Olympic 470 campaigner David Hughes lays out a pathway to get you to your next “Big Event.”
O Sure, we all enjoy reading about the longhaul campaigns of the America’s Cup or top-level Olympic athletes: many years of training with a no-stone-unturned approach; coaches, physical preparations, months upon months on the water, and equipment testing. But let’s be honest, that’s not the reality most of us can mimic. It’s simply not practical. But there are some lessons we can steal from even the most robust Olympic or world-championship campaigns. From them, we can learn the best path up the proverbial mountain that balances the limited time we all face. Let’s break it down.
Deal with logistics well ahead of time.
Nothing distracts like lack of preparation, so create a clear calendar. If your calendar says August 2 to 10 for the Worlds, what does that really mean for you and your crew? Arrive on the 1st to sail on the 2nd? Arrive the 2nd and not sail? Be specific. A day here or there makes a big difference. It also allows your team to know what sort of arrival and departure day they are likely to face. Plan, share, discuss and compromise.
Set clear goals. Be specific about your objectives for the regatta result and team goals. Discuss these goals with the entire team in an honest fashion. It’s all well and good to dream about winning a Worlds, but if you’re putting in only five days of training in a boat you haven’t sailed in 10 years, then a bit of reality needs to sink in. Setting false objectives feels good at first, but that can be destructive in the end.
Choose the right team. That means selecting a team, not individuals. It might sound like a brilliant idea to reunite a group of your college buddies, but personalities matter, and how people mesh is pivotal. If two crew members fancy themselves the top-dog tactician, then you will surely have troubles at some inopportune moment. The ideal team construction is one in which each member is perfectly capable of doing every other job on the boat at a high level, and yet they are 100 percent committed to their specific position. No one-upmanship, just total attention to doing their job and being a solid player working toward the team’s vision.
If your boat requires a weigh-in, be honest about your weights and who can fit that. The worst hand you can deal yourself is a bit of hope and fudging on target weights, only to set up your team for a massive weight dive the days before the big event.
The body is priority No. 1. When your body isn’t working, nothing else really matters. This is true in life and in sailing, so take care of it. Sleep early during events. Hydrate more than you think, specifically between races and during practice breaks. Dehydration is a slippery slope. Also, stretch at the beginning and end of each day. Use this as a scheduled 10-minute downtime with you and your team. Talk about the plans for the day or review what happened. This can prevent physical issues, and it’s a great trick for re-centering a group who wants to scatter in various directions once you hit the dock.
Establish a practice ratio. Practice time to competition time is a critical piece of math. Work backward from Day One of the big event and think about the percentage of practice hours you can (and should) hold yourself to. Training- to- racing ratios should be 1-to-1 at the very minimum. Ideally, strive for a 2-to-1 ratio, or more. You’ll find that keeping to ratios of more practice than racing is a challenge. Make an exercise of counting the hours. You will be surprised, and I guarantee it will inform not just this campaign, but campaigns to come.
Find a training partner. You don’t need some world-champion, glamorous training partner. Instead, find the person or team that properly matches your schedule, attitude, energy levels and objectives. Being productive on the water always trumps everything else. On the flip side, don’t gravitate to the team that’s first to the beer tent and really won’t push you. The proper partnership should feel like you’re trying to climb the same mountain together, all the while with matching enthusiasm. There will be a turning point of your campaign when your training partner will deliver you that muchneeded emotional booster shot. Pick the person or team that can do that.
Get the monkey off your back. Train at times you don’t want to. Is it raining? Good, then go. Is it a little too windy for your normal comfort zone? Go — it’s never as bad as you think. Of course, safety comes first, but a little water over the bow can only build confidence when the conditions get hairy. Trust me, there will always be that one race at the championship that tests the unexpected.
Be a student of the boat. Focus on
Your “big event” is on the horizon. Here’s how to plot your path to the podium.
boathandling, accelerations and downwind speed. That’s the low- hanging fruit. Upwind speed is obviously critical, but resist the temptation to spend endless hours on upwind tuning and minutia. Try various modes both upwind and down. Understand the amount of time, postjibe and post- tack, it takes to get back to speed. Count the seconds. Round the buoys multiple times and experiment with different approaches and exits. Get used to downspeed maneuvers.
Quiz the good guys. Again, this doesn’t have to be about tuning or the latest jib design. Rather, chat with the top teams about the basics. Where do they sit in heavy-air jibes? What’s the best heel angle after the set? The basics will see you forward, not the idiosyncrasies of the latest mainsail design. If, however, sail design is irresistible to you, then change your questions to what repeated lessons the good guys keep circling back to over the years. I guarantee some good stories.
Control the controllables. There is no excuse for anything but the best boat you can possibly prepare. Don’t say, “I’m not a boat- work person.” That’s a cop- out. You don’t need to replace every block and line, but everything must run smoothly. Get rid of the “friction factory.” Spend some quality time with the boat. Solve the nagging issues. Ask others how they’ve rigged such- and- such. That said, always walk away from the boat with it in a state of “ready to race.” While some of us actually love doing boat work, you must never miss practice because of some not truly critical project. Time on the water is more valuable. If thoughts about finishing that perfect splice on the vang keeps you up at night, then get down to the boat early the next morning and deal with it.
Simplify the numbers. Know the tuning, but keep it simple. Never, never, never look to tuning to solve a technique problem. Don’t get wrapped up in onshore talk about tuning and suddenly present some left-field idea to your crew you happened to hear at the regatta before. Tuning is science, but it’s also experience, and everyone’s experience might be slightly different. Keep your tuning steps simple until you’re presented with an experience yourself that twists your arm in another direction. Remember, the real tuning power comes from your soft controls (sheets, vang, cunningham, etc.).
Don’t fall of the equipment cliff.
Thinking about testing mains? If so, ask yourself two questions. First, what problem are you trying to solve? Second, when will you be done with your test? The cliff comes when you opt to do more experimentation at the loss of sticking to the basics. Things get further clouded when deadlines aren’t respected. Take in the advice given and understand your equipment limitations, but don’t sacrifice attention to the fundamentals. Ask yourself, “What should I take on?” and “When should I stop experimenting?” New equipment — or “shiny objects” — are tempting. Be measured and recognize that there is no magic bullet.
Log time at the venue. If you haven’t sailed there before, can you do so before the big event? Does it fit to create a training camp there? Are there any lead-up events? Beyond the sailing, there are plenty of boxes to tick. Discover where the best supermarket is; find the go-to coffee shop; figure out if your accommodations are adequate; learn the idiosyncrasies of the club’s hoist — the list goes on. The goal is simple: When game day arrives, everything feels familiar.
Create daily checklists. Be a slave to your checklists — boat work, weather, lunches, everything. This will create an efficient daily schedule, which equals time savings. Remember, rest and energy levels are the two potent items of ownership. At major regattas, little issues have a devilish way of becoming major problems. Assign tasks, delegate and, even though it might sound silly to build rules like the same person starts the engine every day, trust me, it works. Q
Along the path to your personal pinnacle event, it’s good to sweat the details such as marking settings and staying on top of your boat work, but don’t let it get in the way of important steps such as practice, team building and personal training.