December 04, 2017

Maciej Grabowski - Winning the 2017 Apprentice Master Worlds

For me, watching the 2000 Senior Laser Worlds in Cancun was memorable for several reasons – we had fantastic sailing conditions, the way Ben Ainslie was able to catch Robert Scheidt on the reaches, and the talk about the upcoming talent of sailors like Maciej Grabowski from Poland.

Since then, Maciej has won many international Laser events, has represented Poland at three Olympic Games, and has recently won the Apprentice Master Worlds in Split. Here’s how he trained, what he learned about the new composite top section, how he sets his MK2 sail differently, and how he sailed downwind to convincingly win in a small but very competitive fleet. 

By Maciej Grabowski
I was really looking forward to coming to Split this year. It was the first time that my whole family came with me to Croatia and it was fun having the kids around in the boat park. 

Olympic coaching

Sailing wise I did not feel ready at all. The small Apprentice fleet was not helping my chances. Neither was the little sailing I did since the 2015 Laser senior worlds. But going back to last January, I was invited by Kacper Zieminski (POL), who secured his Olympic spot for Rio games during 2015 Kingston Laser Worlds, to coach him during the Miami OCR. Spending a couple of weeks in Florida is always nice especially when the weather is really bad around here so I decided to go for what was supposed be a one-time only coaching trip.

But as it turned out, soon after Kacper asked me to join him for the remainder of his Olympic campaign and I ended up on the Polish Olympic Team as Laser coach. As much fun as it was, all those months prior to the games were really intense and I had to combine it with my regular job. Fortunately, I work for my father who took it easy on me and I was able to work a bit out of the office.

Anyway I ended up being a coach and not sailing Lasers for all of 2016. In late December, I bought a new Laser but was not able to use it until May when I went for a week to sail at Lake GardaItaly. Since then, I only did seven days of racing in Poland at two senior events and one more week in Garda. 

The composite top section and MK2 sail

During my second Polish event at the nationals, we had a nice 70 boat fleet and I felt really good in the boat so my expectations were up. The first day was maybe 10-15 knots and I decided to use my aluminum mast with Hyde sail, whereas all the top guys used composite and NeilPryde. I believe it was the 2nd race on day 1 when the wind was down to 10 knots and I managed to move from 4th at the top mark to maybe a 10 boat length lead at the bottom gate. In 10 knots I was really quick and felt comfortable before the second beat.

However the choppy water made a difference and the guy behind me started closing the gap and eventually passed me. Not only did he pass me but put another 50m on me during second part of the upwind. Despite a tight cover, he was able to get away.

What I noticed was that he would simply accelerate a bit quicker. We both would hit couple of waves, slow down but he would just recover faster. Of course I knew those guys spent really long hours training this year, but we did some racing all with aluminum masts a few weeks earlier and I knew that it was not only their fitness, technique, and time in the boat that was paying off. It had to be some influence of different equipment, something that I like to play with a lot myself too, but this year there was simply not enough time.

I haven’t done much sailing with a composite top section prior to the worlds but those couple of days I did sail in Poland were difficult ones. With more than 10 knots I was really struggling and ended up racing those two Polish events with aluminum top mast. However I knew that sooner or later there was no way back from a composite top.

Training in Split

Arriving to Croatia I was hoping to use the seven days before the event mostly to select the mast and sail I was going to use. I was lucky to have Brett Bayer (AUS) bring a NeilPryde sail for me which I thought would be better with the composite top section I was going to use.

So I started sailing in Split with a composite top and new sail. At the beginning it was looking really bad. I could not keep up with the guys I was training with. I was slower and even with a lot of effort I was able to be fast enough only a short while (we did some speed tests and I was able to keep up for 2-3 minutes) and I knew that in a regular race I would not last for the whole race.

