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Racing in the Virtual World

Published on June 4th, 2015

Steve Hunt can race boats, confirmed by his three Etchells World Championship victories. But Steve is also a leading online racer, and just competed in the first-ever Virtual Sailing World Championship hosted by SailX. Here Steve (aka ‘flow’) reports on the experience…

I first played SailX in 2009 when some of the high school kids I coach showed it to me, and I’ve been playing ever since. Some may say I’m addicted to it, especially if you ask my wife, but the reason I love it so much is there’s no easier way to go sailing.

With SailX you can just pick up your laptop and instantly do a few races against people from all over the world. We often don’t go sailing enough because we have the time, or the wind conditions don’t cooperate, but you can do SailX from anywhere, anytime and it’s easy. I’m positive it’s helped my actual sailing as well.

Because everyone in the game is the same speed, it really helps you work on your pre-race strategy and tactics. Just like real on-the-water sailing, you have to constantly make racing decisions factoring in the wind, tide, shifts and other boats in real time. It also definitely helps you with your rules knowledge as there is on-the-water umpiring which makes instant decisions and states the rule number involved. It’s pretty impressive!

The team at SailX organized the first ever Virtual Sailing World Championships, which had a qualifying series from April 26 to May 29, with the top 30 sailors advancing to the Grand Final to compete for the title. The event attracted nearly 2100 sailors from 66 countries, with all the top SailX sailors from over the years showing up to be labeled top dog.

As I had been ranked number one a few times over the years, I also wanted to be crowned the first SailX World Champ. The competition was a lot of fun through the five week qualifiers which consisted of three rounds. Having made the cut, I cleared my day for the first-ever championship on Sunday, May 31.

The Grand Final was a real trip, as they had a commentator and a crowd of non-qualifying SailXers watching the event, and the level of racing was a different ball game than the rest of the competitions. Whenever you put the top 30 competitors out of 2100 together, the event takes on a different form.

The level was very high and mistakes are much more costly than normal. I pride myself on being able to come back really well in races, and those comebacks often allow me to win regattas. But with the 30 sailors being so good, passing lanes were few and far between, and it was more a game of getting off the line and not making any mistakes early.

Another cool aspect was the top ranked sailors were all on Skype and the commentator was interviewing us between races. It had that “big regatta” feel to it with heavy attendance from the press and live commentary.

Once we got underway, the first few races did not go well for me as I posted 16-7-9, but despite those scores I was still in 5th place overall. The talent was so deep that people’s scores were all over the place. I figured if I won the last two races I could still have a shot to win, which I was able to do, but it was not quite enough.

I finished three points out of the lead in third overall with a 16-7-9-1-1. While I was disappointed not to win, I’m still happy to get on the podium in the first virtual sailing worlds, plus it was a ton of fun.

I have two huge takeaways from the competition that I will take into my real on-the-water sailing. When I look back at why I didn’t win, two bad starts stick out like a sore thumb. After analyzing those starts, two lessons become clear:
Lesson 1: Don’t be one of the first or last boats to set up.
The first start was interesting in that everyone set up super early and it caught me off guard. I preach about having a pre-start process and repeating it over and over again to master it. My process on SailX is to port tack approach and set up on starboard at around 30 seconds, but the fleet set up at around 90 seconds which left me with no holes.

The take away was my process was not correct for the higher level fleet and I did not adjust to the fleet. It’s funny because I recently gave a starting speech to the US Sailing Team and while I preached having a repeatable process I also taught: Don’t be one of the first or last boats to set up. I personally did not give that rule enough credit in the first race of the world championships and it burned me as all of the holes were taken by the time I got there. I will not make that mistake again.

Lesson 2: Relax when the pressure is on and don’t trim in too early.
I’ve found in my sailing that sometimes in the heat of the moment when the adrenaline is pumping, I trim in one second early on critical starts and am OCS. Since I’ve learned that about myself I try to concentrate on breathing and relaxing in those moments, and really focus on the actual time.

But I repeated that mistake in race three of the SailX championship. I had the race winning start all set up and trimmed in a touch early and was OCS. Definitely an unforced error that still kills me when I think about it. It’s important to stay calm in the moment and relax when the pressure is on and avoid huge errors like that.
In looking back at the regatta, the two guys that tied for the win just avoided the big mistakes, a lesson we can all learn from. Hats off to winner ‘bobchr’ from Canada and ‘Yahooz’ from USA in second, and the entire SailX team for a job well done.

See you all on the ‘virtual’ water soon!

Editor’s note: Below is a 6-part series of coaching lessons from professional sailor and coach Steve Hunt using

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