Lessons from 49er Worlds

Coaching the 2020 49er World Championships I observed the habits and actions of the best sailors and leaders in the 49er and 49erFX classes. While each team’s success is owed to their entire process and performance day to day, I have designated a fundamental skill each team models that distinguishes them from their competition. It would be reductive to attribute their success to this one area alone, so forgive me, and keep in mind that success (however you define it) comes from the discipline and skill developed across a multitude of details. Nonetheless, here are some lessons and examples from those who are at the top. 

Time Management

Pete and Blair

Pete & Blair are apex predators. The thing about great white sharks is that they 1) know you’re there and 2) don’t reveal themselves until the strike. There’s a reason they’ve been at the top of the food chain for millions of years ruling their domain. Evolution and time has served white sharks well. Showing up when it’s time to feed is why the white shark is a testament to the management of energy. 

Pete & Blair are same. There were two entire days when we were on AP during this regatta. While we were playing games and killing time at the venue, those lads were at home resting and waiting. On a typical regatta day they arrive about 15 minutes before D-flag is raised to dress, rig, and launch. After racing they are out of the boat park in less than 20 minutes. This team writes the book on Time Management. 

In order to get to that level they make sure their equipment is perfect, their gear laid out and ready, and their team and coach communicates and reports relevant activity from the venue. Just like the white shark you don’t see them until it’s time to strike, and at this event in Geelong they secured their 6th world title in the 49er.

How to be more like Pete & Blair? Pat attention to the small details. Those most important and keep first things first. Equipment preparation. Food preparation. And create a time schedule to follow that allows you to execute when it’s time. And when it’s time, don’t let anything get in your way.

Outside of the Box Thinking

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The Spanish are fast. And speed is not only a requisite, but it’s the most utilized tool in racing. To prepare for the Rio 2016 Games, the Spanish not only found but created the training partners they wanted and trained at home and abroad with a young team of 49er boys. Let’s face it, they could have worked with another female team in the FX, but they mixed it up. Finding partners that would push them along, their creative approach to unconventional training partners was an asset to this team. 

Youth sailors often pigeonhole themselves into thinking they are fast in one condition over the other. The fact is likely due to their size, shape, and weight. Lighter sailors in the soft breeze and the bigger ones ripping in heavy. But at the top of the sport you move into the boat that fits your size and shape and everyone is about the same weight. For some its work to keep the weight on, for others its work to keep it off. Either way, you do what needs to be done. 

At this event, we raced 60% 7-9 knots of breeze, 30% in 10-14 knots, and 10% above 15. And the Spanish were fast in all conditions. The point is that their creative approach of training made them dynamic in all conditions. 

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Paris & Anna did some unconventional training as well. They spent a lot of time in San Francisco with Nate Housberg and Lucy Wilmot and hands down were the fastest boat in the breeze. Another unconventional arrangement of training partners. Nate and Lucy sailed the FX as a mixed team, relatively new to the 49erFX at the beginning of the quad and worked really hard to become proficient and helpful as training partners. 

As the younger team, they learned from the professional process of Paris and Anna. And Paris and Anna refined their own techniques while pushing the young guns. With so much time on San Francisco it was no wonder that Paris and Anna went 1, 4, 1 on the second to last day of racing when the breeze was 14-17 knots.

Support Structure

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Midwesterners are know for their casseroles. And to make a casserole you take a bunch of good ingredients and bake them all together, and what you get it is delicious. Steph and Maggie (guess where they’re from?) approached this final event for their Olympic selection with a Midwesterner sensibility.

What I mean is they brought in a full team and support structure to mix all together. On the water, their coach for the past 2.5 years Giulia, Italian medalist whose electric Italian flair was balanced by the California wizard Dave Ullman who’s calm demeanor and mustachioed grin just makes you feel better about life. Back on shore, Chris Ellis physio and sports trainer kept their bodies primed for performance. And their Sport’s Psychologist helped keep the teamwork comms, composure, and mental fitness primed for execution on the final day of racing when it came down to the last point. 

Clean and Tidy Racing

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Erik & Thomas – Germans are know for their discipline, rigidity, and “everything in the right place” standard of cleanliness. Erik & Thomas’ approach to racing reflects a clear adherence to consistent and sound execution, Their game is low risk. Their game is high percentage. Their game is German. 

Erik & Thomas’ discipline is admirable. They won a few races when Pete and Blair sent it a little too far to the edge of the track. Throughout the series they averaged a 7, winning three races outright including the medal race. That approach vaulted them to a podium finish. Their approach was built on starting clean, holding fat lanes up the track, nailing shifts and not assuming too much leverage or risk at the edge, and simple plays on the downwind. 

How to sail more like Erik & Thomas? Discuss your general race strategy in the pre-start (example: we want to work to the top left) and then focus on each step along the way: a secure spot on the line, nail the countdown, settle in fast off the acceleration, and keep the comms running to play shifts and boats to fulfill your vision of the race.

Boat Handling

Not just a requisite. Boat handing is the barrier to entry. In many ways the difference between Bronze, Silver, and Gold fleets at the Worlds is skills in handling. Of course, it’s not that simple, but there’s something there. 

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You’ve got to own the 49er. You’ve got to be comfortable with the boat and maneuver as if it’s an extension of your body. Genghis Khan’s soldiers could ride their horses bareback, and hit target of 300 meters while at full speed. In that same way, to compete at the World level, you’ve got to be able to fire off a tack or gybe, or two at a time at full speed before your lane gets gobbled up. 

Nevin Snow told me that he drew out the 49er in chalk in his driveway to practice steps in the boat for tacks and gybes. This type of rote familiarity and practice is what cements mechanics into your brain and muscles. This commitment to repetition can’t be stressed enough. And while you on land, practice the mechanics and steps of maneuvers. 

Oceanic Mindset

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I’ve always respected the way kiwi and Aussie sailors maintain their composure while racing. After this event I think I understand why. It’s tricky to sail down under. The wind comes off the  cold temperatures of the great southern ocean and mixes with the hot air over the dry or moist land. This mixing makes for very unstable racing with lots of shifts and variance in velocity. Sometimes the breeze seems to just disappear on your side of the track. Other times, you can see the pressure line ahead but it never travels down the course. 

Sailing day in and day out in this unpredictable and inconsistent environment teaches you as a sailor to let go of what you can’t control. If you’ve made it long enough in this sport to race Olympic class boats as an Australian or New Zealander (or lake sailor for that matter) you’ve had hundreds of days when the breeze didn’t go your way.

Psychologically you learn the skill of ‘acceptance’ and take your lumps as they come. This is one of the characteristics that I admire the most, to respond to adversity with a clarity of mind that “you can’t control, what you can’t control.” Advice we would all do well to accept on the daily. Control what you can, everything else is a distraction. To that Oceanic mindset, I say, “good on ya, mate.” 

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