Quinn Wilson

Words From The Champ: Quinn Wilson

In March of 2011 I received this e mail from Craig Wilson:

Quinn really wants to sail on Sunday if that’s still a possibility… Whatever is best for Newt and Dane. Quinn’s time will come.


That weekend, Quinn got his first taste of 29er sailing in a strange easterly breeze, tacking up the coast towards Summerland in a thick bank of fog.  After about an hour of beating upwind, Quinn had a big grin on his face, as he marveled at how fast we had gotten down the coast, and how he had never been so far from the harbor before…  Just over 3 years later, Quinn returned home from the ISAF Youth World Championships in Tavira, Portugal with his crew Riley Gibbs, bouquets in hand, and silver medals hanging around their necks.  After spending this past year transitioning into a crewing position for his fourth and final ISAF Youth Worlds, there is very little that Quinn hasn't done in this class.

As he sets his sights on a new chapter of adventure (check out @saltybrotherfilms), here are a few insights from the champ, to help the next generation dream big.

What do you remember most about your first ISAF Youth World Qualifier?
For me it was definitely the most important and most exciting qualifier of the four I sailed. The first time was a lot bigger deal for me than the other times because we hadn't been sailing the boats for very long, and we were hungry to get to the top. It was the best lead up to an event I think I have ever had. Dane and I practiced in an old Youth Foundation boat with sails that were about 50% duct tape. We were on the water almost every day in SB for a few months straight; we even practiced a few hours on Christmas Day! We were very excited about the qualifiers and for me I was still excited just to be sailing a 29er.

We had no pressure and nothing to prove so it was a lot less stressful than some of the other years. We had only sailed one other regatta together before the qualifier, so nobody really expected much. It was also very cool for me being as young and small (80 lb.) as I was to be competing against the older, more experienced kids. The qualifier was definitely an emotional roller coaster.  We went from winning by a lot, to losing going into the last race, and just managed to pass the boat we needed to beat at the end of that final race. I remember sailing in afterwards - I don’t think I have ever had that same feeling of accomplishment from sailing since.

What was it like this last time?
It was totally different this last time. I think I put a lot less pressure on myself than the years before, so I enjoyed the lead up more, but I don't think it helped our performance. I think we were the most prepared and at the same time the least prepared that I have ever been. Most prepared meaning that we were very polished and felt very good and had a ton of experience between the two of us on the boat. But I felt less prepared because we still had room for improvement and could have still been a lot better. It was difficult to get enough practice hours in living 6 hours away from each other.

What did you learn in the 4 years of sailing the 29er?
That’s a big question.

I think the number one thing that I learned was to not copy the best guys - to invent your own way of sailing. I think the biggest mistake young sailors have is that they start sailing a new boat and they try to be like the guys that are at the top. That could be the right thing to do for a while, but when you are in awe of the best or want to be like the best, there is no way you will ever beat the best. If a coach tells you something, assume that coach told everybody that same thing.

What would your advice be for a current opti sailor or beginning 29er team with their sights set on the ISAF Youth Worlds podium?
Practice a lot!  Really - Practice a lot! Sail by yourself more then with other people. Get your boat handling down before worrying about racing. The only way you will win is if you practice more and become better at sailing the boat then everybody in the world, which is not an easy task. You need to do something different. Think outside the box. Sail differently than the next guy and don't think that because one person has been winning a lot or is the best in the world, that they can't be beaten. Anybody can win at any time.

What is your next focus?
Definitely ready for a break from sailing for a bit. These last 4 years have been an amazing learning experience that will stay with me forever. Right now I’m going to work mostly on school, film making with #Saltybrotherfilms, and maybe get my kite board racing career started finally! You can bet that I'll be thinking outside the box in all of those arenas too!

Be sure to check out Quinn and Dane's latest project @saltybrotherfilms on Instagram

The Process: Embrace The Pressure

The ISAF Youth World Qualifiers.  In the last eight years, I have attended the regatta six times, three as a sailor and three as a coach.  The event holds a special place in my development in both realms, and every time I participate, I learn a tremendous amount about myself and my teammates.  

