May 15, 2012

Laser Cheat Sheet - Sailing Smart 1

by Doug
Cape Town - 1996
Laser Cheat Sheet

OK, I have a confession to make. My eyesight has never been good. About 20 years ago, it started to get really bad until finally a few years ago, I was legally blind. Seven procedures later, I can see detail and color, but I’ve never had depth perception and still don’t. Sailing with poor vision has forced me to get creative. The most productive thing was practicing at night to learn how to sail by feeling. Another was learning how to sail the competition. Few people knew about my vision, but I would sometimes get comments like "you only seem to win by a small margin." As Pam likes to say, it was because I was using my competition as seeing-eye dogs.

A lesson from the 1996 Cape Town Worlds was a defining moment and taught me a huge lesson. In the third race, I led 4-time world champion Keith Wilkins at the first mark and then covered him as tightly as I could. His response was punishing me by sailing through headers, going the wrong way, etc. I beat Keith by a few seconds but learned nothing from Keith because he was not sailing his own race. It was the best race of my life and, as it turned out, Keith threw out his second place as he easily went on to win his 5th Worlds.

The lesson learned was that sailing the competition is not covering one or more boats so that you prevent them from sailing their own race, but instead staying close and learning from them. I finished 5th in Cape Town, the same position as the previous Worlds in Japan. I had hit a glass ceiling because I actually thought I knew what to do. The people that are the most fun to compete with have forgotten more about the wind, clouds, tides, gradient this, and persistent that, than I will ever know. So, Cape Town helped me reinvent my sailing by understanding how to sail the competition.

Here's the key question: in a fleet of 50 boats, how many do you have to beat to win? If your answer is 49 as it was for me, then your chances of winning are slim. I tried this for years but there was just too much going on to keep track of, and I knew so little compared to the best in the world.

The correct answer is 1. Whether your goal is to win or simply move up in the fleet, all you need to do is pick your personal coach and watch and learn as he/she unknowingly teaches you everything they know. You do this without interfering but by waiting for them to make the small mistakes that everyone makes.

I did this in the next Worlds which were in Chile. The person to beat was Keith (duh). On every leg of every race, I watched him and learned from him. Each evening I'd update my journal to visualize what worked and what did not. He had led me to all the places on the race course he liked and all I had to worry about was boat speed and handling. Sailing the competition worked, and is how I won my first Worlds.

The truly great sailors know enough to sail the course and its conditions. I'm not as good and prefer to sail the competition, even with my improved vision. "Be smart" is never more important than when the winds are light because of the bigger shifts and the longer time that it takes to reposition yourself on the course when (not if) you make a mistake. It's percentage sailing at its best!

Update: got a great question about what to observe besides where your personal coach is sailing. Unlike poker where you never see the other person's hand, you can always see how someone is sailing - their controls, their body position and movement, what they are looking at, even their body language about their disposition. Lasers are close to identical so, it's easy to copy someone who may be going faster. And it's just as important to see what is different when you're going faster. Things change continuously so it's a constant refinement of what you observe and feel, especially in light air.


  1. Sounds like great advice - but for the weekend duffers looking to improve, what do you recommend is most important to look for in observing the leaders? You seem to emphasise watching how they choose the course, leaving you to take care of boat speed and handling - or is that due to eyesight? Is it worthwhile trying to learn from the leaders about settings of vang, cunningham, outhaul? Sail trim? Body position? Other?

  2. Great questions - I've added an update to my post.

  3. Hello, my english is pretty bad but i found your post very interesting so i would like to comment on. I'm no world champ so obviously you found interesting things i didn't ;) My feeling was always observe and mimics the best and i also found some success doing this but somewhere in my mind i always remember this quote "he who follows another is always behind". And i had the feeling it's pretty true, by copying you can get 99% of the performance and tricks but you always get a part of the picture because some things are very subtle and difficult to notice. In sailing following has a lot of limits too because you can easily finish covered.
    So don't you think at one point you have to bring something genuine to the competition to get the last edge ? I mean ok the most important thing is to get the nice tricks of everyone but in the end you need to trust yourself at one point and work the problem your own way ?

    1. Thanks for you comments and questions. The trick is I'm not following, just observing from ahead of, beside, or behind my target in a way that does not interfere.

      I have to be realistic about living in Dallas because there is no open-water conditions and no Laser competition to play with. The only way I have won major events has been combining my strength (boat speed) with how others sail the course. This worked when my vision was bad and continues to work because other sailors know so much more about where to sail.

      My style would definitely be different if I lived in Newport or Sydney.


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