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Sun, sailing, sheets and sandbanks

Written by guest blogger and crew member Steve:

It’s a funny thing sailing. Unless you are fortunate enough to own a yacht, or are chartering, then you choose to get bundled up with a bunch of strangers for a number of days to whom you entrust your safety and with whom you share your valuable spare time doing something you love.  You eat together, share sleeping arrangements with each other and work hard to ensure that you all stay safe and have a great time. Then you part company with a high five and a hug, an incredible shared moment in time and probably never speak again. Random doesn’t start to describe it.

My experience to date largely exists of cruising and classroom courses but this weekend was different. This weekend was even more special. This weekend it got competitive. It got real!

When my brother kindly bought me an ‘Introduction to Racing’ weekend for my birthday last year I was thrilled, but thought he had gone a bit bonkers.

After all I have taken up sailing as a way to relax, park the highly competitive nature of my day to day life and chill, but as we sat around the cockpit listening to Mason, our illustrious leader for the weekend explain a little about racing, roles and responsibilities and the importance of working as a team, communicating, staying focussed and keeping an eye on the objective while having fun I suddenly felt very much at home. 

As with all my sailing experiences, we had a very mixed crew. All sorts of backgrounds, all manner of professions and even a range of nationalities. A healthy mix of boys and girls but with some very obvious commonality, we all loved being on the water, we all wanted to learn and we all wanted to race.

Outside of the two first class First Mates Jim and Justen, who were brilliant, Skipper Mason had a relatively inexperienced crew to contend with. But even though it was an ‘introduction to racing weekend’ we had some good boat handling experience and some of the team had done some racing, albeit fairly recently and fairly limited.

The first day on the water for practice was hampered a little by super-light winds but that didn’t detract from the fun nor hinder the learning too much and in some senses gave the three Sailing Logic guys more of a chance to explain many of the controls of the boat and go through some essential handling teachings and tips. So with our roles defined and duties decided we had a number of hours on the water getting to understand the principles of racing and how we might maximise our contribution in our individual roles and by communicating with the other ‘sub teams’ on the boat.  

What is immediately obvious about racing as opposed to cruising is that you actually could get away with understanding very little about sailing. Roles are pretty well defined and to become an ‘expert’ in your job is far more important that having the all-round knowledge. Awareness of and communication with others performing their jobs is absolutely critical, but knowing how they do their roles… superfluous information to your individual contribution to the race!! I have taken this as not just a lesson in sailing racing but actually in my work life too.  Becoming excellent in your component part of the bigger picture, communicating with the other cogs and working with them makes for a very efficient team. But we don’t need to be able to do everything, just our bit and a whole load of trust!

Now, I have to be honest here, I think I got away with it with regards to the designated jobs. Partnered with my fellow main sheet trimmer Chris our role was to make sure the mainsail contributed to boat speed the best we could, adjust the traveller when needed and keep lookout. Oh, and to keep out of the way! The only real area of serious responsibility was to ensure that no one got killed when we gybed. Easy styles.

Round the rest of the boat things looked far more complicated. Mason at the helm, Jim as tactician and all round fixer and Justen managing the foredeck were amazing. Helping Justen at the business end was Xenia who probably had the most experience but had a very challenging job to make sure that the spinnaker, the pole, and the foresail worked in blissful harmony. Up and down, port to starboard, gybe, tack, hoist, drop…. it looked relentless! At the other end of those bits of string we had Maggie and Adrian working the sheets and winches keeping the foresails full of breeze and sail angle and keeping the pole in perfect position. 

In the middle of the boat at the mast were Alan and Chris working hard every time a sail was hoisted or dropped, at times it looked ball-bustingly exhausting and was only broken up with diving from one side of the boat to the other every time we needed to keep her level, or at 20% heeled at least.

In the cockpit trimming and turning the sales through every tack and gybe was our super-Sweed Johannes who was especially adept and trimming the spinnaker to keep it full of wind and pulling us forward. He was using this trip as training for Antigua Sailing Week and he even managed to supply replica sunshine to help him acclimatise. Legendary.  Working closely with Johannes was the lady with seemingly the most complex of all the roles.  Rosie in ‘the pit’ had 8-12 sheets and cleats to deal with at any one time and was seemingly involved in every action of the boat.  Working in harmony with the helm but also with every other member of the crew the job looked as mentally taxing as it was physically challenging. Even more impressive was the fact that she seemed to be able to find the time to document her activity with at least two pages of notes that I saw.

Mason, at the helm must have 360 degree vision, and I mean that physically and metaphorically. He could see wind shifts, spot approaching vessels, know the impact a couple of inches of tension or slack might create on a sail and forecast how the strength and direction of the tide would aid or hinder our progress through the water.


So the dream team spent the day on the water learning to trust each other, understanding our roles and responsibilities and the impact of our action, inaction or efficiency on our crewmates and getting the ‘feel’ of the boat and how to finese the best possible performance form her, and then did the only sensible thing a group of recently trained marina marvels could do – and went to the pub to watch the Rugby!

Now as trained athletes it was important that we rehydrated fully, which we dutifully did and then showered and changed ahead of some essential carb loading for some more talking tactics and some motivational encouragement.

I am not sure at exactly what point this went wrong for me personally, but my usually shy and subdued personally gave way for some rather robust banter with First Mate Justen and I reached a new level of exuberance with regards to our prospects in the actual race the following day. Not to be put off by such things as facts, form or failings I was confident that the fine looking lads and lasses around that table and our trusty steed Rocket Dog 2 were more than capable of leading the field. After all Mason said that we just needed a good start and no mistakes. How hard could it be?

