BACK TO SCHOOL

An as­pir­ing racer signs up with North U’s Re­gatta Ex­pe­ri­ence class

SAIL - - Contents - BY LY­DIA MULLAN

“Want to check the keel?”

North U Coach Ge­off Becker calls to me from back by the tran­som. We’ve just suf­fered our worst fin­ish in the re­gatta and are ab­so­lutely fly­ing on our way back to shore, spin­naker up and heel­ing at an an­gle that feels like maybe we’re tempt­ing fate. Ge­off’s whip­ping the boat, a Fly­ing Tiger 7.5, up to speed in an ef­fort to cheer us up—and it’s work­ing.

We’ve all agreed it would be a copout to blame our former lack of boat­speed on some hy­po­thet­i­cal de­bris wrapped around the keel, but Ge­off in­structs me to check any­way. With the help of my team­mate Eric, I slide down the hull, hanging up­side­down from the safety line by my knees. We’re heeled far enough that when I stretch out my arms, I can’t quite touch the wa­ter. In­stead, the spray reaches up for me and spat­ters my face. I grin de­spite my­self, all frus­tra­tion whisked away by the breeze.

I re­cently had the plea­sure of sail­ing with Ge­off, Eric and a cou­ple named Sabine and Richard as part of the North U Re­gatta Ex­pe­ri­ence pro­gram. Pig­gy­back­ing on

well-known re­gat­tas around the coun­try—in this case the three-day Mi­ami Sail­ing Week— the pro­gram in­cludes two days of coach­ing be­fore the re­gatta and then sev­eral days of rac­ing with a coach on board through­out. Our group con­sisted of 24 sailors aboard five boats. Each day on the wa­ter be­gan and ended with a class­room ses­sion. In the morn­ing, th­ese typ­i­cally in­cluded the fore­cast for the day, notes on rig tun­ing and what drills or cour­ses to ex­pect. It’s in the af­ter­noon, though, that North U re­ally shines.

“Welcome to to­day’s post-sail ses­sion, ti­tled ‘It Looks so Easy From Here, Part…’ how many of th­ese have we done?” North U direc­tor Bill Glad­stone jokes as we assem­ble for an af­ter­noon ses­sion. The sailors in the pro­gram and our coaches are sit­ting in a ca­sual jumble of chairs around a large screen. On the mon­i­tor is one of the many videos of our prac­tice that day, shot from Bill’s launch. The first few days I’d watched with more than a lit­tle trep­i­da­tion, wait­ing to see my­self on the mon­i­tor as some em­bar­rass­ing flaw was pointed out, but it never hap­pened. The North U guys are se­ri­ously com­mit­ted to keep­ing things friendly, whether it’s on­shore or out on the wa­ter, never sin­gling out any­one. They also make a point of high­light­ing the par­tic­u­lar strengths of the dif­fer­ent crews, which in many cases can be just as in­for­ma­tive as the weak­nesses.

In the words of fel­low par­tic­i­pant EC Helme, “Bill is like a leg­end, so a chance to have him both give you some coach­ing be­fore you get out on the wa­ter and then dis­sect what you’re do­ing [af­ter­ward] is an amaz­ing op­por­tu­nity.” This is high praise, as EC’s no novice. He owns a J/92 which he races with the help of sev­eral of our other class­mates. They’d all de­cided to en­roll in the North U pro­gram to­gether and get some pre-sea­son prac­tice in.

De­spite part of the class reg­u­larly sail­ing to­gether at home, there was a pretty broad range of back­grounds across the fleet. On my boat alone, Eric was part of EC’s group, Richard and Sabine had done sev­eral North U clin­ics in the Fly­ing Tigers and I’d had only lim­ited ex­pe­ri­ence in keel­boats. (Ge­off took great joy in call­ing out my clumsy “opti hop,” when cross­ing the boat; Fly­ing Tigers are much harder to jump across than dinghies, and I had an as­ton­ish­ing rain­bow of bruises to prove it.)

Bill teaches with an easy and en­dear­ing hu­mil­ity, fre­quently say­ing, “I don’t know if it works, let’s test it to­mor­row,” when­ever he sees some­thing new. And as the North U coaches will tell you, there is al­ways some­thing new. With each class of rac­ers comes a fresh set of skills, ex­pe­ri­ences and mishaps, all caught on tape by Bill from aboard his RIB, giv­ing each par­tic­i­pant the abil­ity to watch them­self in ac­tion af­ter­ward.

“Some­times when you’re do­ing some­thing ei­ther good or bad, you’re not ex­actly sure. And when you see it watch­ing the video, and they’re walk­ing you through it, that’s re­ally help­ful,” said Stephanie

Lam­bert French, who trav­eled from Rhode Is­land to take part in the pro­gram, and she couldn’t have been more right. Watch­ing your­self, your trim and your head­ing from a dif­fer­ent per­spec­tive with the ex­pert guid­ance of sev­eral pro­fes­sional coaches is an eye-opener. I think EC put it well when he said, “You don’t know what you don’t know.”

