Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Is Discretion Really the Better Part of Valor?

That question was certainly being asked by prospective sailors in New England last Sunday. The New England Laser Masters in Newport saw wind of 17 – 28 with rain all day, and in Jamestown, RI, where I was with a high school regatta, the wind was a steady 18 with rain, until the end, when the wind went to about 25.

In Newport, my good friend Eric stuck it out to sail in wind and waves. We don’t really get waves at home, so these were unfamiliar and extremely challenging conditions. He took his licks, had some capsizes, but finished all races to place 15th in a 49 boat regatta. Pretty damn good for a guy who has been sailing lasers for only three years! Pretty damn good for anybody against this fleet!

Over in Jamestown, I was coaching (euphemism for riding around in a support boat getting soaking wet) in a high school laser regatta. There was a fleet of full rigs and a fleet of radials. Conventional wisdom is that radials are appropriate for people that weigh 140 – 165 and full rigs for people at about 180, with a rig switching range in the middle. Obviously, the more weight, the better in big breeze. There were only a few kids 180 and over, and I would guess most were 130 -150. Almost everyone was severely overpowered.

The race organizers did what race should organizers do – make every boat a potential rescue boat and alert all coaches, race officials, and spectators to be aware of the potential hazards. From a coach’s perspective, large numbers of boats in these conditions is a familiar recipe for trouble, and we prepared for the worst while hoping for the best. From a sailor’s perspective, this is a situation of fear. Almost all sailors expressed or revealed some degree of apprehension, but nevertheless, all 43 went out to face the daunting conditions.

I admired the courage of these kids for just getting off the dock in conditions where most adults would belly up to the bar to watch football for the afternoon (a thought that tempted me more than once). Throughout the day, there were a series of drop outs, but sailors continued until they reached the limit of their skill, endurance, or equipment. At the end of the fourth race, some 3 1/2 hours into the regatta, the PRO suggested that the fifth race be the last. One gung-ho coach suggested we hang out to see if conditions would permit a sixth race and if the sailors were up for it. Conditions did not subside. A sequence was started, the wind built up a little, a boat was capsizing virtually everywhere I looked, the race started, and the wind started gusting to 25. Then, thankfully, there was a unanimous acceptance of discretion, and the courageous, but exhausted sailors were sent in. As we towed in a sailor with an equipment failure, we watched at least a half dozen other capsizes, some within fifty yards of the beach.

I salute all the sailors who on Sunday did not let discretion become the better part of valor, but chose instead to display true bravery.

In spite of the eloquence of the phrase “discretion is the better part of valor,” in its original context in Shakespeare (one of the Henry IV plays), it is the suggestion of a coward. The colorful speaker, Falstaff, is ultimately a foil for the hero, Prince Hal, who ignores Falstaff’s advice, and marches into the battle that transforms him from the profligate prince into King Henry V. Courage is ultimately triumphant, as it was on Sunday.

Enough of the English class! Isn’t Falstaff the name of a beer?

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

A Flash of Brilliance

Last Saturday I went to the Laser New England Masters Regatta for the first time. My previous limited experience in large laser regattas has taught me to have very humble expectations. The guys that go to these things are usually long time laser sailors with lots of experience in sailing open water with waves or chop. The guys from the Newport Laser Fleet did quite well in the recent Masters Worlds, and most of them are really good laser sailors. I, on the other hand, am primarily a flatwater, lake sailor. At best, I am a big fish in a small pond. On their undulating turf, I am strictly a back of the packer, scoring my finish by counting forward from last place, and hoping to avoid the distinction of DFL.

Lucky for me, the wind on Saturday was mostly 7 – 10, so there was no wave issue. In the first two races, I was starting to look more like a middle of the pack guy, and I was feeling pretty good about myself. But then the third race became the miracle race. I got a good start, held my lane nicely, went faster than people on both sides of me, and spent a lot of time in clear air. When I tacked to go right, I crossed everyone who had not yet tacked off. I looked a little in the distance and to leeward and there was Scott Ferguson, Masters Full Rig World Champion. I looked to windward and there was Peter Seidenberg, perpetual Great Grand Masters World Champion. Wow! I’ve never been this close to these guys! And next to Peter Seidenberg is my best sailing buddy and sparing partner, Eric. Ferguson approached on starboard and forced me to tack. Wow! Even with Scott Ferguson in the middle of the first beat! What am I doing here? I don’t deserve to be on the same racecourse with these guys! I more or less followed him and/or Peter Seidenberg to the windward mark. As we approached the mark, it looked like it was going to be Seidenberg easily in first, Eric in second, an unknown boat in third and me in fourth.

