In the first two parts of my interview with Nick Craig we spoke about his pathway to the top of dinghy sailing, and then at length about some of the things that help him to perform at big championships. In this last part we talk about how you go about achieving some of the advances needed to move up the sailing ladder.
Unfortunately this section does include a word that may offend some. It certainly upset me. Apparently, in order to get better you have to practice.
A lot of us sailors don't practice very much, if at all, but Nick has done two boat training and tuning, and recommends it as something that can help you get better a lot quicker. I'm interested to know if it is something he's done a lot. "Yes. Well, I say a lot but if you look at any other sport it's not much." he says, "I guess I've done more than most, so I've had periods where I've had really good tuning partners and we've both taken time out of racing and gone tuning which, in the amateur world, is pretty rare. In the professional world - the Olympic world and beyond - it's common, and the amount I've done is minuscule compared to what those guys do. So its just scratching the surface, but doing more than most have done, I guess."
He's right. In most other sports people will have practice or training sessions, and then play games or competitions separately. I wonder why sailing is so different. "I think part of it is our sport is harder to practice. It's time intensive, you've got equipment, you've got transport - you've got to do all those things. It's not an easy thing to do. But, like any practice, it's rewarding if you can make the time and effort to be able to do it."
"I enjoy racing more - without a doubt. A lot, lot more. I enjoy practice when it's extremely windy - I absolutely love it - but it's not always that. In other conditions I mix it up, and the practice I do I try and make varied. I certainly wouldn't go just practising every weekend for a month - I'd get bored. I like the variety, I love the racing, but I think within that you can throw in some good quality training."
One of the big things that stops people from having good quality practice sessions is the difficulty in finding like-minded people with whom to train. "It's really difficult because you've got to find someone who's got a similar amount of time, effort, desire. And not just that: you ideally want someone of a similar-ish pace as well.
"Or even, perfectly, you want someone with some differences. Some of the best tuning partners I've had are quicker than me upwind, slower downwind (or the other way round) so then you're both really getting something out of it because you can both teach each other something.
"If you can find someone that's got different strengths then you've got a dream match."
So once you've decided to practice (and even practice on your own can be incredibly useful if it is done right) how do you go about getting the most from your session?
"I wouldn't say I'm regimented, but I'd certainly go out with some ideas as to what I want to get out of that day." he says. "If I want to practice downwind I might want to practice more body movement, or more steering, or smoother steering, or something like that. And then upwind I might want to be practising a high mode, or a low mode, or trying a different mast or something. And if I've got a tuning partner it'll be boat-speed work because the other things you can do in your own time. I'll certainly never go out on a tuning day just to go for a sail - there'll be a reason and some things I want to come away with if I can."
And after each time he sails, he takes notes. "I write down things that occurred to me, and I have some documents saved that have got my notes for each boat. I add to those or take away from those as I go - a bit of an iterative process. If I've learnt something new about the boat I'll put it on my sheet. And if there's anything about the venue I'll note that down as well - if there's any wind bends or tide features - that kind of thing. Then I'll read it again occasionally - just kind of "voyage of discovery" I guess."
All this work is aimed towards making racing feel natural and easy. Well, easier.
"The days when it's almost easy, because you're just in the rhythm of the shifts and the pressure and its all going your way - they aren't common." He says, and to be honest, I'm relieved to hear it. "Someone said that how good you are on a bad day is often a good measure, because you've still got to be able to sail reasonably well when you're not in the zone. It's about being able to do that, as well as those lovely golden days when it's all working.
"But practice definitely helps. Ten years ago I was doing the most sailing I've ever done and I was hitting that lovely golden zone a reasonable amount of time. Now I'm doing less sailing I reckon I really hit it perfectly about once a year! The rest of the time I'm kind of searching, or somewhere there, or compromised. Definitely quality practice does help without a doubt - huge difference."
So is this the kind of thing that would help most 'normal' club sailors improve most quickly? It's certainly part of it. "I guess what I see from the clubs I sail at is that there's loads of people just plateaued - you know they're good sailors, good club sailors, but they're doing the same thing week in week out. So it's just trying new things - like your starting, your technique, or even just going and travelling. Go and sail against other people if you can - I know that's logistically sometimes challenging, but just go outside your comfort zone, try something new, different.
"Sometimes at your weekend you don't want to try and rip the world up and change everything, but I think you can still go out and do your race and try one or two new things. I'm not necessarily saying sell your boat, buy a new one and join a different sailing club."
As I talk to Nick, one phrase keeps springing to mind. I'm not really a fan of buzzwords - the meaning tends to get lost when you hear a particular word or phrase all the time - but Nick really seems to be the epitome of a "Growth Mindset". By this I mean someone that enjoys the process of improvement, and that is as much focused on this, or derives as much pleasure and motivation from this, as they do from the results. I wonder if Nick sees this in himself?
"Yes - without a doubt. The journey is often more satisfying than the end result. Although I like winning! I'll always try my hardest, but I'd never want to just sail one boat and be top dog for the next 20 years and just win stuff - for me that would get pretty boring pretty quickly.
