat of the moment will prove to be an awesome learning  exercise and help to ensure that when a similar situation arises again that you will be mentally prepared to dig out and sail hard to negate the damage caused to your race.