Where was Ferguson? Downwind I got to the left of the third boat which put me slightly ahead of him, but another boat came from behind and got to the left and ahead of me. I was looking for an opportunity to work up to the left to blanket him, but he moved to the left to blanket Eric. It wasn’t until a few boat lengths from the leeward mark that I realized that this interloper was Scott Ferguson, poised to take his rightful place in front of back of the packers like us. Eric did a great job of holding him off and rounding in second. I remained in fourth.

Up the beat, everyone seemed to be holding their positions while working more or less the same center right part of the course. On a couple of occasions, I thought I got within 2 – 3 boat lengths of Ferguson, but then he would gain several boat lengths on me. Within fifty yards of the finish, Eric crossed 3 boat lengths ahead of Ferguson, who was heading to the right. I stayed in fourth, hoping not to do something stupid to spoil this Cinderella race. Moments earlier, I had almost capsized while doing a tack that my head and tiller arm had decided to do without informing the rest of my body. At the last minute, Ferguson got a slight shift to the right and edged out Eric to finish second. I held onto fourth.

Eric and I looked at each other wondering what had just happened. How had we been sailing with world champions? We did not belong here! We both knew that we could sail a lot of regattas, practice diligently, get good coaching, and never get to the level where we would be sailing with these guys. Even at the best we will ever become, we might never again see a 3rd and 4th finish in a 49 boat fleet of this caliber. It was a fantastic moment and even more fantastic because I shared it with the good friend with whom I sail with week in and week out, summer and winter. Wow!

The fourth race saw a reversion back to our truer selves in the back of the pack, but there is no need to discuss that. How about that third race! Did I tell you we sailed next to world champions? …….. Cue “Glory Days” by Bruce Springsteen.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Practice Failure

After coaching another practice where my skill drills were a colossal failure, I have been thinking about the value of failure. It always aggravates me when time gets wasted and it seems nothing is accomplished, at least in terms of the skills we were trying to learn. But the appropriate question in the face of every failure is: “What have we learned here?”

I was trying to do an exercise I called “simultaneous tacking pairs”. The goal was for the boats involved to try to remain in synch with each other while executing efficient, offsetting tacks. Two boats start on opposite tacks at opposite ends of a starting line converging towards the middle. They should be tied when they meet and both should tack away. After sailing divergent courses for a while, they simultaneously tack back toward the middle. They should try to meet in the center, still tied, and they should tack away again. The drill repeats heading upwind. It makes a pretty diagram.

I was mainly trying to reinforce basic tacking skills to quantify the gains that could be made by better tacking. Only one pair had any success in duplicating the diagram. Most others had a clear leader at the first crossing and proceeded to tack up the windward leg practicing Stuart Walker’s axiom, “cross em when you can.” instead of meeting each other in the middle and tacking away. We clearly didn’t learn much about the value of good tacking, but did we learn anything?

First, the teacher learned that he had done some things wrong. I did not explain the drill clearly enough – especially the purpose of it. I over complicated the day by describing for the kids such a long series of things we’d be doing during the afternoon that they forgot most of the details of the first drill when we began it. I set up the course wrong, or more accurately the shifty lake winds changed the course from square to silly. And ultimately, I missed the biggest potential virtue of the drill.

This exercise failed so completely that we couldn’t even conduct the post mortem in the end of practice de-briefing. The kids learned nothing that day from this drill.

We started the next day with a discussion of our failure. I began with a confession of my shortcomings, but then we tried to understand why they couldn’t at least set up the first starboard port encounter correctly. “So and so was not on the starting line on time.” “Okay, slow down and wait.” “The line wasn’t square.” “Okay, the boat at the favored end needs to slow down and wait.” “The boat on the right always got more wind.” “Okay, the boat on the right needs to slow down and wait.”

In the refrain, we began to see the light. (How’s that for a mixed metaphor?) Slowing down is the key. Hey this is balancing – a concept key to successful team racing, our favorite kind of racing. The boat ahead has to “balance back” to stay on the same ladder rung as his teammate. This takes skill in both slowing the boat and perceiving the correct relationships between the boats and the ladder rungs. And with every wind shift the ladder rungs change. That causes the relationship between the boats to change. But the goal in this aspect of team racing is to keep the relationship of the boats the same. The speed of one of the boats has to change to keep the system in balance.