Since I was mostly sailing with Brett and couple other guys from the Masters fleet, I knew that they were in a good shape but could not believe it was only better hiking causing so much speed difference. So I figured I needed to start looking elsewhere. First of course I would pay more attention to what the other guys were doing regarding their sail tuning (I was still at almost zero cunningham and big vang tension which is fast for the MK1 sail). Additionally I looked online at some photos from previous senior events just to have some reference regarding the sail trim.

What got me thinking was the sail damage happening in the senior fleet because several straps at the top of the sail were ripping. I’m not sure how many sails ripped and believe it was close to 20. Apparently, the stitching that attached the strap that limits the mast movement in the mast sleeve could not hold the big cunningham loads. This is what got me thinking about the cunningham because the sails would break when rounding the top mark with full tension. Surprisingly, this was only happening to Hyde sails and it turned out that the NeilPryde sails had more stitching at the sail head.

So I started asking how they set their sails, meaning vang, cunningham etc. As it turned out, the way I was trimming the MK2 was wrong - I was doing it the MK1 style, meaning no cunningham even in a big breeze, and it was not working with the MK2 sail. 
My old way of setting the MK2 sail - loose cunningham, lots of vang, and overpowered.
It's faster having lots more cunningham. 

This was a turning point for me, and from then on my upwind speed got at a level that I knew I was able to keep up with the rest of the fleet.

Competing in Split

For the worlds at Split, there was not really that much wind that having enough Cunningham tension was that relevant. I still would play a lot with this adjustment whenever breeze was up a bit. For me I’d say that learning how to trim the sail properly was more of a confidence boost so I knew I’d be competitive in 12 knots up.

The Apprentice fleet had only 14 boats, and Adonis Bougiouris (GRE) and Maksim Semerkhanov (RUS) were guys I knew from the World Cup circuit. I knew they did so much more sailing those past years than I did and it was not making me feel too comfortable before the regatta. Back in 2014 in Hyères I won first 4 races but from then on the breeze picked up and Adonis managed to beat me in what was looking like a match racing competition. I was really disappointed back then and was anxious not to let it happen again.

Because of the size of our fleet, I knew that I would have to keep an eye on both Adonis and Maxim and kind of let the other boats sail on their own. I’m sure it was a kind of an awkward view seeing the three of us sailing a separate race, but I knew it had to be like that. Adonis was actually the one trying to sail on his own in some of the races and it cost him few paces.

When I look back at it now, is sounds funny after winning all of the races, but right after the first start Adonis was to windward of me and he managed to roll over me with so such ease that I said to myself that there was no chance I was able to keep up with him. But I slowly started to get in the shift rhythm and arrived at the top mark maybe 3-4 boat lengths behind Adonis. Lucky I was at my (almost) senior speed downwind so I put maybe extra 10 boat lengths on both Adonis and Maxim on the first run.

I think that in every next race I was a little quicker upwind. But it was my downwind speed/technique that was winning races.

Downwind sailing

Regarding sailing downwind I could probably write many pages about it. The way I see it looking at the masters fleet, is that most guys were competing before downwind sailing techniques introduced the S sailing - meaning changing course when sailing downwind by either heading up or bearing off in order to get on more waves.

This is a way more complicated and sophisticated technique than it sounds. It is not only about going at a different angle than dead downwind. It is about being aware of how you need to adjust your sail, hull, position body in the boat – all in order to get on a wave a bit quicker. Even going by the lee is a skill - you obviously can’t go by the lee forever and getting back to the mark is an important part of the game. But to make it short, I think that for most of the masters fleet, this technique is something new, something they didn’t have a chance to learn properly.

There are of course some guys doing it better than others, but it is still possible to gain 200m or so during single downwind. It won’t happen in all conditions of course but this is something that all masters could work on.

Other than that there is really not that much difference between masters (in any category) and the senior fleet. Many masters would be competitive enough and fast enough upwind to be sailing senior’s gold fleet. But the downwind is something that makes all the difference.

The challenge with downwind training is that you would need to sail upwind for 2 hours in order to sail downwind for 30 minutes. And you need long hours sailing only downwind.

