Team Practice Sessions - Making the Most of Your Time

By Andrew Kerr April 2006

You only have to take a look along a dock before the start of a regatta to see how squeezed for time sailors have become as they pace up and down with cell phones or Blackberries (very often while casting off dock lines) before jumping aboard to head out to the course.

Not only are we rushed for time but many teams don’t have the benefit of a stable team roster so they are often dealing with crew training issues too.

In this article we take a look at practice sessions for both fully crewed and short handed sailing and how evening/beer can races can be utilized for your training.

Time and Distance and Acceleration Drill:

If your team took the winter off, one of the most visible issues at your early season regattas will be getting to the starting line too early and thus having no speed at the start, or being very late to the line and starting behind everyone.  You can get your timing back in shape if you practice accelerating to a fixed point, like a buoy.  Measure the time it takes and the distance and repeat the drill over and over to remind yourself just how long and how far it takes to get up to speed.  This drill can be run shorthanded too.

Even if your team can only practice a couple of these drills, or has time to incorporate one element (a beer can race as a practice for instance), you will see the value both in more consistent sailing and general team comfort level with boat handling.

Fully Crew Practice:

Whether during the weekend, after work, or well before the race starts, find or set up a starting line and an upwind mark that is less than a quarter mile away.

Set a 10 minute rolling clock with a practice start at 5 minutes and then a race start at zero.  Race to the windward mark downwind to the start line.  Do a proper racing spinnaker takedown and a tactical rounding either around the RC end (to port) or the pin end (to starboard).  Sail up to close-hauled.

Try all sorts of starting approaches so that you have a good repertoire to use – port tack approach, starboard tack approach, full speed approach, hang back approach etc.

Really work on time and distance and acceleration and holding position.  The more approach styles you develop, the less predictable you are to your competitors.

This drill gets in 2 starts, a race and pseudo leeward gate rounding.  Better yet, get another team to join in as it would add boat to boat tactics and more realistic mark roundings.  And it’s more fun!

Team Skills Drills

  •  Roll tacking and roll jibing.  Particularly good for getting up to max power speed in light air starts.  Make lots of tacks with critiquing of speed loss and speed build after each one.  Take time to really work on the perfect time to release the genoa sheet and steering smoothly through out the turn.
  •  Simulated late (opportunistic) gate mark selection with the pole down and stored and the chute free flying with the jib up.
  •  Coming in to the leeward mark on starboard tack and execute pole down, jibing, chute take down, and a tactical rounding.  Practice all types of takedowns and roundings.
  •  “Thin Building” on the starting line – i.e.: holding position about three lengths off the line, maintaining a good gap to leeward, and then accelerating accordingly to top speed.
  •   If you need to slow down and hold position – try easing the vang to dump the wind off the leech.
  •  Practice weather mark roundings.  For breezy conditions, practice sailing down hard to pin out competitors ahead from jibing.  For light air, assume the correct angle immediately with the spin trimmer talking pressure on the sheet immediately.
  •   A good trick is to have the middle or bow ease the vang an inch or two before the weather mark – this will help the boat bear off more easily and also help the mainsail leech assume the correct shape (top baton parallel to the boom) immediately.
  •  Practice staying within the lay lines to the starting line and building a team awareness of where the safe starboard tack lay lines to the ends of the starting line are.
  •  A rudderless drill with the team – hold the tiller in the center (or tie it off) and have the team sail the boat using only sail trim and weight placement.  A great challenge for the team is to see if you can do a start with rudder steering.
  •  This is great for team understanding roll tacking and jibing and helps the trimmers a lot with understanding the dynamics of starts and leeward and windward mark roundings and overall boat balance.
  •  Try a number of downwind legs without the pole to get the trimmers really in tune with rotating the spinnaker.
  •  On the light air practice sessions, sail reach to reach jibe practice so that the timing of the rotation, steering, and spinnaker pole trip is as good as the team can do it.
  •  Heeling to weather downwind and optimized weight placement.
  •  Man over board drill, upwind, and downwind with the spinnaker up.  Excellent for seamanship and practicing maneuvers.
  •  A great one to try in lighter air is a silent practice - a start, upwind and downwind leg and a leeward mark rounding.  This is great for team anticipation skills.  The only communication allowed is for safety related reasons.  My wife Stephanie tells me this silent practice was an instrumental element of team training for the 1995 America’s cup on America 3 / Mighty Mary.

Continue the starts and races until the team is tiring out and then head in and debrief by having each team member talk about there position and what they need to improve on for next time.  While this debrief session is going on it is good to have a person jotting down notes in to a wet notes book for future reference.

After work/ evening session – skeleton crew (shorthanded) with no spinnaker:

For this session it’s good to focus on starts, windward & leeward mark roundings with no spinnaker.

Crew required – could be bare min.  Great opportunity to do numerous starts with a rolling clock and focus on time and distance, acceleration speed building and slowing down & holding position.

Try to do as many leeward mark roundings as possible and critique each one – do all approaches – on port, on starboard having to jibe and round simultaneously and starboard approach with a jibe (jibe drop) then the tactical mark rounding.

Really work on the Genoa being perfectly trimmed to every point of sail and the crew moving to leeward in light air to help the rounding.

This is also a really good opportunity to practice pinching up (or “check luffing”) to use the VMG gained by the leeward mark rounding to translate in to pointing and a resultant clearer lane from the boat who just rounded ahead.

Now lets try some time & distance work – find a marker and see how long it takes from a slow position to sheet in, accelerate and reach the marker – try this over and over again and it will help a lot with time & distance.

Spare weekends (if any!) & find a tuning partner for races & regatta’s:

Any combo of the above would be valuable practice (sequenced from prior practices) on non race days.

At a regatta, it is very beneficial to get another team to be a tuning partner - go upwind with them for 5 to 10 minutes before the start and fine tune the boat’s set up.

If they are faster – why?  Check the critical settings – Genoa halyard tension, forestay sag, mainsheet tension, genoa lead position, genoa sheet tension, and in what “mode” of sailing they are in “Point mode” or ‘Fast forward mode”.

Once you have made your adjustments go upwind with them again and see how you go with them with the new settings.  How are we doing?

A great part of your regimen with your tuning partner is to go upwind on opposite tacks before the start (or in practice) for 5 minutes (or more) and then tack back and converge to see who crosses.  This will give you an idea of the initial shift and the initial favored side of the course.  Write it all down.

After each regatta, race, and practice session, write down in a wet notes book what needs to be worked on for the next practice session.  These notes are best recorded during your return to the YC or in the cockpit at the dock while they are fresh in the mind.

Beer can race & have fun!

This is a great opportunity to try some things – starting approaches, jibe drops etc. that you may employ in the regatta format or for bigger events on your schedule.  This is also an excellent time to train a new crew member and integrate them in to your teams system as well as introduce them to the local fleet. Take the time to teach & coach and make it fun.

One big thing to watch for is falling in to the trap (easily done!) of practicing things the team is good at!

Really focus on the chinks, as an example - if there is a tendency to get up to the line early and be slow at the start, let’s focus on time and distance and acceleration.

 A nice aspect of a post practice session/debrief is to have a social time as a crew, this makes it that much more enjoyable for everyone.  Making it fun keeps people coming back for more; a good sense of humor keeps it light and everyone looking forward to more sailing.