It's a funny thing that, no matter how old you are, when you visit your parents you always regress to being a kid again - at least a little bit.
A couple of years back I was staying in my parent's house for a long weekend, and it was one of those all-too-rare occasions that I was on my own - no wife, no kids and no siblings. My dad had recently bought a book, Clive Eplett's Club Sailor: From Back to Front, and so I immediately commandeered it as my own (the regression had kicked in) and took in to reading it.
I was staying with my folks for a surprise party, so the weekend was all about catching up - with my parents, with friendsand family, and (maybe most importantly) with sleep, but instead of getting to bed at a decent hour and enjoying lazy lie-ins I found myself reading into the small hours of the morning. By the time I was due to travel home I had read almost the entire book.
And, as I was in teenage mode, I asked my dad if I could "borrow" the book, and then took it home to Ireland with me. It is still on my book shelves now, and my poor old dad has had to buy his own copy.
The reason I read it so quickly, and stole the book for myself, is that it is not only very readable, but it is also very different from any sailing book I've ever read. Clive, like me, is a good club sailor who has had a little success on the national circuit. This makes it very easy to relate to him - he talks about the kinds of things that most of us struggle with, and provides solutions for how to improve in these areas. He also uses lots of relevant quotes and anecdotes that really compliment and enhance whatever topic he happens to be discussing, and he does so with plenty of humour. I've written a proper review of the book here.
I was fascinated by the book, so recently I got in touch with Clive and asked him if he'd answer a few questions for me. He was very kind (and very efficient) and I had my answers back in no time. And here they are:
First I want to find out a little about your own background. How did you get into sailing?
My dad sailed where I grew up in Fowey. I was taken sailing even before I can even remember and it was all I wanted to do. He said I could start crewing as soon as he believed I would sit still and concentrate for the duration of a race
What boats did you sail? Did any of them teach you any valuable skills particularly well that you’ve been able to transfer to other boats?
I started by crewing in his Troy, an over-canvassed 18ft keelboat exclusive to Fowey. One to helm, one to crew and one to pump-out the water coming in over the side (initially me, but I soon appropriated the proper crewing role). From pretty much the beginning Dad would have me helm it off the mooring and back on to it after (no engines). In a boat that has a 30ft mast up there and can lay over to 60 degrees plus in gust, you have to anticipate or you wipe the rig out on a moored yacht you are passing. So be alert, anticipate.
The wind in Fowey harbour can be bonkers; I learned that it’s never finished until the gun goes. Adapt, deal with what fate gives you but never give up.
I then moved onto Mirrors aged 14 when dad orchestrated some major changes in the sailing club set-up in Fowey. We went, within a few weeks, from no dinghies to taking 100 or so kids out every Tuesday. A season later we had a decent Mirror fleet. I was the oldest and had been sailing longest so started with an edge. But a couple of people with far more natural talent than me emerged. We were all obsessed and the rivalry meant we all pulled each other up by our bootstraps. Happy days; I’ve been a committed dinghy sailor ever since. Out of that, I got also to drive other boats like Scorpions and our youth leader had an Osprey – there’s some stories to tell about that thing.
At Uni we had Larks, which we team-raced but also raced at club level and on the circuit. That led to Lark and 470 campaigning, as crew, with different helms. I took some time out for a few years from 1983, then did 2 years at the front of a 14. When kids arrived, I joined Frensham and got a Laser and worked my way up from literally the back of the fleet – at the outset I was terrible in any half-decent breeze. It was hilarious at times; if I overtook someone from my usual windy-day last place, they’d promptly retire! I persevered though and have got dramatically better. I also have a 200 and the wonderful mid-life-crisis toy that is my RS100.
Have you ever received any coaching? What coaching was most helpful to you?
Not much, frankly. Mike Lawton of Parkers coached us a bit in our 470 days, but generally it’s been about working it out for myself or with the person I was sailing with. Reading, trying, experimenting, thinking. I’m not that talented compared to some of my friends or even family but dedication/obsession has its rewards.
What was your biggest ever success in dinghy racing? How did you go about achieving it?
I remember getting home from an open meeting weekend when perhaps aged 22 and thinking “that might be your most fabulously happy weekend you’ll ever have.” It must he been successful on the water with some fine partying too. In objective terms, we earned the grants to represent the county twice in the 470 albeit at a time when lots of superstars were taking a break after the RYA stopped sailors going to the Moscow Olympics because the USSR invaded Afghanistan.
The book is focused on ‘weekend warriors’. What one thing could most people do that would help them to improve their results?
I think it was Einstein who said a sign of madness is continually doing the same thing and expecting a different outcome. Get someone to video you sailing a race, then video the class hotshot for a race and compare the two. Do what he does, not what you always do. On race duty, go out in the safety boat and follow around the leaders – watch, learn and apply.
Is there a sailing exercise that they could do that would help them rapidly improve this area?
This question has prompted me to invent a gadget – an inclinometer that sounds like a Geiger-counter. If the boat is flat, it’s silent, but the more the heel, the nastier it sounds. Until that is released (patent pending), in a two-person boat, fit a normal inclinometer and get the crew to do the sound effects (a Spike Milligan raspberry would do nicely). In a single hander, you’ll have to do you own sound-effects. I don’t think this excersise is in the RYA Coaching book!
You talk about The Inner Game of Tennis in your book – it’s a book I love too. Can you talk a little about what you think sailors can get from the book?
What you need is an ear-worm of the week – one of those songs that is annoying, but won’t get out of your head. When that tricky gybe, tight finish close-out or whatever has got brain rabbiting in your ear, make it sing you the song instead and allow muscle memory to sail the boat. For me that’s the key take-away from it.
