Nick Craig Interview Part 2: Championship Starting, Sailing in Waves, and Avoiding Mistakes

In yesterday's instalment of my interview with Nick Craig we covered how he got into sailing and how he has used sailing a variety of boats to improve his sailing. I always find sailor's back stories interesting - you can learn a lot from understanding their path through the sport.

But when you're talking to a multi-championship winner you can't help but want tips - the nuggets that will raise your sailing a level. And whilst the golden piece of information that will transform your sailing doesn't exist (which is annoying) I always learn a lot from listening in depth to what top sailors think and do.

I mean, most of us want to do well at certain events - whether it is a particular club race or series, a local regatta, or a major championship. But we want to do well for a reason, and it is generally that we would value a good result which, in turn, means that it is probably hard to do.

So how do you go about achieving the result that you want?

One way is to find out how others do it. So that's what I did - I asked Nick. And I began by asking about that most crucial of topics: starting.

Nick Craig DOne startingWe all know that starting is important in dinghy racing, and we also know how hard it can be to get a good start in a competitive fleet, especially at a big championship. It can be an intimidating place to be.

"I'd say starting is one of the biggest differences between being a good club racer and a good championship racer. And interestingly what I'll often observe is that a good club racer might come to a championships and struggle, but then they might get one good start and they'll hold that top 5. They're good enough but they're not getting off the start line.

"It is a different set of skills, but the first thing I'd say is "Get in the melee" - if you duck out and if you settle for second row you'll never learn."

One of the issues, I say, is that it is hard to practice - most people only sail in big fleets very occasionally, and never get the chance to practice congested, competitive starts outside of a big event.

"If you feel that you're not getting that big fleet experience you can try and simulate it by starting at the ends, starting in the pack - doing everything that the textbook says you shouldn't. Certainly none of us amateurs get enough big fleet starting, so one of the things I always do at my training events, at my opens where there might be a 10 or 20 boat turn out, is I will aim to win that start and win it early.

"It's high risk, it often goes wrong because you're lining up early, you sometimes come away from it looking stupid, but every time you learn because you are getting stuck in there and making it difficult. Often my championship starts are easier than my open meeting starts because I've made the open meeting starts intentionally difficult and obstructive, and at the championship I'm looking to steer clear of the melee and the mess. I just want a nice, low-key, safe, good start. So that is the thing I'd recommend more than anything else - get in there. That's how you'll learn."

And once you're in the melee?

"I think the other thing on big fleet starts, or any starts, is slow speed boat-handling. It's working on being able to control your boat, because it is a different beast at slow speed. Your foils stop working, it slips, it's harder to control  - most boats become pretty horrible. Being able to control it at that speed is so important and it's such a neglected area, it's just something people don't go out and practice. Partly because it's bit of an odd thing to practice, but it's very, very useful if you can master that for your boat."

It's not just odd, it is a horrible thing to practice. I think a lot of people are like me, and just hate spending sailing time doing it.

"Exactly. But it's one of those I try and practice most times I go sailing. If I'm out early before the start I'll try and spend just 5 minutes doing a few run ins to buoys. If you just do 5 - 10 minutes every time then it doesn't become too laborious."

One other issue in competitive starts is being able to hit the line at pace just as the gun goes. In a less competitive environment it can be relatively straightforward to achieve but, surrounded by good sailors in the heat of an event, it is a lot more tricky.

Until quite recently I used to get an on-the-line transit before the start, and in club racing it served me well. But in a championship, with a crowded start-line, an on-the-line transit can be next to useless - you simply can't see it when you need it. Some-one told me that they get two or three transits from behind the line, so they know how far behind the line they are in the seconds leading in to the start - even if you can't see the on-the-line transit. Nick explains all this superbly in his book, and he adds to his thoughts as we talk.