We used to go to lake Garda and train with the northerly wind early in the morning and sail from 8 until 11, break for lunch, wait for the wind to turn to southerly and sail back downwind again for another 3 hours.

Back in 2003 I used to train a lot with Mark Mendelblatt (USA). He invited me over to the US to train with him prior to the US Olympic trials. He already finished 6th at 2003 Laser Worlds, myself I just finished 3rd at the Laser Europeans (in Split) so we made a good training team.

The problem with Mark was that he was pretty slow downwind, so our focus was to make him a bit more competitive for the trials. We spent two weeks training in Oregon on Columbia River doing 20-25 miles downwind every second day. After moving to Texas for the trials we kept training for another two weeks with 75% of time focused on downwind. Mark eventually won the trials and finished 2nd at 2004 Laser Worlds. He was never the one gaining downwind like many of us were, but he stopped losing.

To sum up

So this ended up being my plan for the Split world championship – sticking with the guys going upwind and passing them downwind. Doesn’t sound like very exciting sailing but it actually was. I knew I had to stay focused because of what happened in 2014 in Hyères. On the last day Adonis made it a bit easier for Maxim because he was late for the last race with a black flag so we ended up match racing with Maxim, and was only able to pass him halfway up the last short upwind to the finish. This ended up being the race I was most happy with. 

Looking back at the event with a two month perspective, I’m afraid that if ILCA doesn’t do something with the regatta format, the Apprentice fleet will be gone soon. It was a bit disappointing racing only few boats after driving 1600km. Back in 2015 my home club was hosting Masters Europeans and all fleets sailed together. It made racing really fun.


  1. Interesting stuff. I hadn't realized that success at this level is partly about the choices between aluminum or composite mast, and NeilPryde or Hyde sails. (Are North sails not even in the equation?) Kind of sad that the strict one design philosophy seems to have been abandoned. (Or was it always a bit of a myth.)

    I liked the story of training for downwind sailing at Lake Garda by taking advantage of the usual middle of the day change in direction. Must make it one of the best places in the world for downwind training.

    1. People have always looked for minor differences in top sections, so the composite masts will hopefully by more consistent.

      Lake Garda as a fantastic place to sail, and we are fortunate to have friends that live there (you can see a picture from their home here

      The winds are so predictable that they have names - Pelèr from the north and Ora from the South.

    2. Yes, I know. I sailed an RS Aero regatta at Lake Garda in 2016. Looking forward to going back there one day.

    3. Tillerman, I don't believe there's a difference in the sails and I would challenge it. I've seen the data and report that the ILCA Technical Officer compiled on the 3 MKII sail makers. The data (and cloth samples) is amazingly close. There may have been some "teething" issues early on in sails from one or two of the sailmakers, but this was to do with reliability issues like stitching, etc. North's sails are just fine in my opinion.

  2. My next comment is regarding one of Maciej's statements about downwind sailing: " .... most guys (Masters) were competing before downwind sailing techniques introduced the S sailing - meaning changing course when sailing downwind by either heading up or bearing off in order to get on more waves." With all due respect to Maciej, I always laugh when I hear a younger guy remark that S turning was "invented" not that long ago. It's as if "in the old days" we pointed straight downwind and lit up a smoke. I competed in the 79, 80, 82 and 83 Laser Worlds (had a 19, 2, 6 overall in the last 3). I can guarantee you we were all S-turning back then. Now, did we train as much and get coached like the guys do these days and were we as good at DW sailing as today's top sailors. Not even close, but we were S-turning and we worked on it a lot.

  3. Final comment: Great article, Maciej!

  4. I am surprised/confused of Maciej’s sentence about old MK1 setting upwind in a strong breeze: zero Cunningham!?!?

    1. I believe with MK1, lots of downhaul is used mainly to depower - i.e. at the expense of speed. I think what Maciej is saying - on a MK2 because of the way it's cut, it's actually 'faster' (not just more controlloable).

  5. Great article. Thanks for the analysis.


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