The Deep End

At 9 am we roll into town and down the waterfront in our rental van chock full of gear. As we enter the city we are immediately surrounded by signs, posters, tents and flags all announcing the imminent start of the Campionato Del Mundo De Vela.  I don’t speak much Spanish, but a glance around at the local cafes and souvenir shops make it incredibly evident that the town is fully geared up for the festivities of the next three weeks.  As we approach the harbor, a massive island of at least 100 brightly colored, yellow, blue, and orange coach boats, visible even from the opposite end of the harbor, indicates that we have arrived.  To our left, event organizers have set up race offices and notice boards on the local college campus, while to the right, a massive, three story sailing complex casts a long shadow over the road.  Inside the floor to ceiling windows, fully rigged sailboats sit undisturbed by the weather outside, waiting for their sailors to arrive for the day.  A large stadium with seating for several hundred, watches over the currently calm bay, while a sea of masts is visible beyond chain link fences, only accessible with proper accreditation.  While I have seen similar regatta sites in the past, I haven’t set foot in a boat park like this one as a competitor in over three years, and suddenly an overwhelming feeling sneaks into the edges of my thoughts.  I take a deep breath, briefly review the mission plan that has been months in the making, and walk away from the parked car, ready to take the plunge into the deep end of Olympic sailing.

About twelve months ago, Dane and I stepped into a 49er for the first time and began a quest for mastery.  Our philosophy: that battling the boat or manhandling it around the course as many skiff sailors have implored, is a futile fight.  True mastery of boat handling comes from understanding what the boat wants based on subtle pressures in the tiller and our feet, and maximum boat speed is accomplished through learning to work with the boat instead of against it, to achieve a balance – a oneness between sailors, machine, and the ever shifting racecourse surrounding it all.  In the months since then, we have spent each day focused on the feel of the boat, trying to understand the relationships between techniques, controls lines, rig tuning, and ultimately, various pressures on the boat.  The month of May offered our first check in, where we got to sail against other boats to find out how our training was going, and the takeaways were very positive.  Boat handling was progressing nicely, and our attention to small subtleties had led to a good foundation from which to build.  Our biggest weakness was in straight line boat speed, especially in chop, so through the remainder of the spring, and the summer, we applied the lessons we learned at the training camp, and used them to try to answer a range of new questions that we had about how to sail the boat fast.

During this same period of time, we held many late evening meetings, brainstorming with the brightest sailing minds that we could get access to, devising a roadmap and, making predictions about racing in the 49er fleet.  This process has become a major part of our strategy so far; we collect data, use that data to make predictions, and then take every opportunity to test our predictions so that we can refine our models, and make even more accurate predictions in the future.  As the World Championship regatta drew near, we made a lot of predictions.  We predicted that we would be fast in conditions under ten knots.  We predicted that boat speed would not have a tremendous impact on race results.  We predicted that our boat handling would be awesome in 0-5, good in 5-15, and average in wind speeds above 15.  We predicted that we would have the most trouble with boat speed in 15-20.  We predicted that transitions in breeze would be one of our greatest strengths and that this skill would make us good at sailing in the middle of the fleet.

With our predictions spelled out clearly, and Olympic qualification still several months off, the main mission in Santander would be to validate or reject our predictions, collect new data about racing, and ultimately, return home with the scaffolding for our next round of exploration and predictions.  Race results would be an interesting metric, but hardly one that we could trust due to our singular focus on boat handling during the prior year.  We figured that the most important thing we could possibly do was to separate our evaluation of skills, from our results so that we could get a true read on how our practice was progressing.  Still, we predicted that if we put together a good, clean regatta, we had a shot at finishing in the Gold Fleet.  As I walked past the imposing sailing center building on day one of our training in Santander, Spain, we had this one mission in mind – collect as much data as possible about racing and ultimately try to answer the question: what factors play a role in determining race outcomes, and how much weight should be given to each factor?

