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Donkin on Sailing

July 2010 - Sail Race Training 

Sailing down Southampton water out of the River Itchen on the first day of our sail racing course, we pass a gaff-rigged replica of Jolie Bris, the yacht that won the inaugural Fastnet race in 1925.

A little further out, past the Eastern End of the Isle of Wight, in 1851, the schooner, America , won the first race for the trophy that would come to bear its name. When Queen Victoria asked who had come second, she was told: "There is no second your majesty."

Here in the Solent it's impossible to ignore the traditions that have made sail racing one of the world's most competitive and sophisticated sports. Some studies have put it a head of Formula One racing and equestrianism in complexity.

"A lot of people don't realise just how technical it is," says Philippe Falle, standing at the helm of our yacht, Visit Malta Puma, a modern Reflex 38, stripped out for competition. I have joined the yacht for a week's race training run by Sailing Logic, the UK 's premier racing school. With Falle, the company's racing director, at the helm, she was named the Royal Ocean Racing Club's yacht of the year after an outstanding season of offshore racing in 2009.

We start the week in the classroom as Falle and his fellow instructors explain the finer points of sailing the most fundamental of racing courses. This is the windward-leeward course, the type used in match racing, including the America 's Cup. Here yachts cross the start line between two points - a couple of buoys, say - then head to windward for a distance until they round a  buoy, the windward mark, for a spinnaker run back to the finish.

This may seem the simplest of courses - sailing upwind, then back downwind - but it demands pretty much all the techniques used in racing, tacking close-hauled from the start before hoisting a spinnaker for the return run. Add to this the variables of wind and tide and you can see how the complexity begins to build.

"The idea of this course is to sharpen people's racing skills, but it's also designed to help people appreciate just how much preparation goes in to a race," says Falle. "When Sir Peter Blake's Team New Zealand competed for the America 's Cup in 1995 he told his team they would need to improve 100 per cent. It seemed a tall order as they were already sailing as fast they could. But the team concentrated on details and found 100 things that could be approved by one per cent. That's how you win races."

Boarding the yacht brings back memories. I was a crew member with Falle when he helmed it to second in class in the 2006 Round Britain and Ireland Race. None of those here this week is an outright novice. But the course has been designed to expose our weaknesses. Falle urges everyone to tackle unfamiliar positions.

A day spent on race starts is barely enough and just as we're settling in to our new roles we all change jobs again. "When we're racing for real, people become accustomed to a particular role on the boat and that's important. But it's as well in all good teams for people to understand the roles undertaken by others," says Falle. "It's easy for those at the rear of the boat to become frustrated with the foredeck crew and vice versa if each group has little understanding of how the other is working.

"Some people get used to one job and never try any other but this course is designed to let people sample other roles to which they may be better suited."

After interchanging between main and foresail trimming, I settle for the pit. This position controls the halyards lined up on the cockpit roof like a set of piano keys. It's a pivotal role, liaising between the foredeck, afterdeck and anyone down below. But it doesn't absolve the crew member from the need to dash around on board between jibes and tacks. All the time, between manoeuvres, there's a need to maintain balance by distributing the weight of crew.

"It's not simply about lining the rails after a tack. People need to bunch together and hike out their body weight. Doing it properly can make half a knot difference to the boat speed and that's a big deal over the length of a race," says Falle. "If you reckon that each arm weighs 7 kilos, five pairs of arms is 70 kilos, almost the weight of a person, so you need to get your arms well out." In light winds the positioning is even more tactical with some crew on the lower rail and forward in order to heel the boat over and reduce surface drag on the hull.

In the pre-start routine we work on crew positioning and the type of sail hoists we can expect when rounding the mark, but once we have the five minute signal there's a need to concentrate on the line, taking distance reports from the crew member on bow while trying to maintain boat speed.

"Nothing is static in sailing. The wind is always changing so you must be thinking continually, asking yourself if your timing is right for the existing conditions," says Falle.

Disposing of a spinnaker smartly on a mark-rounding can give crews a big advantage so we practice a variety of spinnaker drops and configurations. From painful experience I know that collapsing spinnakers and halyard snags can often be caused by poor handling around the end of the spinnaker pole. One way to avoid that is to remove the pole altogether ahead of the drop so that the spinnaker is controlled from the cockpit. "It's a standard approach in inshore racing as it keeps your options open for gybes and tacks," says Falle.

It's not unknown among wealthy big boat competitors to let the spinnaker fly off entirely in the last manoeuvre of a race, allowing it to be salvaged by a chase boat.

Practicing the routines it's easy to see how Falle has built a reputation for fashioning winning crews from scratch. "I've never believed that you need years of experience to sail well competitively," he says. "My aim over the last few years has been to introduce people to racing and to give them the opportunity, not just to take part, but to win. 


Sailing Logic website:

A five-day race development course costs 475


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