Mentally, the regatta can seem like the most difficult event of the year to win; being the fastest, the smartest, and the best team on the water is not always enough.  Small errors often lead to a cascade of mistakes in the heightened competitive environment, and the psychology of knowing that you only have one shot to get it right can be consuming. The most important tool to bring to competition at this event is without a doubt, the right mindset.


Be confident in your training

Coming into the top mark, Dane and Quinn are on port, battling for first or second after a heroic rally from a deep start.  As they approach the three boat length circle, they are bow ahead, but just barely.  With their blazing speed downwind, they can easily afford to duck the first place boat, and catch them again after the mark.  But they don't.  With both boats inside of the zone, Quinn throws a last minute tack at the mark to try to squeeze around inside, and from my vantage point it looks clean, but a second later I hear the shout, "Protest."  Later that night, after sitting through hours of tense protest hearing, Dane and Quinn get disqualified from the race, using up their single discard, and setting up a tough battle for the remaining days of the event.

If you are vying for a top spot at this regatta, you have probably put in hundreds of hours on the water in the last year, and your experience in the boat will show.  On a wide open race course, anybody can execute a good maneuver, but in high pressure situations, there is no substitute for experience - knowing when you can make the cross, where you need to tack inside, and when to take the high percentage duck.  Trust your training, and stick to what you know.  Remember, the best you can do is to sail to your potential; you can never exceed it.


Be confident in the racing format

Race 7 - the final race of the day.  So far our scoreline for the day was a 3, 2, 1, and we were keen to continue the trend to hopefully put some points between us and Judge and Hans.  The course four placard went up, signaling a three lap race to finish the day.  We came off of the line with good speed, and by the top mark, we had established a lead, followed by Max and David, and then Judge and Hans.  This was exciting. Aside from the first race of the regatta, this was the only other race where we had been able to get a boat between us! We went around the course once.  Around the course twice.  Around the course a third time.  We passed the committee boat to round the leeward mark and turn back upwind for the finish, and as we approached the leeward mark, we heard a horn for the first place finisher... We had misread the course chart, and instead of sailing through the finish line on the downwind, we had gotten three quarters of the way to a mark that wasn't on our course!  By the time we got the kite down, and got back up to the line, five boats had finished ahead, and Judge and Hans had erased our regatta lead.  This in itself wouldn't have been the end of the regatta, but an impending sense of doom set in. Two days and three races later, we lost the event in the last race of the regatta.

In an average twelve race series, there are 24 upwind legs, 36 mark roundings, 60 minutes of pre-race jockeying, 180 standard maneuvers, and ultimately 420 minutes of racing.  Don't let a single race outcome influence the rest.  With thousands of decisions to be made over the course of a regatta, a few bad tacks, bad shifts, or bad starts aren't going to end your regatta.  Be quick to let mistakes go - they are part of the statistical inevitability that is sailboat racing.  Instead, focus on what you can control.  As Quinn says, "The mistake isn't the first error, but allowing emotions from the first error to create a second."


Embrace the pressure

In 2006 I sailed my first Youth World Qualifier - the C420 Midwinters in Jensen Beach - with Oliver Toole.  The event was our first out of state regatta, and we were blown away by how many boats were competing.  We knew it was a qualifier for something, but we didn't really know what the ISAF Youth Worlds were.  For four days, we battled it out around 20th place, stoked to be racing at the top of the fleet, especially in the breezy conditions.  Eventually finishing 18th, we were dimly aware that there was a battle going on for the Youth Worlds slot, but mostly we were just stoked at a good first performance.  

At the 2007 Youth World Qualifier, we entered the event with confidence in our training, but with no goals except just sailing well.  Judge and Hans had won most of the West Coast circuit and had been to CORK, Worlds, and other international events while Oliver and I had only been sailing the boat together for a few months, training mostly by ourselves at home, and competing in a handful of local events.  There were some "big name" opti kids who had bought boats for the qualifier, and lots of teams had high powered, private coaches with them on the water.  Again, we felt like small fish in a big pond.  It wasn't until half way through the regatta when we were leading the boys division by a comfortable margin, that we started to feel any pressure.  At the point that all eyes were on us, we had already established our rhythm, and the pressure just added fuel to fire aggressive tactics, and confident execution.