"I'll go and have a few looks at it just to try and remember the geography around it  - as many things as I can. Certainly you want a couple of stand-out things, but the more you can remember the better - on a busy start line it's rare that your lovely transit just shows up and waves at you. Knowing anything around it is so powerful - if you can't see your (transit) then no-one else can see theirs so if you just catch something then you can make that crucial jump on the fleet. Or know that there's a risk of a black flagging and hold back - it's the little nuggets of information that are so useful."

The other big issue that a lot of sailors have is gauging how long it will take to get to the start line after they've pulled the trigger - too soon and you're over; too late and you're swallowed up in the pack. Good transits help, but Nick also recommends doing some time and distance practice runs too.

"It's something I will try and do in that pre-start routine, especially if there's tide. If there's an end of the line I'm going at I will have a sail at it a few times, especially if I'm swapping boats. Some boats I sail more, and it comes more instinctively - the OK and Enterprise, which I've sailed since I was young, are much more instinctive. But certainly if I'm jumping in a B14 I want to go and have a play a few times - little practice runs to the start just to get a feel where the laylines are, how long it takes, whether you can start right at the end or you need to back off a bit to clear the committee boat, all that kind of stuff."

With all the various things to remember and organise before the start, I wonder if Nick has a pre-start routine that he uses.

"I wouldn't say it's so much a set routine, but I'll certainly have a series of things I'll go through. I'll try and get out early if I can, and get wind tracking as soon as I can. I'll try and understand a pattern - is the wind shifting one way, is it oscillating, how often is it oscillating, all that kind of stuff. So I'll certainly be occupied with all that.

"I'll try to understand if there's anything happening with the tide and then, as soon as there's a start line in, I'll start looking at the bias, (getting) transits, whilst trying to keep an eye on what's happening with the wind.

"Almost from the moment you launch (and certainly as soon as I get to the race area) I'll be pretty fully occupied for that whole time. And I think that's also useful at the big events if you're feeling a bit of nerves - you can always straight away go into "Right, what am I here for? I should be tracking the wind, I should be looking at tide..." and then you get your mind occupied on that."

So that's starting sorted.

Well, kind of.

Apart from all the practice.

One of the things Nick mentioned while talking about improving your starts is "Training" events. So what are they?

Nick splits his sailing calendar into two types of events - "Training" events and "Win" events. He goes into this in more detail in his book but, essentially, a "Training" event is one where he experiments, tries new techniques, strategy and equipment, and doesn't worry about the result. A "Win" event is one where he sails to win - no experimentation, no new equipment - and the result becomes a much more important aspect.

I ask him how he arrived at this method: "It evolved over time," he tells me, "From talking to other people - what their approaches are, reading about stuff - I wouldn't say I did it from the outset. And it would have been good, I think, if I'd have done it earlier. Now I've got that approach and I stick to it."

One of the big pluses of this approach is that it can really take the pressure off at times when you most want to do well. You've put yourself under pressure in the "Training" events, meaning that the win events are a chance just to sail.

"It's a great benefit. Because you're always going to your main events not trying new things - all you're there to do is the best you can with everything you've done. When it works it's very satisfying because you're just putting together everything  that you've been working on, and it does relieve pressure a little bit."

One other big issue that comes up with championship sailing is waves. Sailing fast in waves is a tricky skill to learn, especially for lake sailors, or sailors whose club don't tend to race when it is very windy or wavy. Did Nick find it a hard skill to develop too?

"Definitely. It's partly that the traditional text book says that when you go into waves you steer more, and that tends to get exaggerated. Ideally, if you're using body movement and sail trim, your steering shouldn't be magnified that much. The rudder's such a brake, and the steering you should be doing should be very smooth unless you're sailing in really horrible chop where it does need a bit more force to break through sometimes. I think the key concept for me is that steering matches the waves - so if the waves are long and smooth your steering should be long and smooth; if the waves are short and punchy your steering needs to be a bit shorter and punchier."

