Years ago I was a young, hungry, youth sailor. I had great starts, flashy roll tacks, the ability to steer perfectly and my parent's Visa card. I could do anything.
But as I started competing around the world, I learned that desire and raw talent were not enough to win major regattas. There were always other guys, a few years older and a bit more serious, who consistently finished at the top of the fleet. I realized that their edge wasn't talent or luck. It was experience.
In 1992, I coached at the Barcelona Olympics and witnessed a near perfect blend of youth and experience. Coaches Jonathan and Charlie McKee and team members Randy Smyth, Keith Notary, Mark Reynolds, Paul Foerster, Mike Gebhardt, Brian Ledbetter and Hal Haenel had all been to the Olympics before--some had won medals--and they shared what they'd learned from their past experiences at the Games with our energetic and talented Olympic rookies. It was a powerful combination that resulted in medals in nine of 10 classes.
OK, you're saying, I know experience is important. But what, aside from a sun tan, rope burns and wetsuit rashes, do you get from logging countless hours on the racecourse? And, once you know what's so important about all this time on the water, how can those without experience quickly learn the veteran's game? I found myself asking these questions while coaching in Europe and assembled a list of veteran techniques, traits and habits that would help some of our sailors earn their veteran wings.
1. Veterans have a top-notch boat and are meticulous about maintenance. The centerboard fits perfectly; the lines and purchase systems are of the best quality and exactly the right length. Accurate marks are made on the boat for trim reproduction. The rudder/tiller system is tight and the extension is the right length. Veterans constantly improve their equipment. They study competitor's boats and innovative ideas in other classes.
2. Veterans read the weather forecast. They think about the big picture for the current and following day. This gives them a sense of what to expect and how to distinguish between localized effects and weather system changes.
3. Veterans never sail past laylines.
4. Veterans assess the length of the starting line and the size of the fleet. Will there be enough room for everyone? How long will they be able to hold their lane? Having these questions answered before the start enables them to visualize the opening minutes of the race. Veterans also determine the favored side of the line and the course. They think about the length of the beat and how long they will sail on each tack. At the SPA Regatta in Holland this year, the Europe beats were long so we emphasized getting off the line clean, sailing in clear air without tacking early in the beat, and then returning to the center of the course.
5. Veterans know when to go for the big starts and when to back off and start more conservatively. Veterans track the fleet psyche. U.S. Sailing Team coach Gary Bodie used to encourage his college teams to stay away from the pin end during the opening race of a regatta. The fleet's adrenaline is usually high at the beginning of events, and pin-end starts are risky. However, Bodie also told his teams to go for the pin after the lunch break, when the fleet was sleepy.
6. Veterans "beat the fleet" on local knowledge. In the first race of a series in normal conditions, they're not afraid to use local knowledge. At SPA this year, the first day had a typical sea breeze, which we knew would favor the left side. Much of the fleet was hesitant to commit heavily to the left in the first race, so it was a great time for our sailors to leverage left and produce a big opening race.
7. Veterans use the time sailing to the racecourse to assess conditions, and determine what technique and setup will be fast. They compare present conditions with the forecast. They set themselves up for a changing wind scenario, so the gear change comes naturally, and without hesitation.
8. Veterans go after wind velocity. They believe in what they see. Veterans are not afraid to wing it on a side if they need to make a move, or see something good. Veterans are the first to react to big changes.
9. Veterans have perfect weather mark roundings, and they immediately execute their downwind game plan. They're not afraid to stray from the pack for clear air. They've researched the wave angles and are the first to catch waves.
10. Veterans demand to pass boats. They're never happy with status quo.
11. Veteran technique is smooth and fluid. They're sensitive to helm pressure and respond with weight and sail trim.
12. Veterans focus on balance first, and then add kinetics. They feel the boat. Balance is most important; kinetics enhance the balance with extra power. If your kinetics are rough or don't have flow, go easy and feel the boat.
13. Veterans are aware of sheet pressure on all sails. Pressure is everything. A perfectly trimmed sail is one that is pulling on the sheet the hardest.
14. Veterans have excellent leeward mark roundings. This is the gateway to passing boats on the second beat. They focus on execution.
15. Veterans avoid traffic. They know that groups of boats have less wind than single boats. If you find yourself alone, don't rush to get back to the other boats.
16. Veterans have good reasons to tack. If they're going fast in clear air, they keep going unless something changes (windshift, too leveraged, more wind).
17. Veterans rarely sail upwind in bad air. Everyone knows bad air costs you boatlengths; you don't need to prove it.
18. Veterans sail with their heads out of the boat as much as possible. They always know where they are, and where the marks are. They rarely make a navigational error. Chris Nicholson, of Australia, won three 49er world championships by being better at watching the wind up the course, while everyone else focused on a more immediate view.
19. Veterans note wind trends during the race, and think about how they will affect upcoming legs. A big left shift on the second beat is going to tighten the top reach on a trapezoid course and favor reaching on the last downwind leg. Veterans set up the boat perfectly for these changes and open both offwind legs with a gain over those still assessing the leg.
20. After the finish, veterans drink plenty of water, reflect on the wind, think about rig changes, and get to the starting line so they can relax before the next race.
21. Veterans understand the importance of physical size and fitness. They sail boats that match their body types. They know the physical requirements of their class and are properly conditioned. They also can readily admit and act to improve upon or compensate for any weakness.
22. Veterans sail and practice in a quality manner more than their competition. It's a simple fact: Time on the water with specific goals equals improvement.
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