Monday, March 28, 2011

Nothing 1000 Tacks Can’t Fix

I recently returned from a terrific four day Laser sailing clinic at Sailfit in Clearwater, Florida. I went with four of my regular sailing buddies, and all of us agree that we had a great time and learned a ton about laser sailing. It’s hard to say what the best parts of it were, but here is a list of choices:
• Small class of 6 people
• Entire group at more or less the same skill level
• How-to instruction from a bone fide expert and great teacher, Kurt Taulbee
• Individual, on the water coaching, one skill at a time
• Coaching to match our skill level and needs
• Video tape review of our sailing showing what we do well and what we do poorly
• Instruction on fitness and nutrition from another bona fide expert, Meka Taulbee
• Expert answers to every question we could think of
• Camaraderie with sailing buddies
• Warm water
• Escape from New England weather

Like many adult sailors and racers, I have attended my share of sailing seminars, heard one to two hour talks on the nuances of sailing a specific type of boat, and purchased a bookshelf of books and videos from experts and champions. Also like most adult racers, I have raced regularly, but practiced infrequently. I have sailed in some big regattas, trying to pick up tips and tricks from the experts, but I have not had any real coaching since the first “how to sail” lessons.

It’s amazing how much different getting some real coaching, especially from an expert, is from trying to improve sailing skills in the other ways. It is one thing to watch the champion on a video tape, but quite another to do what he does. Monkey see, monkey do has its limits. How do you know if you are doing what the champion did? Most of us can be pretty sure we’re not doing all of it, but what parts are we doing right and what parts are we doing wrong? What do we have to change? Kurt at Sailfit was great at sorting that out, and he has saved me years in trying to figure those things out myself.

I think he did the same things for all the other members of the group as well. His individualized feedback identified different strengths and weakness for each of us as we went through various skills. We each surprised ourselves a little in some of the things we did well. One of us could stand on the side deck and sail the Laser like an experienced surfer. The rest of us - not so good at that. Two others loved blind tacking. The rest - not so good at that. One could comfortably sail down wind, healed 45 degrees to windward right at the point of capsize. The rest looked more like old geezers. The process also revealed for each of us tendencies toward our own particular set of bad habits. We came away with individual lists of things to work on and Kurt’s voice in our heads telling us what we need to do to complete each skill better.

The last thing I came away with is Kurt’s response to fixing a bad habit or developing a new technique – “It’s nothing 1000 tacks can’t fix.” I don’t know if this line sticks with me because it appeals to a Midwestern hard work ethic or because it appeals to a high school coach who blows whistles through seemingly endless tacking drills. Whatever the reason, I know he’s right. But it begs the question “Are we willing to do the 1000 tacks?” Most sailors never really do them. We tend to read books and watch videos and “understand” it in our heads, but never really train our bodies to automatically execute the skills. We are also smart enough to realize that after the 1000 tacks, there are 1000 gybes, 1000 mark roundings (I suppose that’s really 1000 upwind and 1000 downwind), and 1000 starts (2000 in my case). Who’s got the time? It’s enough to make me really tired. Maybe 500 tacks are enough. Maybe 250. Oh god, I need a beer!

As soon as the weather is warmer and the wind is right and I have the time and……….., I’m going out and start those 1000 tacks. No, really. I’m going to try.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Spring Time in New England

After waiting a week for the ice to thaw, this was the first day on the water for our high school sailing team.  It's been a long snowy winter, but Spring is finally here!

Sunday, March 13, 2011


I know I have been very, very remiss in writing for this blog, but finally when there is something good to write about, I am scooped by Tillerman! It’s not so much that he said what I have to say, but that he used the photo at the center of my story. The photo is from last week’s Sailfit seminar which I attended. It was posted on the Sailfit facebook page, but incorrectly attributed to Jody …… There is no need to name the actual sailor, but he is one of the group of five friends from New England who attended the seminar.

Aside from the obvious entertainment value, the whole episode has an important lesson to teach about sailing.

The question is how to sail a laser without actually being in it. One possibility is to just fall off and let the boat sail itself. I’m sure that it takes remarkable skill to trim the sails and adjust the steering just right to keep the boat sailing after abandoning ship, but the better it is done, the longer the swim to ever get back together with the boat again.

A second possibility as one departs the boat is holding onto the mainsheet. The primary virtue of this approach is to stay in touch with the boat until it capsizes. (But, maybe there is another possibility. I wonder if it is possible to adjust the amount of body drag to achieve correct sail trim and keep the boat upright and going. Any volunteers to try this out?) Anyway…… this seems to be the preferred method so long as one holds on with the hands and does not wrap the line around arms, legs, or torso, which could cause some serious problems.

The third, but not very desirable method is holding onto the tiller extension. This seems to have been tried many times, and is apparently the best way to break a high performance carbon fiber tiller. Aluminum tillers don’t fare much better, except that they allow the sailor to stay connected to his boat. Holding onto the tiller extension was the method employed in the photo. It had two immediate results. The boat capsized (eventually) and the aluminum tiller looked like this: