One Coach, Two Capsizes and Three Lessons Learned

A while back I took part in my first Frostbite event after getting back into sailing. It’s always hard to know what is going to count as a good result when you’re racing against people that you’ve never sailed with before, but out of a fleet of 30+ I was hoping to be somewhere around the top 10.

For the day of the first races it was blowing a solid force 4, with a decent if not huge swell. I love sailing in these conditions, but I get better results in lighter breezes. So when I rounded the windward mark in seventh I was pretty happy, and when I gained a spot on the downwind I was even happier. Sixth place and gaining – this frostbiting thing was easy.

The breeze was building a little, so I ramped on the vang for the second beat. The first shift came in, and I tacked onto port. And my buoyancy aid got caught on the boom, and… I capsized.

I got the boat upright and got going again having lost a handful of spots. Then, a couple of tacks later, my buoyancy aid got caught on the boom, and…I capsized.

AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaRRRRRRRRRRRRRRGGGGHHHHhhh!

I finished the race 14th, knackered, cold and frustrated.

The most annoying thing about all this was that it gave me a problem in heavy winds. I wanted to hammer the kicker on to depower, but I couldn’t afford two capsizes every beat. Never mind my results, my ego simply couldn’t handle it.

My results suffered as a result. In force 3 and under I always finished in the top 5. In force 4 and upwards I didn’t get a single top 5 result, and most were in the early to mid-teens.

The next summer I got the opportunity to attend a couple of training sessions with the guy that had won the second of the two frostbite series I’d competed in, and he was particularly quick in a breeze. He was watching us tacking, and made a suggestion to me. He told me to slide my bum back about a foot as I turned into the tack. I already put my back foot across the boat before the tack (so that it hooks under the toestrap as I come onto the new tack), but sliding back had one big benefit. It meant that as I crossed the boat I could push the old back foot into the back leeward corner of the new tack and push myself across and, crucially, forward onto the new tack. This meant that my head and body passed through the biggest gap possible, allowing me to put more vang on upwind.

It was a light-bulb moment, and one I would probably not have come up with myself. Others among you would have thought of it, no doubt. Many probably did, or just did this naturally. But, for two reasons, it think it would have taken me a long time to figure this out (if, indeed, I ever would have figured it out):

  1. I’m not exactly a genius
  2. I grew up sailing Optimists.

The square back of an Optimist means that the more you dig the back corners into the water the quicker you stop the boat. This means that when you tack, you tend to keep your feet reasonably well forward. It was so ingrained in me that sliding back means slowing down, I suspect I may never have really tried it if it hadn’t been suggested to me by a good sailor.

All of which goes to show that, firstly, getting coaching can really help unlock a problem very quickly (especially if you know specifically what you need help with); and, secondly, that you should always revisit your assumptions and analyse the things that you think you know – they may not always stand up.

 

Oh, and thirdly, if anyone is likely to park their bum in the wrong place then it is me.

 

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