coaches cornerYou haven’t won the race, if in winning the race you have lost the respect of your competitors.

- Paul Elvström, four-time Olympic Gold Medalist and World Champion in eight different classes

If a tree falls in the forest and there’s no one around to hear it, does it really make a sound? I don’t know.

If a sailor can win a race but there’s no one to race against, can the sailor really win? Pretty clearly, the answer is no. Sailing is a great lifelong sport that encompasses a range of ages, abilities, and degrees of seriousness, and one aspect that’s vital to keeping the sport going is sportsmanship. It’s often said that sailing is a self-policing sport and that for this reason, sportsmanship is particularly important. This is certainly true; it only takes one incident with one boat abusing the system to make a race less enjoyable for everyone else. Following the rules is certainly a significant piece of sportsmanship, but being a good sport in sailing goes beyond rules and the racecourse.

It’s one thing to think about how to improve your boathandling or tactics, but thinking about how to be a better sport is a more difficult — and more important — task. It’s relatively easy to think of ways to be a bad sport, but are there concrete steps to being a better sport? There’s certainly no right answer, but here are a few things to keep in mind as you approach your next race or regatta.

1. Show your appreciation. Thanking the race committee, regatta organizers, your competitors, and any friends, family and coaches who helped get you to the starting line goes a long way to making sure that a positive racing atmosphere will stay that way.

2. Be prepared. If you have the parts, clothing, and information that you need for your time on the water, you’ll be less tempted to grab a part from a boat in the parking lot or “borrow” the spray top you find in the bathroom. You’ll also be less likely to feel like you’ve suffered for an “unfair” reason (like your traveler snapping or not knowing the starting sequence) and take out your frustration on others.

3. Know the rules. The Racing Rules of Sailing are complicated, but you should do your best to learn and follow them. If you take some time to think about the rules and how they apply in key situations like starts and mark roundings, you’ll know how to react and will be less likely to break them. If you’re confident in your knowledge, you may also find yourself in situations when you can teach the rules to your competitors in a clear way...and not by yelling at them!

4. Learn to move on. Many sailors ruin otherwise good races by being fouled and then being angry about it for the rest of the race. If you’re fouled, you certainly have the right and responsibility to enforce the rules through a protest, but then you should move on and continue racing. Use your energy to find the next puff or catch the next shift.

5. Remember why you’re out there. Ultimately, we’re all on the course to have fun in one way or another, though different fleets have different understandings of what that entails. If you approach Sunday afternoon frostbiting with the same seriousness as a world championship event, or vice versa, you’re not going to see eye to eye with your competitors, and though you may not technically break any rules, you will insult someone. If you’re unhappy with the approach your fleet is taking, find a fleet that fits your goals.

6. Get to know your competitors. Getting to know people makes everyone a little bit more human on the course. Congratulate your competition, even if it’s the person who edged you out for midfleet (e.g. “Wow, you guys had a really nice roll tack at the end of the race.”); when it comes back your direction, it will feel great. It also means you’ll get a little more help tying down your boat at the end of the regatta, and no matter what happens on the water, post-race festivities will be more enjoyable.

Sailing is a unique sport in that if you stick with it long enough, you’ll find yourself running into the same people again and again, often at unexpected times and places. If you earn yourself the label of being a poor sport, that reputation will follow you and you’ll have a hard time getting rid of it. On the flip side, if you earn yourself the reputation of being a good sport, you’ll not only enjoy the sport more in the short term, you’ll also find that the rewards continue to build as you continue with sailing.

Clemmie Everett is the Head Instructor at Ram Island Yacht Club in Noank, CT and Assistant Varsity Sailing Coach at Rye Country Day School in Rye, NY. She won the Sportsmanship Award at the 1999 Leiter Trophy and the 2008 Adams Cup.

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