Olympic campaigning is the pure declaration of being the best you can be. The breadth of our effort is extreme, as it covers all sorts of intricate details. All of the components are important, but what we do on the water determines the medals.
When reflecting on our recent Aarhus and Japan experiences, I see three categories that can improve our game team-wide. We need to prepare better so we sail with more confidence, we need to sail more consistently in shifty conditions, and we need to approach our sailing with a stronger bond between visual intellect and feel.
By Luther Carpenter
Let’s Start With Feel
Feel encompasses a wide range of sensations:
A) How fast is the boat going?
B) Do I have a balanced helm?
C) Is the groove elusive and difficult, or do I have the perfect amount of gear changeability?
D) Is the boat balanced?
E) Am I over powered or under powered?
F) Do I accelerate well and on demand?
G) Is my technique solid through transition?
H) Can I race well with the boat feeling like this?
I) Do I have different modes to choose from, and can I switch quickly to each?
J) Is my hiking technique strong, efficient, and translating into boat speed?
K) Am I in sync with the subtlety of the wind velocity increase and decreases?
L) Do I feel efficiency on the centerboard?
M) Do I feel the subtle sheet pressure on the sail I’m trimming, and have I found the right range?
N) Do I know what absolute fast forward is?
O) Do I know max height mode?
P) Do I accurately know the “stall points” of sail trim and angle sailed?
Q) And the list goes on…
My favorite question is “how does it feel?”. As your support vessel, I’m looking for answers from the list above. And as a coach, I’m reminding you to think in depth about your sensations. I don’t want to hear “good” or “terrible”, I want you to answer in an intellectual manner.
I’m not asking you to over-complicate moments. I want to teach you how to arrive at all those answers without hesitation, for you’ve trained yourself to feel those on auto-pilot. It takes work, but is easily achievable as a goal.
In Olympic sailing, there are many types of intellect needed, and all have their time and place to be used:
1) Feel intellect is essential, and ALL of the medalists have a PHD in it. You will too.
2) Visual intellect is the ability to recognize things, and immediately perceive the complete story. Snapshots is a term we use for familiar and repeating tactical situations. When trimming sails, a glance at your mainsail leech is visual intellect - you must decide if the twist and depth is right in an eye’s moment. And on the course, an approaching wind field or mixed puff pattern must be part of our visual intellect. Generally, visual intellect is calling on a vast library of stored knowledge in our brain. Our eyes see it, it triggers experience data, and we react.
3) Board room intellect is used more in depth for designing equipment, or studying detailed weather phenomena, or maybe it’s creating our budgets and strategizing fundraising. It’s essential deeper thought, but isn’t appropriate in the cockpit during a race. Stanford, Yale, Harvard graduates love board room thought and banter!
4) Post action intellect is what we do when we debrief.
Visual intellect is an area where our team can improve dramatically. I want our team to draw “more detailed information” from quick looks with confidence. We need to be better sail trim experts, by training our eyes relating “what we see” to how we “feel”. This relationship is one of the main points of this article. We should be able to look at a picture of a sail, and know exactly how that boat feels. Visual intellect and feel are bonded as one.
I was asked a few years ago “what’s more important, being able to see it or feel it?”. It’s both.
Let’s look at a common example: If the wind is a steady 8-9 knots in smooth water, the trim and telltale behavior can be very twitchy and accurate, while the boat has less feel but is highly efficient. That is the unique relationship of speed and height for that condition. It’s the “feel” of mainsheet tension on your hand, a completely neutral helm, butt/leg pressure down on the deck (while feeling good load against the efficient centerboard), wind on your face, “seeing” just enough twist, upper batten telltale behavior, jib tell tale, and the next approaching wind feature. It’s a LONG list, and you are in charge of continuing the cycle over and over with top precision. It’s fun.
Let’s talk bigger picture. How do we sail more consistently over the length of a regatta.? That goal is achieved by executing all the proper (intellectual) mindsets pre-race, during the race, and in each condition to the next. Our minds are mini-computers being challenged with a scenario, and we must constantly spit out the best percentage moves.
A single sailboat race is a collection of 600 (!) probable input/reaction moments. Here’s my math: 40 minute race (2,400 seconds), an input and decision/reaction every 4 seconds = 600. That could be a telltale flick, a wave to steer around, a boat to duck, a puff to hike and ease, a lay-line to hit, etc. When you really think about it, it’s amazing we can process all that and do it. Pole vaulters run, jam a stick in the ground, and arch over a bar - done!
We are major multi-taskers, switching from “more vang”, to “aft thigh”, to “am I crossing?”, “down 8”, “3 minutes off lay line”, and maybe even “15 degree right shift - gybe setting!”.
In regatta debriefs, we’ll sometimes say “your event was three key decisions away from finishing top 5”. Really? 600 x 8 races = 4,800. And I only screwed up 3 times? I’m sure my desktop math is flawed somewhat, but clearly some inputs and decision moments have more “value” than others.
Let’s dig deeper. If I’m having a visual input every 4 seconds, how in the world do I know which ones are the most important to pay attention to? It’s like going to the Houston Rodeo in Reliant Stadium: Cowgirls/Cowboys, bucking broncos, Margaritas, flashing lights, 60,000 people, it’s hard to know what to look at! So of course we categorize and highlight the top priorities to watch. You assess, discuss with your teammate, and use your coach as the information vessel - “Coach what are you seeing on the course?”. Coaches are paid observers reporting bankable facts.
