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Donkin on Sailing

May 2007 – Sail race training, The America’s Cup connection

For just a few hours on a breezy spring day off the Isle of Wight two years ago I discovered what life was like at the top of the sail racing learning curve when three of the Great Britain crew from the 2002-2003 America’s Cup campaign came down to the Solent to pass on their expertise to the offshore racing team I had joined for the season.

“You train like you sail and you sail like you train,” said Mark Covell, a silver medalist at the Sydney Olympics who had brought along two of his team mates, Chris Mason and Mo Gray who is now sailing with the French boat, Areva Challenge.

Each of the GBR team members were assigned to identical yachts with their trainee crews. I was in a scratch crew that had been beaten easily in the early races that day. Chris Mason, an Olympic coach and a veteran of four America’s Cup campaigns stepped on to our boat and made what seemed like a small adjustment to the mainsail fixing where the boom joins the mast.

Whatever it was, it worked like a dose of Epsom salts. Suddenly we were beating our rivals off the start and the whole crew responded with a sense of belief. That’s the essence of round-the-cans sailing. Small adjustments to a sail profile, a slicker sail change, an improvement of the weight distribution around the boat – all can make the fraction of a second differences that win races.

America’s Cup teams prepare meticulous plans of their on-board drills so that each member of the crew understands their work relationship with the rest of the crew. The ideal, says Covell, is a crew working quietly where split-second moves are anticipated and executed with a minimum of fuss.

I had the opportunity to witness this at first hand last year when I sailed as an observer – the equivalent to the America’s Cup so-called “18th man” - on ABN Amro One in the port race off Portsmouth during the Volvo Ocean Challenge. The skipper Mike Sanderson, who has been drafted in to create the nucleus of a future British America’s Cup challenge, spent most of the race in quiet discussion with his tactician and navigator. At crucial stages he would defer to the tactician whenever there was a need to lay the line for a manoeuvre. The navigator, meanwhile, was relaying longer term information with an eye to the weather conditions.

On America’s Cup boats this is where the afterguard that includes the navigator, tactician and strategist, practices its dark arts, trying to second guess the opposition, forcing rivals in to an error or stealing a march on the opposition. This is the experience that cannot be matched by the sharpest skills among the youngest sailors.

“We think of a young sailor as someone in his late 20s. You need that experience to sail these boats,” says Craig Monk, sailing team manager and grinder at BMW Oracle Racing. “The average age of our crews is between 37 and 38. You can’t beat that experience,” he says.

“People are coming to these boats with a deep base level of sailing skills often achieved in Olympic competition or from competing regularly sailing in Maxis or the 52 ft class. They join a team and they start working together over a number of years and it’s tough going. They either role off the edge or they dig in and work on their role and make it through,” says Monk.

I have joined racing teams on three separate occasions and it has never been easy. The first was in 1996 when I joined the crew of a BT Challenge yacht for the second leg of a round-the-world race. As a complete novice, the only way to handle the move was to keep quiet and do everything.

On subsequent offshore campaigns, this time with a little more experience, I was also entering settled teams. One of the hardest jobs when joining a crew is to develop an understanding with those who you are working alongside who will not only be vital to the success of any manoeuvre but will help also look out for your safety.

In top flight sailing each crew member is responsible for their own safety but when the weather turns rough or when some vital piece of equipment breaks you can find yourself relying on others.

Philippe Falle, director of sailing at Southampton-based Sailing Logic Racing, one of the UK’s leading sail race training companies, believes that it is important to establish some fundamental principles before any team gets out on the water.

Before last year’s campaign that included the arduous Round Britain and Ireland Race, crew members sat down together and worked out a set of values that would govern the way we raced.

High on the list was “respect for the sea”, followed by passion, respect and trust, a positive focus, sensitivity, enjoyment, harmony and humility.

“Boat speed was also there,” says Falle, “but I took it off the list because that’s really the outcome of these values. The actual values are not the issue, it’s the discussion we have to draw up the list that’s important because it brings people together around certain fundamental principles. Then we can all see where we stand.”

That said, there was time as we rounded Muccle Flugga on the northernmost point of the Shetland Islands when morale had slumped so much throughout the team that Falle brought out the sheet of values and went through them once more with the entire crew.

Behaviours adjusted noticeably as a result. “Much later I was looking at our progress at various stages of the race and you could see that our times improved dramatically from that point onwards. Our race could have fallen apart at that stage and it did on some boats but we were able to overtake our nearest rival for a second in class finish,”says Falle.

Long distance ocean racing as has much in common with round-the-cans racing as Formula One motor sport has with car rallying. One is a concentrated sprint, the other is an endurance event, sailed night and day. This is the reason that you don’t see the likes of single-handed round-the-world sailors such as Mike Golding and Ellen MacArthur competing in these events. They belong to a different discipline.

But in crewed round-the-world racing, team management principles are very alike and in the Volvo Ocean Race there is round-the-cans racing in every port of call that carries points. Some sailors such as Sir Peter Blake, who headed the successful New Zealand America’s Cup team of the 1990s and Mike Sanderson, skipper of ABN Amro One have shown they can compete successfully in both disciplines.

Similarly management disciplines are beginning to cross both ways between sailing and business. Motivational gurus and psychological conditioning have become common ingredients of top flight sail racing, while businesses are drawing inspiration from the egalitarian nature of sailing team work.

The irony of the America’s Cup is that an event that epitomises elitism has recognised the need to meld skills, to train and to improve performance through the promotion of healthy competition. Above all it is listening to strong grassroots demands from the sailors themselves for greater fairness in budgeting and yacht design.

The principles that embrace technical advantage and innovation have been retained within limits. In future it will be interesting to see to what extent the cheque book will compete with other human values in the enduring quest for competitive success.

See also: America’s Cup teamwork & America’s Cup team management and organisation & Antigua week

©2006 Richard Donkin - all rights reserved