Life lessons learned from boat racing – communication

One of the keys to boat racing is to get your crew doing the right thing at the right time. When you have a crew that has been with you for years, it becomes much easier as they pretty much know what to do, but even then you can get into trouble making assumptions.

To that end, unless it is an emergency, such as we are about to t-bone another boat, one of the things that we try to do is to have a brief discussion of who is going to what and when, prior to starting any maneuver. It doesn’t matter whether this is something that we have done many times before, or whether it is a first time through. It may be as simple as Bill, you are on release, Terry you are tailing, John you are on main – are we all ready? Ok – helm over.

The number of times we have aborted an action because someone said – no – hold on – the sheet is twisted, or highlighted some other issue makes it well worth it, as holding off on a maneuver is usually a heck of a lot better than messing one up. The other thing that is important is that if there is an issue, anyone who notices it speaks up. The idea is that we do our maneuvers as well as we can, and everyone is key to getting it right. If it doesn’t go right – then there is a quick debrief about how we need to do it differently next time, but we aren’t looking to assign blame, we are just looking to improve.

Wouldn’t it be nice if other areas of our lives worked the same way – so no egos, or turf wars or cover ups. I can’t say that all of these things will go away, but it is certainly worth a try and open communication is pretty key to this.

Life lessons learned from boat racing – play to your strengths

I sailed a CS27 called L’Autre Femme for years, and by the end of my tenure with the boat, I knew exactly what it could do well and what it couldn’t. The boat pointed very well, so sailing up wind in a fleet was easy as I could keep as high as everyone else in the fleet, and if forced I could squeak out an extra little. That meant that I wasn’t usually in a situation where the boat was sinking down behind someone else and getting stalled by them.

The sails on the boat were getting a little old and didn’t have quite the shape that they had in their youth (oh boy does that also apply to life) so really pushing the boat hard to wind wasn’t something you did except in dire circumstances. What suited the boat was sailing a little lower and faster, but pointing high was still definitely a tool in the tool box.

L’Autre Femme was designed as a cruiser rather than a racer, so it is heavy. That means you race it like racing a truck. You get it up to speed and do everything you can to keep the speed up. It isn’t agile and you can’t sail it that way. You need to minimize tacks and never get into a tacking duel with an agile boat like a J24.

My new boat is a CS36 Merlin called Emrys. It is again a racer/cruiser so fairly heavy, but it carries a lot of sail so powers up quite quickly. It is a wing keel as opposed to the fin on L’Autre Femme, and doesn’t tend to point quite as well but goes like a train a couple of degrees off hard to wind. Its headsail is in very poor shape and needs replacing, but until that is done, finding the upwind slot is very touchy and it is easy to stall the boat, so trying to go high upwind is a low percentage move.

It also has a wheel as opposed to the tiller on L’Autre Femme, so you don’t get to feel the helm response quite as much and can load up a lot of weather helm if you aren’t paying attention, and the cues are a lot different. It can tack quite quickly, but it is a lot of work to haul the sails in, so we can get into tacking duels, but not long ones as our arms sue for divorce after the 3rd tack.

The new boat is also carrying a LOT more sail, so it powers up in light winds very well, but you are looking to reef at a lot lower wind velocity.

So two different boats with very different characteristics, and you race them very differently to play to their strengths and try to avoid their weaknesses.

With L’Autre Femme I would quite often fight for the committee boat end at the start and pinch up a little above the fleet. With Emrys, I hardly ever start at the committee boat end and much prefer hitting midline at full speed.

With L’Autre Femme I would always consider trying to point a little higher to get out of trouble, with Emrys that isn’t on the cards, so you foot the boat and power through.

Neither boat is one that you want to get into a tacking duel with lighter more agile boats, so that is to be avoided with both.

With L’Autre Femme you would always consider pushing the upper end of the sail as the wind increased, With Emrys, you downsail or reef early.

Emrys has a brutal handicap, so you simply can’t afford to be trapped within the fleet, whereas L’Autre Femmes handicap allowed you to think a little more about options in that situation.

In life it is exactly the same, you play to your strengths and avoid your weaknesses. If you are a detail person, those are the tasks you will excel at. If you like to paint with a broader brush, you should avoid jobs that need that detail skill. If you are not a people person, then sales isn’t for you. The list goes on, but in sailing as in life, the first trick is to understand your strengths and weaknesses of you and your  boat and capitalize on the good ones and avoid the other.