While coaching this weekend, I noticed during the races that each sailor ended up in about the same spot in the fleet every race. There were some minor back and forth changes in position, but one sailor typically jumped out into the lead, two sailors lightly pushed behind him for the next spots, and everyone else fell into neat little packs made just for them. There is a tendency for sailors to get accustomed to sailing in a certain area of the fleet, which stifles sailors of all skill levels.
This is problematic for sailors who do not see the front of the fleet often. All sailors usually take a few years to initially develop some semblance of top-level boat speed. This learning curve keeps them far away from that top group for a long time. When they are finally able to hang with the top sailors in terms of speed, they then have to take the next steps to learn how to use that speed, and maintain their position in the top groups. This weekend, I saw two young sailors, who had every bit as much speed as the top three kids in the group. Early on, they were often hanging with the top sailors. However, it didn’t take long for the three strongest sailors to pick them apart tactically, and squeeze them out of the picture.
This is problematic for the stronger sailors as well. In nearly every regatta, there is AT LEAST one race (probably more), where a few of the best sailors get into trouble early in a race, and have to work there way out of the middle or back of the fleet. At every single regatta, having a race or two like this usually costs at least one person from winning. Sailors, who so easily skip to the front of the fleet, rarely have to sail in tight lanes, fight for room with 50 boats at a leeward mark, duck a pack of boats to get out to the favored side, etc. These are important skills that grow dull over hours and hours of time spent at the front of a pack.
In the afternoon, I decided to add as twist to the races. As the sailors went upwind, I would blow a whistle, and, from there, all had to race to the leeward mark, up to the windward mark, and then finish downwind. Everyone has experienced this drill. It is not groundbreaking in any way. However, when this drill is typically run, it is done on a very short course, and the focus is on creating a tight leeward mark rounding. This was different. The course we sailed on was 20+ minutes long, and the whistle was never blown until the top sailor was within five boat lengths of the windward mark. This gave everyone time to sail in his or her new positions. As I suspected, the top kids ended up in the middle of the group by the leeward mark, and many struggled with mark roundings. They pushed themselves much harder throughout the whole race, and usually ended up back in the front. The rest of the sailors got new perspective as well, and usually lost hold of their leads, even if they were as fast as the trailing boats. However, it gave them an initial look at what to expect at the front of a fleet, and a first hand experience of what the top sailors do in that position.
Ultimately, this drill will not get anyone results in a day. Over time, it is meant to make the top kids work much harder than they are used to, and teach the middle and bottom kids how to control a fleet from ahead. This way, your top sailors get better at dealing with tough situations, and the bottom sailors learn front of the fleet tactics long before they reach that point in their sailing careers. Make sure to stretch the course, and let your sailors reach the top before reversing the race. With steady use in practice, you should see results on the racecourse much faster than with traditional races.
See you on the water,