One of the many things I love about your book is that you talk about some of the things that most other sailing books don’t cover but that turn up a lot in club racing – like downwind starts. How did you improve your own skills in these areas, given that there’s not a lot of material out there to help you learn from?
By getting it wrong! I don’t claim to be ‘fast’, but Fowey and Frensham have taught me to be sneaky and I’ve learned to have the courage of my convictions. I won’t claim infallibility by any means but you don’t have to be one of the sheeple.
Think about the priorities; at a chaotic leeward mark, good positioning for the rounding is the top priority. I’ll happily slow the boat and give 3 or 4 boat lengths away to ensure I get a nice rounding rather than get taken-out among the inevitable chaos. So get your head out of the boat and start thinking several moves ahead. Tom’s clever, he’ll do something tricksy, so take care. Dicks’ has slow hands so will stop, leaving you nowhere to go; hang back. Harry will approach too tight, come out wide and leave me a lovely gap. That sort of thing.
You talk a little about breaking bad habits – about the inertia of a lot of club racers in that they have certain routines that hold them back from improvement. Do you have any good tips to help break the cycle?
Validate and benchmark what you are doing frequently, perhaps every few seconds. I still ask myself things like “what would Roger or Nick do now” (Messrs Gilbert and Craig). That test can apply to strategy, tactics, keeping the boat flat, how hard you are hiking, how the rig is set up and everything else. I have a theory that club sailors often know deep down what they should be doing. So do it! Whatever it takes to make that change.
What was that TV programme? “Tonight Matthew, I am going to be… Ben Ainslie” – sail by pretending to be someone else. Whatever gets you to do it differently.
You talk a bit about visualisation. Is it something you use much? When and where and how often?
Not often enough frankly, but it is in the arsenal. A few years ago now, I was persuaded to sail a Phantom in our first FPSC Open for that class. Saturdays training day showed I had some decent speed going and I did visualise that night on converting that speed to a win. Something worked; I did indeed win it.
I rarely sail my Laser now, so if I decide to do an open, I do some, almost sub-consciously.
You talk about top sailors being relentless? How do you go about developing relentlessness as a sailor?
I worked out in my teens that concentrating on concentrating, is not concentrating on sailing the boat. When I race, all thoughts of work, DiY or anything else disappear (back to dad’s minimum requirement to crew for him I guess). I am solely focussed on catching the boat(s) ahead or doing the right things to retain a lead. Back to the Inner Game, if brain starts to try and impose something else, he gets given that song to perform (mainly just in my head, my singing aloud could be deemed Unfair Sailing)
Can you explain ‘cutting the circles’? Do you use it yourself, or do you think of it as a tool to learn about windshifts?
The pictures are worth a thousand words. Everyone’s mind works differently; but is this like one of those brain-teasers where once you see the image is spinning left not right, or could be seen either way? Once you ‘get’ it, it all becomes so obvious, but perhaps some need to take the time outside a race environment to work it out for oneself. If you can get over the hump, it’s a handy tool but not something that always provides the definitive answer.
You mention the fact that most clubs sail close to a shore, whether they be lake sailors where marks tend to be close to shore, or sea clubs where they sail close to shore for safety and time-constraint reasons. How do you go about figuring out wind-bends and wind pockets that repeat themselves, and how can you use this to your advantage?
I heave-to and actually have to move one hand about to simulate what I think the wind will do, then use the other to figure the resultant sailing angles. A waterproof pad pad pencil would also work of course. If there is time, I will go and test it. Basic rule on ponds etc – get away from the sheltered bit asap.
Do you use goal-setting to improve your sailing? What tools (if any) do you use, and how frequently do you re-visit your goals?
I mostly use the brilliant Goalscape software for work, although it was actually designed for a 49er campaign. I’ve not set-out on a serious campaign for a fair while now, but when we really tried in the 200 we did use those techniques. We also had a Facebook group for just the 2 of us and were frank sharing issues after each weekend and then working up solutions.
What are the Essential 5 Essentials that you talk about?
The RYA Level 1 things, so Balance (side to side), Trim (fore and aft), Sail Setting, Centreboard Position and Course Made Good.
I know from your book that you think about the future of sailing. How healthy do you think the sailing scene is at the moment, and what do you think can be done to improve it?
Don’t get me going – this is a major topic on its own – let’s do it another time please!
What one piece of equipment do you find the most useful for improving results?
The bit between the ears. My hero Michael McNamara kindly read Club Sailor and said he loved the fact I put the brain chapters at the beginning.
Other than your own book, are there any other books, DVDs or websites that you have found particularly useful for improving your sailing?
The passion pouring from every sentence of Dave Perry's book is fab – read some after a winter-break to build enthusiasm for a new season. Mark Rushall's Tactics gave me lots to think about. Eric Twiname’s Start to Win in the 70’s when I was starting out.
Actually writing then going public with Club Sailor was itself helpful. “Don’t be a hypocrite” is a pretty strong motivator.
What’s the best bit of advice you’ve ever received for sailing?
Remember that it’s supposed to be fun, so enjoy it.
Do you do fitness work for your sailing? If so, what do you do? Can you describe a favourite routine or fitness session that you have found that works?
No, I just go sailing. I don’t run, or go to the gym but I walk everywhere fast. I really ought to stretch more, my flexibility is appalling. But frankly I’d rather go sailing.
If you had a motto for your sailing what would it be?
Be thankful you have this, the ultimate sport, in your life.
If you want to find out a bit more about Clive Eplett and his book then have a look at his website where he's got more information and other helpful bits and bobs.