Nick Craig Interview Part 1: Variety, Observation, and Working with a Crew

Imagine the scene:

It is Friday night, and you've had a busy week at work. You have two young children, twins, and you've finally got them to bed and asleep. Your wife has gone out to the cinema with friends.

At last you have the house to yourself.

What would you most want to do? Think carefully - the answer will come to you.

That's right!

You'd want to have a Skype conversation with me where I ask you loads and loads of questions. Relentlessly. For ages.

Not everyone gets to spend their Friday night this way. But Nick Craig, my friends, is a lucky man, and a couple of weeks ago he got to spend a magical hour or two in my company.

So, how did I ease Nick into our chat? By reminding him of a childhood trauma, of course. (Well, it serves him right after what he did to me). You see, Nick began sailing at the age of eight, and those beginnings weren't all that auspicious.

"I must admit I remember hating it when I first started because it was all wet and cold," he says, "I was 8 years old and I didn't know what was going on! I guess that's part of the thing with sailing - it's not that accessible really. At first you don't know what's going on and it's a bit "Why would I be doing this?!""

But, in a manner that is prescient of his determination and "sheer bloody-mindedness" (his words, not mine!), he stuck with it. "I started to understand it a bit and I fell in love with it from there. I just wanted to understand more and more, and I've always been hungry for more knowledge and information on it."

He began in Cadets, and sailed them till he was 15, progressing through the national squad and sailing in Cadet World Championships. "I had a good time doing that. I guess I was a bit big for it by the end - I went from 5'2" to 6'2" in a year. I remember having to put the mast rake forward to get under the boom which was wrong really, but I learnt a lot - I enjoyed that time. Mike MacNamara was the coach back then and he was very inspirational. I got a fourth (at the Cadet Worlds) in my last year. It was windy which helped because I was big - I was a bit more hit and miss in the light winds at my size."

Nick Craig OK DinghyHe moved on to sail OKs and Enterprises, a boat I know well as my dad sailed them for years. "Enterprises were huge at the time. You could get 30 boats to a little puddle open meeting and the standard was really high - all the top guys were in Ents, so I learned a huge amount getting it handed to me every weekend."

Enterprises were indeed highly competitive at the time. Legends like Richard Estaugh, Jim Hunt, Geoff Carveth and Ian Pinnell were regulars, which meant you could learn from the best. But Nick also learnt a lot from Team Racing at university.

"If anything I think I preferred team racing" he says, "I loved the tactical element, the speed of it, the rules - everything that's going on. It's a great foundation for fleet racing - there's manoeuvres and tricks that I still use today."

The variety of sailing that Nick has done is a little overwhelming - he's won championships in at least 8 different classes - but this variety has almost certainly helped him develop skills that set him apart from other racers. And, even though he wasn't part of the RYA set-up, he raced Finn's for 3 years - winning a National Championship and competing against Olympic sailors.

Nick Craig and Alan Roberts with the Endeavour Trophy

Nick Craig and Alan Roberts with the Endeavour Trophy

"I was doing it at weekends and on my holidays, so I was an amateur, but it was just before marriage (so I knew my days were numbered!) and I put in every hour I could. I had a deal with work to get a bit more time off, so I was doing 9 to 10 weeks sailing a year and most weekends - I was doing a lot but still not 52 weeks a year that the pros are doing. I was outside the RYA system, although I must admit Sid Howlett would throw me some tips because he's just a nice guy and a bit of a character."

I'm interested to know how much he actually enjoyed this part of his sailing career because it sounds incredibly intense. "I did (enjoy it), at times in a bit of a "climbing Everest" kind of a way, because (the Finn) is brutal. It's physically like nothing else I've done. If I had the time again I'd do it again - it was fantastic. But it was hard physically and the standard was, and still is, ridiculously high. I did three years and that was enough - I wouldn't have wanted to have kept doing it because I wasn't going to get any better, I would have just been hitting my head against a wall".

As he's talked about the physical challenge of the boat, I mention that I'd heard elsewhere how tough they can be. "Oh yeah, they're hard. The way I describe it is in a Force 2 upwind it's about the same as any other boat in a six, because you're fully giving it everything. And then it gets harder and harder and harder. And downwind is harder than upwind. With the unlimited pumping rule it's so physical. It has a big main!"

Most sailors try a few different classes, but few sail so many. And certainly not to the level that Nick has. How does he feel that all this changing between classes has impacted his sailing?

"I'm always on a learning curve." he says, "I find if I'm sailing a boat, and I feel like I'm in a bit of a rut, that's the time to change. And I think, with different boats, there's lots of scope to take the stuff you've learned from one boat to another."

It's something most of us could do a bit more. I've sailed at clubs with top sailors (as have most of us), but I rarely sacrifice a race in my own boat and instead offer to crew for someone from whom I could probably learn a lot. Plus, there's always the worry that my racing in my own class could take a step backwards. Talking with Nick, I realise what a mistaken perception this probably is.