But it’s more than a pre-race discussion, or cherry-picking a single 4 second moment; it’s the ability to chain together multiple looks, and assess bigger picture decisions. In split seconds, you mind is telling you “this is different, and the moment of opportunity is NOW”, or “ah, I’m getting a “feeling” the puffs are coming from the right more often as the day goes on”. Or, maybe in the midst of a complicated day, your veteran intellect is telling you “a finish between 3rd and 6th is just fine here, position properly”.
Now as I’m emphasizing intellect, it’s important to mention that a challenge in the Olympic world, is everyone is an intellectual. Banging off by yourself begs the question “why am I the only one here?”. Why am I gambling leverage? What is the percentage play that my internal computer knows for my best overall regatta score? There is “smart leverage”, which is splitting short-term for something better; and there is desperation, gambling, or looking for the easy way out. And of course there is “sticking with the fleet and positioning better”.
The reason I’m emphasizing visual intellect/feel, is that I want to give you the tools to be more comfortable and dominate in the subtle positioning game. Can you thrive on the knife-fight close racing? Do you love rounding the weather mark with 25 boats close behind? To win the Gold Medal your answer must be “YES!”.
Let’s talk about shifty unpredictable winds. Oof, we need to improve in this condition. It’s challenging because it’s calling on the visual/feel skills at an alarming rate, even sometimes faster than every 4 seconds. Past history (meaning what side paid) has less bankable value, and there is a premium on reacting quickly to change as it is occurring. Your goal is to be “seeing it” (or realizing it) before the others, and claiming the open lane as the next puff/shift comes in.
Story time - who is one of the most successful US Olympians in sailing? Paul Foerster (3 Olympic medals, 2 PanAm medals). Paul grew up sailing on Texas lakes, and enjoys shifty conditions. He’s a quiet man who gets confidently down to business. His most important pre-race routine? Get out there as early as you can, and sail the shifts to get a “feel” for the timing of the shifts. That’s Paul’s method regardless of condition. He trusts his eyes, his feel, and his experience more than a weather forecast or his coach. Paul needs to be our hero.
When thinking about Paul, I create this mindset and advice on shifty days:
1) On shifty days when warming up, NEVER sail on a header. Sailing on the lifted tack ALWAYS feels better/easier, so follow Paul’s advice and get a “feel” for it.
2) On unpredictable days, history can’t be trusted, so you need more pre-race “data”. Sail at least two test beats with some length, and then any opportunity to do “short-bursts”. During postponements, recalls etc stay in phase to increase your confidence , track the rhythm of the shifts, and train you to transition well. The rhythm and feel of the wind is your data to collect.
3) Acceleration and transition are two absolute requirements to race well in shifty conditions. As you sail in phase, don’t be afraid to crack sheet to accelerate followed by trim and height. I’d be willing to bet that the last race you won, you accelerated well.
4) Success breeds confidence and brings more success on shifty days. Arrive to the race course ready to feel and learn the condition, and stay sharp all day. Your to do list is: Always be in phase, accelerate well, always in clear lanes.
5) And a Paul bonus - He worked on his boat more, trains more, and wants it more than anyone else. Malcolm Page quote on Paul “he was hard working and bloody smart!”
“Ok, how do I get better at visual intellect, and match it with my feel sensations?”
A) Sail more alone, and heighten your awareness. Become a master at gear changing, transition, and acceleration because YOU feel it and react.
B) Look at your sails, and equate vision to feel. Experiment, don’t always do it the same way.
C) Become a master at identifying the “edges” of performance - i.e. what is just slightly too full, too flat, perfect depth; where is the line when stall is approaching and how do you “reload”? How quickly can you get into fast forward VMG, standard, and high pointing VMG, all in perfect trim?
D) Use your coach, other team members, etc to discuss trims and techniques.
E) “Race” from the moment you leave the dock to return. Cruising will come later in your life.
So it’s easy right? Make 4,800 good decisions and you win a Gold Medal! That’s pretty daunting and hard, but what we can do is strive to sail as perfect a race as possible. The intensity at which you operate on the water needs to be high, and there are massive gains to be made right in front of us. Step one is to tell yourself you WILL BE the best at visual intellect and feel. Become more aware, learn to observe better, talk about it with your teammates and coaches. It’s sailing at Olympic level.
Step two is control your thought processes to focus on the “now”. What’s the condition, what’s the pre-race plan, what’s the line look like, what phase is the wind in, how is the boat moving, what’s the key to speed, what’s my next move. Feed the computer solid data, and your mind will react with the best solution more often.
Hopefully some of these ideas are thought provoking and helpful. As a team, we have three immediate important tasks ahead:
1) Approach racing with more purpose, focus, and confidence
2) Sail well in shifty conditions
3) Look forward to pressure racing for the top spots.
We will talk more about sailing under pressure soon, but for now we have detailed work to do, and should have comfort knowing that work in the right focus areas will deliver the ability to shine with confidence when it counts!
Written by Luther Carpenter