We learned a good start consisted of being on time… easy, getting clean air… simples, and being at full speed when we cross the line, which would be far more achievable with the forecasted winds than it was earlier that day. So all that was left was for us to not make any mistakes. Given Chris and I seemed to have our bit nailed and the cockpit and pit seemed to be working beautifully from where I was sat, so the only thing I could think to do was to actively encourage Justen to up his game at the pointy end. I had not seen what he had been up to all day but, nevertheless, the feedback felt appropriate. 

Armed with nothing more than banter and bravado I went to work on encouraging Justen and rousing the team to ensure their expectation and aspiration was in line with the probable outcome of us winning! My work was done! 

All that was left was for those staying in sensible accommodation to head off to the cosiness of beds and bathrooms and those of us sleeping on board to go directly… back to the pub for one more drink… and then a small addition of Rum. The Lucozade Sports drink of sailing!

It would seem half a dozen, semi-pissed blokes sleeping inside a 40ft fibreglass floating peapod is not the best recipe for a good night’s sleep. That has been true of all my sailing adventures but the inclusion of Jim, who it would appear doubles up and the Hamble’s fog horn at night, really didn’t help some of the team. In fairness to Sailing Logic it says very clearly – “bring earplugs” but even wearing headphones blaring out his favourite 1D album, for Justen this was not enough.

So with prep consisting of a day with no wind, a Rugby match on the TV, a meal, a few cheeky drinks and varying amount of sleep, we were prepped and ready to go. 

Breakfast consisted of a constant procession to the café for caffeine and bacon or sausage and egg rolls we were on the water and making way as the sun kissed the Hamble good morning. We headed out into the Solent prepped and pumped ready to see off the matching outfitted, well qualified, perfectly equipped, body beautiful brigade with our band of maverick hopefuls with high hopes.

We tacked and gybed and toyed with the field while we waiting for the race instructions and prepared ourselves for our start.  Mason delivered a masterclass in starting to the rest of the fleet and we hit the line on-time, in clean air and with about as much speed as the conditions would permit. We were off.

And that is approximately when it started to slip away from us… it was here where the need for constant and almost psychic communication became really evident, the understanding of how one inch too much or one turn too few on a sheet can make the difference of an entire knot of speed, where action and inaction can change your position in the field by a boat length or more in a heartbeat. 

We held our own for quite a while and lost a few places and gained a few places as we wound and twisted, tacked and gybed our way around the course.  I personally learned the value of keeping my mouth shut as everyone seemed to be far more adept at their job than me and Chris and I wondered how things could be so different from one day to the next… but we did our best and the entire crew performed admirably under the circumstances. Most of all, we were having fun, faces changed from smiles to concentration and back again as many times and the wind shifted and Jim and Mason seemed to start talking and entirely new language but were picking up on every detail and nuance of the ‘track’ and the surrounding environmental.

Although our overall performance never looked like challenging for the lead our eventual result took its first major knock when we took a course a little too close to a shifted sandbank and the boat came to a rather, well, abrupt stop!  Using what Mason describes as “dynamic problem solving” is one key to success in racing and it wasn’t too long until we were underway again.  And although this gave much of the fleet a chance to pass us, it was a great demonstration in how a team can ‘fire up’ new levels of capability under excellent leadership and with a healthy level of determination. None of us really knew what we were doing but we following instructions and rapid action meant we didn’t stay stopped for too long.

We continue to put in average tacks and acceptable gybes round the course and then the killer blow arrived as the ring at the foot of the jib snapped mid-tack and the game was lost.

Undeterred by adversity, down came the broken headsail and up went a smaller jib. It took a little while but as we learned, sometimes too many cooks can spoil the broth and we probably suffered a little from too many of us trying to be too helpful. But again, the problem was solved and we were on our way. There was never a notion of not finishing the race and we crossed the line loud and proud before putting in another tack and heading up river for some lunch and a debrief.

We arrived home humble in defeat but actually we had the best time. Smiles all round, proud of our achievement and having learned much, much more than a ‘standard’ day out on the water might have taught us. For me, I loved it. The whole idea that you put a bunch of strangers in a pressure cooker environment under the auspices of having fun and learning, you give out roles and responsible and then manage expectations and outcomes to ensure that everyone gets what they want from the weekend, is amazing. 

The guys at Sailing Logic did a great job. The three guys on board and Prue running the show behind the scenes ensured we were organised, that we had fun and that we contributed to the weekend, and while this might be what they specialise in, they did it with gusto.  The crew, my teammates, trusted compadres for the weekend, well they were just fantastic. A vast ranges of ages, experience, ambition and enthusiasm but a shared set of outcomes and a common passion for this sport. Our real objective for the weekend was to have fun, learn some stuff and not get hurt. Levels of inclusion were great and we complied with, what in my humble opinion, are two of life’s fundamental principles “go hard or go home”!

Winston Churchill once said something like, “Success is the ability to go from one failure to another with no loss of enthusiasm”. And while nothing we did this weekend could be classed as an abject failure, if this was altered to be ‘challenge’ I think that would sum up my newly acquired view of Yacht Racing.

The ability to go from one challenge to another, with no loss of enthusiasm, and while having fun, is a great definition of sailing success. And from that perspective, “Team Mason” was as successful as we could have ever hoped for this weekend!

Steve Hodges

Day Skipper, novice racer and retired motivational speaker

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