"It's that journey, and learning new things, and sometimes re-learning them. I'm back in a B14 - I sailed one for a few years a while back - and I'm back in one because it now feels fresh and new again. I'm sailing with another crew who's a very good skiff sailor, and he's teaching me stuff so that's quite exciting. It doesn't necessarily need to be brand new but as long as I feel I'm learning and developing in some way then it's good."
I'm really interested in his psychological approach to racing, too. The answer he gives me reminds me of Jon Emmett's answer too. I ask about mental rehearsal, but actually what he seems describe is a cross between that and what Jon calls 'reframe'.
"I'd use it in certain situations in a race - the classic one is when you're coming in to a windy gybe mark and the little nervous part of your brain starts saying "Oooh, here it comes!" and I just visualise all the easy smooth gybes I've done in big wind - you know, that feeling and that motion and just that reassurance that you've done this a hundred times and it's going to be easy. And through you go. So I use it then, but I wouldn't say I use it much."
This ability to reframe situations positively, and the growth mindset that he clearly demonstrates, are very useful personality traits to have because they help him to take risks - the risk of failure or of looking stupid aren't such an issue, especially when the reward is in the learning and improving. But he has other helpful personality traits too.
"I think the biggest one is just determination - sheer bloody-mindedness. I kind of have a never give up attitude, so I've never retired from a race unless it's gear failure - no matter how bad the race, I'll finish it. In hindsight they're often the races where you're learning the most, even though, at the time, it might feel pretty horrible. But I've never quit a race unless the boat won't get me round and even then I'll keep trying."
"Yeah, I'd say I do and I think you have to - especially as you get older. It doesn't just happen. I'm lucky because I cycle to work and back so that's a great foundation and it's time efficient. And most mornings I'll do something else as well before work because it gets it out the way - it's done before I'm in work then in the evenings I'm free and I can give my time to the family.
"I try and keep it as varied as possible so then its sustainable - it's more interesting. If you just do the same thing you get bored, so I'll do some swimming, rowing machine, weights, all sorts of different things.
"And then when I'm building up to an event I might make it a bit more specific or go harder at a certain area - if I'm sailing an OK, for example, it's not a lot of arm work because you generally fix the main upwind, but it's hard on the legs - so I might do some more bike miles. And I do circuits once week - that's very good because you've got a group there and someone else shouting at you and that pushes it on, rather than just being in the gym."
All this talk of exercise makes me feel hungry. Does he eat carefully at events?
"If it's a small event I'm relatively laid back - I'm susceptible to beer and curry and all that kind of thing - I wouldn't say I'm a model on that!"
This is excellent news - it means that I eat like a champion.
"But at a big event I'll try and eat well - I've got a quick metabolism so if I don't eat well I run out of energy. I make sure I have a good breakfast - I have porridge and toast and that kind of thing - it gives you a good store of fuel for the day."
"On the water I don't like eating a load of food because it just doesn't digest, so I tend to have fruit bars - but pretty healthy ones that aren't a load of sugar. Evening-wise I'm not particular but eat reasonably healthily - pasta, chicken, fish, all that decent stuff."
And he doesn't drink beer on the water either. It's a shame - it would have been nice to drink beer between races with the excuse that the top sailors do it. So does he go with water, or does he use an isotonic drink?
"I do use an isotonic. I'm a bit sceptical on whether it's better or not. Sometimes I'll just go with water. But with big events, especially when it's warm, I'll take an isotonic because you're sweating out quite a lot. I'm a bit sceptical because all of them have a fair bit of sugar in them - I'm not sure whether they're just giving you a short-term sugar rush."
By this stage I've well and truly used up Nick's peaceful Friday evening, so I wrap up our really interesting chat with two final questions. The first is on books - are there any he would particularly recommend?
"I grew up on the Sail to Win series - I read all of them when I was a kid. But I guess the ones that were the most broad and useful were Helming to Win, Tactics, The Winning Mind, and David Houghton's Wind Strategy.
"And the The Rules In Practice - that is the one book I always buy actually. Every four years when the rules come out I always buy that book because the rule book itself is a horrible thing to try and read and decipher.
"I've got a young family and a job so I must admit I don't get a lot of time to read but I still read Yachts and Yachting every month, more for the news but they do have the odd good feature in there as well."
And so to the last question - is there one piece of equipment he loves the most? "I'm slightly biased because I've got a bit of sponsorship but I do love my Sandiline hikers. I'm not in the marine industry - I'm only sponsored because I like the kit, if you see what I mean.
"And I've got Harken on all my boats - I'm sponsored by them but I had Harken even before I was sponsored by them, just because I know it will work. I can be a bit heavy handed sometimes so it's nice to have stuff that won't break."
Before I let Nick go and lie down in a darkened room somewhere, I do squeeze in one final question. If he had a sailing motto, what would it be?
"I guess the key thing is enjoy it, no matter what that means. Everyone gets different enjoyment out of it in different ways. I like to race hard when I'm on the water but have fun and be social and enjoy it when I'm off. Some people enjoy winning the America's Cup, some people enjoy club racing. Both are good."
Both are good. Well said, Nick.
You can buy Nick's book, Helming to Win, at the links below: