March 07, 2015

What Game Are You Learning To Play?

by Pam

I have always rejected the 'time on the water' teaching, believing that spending time perfecting a bad habit would just make me really good at being bad. I wanted to learn perfect technique first and then spend time practicing that. Was it really necessary to re-invent the wheel and go through the time and frustration of learning what does and doesn’t work? I'm now questioning my rejection of the 'time on the water' teaching.

At the Laser Masters Worlds this past September in France, I got to be a fly on the wall and watch the interaction of the sailors and listen to the chatter. There was so much talent there and everyone had an opinion. All this free advice was being given and yet many of the top sailors didn't appear to be paying attention or listening to each other.

I listened with interest to the advice of Steve Cockerill of Rooster Sailing as he described the choice between the full rig or Radial. Steve chose correctly for the conditions and went with the Radial and won his division. Al Clark, like Doug, chose a full rig and joked with Doug about how they chose the wrong rig but at least Al hadn't done it two years in a row. Brett Beyer won his division with all firsts and I listened as he talked about going head to head with Al Clark, knowing he couldn't beat Al on boat speed in the light conditions and had strategically split from him when Al didn't have to time react and follow. We spent time talking with multiple sailors who won their divisions. And many more who were former world champions. With 500 sailors there, it was a Who's Who type of event.

I can't recall specific examples or conversations but over and over again, I was struck with the impression of being surrounded by what felt like a humble arrogance. Confidence might be a better word. At that level, the guys don't learn much from each other. They talk at each other and share their experience about what is working but they aren't seeking advice from others or listening to it. They've learned there is more than one way to do the same thing. They've perfected their own techniques and they sail their own race. They know their competition's strengths and weaknesses and they sail tactically against them but they make no attempt to copy the techniques of others. I had never really been around so much confidence after racing. It was a real treat.

The Final Beat is an entertaining blog and an excellent resource for pointing a sailor to the best information and expert advice for a sailor to get better, quicker. I've often pointed out something on the blog to Doug and asked if he'd tried that. The answer is usually no. When various high level sailors have talked about technique, I've asked Doug if he has tried that. The answer is usually no.

What I didn't understand is that Doug's answer isn't arrogance. The response to most of my "have you ever tried …" questions is something along the lines of 'he's a better sailor than me in those conditions and he gets to practice in those conditions all the time and I'll never be able to beat him by trying to copy him.' Similarly, Brett Beyer would never attempt to copy Al Clark's techniques either. Training with them at the venue before the event is a different matter.

The learning process (or should I say training process) is more tactical. It's a matter of learning the strengths and weaknesses of their competition and then matching it against their own and finding a way to use it against them. That's a totally different game than I've been playing. Doug calls it sailing the course vs the competition. He decided long ago that he would rarely be the fastest around the course and there was a higher percentage of success in sailing strategically against his competition.

Long before Doug arrives at an event, he knows who will be competing, who is good in light, medium, or heavy conditions, who chokes, who pulls rabbits out of hats, who has been on the water the most, who is winning, and he usually has a pretty good guess of who will win the event. He is always gathering information about his competition, even during fun weekend sailing. His mind is always geared toward observing and finding the strengths and weaknesses.

Definitely a different game than I play. I just show up and hope for the best. 


  1. Well written observations. Thanks for sharing. As for time on the water, it seems to me absolutely necessary. A land drill or even reading about a technique can be useful but only the real environment of being on the water can give it a real feel, with lots of other details cluttering around. And of course, the whole idea of keeping your head out of the boat can only be learned on the water.

  2. Another layer to your assessment is natural talent. My grandfather is a HOF baseball player from the 30s and 40s. He had a .311 lifetime batting average over 13 years in the majors and once told a group of college players that hitting was the simplest thing in the game. He said "Just watch the ball contact the end of the bat and flick it out over the SS head". When I was ten, I watched a 65 year old retired major leaguer shoot ten out of ten skeet, hand thrown, with a .22 rifle. I'd never seen anyone do that let alone my old grand dad. You see, he had 20-5 vision or a "god given" tool that most mortals only dream of. Without that eyesight, he would never hit the ball. Doug and the sailors at the top of the fleet have their own version of 20-5 vision, whether it be physical or mental. No matter how much time spent in the boat, you either have or you don't.

  3. Interesting thoughts. Over and over I'm reminded that people aren't one design. Be it natural talent, handicaps that predispose them to excellence, a perfect racing physique, brilliance in tactical observation and execution, etc. Once you get the boat as one design as possible, you get to see alot of variety in how each sailor goes about achieving success, failing to find it, or just treading water. Kind of like navigating our way through life ... most of us have to repeat the same lessons over and over to learn and others just get it immediately and take off.


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