Wince for the Camera, Please

Seeing a photograph of yourself sailing can be a jarring experience.

When you're on the water, in the heat of battle, it's easy to imagine yourself as you often see others - hiking like a Slingsby, leaping through a beautifully co-ordinated tack like Belcher and Ryan, S-curving downwind like Giles Scott.

And then you see the photo.

There you are: back hunched, boat heeling, sail luffing, rudder off centre and acting like a brake. And to make things worse, photos invariably make it look less windy than it was. Or, at least, less windy than you remember it being.

How much worse, then, to see yourself in a video?


So when one of the top sailors at our club offered to video us doing some boat handling so we could watch it back and analyse it, it is easy to see why so many were reluctant to accept the offer. It is one thing knowing that your tacking needs improvement, but it is quite another to see it played in slow-motion on a big screen whilst being fed analysis of what you're doing wrong.

One of the advantages of being dashingly handsome (have I mentioned I am dashingly handsome? If not, then I should probably let you know that I am, in fact, dashingly handsome), is that the camera loves me. And one of the advantages of being remarkably light in the brain department is that I rarely foresee any future consequences to my actions. And so this lucky combination of characteristics led me to jump at the chance, along with one other sucker.

We did it after racing one day. It had been a light wind race, and so it was a good opportunity to look at roll-tacks and gybes. We sailed around our cameraman's rib, performed 360s and other basic drills, whilst he caught it all on camera.

A week later he brought in a CD for us to have a look, and it was amazingly illuminating.

As he was getting the CD set up, one of the other sailors remarked that I was a very quick tacker. It was said with a tone of praise and so I, as any self-respecting Englishman would, immediately denied that I was and made other self-deprecating remarks, whilst secretly thinking what a remarkably perceptive chap my fellow sailor was.

"Actually, he's right." said our guru. "It's one of the things I wanted to show you." This was said with rather less a tone of praise, and I began to worry about what we were about to see.

As it happened, there was enough good stuff to save my ego. My roll was ok, and my movements were as good as you could expect from a man that has all the flexibility of a steel girder.

But they were right, I was a fast tacker. But not really in a good way.

I had had a feeling that I was probably using too much rudder going into my tacks, and the video really highlighted this - especially in slow motion. I was pushing the tiller across too far and much too early in the tack, to the point that I would generate a significant bow-wave on the windward side as the front of the boat pushed through the water. Not only did this mean that I was slowing myself down with rudder drag and bow drag, but I was also losing the opportunity to "cheat the wind" as I entered the tack.

It also meant that the boat would come out of the tack too low, so more correction was needed as I resumed course on the new tack.

All in all, there was plenty to work on.

The next time I was sailing I went out an hour early to practice my tacks. As with all these things, my tacks got worse before they got better. I'd practice entering the tack slowly, but old habits are hard to break and it took a while before the new, slower entry felt natural. And it is tricky to check you're getting things right - you need to look back to check you're not using too much rudder, but you face forward to tack. Learning a new skill makes for some pretty clumsy moments.

Checking the exit from my tack was easier. After completing the tack I could look back and check my wake. If there was no big S curve behind me then I'd probably got it about right.

Interestingly, going into a tack too quickly is a pretty common problem for sailors. I think sometimes it stems from a fear of getting stuck in irons as a beginner. If you've worked with beginners then you'll know that it happens a lot, and quickly they learn the easy fix of getting through the wind quickly by jamming the tiller across hard. It works (generally), but it tends to make for very ugly and very slow tacks. And it is a bad habit to get in to.

Anyway, in these times of GoPro Cameras it is easy enough to video yourself sailing. I highly recommend it, and I especially recommend getting the best sailor or coach you know to have a look at it. Seeing yourself sailing is a pretty eye-opening experience, once you get past the wince.

2 thoughts on “Wince for the Camera, Please

  1. Great advice. I really should get a GoPro camera and video myself.

    It does seem that whenever a regatta photographer captures me, I am sailing badly. If I had my own GoPro I could edit out all the bad stuff and post on my blog the shots of me looking dashingly handsome and sailing superbly.

    That whole “fast tack” issue is something I have found I need to rethink in a very light boat like my RS Aero. If I tack it as slowly as I do my Laser it is much easier to end up in irons as there is so much less momentum. The principle is the same but the execution is a little different.

  2. Funnily enough I was going to ask you about tacking the Aero. I sailed a Topaz (which is also a light boat) for a club event a while back and you had to be much more aggressive going in to a tack.

    It tended to only be an issue in a breeze – the boat slows massively as the wind takes all the forward momentum as it passes through the tack.

    As they are the boats our beginners used once they’d done their basic training, it is easy to see why so many of them become tiller heavy when tacking – something that they carry through to other boats as they progress.

    I also wondered a little about the safety issue with the lightness of the Aero. An experienced sailor in the club event I took part death-rolled his Topaz and the boat just blew away from him faster than he could swim to catch up. It was pretty amusing to watch, but if a rescue boat hadn’t been there it could have got a lot less funny.

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