Changing classes can be very challenging, and I'm keen to know if Nick has any tips for getting up to speed quickly. Does he spend a bit of time watching the top guys to see what they're doing?

"Yes - very much so. When I get in a new class I'll be observing the top guys and trying to see what they do. Upwind: where are they sitting, how are they steering, how are they sheeting? Downwind is similar: what's their boat set up; their dynamic settings; how much kicker are they letting off; how are they moving - are they moving a lot fore and aft; where are they sitting?

"I'll also look at tactics, because some boats have a higher tack rate, some are lower, some it pays to get out to the edges a bit more and find pressure, some it pays to get into the fleet. So yes, I like to see what other sailors do. And that's part of what I love about sailing - just the variety. You sail against different people and they all have slightly different styles and you can learn something from everyone."

He makes this careful observation sound easy, but it can be a tough thing to get good at. "I think you can get an idea, it can't be exact. A rig looks very different in a boat to out of the boat, but if you've looked at others and you think "Wow, they've got very tight leeches, they use a lot of kicker" then it gives you an idea to potentially do the same and see how it feels. It's not the answer - try it, see how it feels, see how you go - do you go higher and faster or do you just go higher and stop? There's always experimentation on it all, there's never a right answer straight away, I don't think."

Even stepping back into a boat you know but haven't raced in a while can be tough: "Sometimes I just find I'm re-doing things I should know." he says, "Especially now I do less sailing. For example, the stuff I write about "head out of the boat" - I'm aware I don't do that as much as I need to, so often an objective (when sailing) is to just get my head up and out more, looking at the clouds, looking at what's going on. It's so easy to put your head down and have tunnel vision and focus. So some of it is me relearning my old lessons."

It is a tough thing for many sailors, trying to get beyond watching the tell-tales and on to looking outside the boat. "Yes, I think that's a crucial jump. Once you're in a routine and a way of doing things it's very hard to change it. Especially if you've been sailing longer - in many ways it can be harder. Without a doubt it's a big transition."

All this talk about getting your head out of the boat, coupled with moving to different classes, gets me to wondering how he operates when sailing with a crew. Does he use the crew to be the one with their head up and looking around, calling gusts and shifts; or does he like to still do that himself?

"It's interesting - I think this is a very individual thing, and it varies a lot with the crew you're sailing with. I'll say where I end up, but that's not necessarily right for everyone.

"I do a lot of single-handed sailing, and I guess I'm more of a single-handed sailor in some ways instinctively, so I still tend to be doing the pressure and the gusts and shifts. If I find the crew is talking me through that too much I lose my rhythm, because I've got it going on in my head and then I've got someone talking to me about it as well. If I sail with a new crew and they're saying to me "Pressure in 5...4...3..." - this kind of countdown you sometimes get - I'm kind of "No, that's not what I want".

"What I really need from a great crew is the stuff that's bigger picture, because I can get quite in to the rhythm of the shifts and pressure and then I'll - and these are some of the things I'm known for, the classic mistakes - I'll just sail to the wrong mark! With a really good crew I want an eye on the basics that I'm prone to forgetting and then an eye on the fleet.

"A really good crew will be telling me "We're starting to split left", "We're starting to split right", "The fleet are doing this", or "Joe Bloggs, who's a rival, is going this way" (if you're later in the series). It's that kind of bigger picture information that's fantastic from a crew.

"The other thing a top crew will give is feedback about the boat - "We're feeling a little out the groove here, what about this"; or positive feedback as well can be helpful - "That feels great, let's keep on this groove". But personally I don't like the short-term or mid-term pressure/shift stuff. Big picture? Yes - if they say "look, on the shore over there it looks like something's happening", or "That boat half way up the beat's got a big shift". But the near-term stuff tends to throw me out my rhythm.

"But I think that's different for different people so I wouldn't say that's necessarily the right answer by any means - it's just how I like to work."

And is it the same for downwind as well? Is there lots of communication about things like the amount of pressure the crew is getting on the kite? "Yes, especially in light winds. In more wind I think it's a bit more instinctive - you're both feeling the boat. And I'll be more (focused on) near and mid-term pressure and shifts - I won't want too much input on that - but that bigger picture stuff that it's easy to miss - the crew will be feeding that in."

Having covered how he got into sailing, how he progressed through different classes, and how he develops a relationship with his crew, I'm keen to start talking about some of the skills he uses to help him succeed in championships. I want to know about how you get good at starting in big fleets, how you get better at sailing in waves, and also how he sets his year up to help him improve his various skills.

We cover all this in tomorrow's section of the interview, as well as Nick's biggest mistakes at big events and what he does to avoid making them again.

You can buy Nick's book, Helming to Win, at the links below:

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