Process and Approach of a Winning Team

Published on August 20th, 2018

Brad Russell grew up a lake sailor at Lake Norman Yacht Club (Charlotte, NC) and sailed on a club team in college at Tennessee. And now he’s the Thistle Class National Champion, taking the 2018 title in Westport, CT.

As one of the prominent dinghy one design classes in the USA, this event required preparation to win. Aside from making certain the hull, blades, and rigging were perfected and polished, Brad sought out expert advice on rig tune and sail trim which contributed to his good speed in a wind range between drifting and upper teens.

Comprehensive preparation leads to confidence which, hopefully, leads to excellent execution. Once on the water, here’s a list of what Brad thought of for someone looking to improve position in a major regatta.

The regatta had 66 boats and our scorecard for the regatta was 2, 3, 4, 3, 4, 7, winning the regatta with 27 points. Positions 2 through 5 had point totals of 32, 40, 46, and 49 points. Our focus all week was 1) Boat Speed; 2) Be Conservative; and 3) Take Advantage of Small Opportunities.

On The Water Prep
Once we got out to the course our plan of action was typically to do a few things: 1) Speed test; 2) Sail the windward beat; 3) Time on distance runs; and 4) Line sights.

Speed testing with another boat makes sure there isn’t something wrong with your setup that day. It’s more of a validation that you’re ok than an attempt to find and ounce of new speed to use in the race. Then we’d sail the first beat, usually alone. I don’t do split tacks as often anymore since they can give misleading data. But we do gather our numbers on both tacks and get a feel for the swings the breeze will go through over a 15 minute period or so.

The next thing we do is time on distance runs. I assume some others were doing it, but I never saw anyone else working on it all week. We did it every day and would often spend more than 10 minutes working on it before racing. I would pick a buoy and practice setting up on the starboard layline to it and timing my acceleration to it like a start. It significantly increases the intuition and timing on the starting line.

The last thing on our checklist before focusing on the race ahead is getting line sights for the start. A lot of people get a photo line sight, but I prefer a movie. We start well low of the line and get a view of what the sight looks like as you approach the line. This makes it far easier to find your line sight in the heat of the moment and also lets you get a feel for where it is when the actual line sight is covered up by other boats.

My #1 goal at the start of a race is clear air for the foreseeable future. If I don’t have clear air or it will likely go away I am determined to do whatever it takes to get in a position with a clear lane within 45 seconds. Several times during the week I tacked out of an okay but not good lane, ducked the whole fleet, and got to a place where I’d be free to sail as I wished.

Much of the week we didn’t have a good feel for which side of the course would win, so we started towards the middle of the line. That makes it easy to bail for an alternate plan if you aren’t committed to one side.

The toughest race we had was after a mediocre start and a difficult attempt to bail that required several tacks and sitting in less than ideal lanes for periods of time. In that race it took me 2 minutes 11 seconds to get clear air. It’s no coincidence that we had our worst first beat and toughest race after that start.

Tactical Approach
I’ve subscribed to a theory for the last few years that I learned in a book. It says that the regatta winner will be from one of the five fastest boats, who is conservative and consistent early in the event and then races specific competitors late in the event. I’ve worked hard on the speed part and I feel like I’m going faster now than ever.

The conservative and consistent part is the tougher part. The theory says that it’s very hard to pick the correct side consistently and you should only get to one side if you are confident it will pay. Instead, sailing up the middle along an imaginary corridor where you tack on the imaginary boundaries, regardless of being headed or lifted, will produce better results. This is because your speed works against all but the other fastest boats and you aren’t back in the fleet from being off to the wrong side.

The downside is that you won’t be in first as often, but you’ll have far less double digits as well. It took me a while to get comfortable sailing this style, but now I love it. In the first two races I felt like we were in position to win the first leg. But we stayed consistent and kept to the middle, letting boats get to both sides of us. We were fast the whole time and when the sides converged at the top mark we were never first, but were pretty close after taking far less risk. And of course, we were ahead of the side that lost.

It feels weird just sailing up the middle, especially since all my lake sailing trained my mind to think I can outsmart the competition to pick out the next shift and puff. But we just kept to the middle and I believe we rounded the windward mark in the top 4 in 6 of the 7 races – but never first.

The reaches are frustrating. Unless you’re with a couple other savvy boats, everyone wants to mess with the boats immediately around them. I just want to stay in my position and help our group close on the group ahead and extend on the group behind. I think people lose sight of the fact that trying to pass that boat in front of you significantly decreases your chances to pass any of the boats ahead of him.

After the first mark, all the remaining legs are about managing the boats around you and not letting a big chunk of the fleet get leverage.

I feel the results from this style speak for themselves. We never won a race and I don’t believe we were ever first at a mark. However, we finished in the top 4 every race except the last, where we rounded the first mark in 3rd and eventually got match raced back through the fleet by Dave Dellenbaugh to 7th.

The Course
The course was difficult to figure out. We’d often have an idea which side would win, usually driven by current, and it wouldn’t work out that way. Both sides of the course worked on every day. I think that lends more to the conservative strategy instead of trying to win a side.

As with most things, success was the result of the summation of all the parts. I believe it’s more about the process and approach of a team than the individual little things we try to go faster.

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