I have been fortunate enough to sail on a few high-end racing boats over the last few years and am still amazed at how much info we have at our fingertips. When organising a start plan we are able to have a man with computer tablet in hand telling us not only the time to go, but the time from the line at current speed. Also constantly updating the favoured end of the line as the wind shifts occur. Once started, we are kept informed on the wind shifts and their trend and regularity. Approaching marks we can find out how far off the layline we are and the preferred exit course once around the mark and likely sail choice! On top off all this we can update what is happening at the various weather stations in the region and gained an informed opinion on what is likely to occur.
This is such a far cry from most of our early days. At least from mine, sailing in a variety of clapped out dinghies with the only assistance from a pair of wind ribbons on each side shroud, usually made from the tape out of an old audio cassette. But if you asked any of the great sailors about their skills they will all tell that their skills were honed by the early years. Sailing very basic craft and relying on sensory skills that were developed as course. This innate skill level is what sets them apart from others as the elite of the sport as they grow and further develop.
I was reminded of this recently in my annual foray into the world of dinghy sailing in the Geelong Masters regatta. This regatta has been staged the last two years and as it is located on my backdoor step, it is ideal for a bit of a hoot and a sail around in something different. Recruiting Simon Dodds as crew, who I had sailed Dragons with decades ago, we were fortunate to gain access to a new Envy Dinghy. It proved to be a good choice as it was suitably sedentary for my 50+ years and as our first outing was to be the invitation race it was preferable to have something not too testing.
After finishing that race with bloody knees from the non skid on the cockpit floor, and blistered hands from the mainsheet. I had a great deal of trouble playing the main and steering, my primary involvement with sheets and lines over the past couple of seasons had been to occasionally throw off a runner tail! But we had stayed upright and so were ready to go; after the addition of a wetsuit with reinforced knees and a new pair of gloves.
It turned out to be a real fun week of sailing. I was amazed at how much we improved over the course of the week. By the end of the week we were roll tacking which was a long way removed from our first race efforts! As our confidence grew so did our race strategy expand, we were able to place the boat in confined spaces and dip and tack around at will. But the biggest improvement came in our tactics and playing the shifts. Without a compass or even a masthead wind indicator, we just concentrated on looking at the water and the angles of the other competitors. The longer the week went the better we got. It was quite refreshing to sail on feel only and far more gratifying when your “gut hunches” worked out.
With all this technology in yachting it is easy to forget how much fun it is to go sailing in its basic form. With a tiller, a sheet, a set of telltales and the thrill of being so close to the water. It is not only a lot of fun but makes us much better sailors. Too many sailors have developed a reliance on instrumentation. We should always set up our boat with what feels right and then use the mechanical aids as a guide to refining our trim. Sail the boat and set up for the conditions and use the instrumentation as reassurance. If a boat feels “right” it usually is pretty close to the money. I have never been on a boat that feels uncomfortable in its setup that is fast.
Remember to never use your readouts as a snapshot. They have to be monitored over a period of time to gain an accurate indication. One of the biggest mistakes I see is a helmsman chasing the target boat speeds. You should always just sail as well as you can and the targets will come. If you remain a touch slow then some adjustments is required. Aggressively chasing the speeds will usually result in over steering and less than optimum VMG (velocity made good i.e. your speed to the next mark). Sailing a boat by feel through the helm and visual observation of the sails and sea state is much faster. I often observe a boat which is slowed down by a bad wave or stalls a bit through a header or sailing too close to the wind. The effect on the boat is instantaneous, but can be delayed on the boat speed readout by up to 7-8 seconds. If the steerer and trimmers are sailing concentrating solely on their instruments then by the time it registers the slow period will be prolonged significantly. If they react to the soft feel of the boat and the tell-tales response straight away then the speed loss will be only a minor blip. Failure to react immediately will mean a further decrease in speed and then a concerted effort to build back up to pace. This can cost you minutes around the course.
So get into developing a natural feel to your sailing. We can’t all go and jump into a dinghy (although it is a good idea) but we can do some drills to improve our skills. Sail some races or train with the instruments turned off, helmsman can have a sail blindfolded or eyes shut (preferably not in a race) to develop some feel for the boat. Sail with whole crew ignoring the readouts except for one crew commenting now and then.
Don’t sail to your instruments, let them just be an aid to help you sail.
I am quite sure that James Spithill under all that equipment was simply sailing the boat and being told what he was doing was right on the money.
Now perhaps if we could get Messrs Ellison and Bertanelli out there in Envy Dinghies!