In a competitive year, probably only the top 10-20% of the fleet will have a shot at winning the event.  When you start to feel the pressure, embrace it! Not many people make it to the point where they get to compete in those high pressure situations, so have fun in the spotlight, and let it build on your confidence.


Do what needs to be done

I have seen this lesson over and over again at this regatta, and solidified it both the easy way, and the hard way on occasions.  When you have done the work to be at the top, and you are confident in your training, you have the opportunity to win the event, but in a fleet of boats who are all gunning for the top spot, staying on top of the pile while the target is on your back can sometimes seem like an impossible puzzle.  While it might seem obvious, one of the most challenging things to do is to keep the goal in mind, and do what needs to be done.  If you need to start near your competition, don't be tentative - be confident.  If the only way to win is to split sides and take a risk, send it hard.  If you need to win a match race, go get in the battle as soon as the prep flag goes up.  Trust your skills, and execute the correct strategy, even if it seems difficult.

If you can manage to keep racing straightforward and stay confident in yourself, you will maximize your chances of sailing to your potential, and ultimately that's all you can ask of yourself and your teammate.

The Process: One Step At A Time

In the past few months, Dane and I have run a few regional clinics, coaches several events, and worked with many teams on improving boat handling skills around the course.   There has been some good improvement from many teams, but the rate of improvement varies a lot from team to team.  While everyone needs old lessons to be reinforced every once in a while, the teams who make the most progress are the ones who really drill down into the details and master each individual skill before moving on to the next one.  Here are a few important things that you can do to ensure that you master new skills and arrive at your next event ready for the next piece of the puzzle.

Practice The Fundamentals
When Quinn finished the crew swap round-robin drill at the Long Beach ODP camp, his first comment was, "Everyone needs a lot of work on their fundamentals."  Fundamentals are the building blocks that go into every other maneuver including balance, feel, smoothness, quick reaction time and more.

While it's easy to gloss over the fundamentals in our quest to get racing quickly, they are often times the factors that cause teams to plateau in ability.  Here are some drills that you can incorporate into every practice to keep pushing your fundamentals forward and to prevent plateauing.

  • Work on feel:
    • Rudderless sailing
    • Blindfolded sailing
  • Work on balance:
  • Work on having smooth, quick reactions:
    • Heeled to windward progressions
    • Freestyle trapeezing

"Intensity without good foundations is flawed"

- Kenny Kane, Crossfit Games coach

One. Step. At. A. Time.
One of the biggest functions of a coach is to simplify everything happening on the water to come up with one or two changes that will improve a team's outcome.  Frequently I have parents ride along in the coach boat, who want their sailor to master twenty different lessons in each visit to the coach boat, but it's very important to pick one thing to work on, and master that single thing before moving to the next thing.  For example, during our April clinic in Santa Barbara, the main focus was on light air gybes, and specifically the timing of the kite relative to the steering.  At this most recent ODP Camp in May, it was very obvious which teams fixed that issue, and which have not yet.  Those who have fixed the issue can now move on to the next item on the checklist, while those who practiced "boat handling" in general, might be a tiny bit better at everything, but still don't have satisfactory gybes or (likely) any other maneuver.  To help organize what you are focusing on in each condition, try putting together a SWOT Chart like this one, and tracking your improvement over time.

Focus On The Details
We have discussed this before, but we can't emphasize enough how important it is to focus on finer and finer details the better you get.  Almost all of the teams that we work with at this point have the a solid foundation of skills; most teams can get on a starting line, find a clean lane, and pick their heads up out of the boat to think about tactics during racing, but at the top of the fleet, that is not enough.  The top teams consistently push themselves to focus on finer and finer details: obviously they nailed their hand and foot positioning, but did they pull on the boat as hard as they could in the exit?  Was the rate of pull consistent?  Could they have varied the rate of pull to eek out a tiny bit more acceleration in the middle of the flatten?

Whenever you receive criticism from a coach, make a note of what it was, and dig into it when you get to train by yourself.  If the kite switch in a gybe was your weakness, try to determine why it didn't go well.  Was your foundation of footwork and handwork good?  Was your timing correct?  Did you do any extra or unnecessary movements?  Were you limited by your fitness?