Want to know the easiest way to win a race? A friend of mine let me into a secret a few years ago that made me laugh (and could also be very useful)...
Our club does a great thing just before the start of each season. They get two or three of the best sailors to do a talk or presentation on a particular aspect of sailing to help other sailors at the club. They're generally pretty interesting, and you always learn something new about sailing whenever you attend one of these kind of things, so I love them.
A couple of years ago, the best sailor at the club (a former world champion, as it happens) did a talk, and its primary focus was essentially the things that top sailors do a lot. There was loads of good stuff in the talk, but one thing lingered in the back of my mind, and I was reminded of it when I came across this article on the Improper Course blog:
That it was worth taking the time to learn how to copy good sailors.
I appreciate that this is very obvious, but it was something I had never really done. I would try and learn from other sailors (by chatting to them, reading books, etc.), but I never tried to just copy them.
I grew up sailing on a small gravel pit, where the wind was incredibly flukey - shifts and gusts and wind-shadows. You could be sailing on a lift in 15 knots while the guy 5 boatlengths from you, on the same tack, could be on a header and in 6 knots of breeze. Copying a top sailor is not easy in these conditions, certainly more difficult than on open water with a steady breeze, so copying wasn't a skill that I developed naturally.
But it was certainly a skill I could have used, especially when I started competing on the sea. Gravel pit sailing gives you a number of important skills. We tend to be good at boat-handling - so many tacks and gybes. We also tend to be great at reading shifts, picking lifts and headers quickly and accurately.
But straight line speed is not as important: so a good tacker that can read windshifts, but with only mediocre boatspeed, can still do very well on small lakes in all but the best fleets. When I started competing on the sea, I quickly found I struggled to have the same pace as the boats around me, especially in waves or a chop - my straight line speed was just not as good, and this was down to technique and boat set-up.
What I should have done, straight away, was copy the guys at the top of the fleet, but it didn't occur to me to do it. Instead, it took me several years to get even close to the level of the top guys.
Anyway, after our world champion's talk I noticed a handful of sailors take the advice to heart, but there is a skill to following and copying a good sailor. As I was winning a lot of races in our Laser fleet, some occasionally followed me (which says more about the standard of our Laser fleet than it does about my Laser sailing). Often I would be followed for the first half of the first beat, and then my follower would fall far enough behind that it became impossible to notice any boat set-up details, or replicate technique. And they'd be more and more out of phase with the breeze that I was in.
What was happening was that they were often following me, but sailing in my bad air in doing so. This meant that they would fall back quickly, but also that their boat set-up was not correct for the breeze they were in.
They were also getting small things wrong. Copying someone is about details - where exactly are they sitting; how far is the end of the boom from the back quarter; how tight is the outhaul; etc. etc. This is very difficult if you don't know what to look for, so, strangely, copying a top sailor is much easier for a top sailor to do.
Which reminds me...
I was at an Optimist championship in the UK in the very late eighties, and my good friend was just becoming a genuinely top-class sailor at that time. About half way through the event we were sailing a race and I could see he was doing well, so when I crossed the finish line in the mid-twenties to mid-thirties, I sailed over to him to see how he had done.
"Well done", I said. "You were going well - where did you finish up?"
"I won it." he said. He was chuffed, and I was chuffed for him, too.
"I was a bit cheeky though." he said.
"What do you mean?" I asked.
"Well, I got a good start, and I was near Jonny." Jonny was doing well at this event - he eventually won it and discarded a 6th place - amazing consistency in an event of this quality. "So I followed him. Rounded the first windward mark in second, then I followed him up the second beat too."
"So how did you overtake him up the final beat?" I asked.
"Well, I just loose-covered the guy in third up the last beat, and he had a better beat than Johnny."
So that is how you win a race at a major championship. Easy.
(In fairness to my friend, I should point out that he also won two other races at that championship, and he didn't follow anyone to win those races. He finished second overall, ahead of (at least) four future Olympic Gold Medallists. But, like all good sailors, he knew how to make the most out of any situation.)