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Rob’s blog - Moving from a small pond to a big sea: Expanding your competitive horizons

Like most sports, in sailing there always feels like there is a home field advantage. We may not have the crowd cheering us on – certainly not in my case – but familiarity with a venue or set of competitors helps create a confidence that you have a sense of what will happen, where the wind will shift or tide will flow, and the moves and counter moves of your competition. In fact knowing where you stand in the local pecking order can give a timely nudge to push forwards and establish the natural order or be comfortable that you have done well in your relative result.

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It is for exactly this reason that many people choose not to travel for their activity pursuits (“why go there when it’s great here”), and even when they do find themselves judging their success by relative performance against teams they know rather than the whole pack. 

Failure is not failure (says the optimist). It's a learning opportunity!

I have been exactly this stereotype in sailing for many years, enjoying relative (!!) success locally but struggling on my travels. Even in the bigger fleets I have always done better when sailing in a port I have called home at some stage or another. There were always the excuses and blame to accompany this – freak conditions, race track positioned to suit the locals, big step up from local fleet, my local fleet not competitive enough to get me where I need to be, gear failure – fortunately the list can go on and on…

However, recently things have started, slowly, changing for the better. Barriers have been removed and the results have had an upturn. In addition to this every event has been a learning opportunity to build upon and ensure mistakes are identified and used as fuel to develop rather than fire to scold. 

40 years young is no excuse....yet!

So what changed? In reality not much but I have started to plan, rather than hope and reflect, rather than excuse and blame. With this have come a race win at the Worlds, a European and National Championship, a podium at Kiel and a number of UK event titles. I think I’m finally getting it and the fact that all these results have come whilst I’ve progressed into my 40’s would suggest that age is not the limiting factor (yet – that’s an excuse I’m saving for later!!). I put this progression down to a few fundamentals:


Decide what, where and when

There are so many exciting events that it is very easy to find yourself wanting to head off every week to race a Laser here or a keelboat there, but if you want to move up a fleet you need to commit to a programme that has a consistent team (easier single handed) and a clear focus, building up to a defined event that you have set goals for. 

You may like to fly solo or within a team, and you may be built like a butterfly on the bow or gorilla on the winches. It’s at this point you need to be realistic. If you are in a team make sure it’s with people that compliment you and are suited to their roles, both on and off the water, are invested in the same goals and want to take collective feedback to adapt and develop. 

Allocate Roles

Even if you are sailing singlehanded it’s a good idea to know what the key elements are and who is going to look after them – accommodation, transport, food, familiarizing themselves with the notice of race and sailing instructions, working up the weahether and tide info, checking the notice board, charging the radio… the list goes on! I like to have checklists and work through them to make sure we have remembered the fundamentals to ensure that the key elements are taken care of.

Do your homework

The difference between the home and away venue is familiarity so it pays to learn as much as you can about a new location prior to going there and then, when you arrive, use this knowledge to get positional markers and compare to your assumptions and expectations. 

I have not yet been to a sailing venue that others haven’t documented (plagiarism is a compliment!), or you can’t find a chart / tidal flow diagram / OS map for land features / you tube video / venue guide. By piecing these together and thinking about what would happen if the wind blew from north, south, east or west you can get a rough idea of what might happen on any given day. It’s only a theory until you get there but it’s better to have a plan and adapt. Personally I like to have these on a sheet that I print, laminate and then draw the current conditions on. It’s not cool but it’s my thing and helps me refocus when a day unravels – it seems to be those that bounce back from disappointments that inevitably sail a consistent series.


Brief, Do, Review…. and Repeat!

Each day it is very worth taking the time to take yourself to a quiet place before racing, remind yourself of what the plan is, where you want to be and how you want to get there – where do you want to start, what are the elements you’ll be weighing up to decide your race strategy and how is this going to evolve through the day?

It’s then simply a matter of going racing and doing just that (easier said then done!). When the race is finished it’s then a matter of taking a moment to process, taking on some food and then reviewing if you went with the plan, if not why not and did, whatever you did, work. By continually asking why I’ll hopefully ingrain some good practice and repeat the things that worked at a particular venue.

So… will the list above help me conquer the world…? In reality probably not, that will take a fair bit of luck and a big reliance on the team around me (who fortunately are all far more competent sailors than I am!), but it will at least mean we don’t give ourselves a disadvantage before we have even started. 

If it’s not this year then we should have some more knowledge ready for 2020… or 2021… or 2022… or until I can blame my age!!

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