I mention Steve Cockerill's advice - that you should be aiming to keep the leeward bow connected to the water all the time. It is advice I found helpful when adapting to wave sailing. "I think you're right. Wave sailing is time on the water, but quality time. Two boat tuning, sailing against good opposition - that's a great way (to learn) because then you'll see what they're doing - it'll push you on to try and do what you're doing better. It took me a while because I'm a pond sailor at heart - at first I was slow, it was really difficult, so it definitely took time to get that worked out."


Here Nick demonstrates that things don't always go to plan

He certainly seems to have it worked out now, though. After so many championship wins, I can't help but ask him about the times when it has all gone wrong.

"I'd say they're all around poor preparation. I try not to beat myself up for mistakes on windshifts and starts and all that kind of thing because that just happens, but I'm pretty naturally disorganised and a bit sieve-brained so I have to make up for it and be really organised. If I don't think about it, and I don't write lists, I forget simple things.

"The first (simple thing I forgot) was at a Cadet nationals in 1987 - I was only 13 years old, I had a lovely first beat, it was fantastic. Got round the windward mark, went to get the spinnaker pole and give it to the crew and it wasn't there! Left it on shore. We went from 5th to 100th in one run.

"And I've done things like that since - an Enterprise Nationals in 2008 I lost because we sailed the wrong course - I was convinced it was a triangle and it was a sausage, so we went and did two reaches while most of the fleet did a run - so I've done quite a few of those sorts of things really. I'm getting better and better at not doing the really stupid things by just being more organised."

Does this mean he uses checklists? "Yeah I do, although it's so tedious I don't tend to use them unless I'm at a big event. Don't forget your course, your bailer, your sponge, your lunch - just stupid little things that I'm prone to forgetting."

It's always good to hear about top sailors making mistakes - it makes me feel that they're a bit like me. The big difference, though, is that they learn from their mistakes...

Tomorrow is the last part of my interview with Nick Craig, and we discuss how you get to a good level of fitness, what kind of mindset is optimal for improving your sailing, how to develop your notes so you get the most from them, and much more.

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

The United States
The UK

6 thoughts on “Nick Craig Interview Part 2: Championship Starting, Sailing in Waves, and Avoiding Mistakes

  1. Thanks for another brilliant interview with lots of really helpful actionable advice.

    I especially liked his ideas on ways to improve starting technique. Something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately.

    Did you ask him if he liked the picture of my feet?

  2. No, Tillerman, I didn’t.

    I did send him a link to your piece about his book and he found it very funny, but I don’t know if that was because of the picture of your feet. Or in spite of the picture of your feet. Or whether it had nothing to do with your feet at all.

    Although it would be hard to imagine that he wasn’t affected by that picture – it lingers long in the memory.

  3. Well, Nick was the one who first wrote about looking at your feet while sailing in his book.

    I would thought that he would be honored that I took a picture of my own feet to use in an article about that chapter in his book. Not many bloggers would make such a sacrifice for him. And I don’t post photos of naked parts of my body just for anyone.

    I see that in his discussion about sailing upwind in medium winds, Nick does make reference to “knees.” I think I have the perfect photo to illustrate a blog post about that section.

  4. You know, Tillerman, you’re right. Nick was the one who started all this stuff about feet, and he should be honoured that you posted a photo of yours.

    The more I think about it, the more I can’t believe he didn’t mention it.

    As for the photo of your knees – please tread carefully. Just like many of the fashion magazines, you may be presenting an idealised image of part of the male form and women all over the world will start expecting men to have knees like yours.

  5. You have a good point Damian. My knees are pretty awesome. It is true that many men feel inferior when they see my knees. I think I’m probably responsible for much of the current popularity of 3/4 length hiking pants because a lot of male sailors feel the need to cover up their knees after they have seen how awesome my knees are.

    So I will take your advice and “tread carefully.” Perhaps I will just post a photo of one of my knees to start with.

  6. Make sure it is your right knee. I’ve seen a picture of your knees, and I definitely find your right knee less intimidating.

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