I want to be a better sailor. Who doesn’t?
In my lifelong quest to improve my skills I have sought advice from many coaches and other good sailors, but I often find myself asking, “What would Eric do?”
The Eric in question is the late Eric Twiname (photo above) who wrote several books about sailing, of which his Sail, Race and Win first published in 1982 is (in my opinion) the best book ever written about how to coach yourself to become a better sailor.
In the book Eric comments that too may sailors rely only on racing to improve their skills but this is a mistake. To learn you must experiment and most people do not experiment during races. He discusses twelve different ways of learning to be a better sailor in his book, including such thing as observation, solo practice, paired practice and group coaching. So, after my (typically) poor performance at the First Aero Regatta in Connecticut at the end of July, I gave some thought to what skills I need to improve and considered what would Eric do.
Eric says that “practice outside of races is the fastest and easiest way of improving a whole range of sailing skills” and that “solo practice is especially good for working on skills which are more intuitive and really on ‘feel’ such as boat handling and heavy weather techniques.”
Heavy weather? I can’t remember the last time I sailed a regatta in heavy weather. Or even moderately strong winds. So when the breeze was up on the first two days of August I took the opportunity to get out and do some solo practice on Mount Hope Bay and Upper Narragansett Bay (or Providence Bay as it is called on my chart) – I really must buy a newer chart.
On both days the wind was in the mid-teens gusting to twenty and I worked mainly on upwind technique and tacking. Both were pretty awful to start with, especially on the first day, but there were some juicy waves that were fun to ride downwind so that was all good.
On the first Sunday in August I raced in the pursuit races at Massapoag YC, where the light patchy winds and flat water gave me little to no chance to take advantage of what I might have learned in stronger winds and waves on the bay earlier in the week. For some reason a swarm of Lasers had descended on the club and one of the Laser sailors was annoyingly fast. But I did manage to score a first and a second in two of the races… and we won’t talk about the other one. Eric is very big on the idea of experimenting in races and not even trying to win every race. I should be more like Eric.
The following Tuesday I went back to the club and did some more solo practice, again in winds of around 15-20 but on flatter water than the bay sails. Man, it was fun. Hiking flat out upwind, trying to spot the gusts and especially those slam dunk headers that make lake sailing so exhilarating. And then wild planing rides downwind. I think I like solo practice too much. But Eric says that solo practice does draw you “into closer touch with the elements than is ever possible during the infighting and tensions of a race.” It’s all about developing a feeling of “togetherness” with the boat and, according to Eric, “The more you become one with the boat, the faster you go.” I live in hope.
How I sail upwind in breeze on Lake Massapoag (in my dreams)
On Wednesday of the following week I went to sail with a couple of friends on the Providence River (see chart above) launching from Edgewood YC. Eric doesn’t specifically cover what to do when sailing with two friends in his book. If he had, I don’t think he would have told us to “blast around reaching downwind towards the mouth of the river just having fun and enjoying the scenery” or “go off an do some solo tacking practice while the other two play follow-the leader around a sausage course.” Or maybe he would. Who knows? Eric has been dead for almost 40 years, poor bloke.
Then on Friday of last week, two of us went Aero sailing at one of our favorite spots – the mouth of the Sakonnet River launching from Sakonnet Harbor in Little Compton. It’s one of the best spots around here to do some sailing in waves when the conditions are right, plus it’s very scenic with the Sakonnet Lighthouse a short sail upwind from the harbor.
Eric has a whole chapter about paired practice in his book. Eric says you should decide in advance what you are going to practice and you should write that down in a list and you should then decide exactly how to practice each skill. (We didn’t do that.)
But we did sail side by side upwind in the waves to see how using body movement in the modest waves gave any advantage. (It did.) And we did sail side by side downwind seeing who could catch waves the best. (Inconclusive.) And we did reach across the river towards Third Beach in Middletown to see who was fastest. (I am too modest to tell you.)
And so to Evelyn’s Drive In for stuffies and beer.
Life is good.