So, our drill broke down because the skill that we were working on, tacking, was not the one most required in the shifty conditions. What we should have been focusing on was balancing, perceiving the relationship between boats, and maybe communicating with each other so we could stay in balance. If that were the stated purpose of the drill, maybe it would have worked better, is spite of the very high degree of difficulty of these skills.

Working through this process (or stumbling through it), there is a much bigger, more abstract lesson to learn. Success in this drill required thinking about things in a different way. The whole scenario is a system of relationships between the course, the boats, and the wind. Any change in the wind affects the relationship of the other parts of the system and throws it out of balance. The sailors need to understand it as a system in order to take the correct actions to re-balance it. Both I and the sailors failed to think about the system and a key element in it – the shifting wind. D’oh!!

Thinking about things as a system of complex interrelationships is getting into more heady realms of system theory and ecological thinking. This is the kind of thinking that can understand and solve problems in the complex and interconnected real world. It is the kind of thinking that will be required to solve climate change and environmental problems. It is the kind of thinking that will be required to solve all the big problems.

Maybe it’s a stretch (Ya think? Sailing practice to saving the world.), but I like to think of sailing as being a valuable part of education (not just physical education) and in this respect, it is. Thinking about the world as a web of interconnected relationships rarely happens in school, where the world is sliced and diced into disciplines, and problem solving is conceived in terms of higher test scores. As an English teacher, I thought schools vastly undervalued, if not ignored, holistic thinking embodied in the English Romantics, the American Transcendentalists, and Eastern Philosophy. Now ironically, as a sailing coach, it is easier to offer a little bit about seeing the world in a different way.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Sailing: Reports of Its Death Are Exaggerated

During the month of August, I was involved in several doom and gloom conversations about the decline of dinghy sailing in the summer circles that I inhabit and travel. Apparently, some club racing, and even some regatta racing, is slipping or completely falling apart. In spite of national events having been very well attended, the evidence of some local decline is at least anecdotally convincing.

But wait! My time this summer has been spent almost exclusively in local sailing, with embarrassingly little travel to major regattas, and I’m not sailing in a world of doom and gloom. My local laser fleet has been growing steadily, with the participants having fun and improving their sailing. No complaints there.
And now, with the high school sailing season started, I am in the middle of an explosion of youth interest in sailing. For the first time in our team history, we have to turn kids away because we just can’t accommodate 37 sailors with only 12 double handed boats. Unlike previous years, every freshman who makes the team will have had previous sailing experience. I registered our team for a fall regatta two hours after the NOR went out by email, and I was the eleventh team. All of the fall regattas will be oversubscribed and will have waiting lists.

So what’s going on? Certainly, my experience is too narrow to make broad generalizations. My internet research (browsing is a more accurate term) found plenty of people who make variably documented proclamations of doom, and some offer some remedies to stem the tide. A new book is coming out in October, Saving Sailing by Nicholas D. Hayes. According to the marketers, “The book is educational and inspiring in many ways; the reader is not only drawn into the stories but learns how they might rethink their own priorities and short time on earth with a simple but rich philosophy for living.” Seems he is after folks who let their lives get in the way of their sailing. I hope this helps some people find their way into or back into sailing.

I can’t figure it all out. Sailing is dying and thriving at the same time. I don’t mean to make light of those who are worried about the health of the sport. I think they should do whatever they can to improve participation, but I’m fortunate that sailing is doing just fine in my world. I like to think that what I’m doing and what those around me are doing are contributing to that health. We try to be enthusiasts for our local fleet and for the class of boats we sail. We try to harness as many resources as we can to provide boats, sails, parts, books and videos for those who express interest. We share what we know about sailing our class of boat and gain knowledge from others who are sailing the boat. We try to create opportunities for newcomers to participate and learn. While we enjoy our competitions, we strive equally hard to keep things interesting and fun. It all seems pretty straightforward.

I find that enthusiasm for sailing is viral, but in a good way. It is spread by person to person contact, and a few carriers go a long way. When enthusiasts spawn other enthusiasts, fleets can grow very quickly, and the world of sailing is just fine, thank you.