If you were to be seen at the yacht club post-race, propping yourself up using the time-honored rigging of placing your elbow on the bar, with half a glass of Dark ‘n Stormy in hand, and in the midst of replaying the afternoon’s race to all and sundry, you were to mutter the phrase, “Humans are a competitive lot” the response may be wide ranging. The most likely would be for the throng to immediately place that statement in the same “What an understatement, mate” file as, “The America’s Cup ain’t what is used to be.” That would be the bottom drawer, in the way back.
The human species has been competitive since before a pair of our primate ancestors were vying for the last banana on the tree. Primates measured success in terms of waking up the next day. Humans measure success in many different ways: sports stats seemingly on the tongue tips of True Believers of their favorite team; sales managers trying to match management’s quarterly goals with spreadsheets on their screens. The list is endless.
For the month of September, I was engaged coaching a squad of high school sailors from Greenwich Bay Sailing Association on the rigors of competitive 420 sailing. Now, these kids were all pretty good sailors generally. They could execute all the basics, seemed to understand what I was talking about, and even laughed, a bit, at my jokes. When they asked me a question I would ask a question back – my normal Socratic method – and they would have a pretty boisterous discussion on trying to get to the answer. It was fun watching them thinking and then hearing them talk. Usually in that order.
During these sessions, I would try to get them to “practice like you play.” Don’t do things in the practice you would not do on the racecourse when racing: lying on the side decks, standing up on the side deck, dragging a hand in the water. The other big picture I asked them to do, and I ask this of the Prout Kids too, is a comment from John Bertrand. At least I first heard it from John in 1980 to the effect of, “The one thing all America’s Cup programs have the same amount of, in equal measure, is time. How you use it is critical.” OK, that statement is likely in any Tony Robbins seminar tape and probably not unknown to most of us. But trying to get kids to play that game is difficult. Perhaps one of the benefits of being a teenager is that time is very fungible proposition.
Typically when we, Prout, are preparing to sail I mention, “We have ninety minutes of time before we pack up. The way we use this time is critical.” Using the time effectively is a good way to make up a boat length. Like the gag about politicians and money, a billion here and a billion there and pretty soon we are talking real money.
A boat length here or there… How many times have we just missed out on getting inside overlap, by half a length? How many times have we not been able to cross that starboard tacker by one length? If we could relive those adjustments to the wind shift and tweak the trim faster, hiking a tad harder…all in search of just one boat length. Multiplied by several episodes, you get to three, four and five boat lengths pretty easily.
Phil Haydon, he of Sail For Epilepsy, has a principle of “One More Step.” This revolves around the idea of promoting, to the people he speaks with, of focusing not on the fact you have Epilepsy; rather focusing on what you can do, to take one more step towards what it is you want to do. Towards your passion.
When Phil and I were sailing back in the 2021 Bermuda 1-2 DH leg, Phil would record videos on the boat “talking” to, and about, a particular Virtual Shipmate and the boat lengths they were gaining and giving up in their quest to take one more step towards their goal. One video he had received was from a maybe 10-year-old kid in Cape Town who wanted to be a drummer. Phil had a great exchange with this Nipper. A bit later we received a video from the kid’s mum, speaking just to Phil, no son on the clip. She was in tears reciting how the interchange with Phil had impacted her son and how much he had improved in his drumming. Musing on this since that video and reading parts of Roger Vaughan’s great biography on Viktor Kovalenko, The Medal Maker, I decided the trick is all Passion. Passion makes for boat lengths. Or in the case of our primate ancestors, makes for lunch. Or not.
How do you ignite Passion in teenagers who are out there banging around in their 420s, joshing each other, barging at the mark during mark rounding practices, and generally having fun? In case you were wondering, I dunno. If you saw them just sailing around or read the questionnaire I ask them to fill in before the sessions, you would think they are already pretty passionate about sailing. Perhaps there is the rub. “Passionate about sailing” and “winning” are two quite different critters, I think.
I am getting close to thinking that teaching sailing, or more accurately teaching sailboat racing, is not as important as igniting a passion. This is likely Confirmation Bias because that is how I try and approach my actions with the kids, certainly the Prout kids, because I have them for four years. I did not have contact with the clinic kids over a long enough timeline to get enough fuel on the Passion (to win) fire.
Passion will drive the focus on execution, the fine minutiae of each maneuver, where you put your hands in the maneuver. It is pretty easy to see when the kids are getting tired. The fumble rate goes up and the body language goes down.
Back to the Buckley Building for lunch and a few Cooper Finn stories. The “story” is actually the bottom of the Passion Iceberg. I did something on, with, or to, the Finn, or me, to make it “better.” The better was a footpath on which the Passion travelled to the end goal, in my case the 1980 Olympics.
In early 1976 I took over a Vanguard Finn, the Rolls Royce Finn of the day. Because I had bought it from Tony James, my mentor, coach and Passion (the Olympics) flame thrower, I did not touch the setup, at least the layout of the myriad of strings a Finn has. Who’d have thought: one sail, so many strings. But one day out practicing mark roundings, it dawned on me that changing mode from downwind to upwind at the bottom mark required a lot more string handling than seemed reasonable. I stopped for a few minutes and thought and looked at the setup for a while. The strings were all out of order for mark roundings. I had to look at each line and think which line I had to move, adjust, then move my eyes to find the next line to be moved, execute, and so on.
This was time consuming and a poor use of mental facilities. At this remove I cannot remember if I ever asked Tony if there was reason to how he set up the control lines for Cunningham, foot inhaul, foot outhaul, vang, and centerboard control. I forget what order they were in and to what order I changed them, front to back. But the net result was the control lines were rearranged so I could manipulate them forward to aft without thinking.
The result of this small change, microscopic in the universe of sailing a Finn, was that mark rounding’ got sooo much simpler. Meaning: better, faster, smoother and I was less distracted. All this made entering a mark circle, they were called then, and so changing gears from downwind to upwind easier. Simpler equals faster and less distracted, equals faster on the track, a boat length, probably two. Kinda like gear-changing paddles on F1 cars, I guess. A couple more steps to get a couple of boat lengths. Sailing’s original AI, maybe. I always had fun sailing the Finn, even capsized, but finding that extra boat length with the string adjustment put me one step, one boat length, closer to my goal.
Sailing the boat on autopilot is a skill good racing sailors develop. With this new arrangement of lines, I could set the boat up for changing directions on autopilot, subconsciously. This let me concentrate my mind, on the desktop of the tactics. Sail adjustments were running in the DOS background.
I saw many examples of areas where these kinds of small adjustments in technique could improve the performance of the clinic kids. I try and break down each idea I have so it’s easy to convey on the water. They might execute my instructions for a few iterations, but then slowly slink back to the old ways…maybe too many kids at once, maybe not enough hunger for the Banana. That phrase we hear connected to winning: “He/she was hungry for it.”
I do not have the luxury that I think Kovalenko had of refusing to work with anyone who did not meet his exacting demands, his high level of Passion. But I can live with simply handing out bananas all around. ■
Australian born, Joe ‘Coop’ Cooper stayed in the U.S. after the 1980 America’s Cup where he was the boat captain and sailed as Grinder/Sewer-man on Australia. His whole career has focused on sailing, especially the short-handed aspects of it. He lives in Middletown, RI where he coaches, consults and writes on his blog, joecoopersailing.com, when not paying attention to his wife, dog and several, mainly small, boats.