Thinking strategically about your learning is a powerful thing.  I’ve been thinking about this quite a bit, as there have been several new boats that have joined our racing fleet, and through finding ways to help them get started, I’ve come to realize the importance of planning ahead and maximizing available opportunities for experimentation. It’s been a lot fun for me to help less experienced racers, sharing ideas for improvement, and helping create learning opportunities, and I’ve learned so much in turn, watching the individual teams progress as they experiment with their new-found knowledge and strategies.

Having goals, and lists, and identifying your weak areas are all important things, as I’ve written about in other posts.  Check out “Are You Pleased But Not Satisfied?” or “How To Be Your Own Coach” for some helpful advice.  But there is another tool you can use, too, if you’re thinking ahead. And it’s probably not one you’ve ever thought of.

I was reading through an old sailing book recently, and was intrigued to read about the idea of making a deliberate decision to use certain races as “learning opportunities.”  It may sound strange to be worried less about winning a race than about learning from it, but if you are thinking strategically about improving your sailing, this can be a very helpful concept.  Think of it this way: if you’re not going to place in a Series, for example, you might come out and race anyway, and see what you can learn about boat speed, sail trim, and tactics – all in a situation where the result is perhaps only secondarily important.  In Sail, Race Win, Eric Twiname wrote this: “Using some races as classrooms gives greater freedom to experiment and learn.”  Racing in these situations, where winning the race is not the ultimate goal, enables valuable learning opportunities, which can then, in turn, support your goal of winning in other races — when you really need it to count.

To help some of the less experienced racers in our fleet get started, we have encouraged them to begin by “shadowing” the fleet, which simply means that they start just behind the fleet and race the entire course with a bird’s eye view of what the other, more experienced skippers are doing. It gives them the perfect opportunity to see sail trim, boat handling, and tactics in action, and allows them the freedom to experiment on their own boat.  They are, as Twiname wrote, “using the race as a classroom,” and learning in a way that surpasses reading about it or watching from afar. I used this technique quite naturally as I first started racing (usually because I was so far back in the pack anyway!) and the gains over a season were quite astounding.

But there are other ways of doing this, too.  Choose a race where the win is less important that the learning opportunities the race provides.  For example, you might have your eye on winning the National Championship, and decide to use your Club racing as your practice sessions.  This would be a strategic decision, one you would follow to reach the more important end-goal of improving your skills in order to be able to win the race that’s most important to you. In Championship Tactics, Gary Jobson gives some helpful advice about sailing in “practice mode.”  He writes: “When sailing the races in practice mode, try different tactics, sails, and sail-handling techniques. Otherwise you’ll get stuck in a safe rut and not know if there are better ways to work the boat. Experiment by being aggressive at the start and fighting for the favored position. Or try disciplining yourself to a specific game plan, even though you’ll have to dip a bunch of transoms to get to the other side of the course. Consider passing boats to leeward on the reaches, or make a point of passing boats one at a time, even though you have the opportunity to pass groups of boats. Practice crossing the finish line perpendicularly.”

Is deciding to race in “practice mode” a simple idea? You bet it is! But don’t let its simplicity fool you: it can help you make enormous gains in learning how to increase your chances of sailing a winning race. Thinking strategically about using all the learning opportunities available to you is a way to maximize what you are able to accomplish in a shorter amount of time. It’s making the most of what you have at your fingertips.  So look ahead at the bigger picture, and see where those opportunities are lurking!  If you can’t sail an entire Series, come out and race anyway, and use the racecourse as your classroom. Then you can begin to use what you’ve learned to start winning races.


Deborah Bennett Elfers
I was practically born on a boat, though on a working lobster boat rather than a sailboat. In my early days, I sailed quite a lot on a Sunfish, but not very elegantly, as in our little neighborhood “fleet,” the boat was primarily used as a weapon in a wildly popular game of “kill the other guy!” Who could have imagined way back then, that one day I’d become so passionate about all things sailing?
Deborah Bennett Elfers
Deborah Bennett Elfers

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