You can spend money, time and effort to improve your sailing performance. Michael Blackburn looks at which gives the biggest reward.
Money for Big Equipment
Buying new equipment can produce instant speed gains if you know how to use it - and your skills are such that it will make a difference.
The key upgrades are hull, mast and sails. Depending on the age of your gear, it can make sense to either upgrade the whole boat so that every part is less prone to failure, or to change over one part at a time.
The hull is probably going to be the most expensive. Fibreglass boats become softer over time and gain a little water weight. Depending on their construction and use, you can expect them to lose a little speed after 2-5 years.
The sails – the engines – are a key upgrade as they are the only things aboard that actually make the boat go forward. New sails should have a better flying shape and give better height and speed than ones a couple of seasons old.
When I was about 15 my mum bought me a new sail for my Spiral to replace the eight-year-old one I was using. It certainly looked and sounded better and probably made me go a little quicker. However, my trimming skills at the time meant I wasn’t getting the most out of it.
An alloy mast will usually perform consistently until corrosion or permanent bending gets the better of it. Carbon masts should also have a fairly long life but need to be checked for possible failure. In both cases, top competitors will bend-test masts to make sure they’re getting what they need and that the money is well spent.
Money for Accessories
I grew up sailing without a compass on my Laser but once I could afford it I bought a good one based on the recommendation of a top sailor. The compass was great to determine the bias on the start line, but after the start it kept my head inside the boat (examining what the wind had done) versus outside (examining what the wind might do). Once I took it off I immediately started racing better. So that was a waste of money for me.
On the other hand, once I could afford to upgrade my alloy Laser tiller with a carbon one (eg ACME Black Diamond), I made some good improvements in steering accuracy. The carbon tiller reduced friction in the helm and improved the feel of the boat – especially in light winds. So, I’d rather buy a carbon Laser tiller for $275 than a compass for $375.
There are many, many little upgrades you can make to equipment. Take a close look at what the top guys in your class (as well as the Olympic classes) are using, from wetsuits to wind indicators, and see what you can afford to buy. Also, check out boat shops for new gear and rigging options.
Speaking of wind indicators, these score high points for cost vs benefit. Many Laser sailors like the Little Hawk wind indicator (~$30), but I would make my own out of some thin galvanised tie wire (<$10 for 50m), a little bit of a shock cord, PVC tape and a strip of spinnaker cloth. Less than $1 each!
Money for Expertise
Some tips from a good coach can do wonders. Most of the major ‘insight’ moments I had when developing as a sailor came from a comment a coach made. Mike Fletcher once told me that to sail the boat flatter in breeze I had to sheet the sail much quicker. I tried it and it worked but it was difficult – “That’s hard!” I said, to which he replied “If it was easy then everyone would do it and be fast!”
Apart from technical tips, a good coach can also motivate and give long-term perspective to your efforts. If you’ve never had a coach, get some exposure to them by joining in coaching days or attending sailing club talks.
Big boat skippers can benefit from employing a pro sailor who has years of
experience in the class. Depending on the boat and your needs, this person might specialise in calling tactics or be a sailmaker/trimmer who can tune your rig and help with boat speed.
Cheaper than a coach or pro is having a regular training partner. In fact, this is on the
top of my list for cost vs benefit over the long term. A training partner will provide a good measure and add quality to your training. Buy a notebook or start a document or spreadsheet to keep notes on what you learnt each day.
The best training partner relationships are open, trusting and transparent and a new
service I’m a partner in, CrackerSports.com, can help with the sharing of information
within your training group and determining where to spend your time and effort.
A feature of CrackerSports.com is a performance profiling tool that helps sailors and coaches visualise the gap between their current abilities and where they want to be.
You do a self-assessment of your skills via our tool, and then send it to your coach or
training partner for a reality check. Once you know more about your strengths and
weaknesses, the site directs you to appropriate resources for improvement.
I couldn’t find enough good sailing material to read when I was a developing sailor. Now, there’s almost too much stuff around that you could read or watch. CrackerSports has done much of the filtering for you so you can quickly find that video, audio, book or article on the subject you need some tips on.
Cracker also has some neat functionality that allows training partners, squad members
and coaches to share resources within your groups. And every so often, I’ll be adding
narrated coaching videos – so definitely worth signing up for.
Time & Effort
Say you have x hours to spend on your sailing each week – how should you divide that up?
Well, if x = 3, then about the best thing you can do is just to sail for that time. To get better at sailing, your ‘x’ probably has to be 6+ hours so that you can sail twice a week and maybe allocate some time for boat maintenance and work on your fitness.
For those who can devote 12-20 hours a week, my rule of thumb is that about 70% of time be spent sailing and the remainder divided between physical training and boat work.
If you are doing 3-4 sailing sessions a week then you have to consider how to spend that on-water time. You’ve got to find time to work on boat speed, racing skills,
psychology and boat handling. Putting some effort into evaluating your current abilities
and creating a long term plan based on addressing those weaknesses is a good way to
identify some short-term on-water goals.
For this article I also did a boat-park survey of some Aussie Olympic sailors, asking their opinion of the most bang for buck items in their campaigns. One said ‘anything that frees time up or saves energy’ and another agreed that training with quality training partners more often was great value. Another said he got great value from campaigning in Europe against tough competitors.
But, the response I liked most was ‘being nice to people’ - a timeless classic tactic for
moving forward in the world!