An­other one of Bill’s fa­vorite lessons is the “Two Per­cent Rule.” It goes like this: most vic­to­ries hap­pen by be­ing just two per­cent faster than the com­pe­ti­tion. “In a 100-minute race, win­ning by two min­utes is a pretty sig­nif­i­cant lead” he says. So, in­stead of try­ing to teach some dra­matic tac­ti­cal moves, North U fo­cuses on the finer points to score just two per­cent more boat­speed. EC, for ex­am­ple, whose J/92 is sim­i­lar to a Fly­ing Tiger, told me he was sur­prised to see this prin­ci­ple in ac­tion with a sim­ple change of the an­gle to the wind. “We’ve been sail­ing th­ese boats a lot thin­ner than I would’ve ex­pected,” he says. “I’m not sure we would have be­lieved it would have worked, but in the re­gatta to­day it was very ap­par­ent that the coaches were ab­so­lutely right. If it wasn’t for [my coach Brian] I’d be sail­ing this boat en­tirely dif­fer­ently.”

On the wa­ter, we also ro­tated through the po­si­tions so that every­one had a chance to drive, trim and work the bow. For most of us who aren’t boat own­ers, the chance to drive in the mid­dle of a re­gatta as pres­ti­gious as Mi­ami Race Week is a rare op­por­tu­nity, but North U’s ro­ta­tion sys­tem al­lowed every­one a shot. Par­tic­i­pant Mary Martin em­braced this as a welcome chal­lenge, say­ing that while she doesn’t of­ten get time at the helm dur­ing races, she was eager to get more ex­pe­ri­ence. When I asked if she thought she ac­com­plished that, the grin that lit up her face more than an­swered my ques­tion.

“To­day I was out there driv­ing in 22 knots of breeze. We were plan­ing. We were scream­ing along,” she told me. And she’s not alone. Every­one seemed to have a thrilling story of be­ing at the helm in 20-plus knots of breeze. Of course, there were also just as many—though some­what less read­ily told—cat­a­strophic tales of blown gybes, shrimp­ing spin­nakers or, in my team’s case, run­ning aground. (Ge­off calmly freed us from the sand bar we hit, but not be­fore each of us was soaked from hik­ing to lift the keel off the bot­tom). De­spite be­ing in class, there’s no short­age of ad­ven­ture.

Of course, there’s also plenty of fun. When I asked Stephanie’s hus­band, Taber French, why he de­cided to come, he looked at me like I was nuts and re­minded me that both of our home states were re­ceiv­ing sev­eral inches of snow that day. In fact, aside from Richard and Sabine, who are Mi­ami lo­cals, every­one in the pro­gram seemed to be es­cap­ing some kind of ghastly win­ter weather back home. And in ret­ro­spect, the warm, turquoise waters of Bis­cayne Bay in early March may well have been the most pop­u­lar part of the pro­gram. Aside from a 20-minute down­pour late one af­ter­noon (which I deemed “team bond­ing” as we all shiv­ered to­gether) the weather was post­card-per­fect. To add to the idyl­lic scene, dol­phins fre­quently came by for a visit.

North U also shared the spot­light for our daz­zling week on the wa­ter with its part­ner, 1D Sail­ing, which sup­plies the Fly­ing Tigers. In fact, 1D puts a tremen­dous amount of work into preparing for this pro­gram, from trai­ler­ing the boats cross-coun­try to mid-re­gatta emer­gency fixes. 1D’s Dave Smith even showed me a di­a­gram of the boat setup that they’d drawn in the dust on the rear win­dow of his car, not­ing that they’re con­stantly work­ing on how to best main­tain the boats, even when draw­ing sup­plies aren’t avail­able.

Through­out the week we got to know the guys from this Cana­dian com­pany pretty well, and in keep­ing with na­tional stereo­types, they proved great com­pany. There wasn’t a sin­gle day when one of them didn’t ask me how I was do­ing and whether I was en­joy­ing my time there. My an­swer was al­ways “yes,” even on the af­ter­noon I had to ad­mit, only half-jok­ingly, to feeling like the weak link on my boat. The very next day, though, I drove to a first-place fin­ish, and as soon as I got off the wa­ter it was the 1D guys who were the first to con­grat­u­late me, say­ing: “Hey, Miss Weak Link! Heard about your bul­let to­day!” I of­fered much of the credit to my team­mates, and Richard and Sabine smiled proudly, since we’d also taken the over­all lead. Richard asked me how to spell “fun,” and I an­swered “W-I-N,” a run­ning joke on our mod­estly com­pet­i­tive boat (in the end, we man­aged to hold onto this lead and win the Fly­ing Tiger class).

As the week went on, mo­ments like this made a bunch of strangers sail­ing to­gether for the first time feel more and more like a team. And many of our class­mates on other boats started to feel like friends as well.

As Mary put it, “Sail­ing’s a com­mu­nity, a com­mu­nity of friends that sup­ports each other both on and off the wa­ter. That’s what it’s all about. You can ex­pand your com­mu­nity by go­ing to events like this.” If you’re just join­ing this class to so­lid­ify your rac­ing with the guid­ance of pros, pre­pare your­self for a much big­ger ex­pe­ri­ence. From the beau­ti­ful lo­cales to the friends you meet along the way, North U’s Re­gatta Ex­pe­ri­ence is much more than a rac­ing course. s

Sabine (at far left) and the au­thor pre­pare to hoist the spin­naker while Eric takes his turn at the helm

The au­thor (at the helm) checks her com­pass head­ing on a down­wind leg

Having been to sev­eral North U clin­ics, Rich and Sabine knew their way around a Fly­ing Tiger

Bill draws a course di­a­gram dur­ing one of the morn­ing class­room ses­sions

Ge­off (right) and Sabine hoist the spin­naker on the sec­ond day of rac­ing Be­tween races, the au­thor does a quick fix on the bow

Bill (right) pro­vides on-wa­ter sup­port with the help of Con­nor Macken­zie from 1D

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