During our first two weeks in Spain, we settled into a productive routine.  With a nine o’clock wakeup call, we would spend an hour stuffing down as many calories as we could manage, and making food for the boat park before heading out the door.  Late mornings, and early afternoons were spent in the boat park tuning the rig, making small adjustments to our rigging, and picking the brains of anyone we could find who could offer an experienced perspective on racing in the 49er fleet.  Afternoons were spent on the water in three hour blocks, sparring with international training partners and evenings were spent recording our observations, and debriefing about what we had learned.

We quickly found that our training at home in Santa Barbara has made us very good at mitigating speed loss in tough situations, which makes us strong competitors when we need to sail from the middle or back of the fleet, but when it comes to achieving top speed in easy positions on the racecourse our lack of tuning experience is definitely an obstacle.  Under twelve knots, we can hang with just about anyone, in any position on the course, but in twelve to fifteen, open water speed suffers, and in over fifteen, we’re really unsure where to set controls, or what techniques are the fastest.  During the two weeks of training, we led the charge among the US teams in any conditions under twelve knots, consistently battling for the top few spots in practice races, and showing a powerful ability to surge back from rough starts by sailing through the fleet.  On the windier days, we worked with US Sailing Team coach, Jonathan McKee, to improve our straight-line speed, and made big leaps in tuning and technique, though still feeling slightly underweight for the breezier conditions.  By the end of training we were feeling really good about the predictions that we had made and how we had prepared mentally for the final week of data collection in Spain.

Unfortunately for our hopes of a gold fleet finish the first day of racing dawned to wind reports of 20-30 knots along the coast.  In fact, as the regatta unfolded, we were faced with 15-25 knot winds each day except for our final race of the regatta.  Struggling for boat speed, we spent the first day reeling from the onslaught of new information, and challenges.  As the event progressed, the wind remained high, and we made some minor tweaks to how we were sailing the boat but for the most part, we remained calm, stuck to our big picture game plan, and used the challenging conditions as an opportunity to evaluate our own skills, as well as the fleet around us.  On the last day of racing, the breeze finally softened, and our speed emerged, allowing us to grind through nearly 20 boats after getting stuck on the far right side during a hard left shift in the final race to finish 7th and provide a buoy of confidence in the final moments of competition.

Now that we’re back in the US, we’ve had a few days to reflect on the lessons that we learned in Europe. The biggest thing that stands out is that our predictions based on the mental model that we created over the summer were very good.  Having seen where the bar is set across the full range of conditions at this event we believe that we are now working with a complete model – one that will allow us to tweak variables and make decisions on when to sail, where to sail, how much time to spend sailing versus working out, and ultimately, one that will allow us to predict what it will require to be successful at the regattas this next year.  In the lower wind ranges, we feel that we are already favorites in the battle for the Olympic berth, and in the next few months, we will be building a wider margin of error in those conditions, while working to gain the upper hand in the windier conditions.  While we faced a challenging week of racing, we were able to take away a tremendous amount of valuable lessons that made this first, truly headfirst leap into the deep end of Olympic class 49er racing, an extremely worthwhile event.

We believe more than ever that we are on track to represent the United States in Rio in 2016 and to leave behind a legacy of lessons, data, and information that will help young skiff sailors following in our wake to reach the top of the international fleet more effectively than ever before. This is not a rationalization, but a hopefully objective, cold, harsh assessment of where we are in the trajectory of our training. The goal from the outset was to optimize our learning to accelerate our development so that we can peak in time to secure our spot on the Olympic team. We are spot on in that trajectory and are inspired by the fact the assumptions made as long ago as an entire year have been validated. Now it’s time to eat big, get big and fine-tune our philosophic approach to high performance sailing.

Thank you to everyone who made this experience possible, especially our generous donors, and the team of awesome sponsors who share our passion for the water including the Waterlust crew, Avasol Natural Suncreen, Kaenon Polarized, the Saint Francis Sailing Foundation and Light and Motion.  Thanks also to the US Sailing Team for providing logistical support, coaching and physical therapy services during the regatta.  We are on our way to great things, and we are very excited that you have all come along for the journey!

To donate to our fall training program, please visit or join us, at the upcoming Cousteau event at the Santa Barbara Maritime Museum.

Photos can be found here
Results can be found here

Author: A Salty Brother

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