Inputs and outputs

The wise club sailor will have two critical measures of their own performance. Strangely these are nothing to do with winning.

The first is “How well did I sail?” and the second will be a qualifier: “…in light of the pre-race effort I put in”. I emphasise the words pre-race because once the race has started there is no excuse for not putting in the same level of effort as anyone else.

Let’s talk about winning for a moment. I firmly believe winning a race should not be your goal. Winning is an outcome but not necessarily a good measure. If winning is the be-all and end-all of your participation in sailing (or in any other sport) then you have my commiserations because, frankly, you may have other psychological issues to deal with.

Why do I say this? If winning is everything, you might choose a class with less competition, or even a club with less competition. You might blow your competitors away with a ridiculous, over-the-top budget, only sail against beginners or rock, pump and generally cheat your way around the course. Or you could just choose a boat solely for its bandit handicap rating. This is not the route to fulfilment, respect from others or even self-respect. If this all sounds like you, stick with us and hopefully we can lead you to a happier place!

The greatest-ever dinghy sailor, Paul Elvstrøm, recognised this issue when he said ”You have not won the race if, in winning, you lose the respect of your competitors.”

I am sure we have all had days where we were delighted with our own performance – perhaps because we did not capsize on a treacherous day – even if our finishing position was not a five-minute lead over the next boat. Equally, there can be days when you do not feel you sailed as well as you could, but somehow the final pacing turned out rather flattering.

Where we need to get to, of course, is the best of both worlds: the satisfaction of a race sailed well and cleanly plus the reward of a good finishing place. Rather like spinning a coin multiple times, the longer the sequence, the more the running outcome will smoothe out random factors – and you will get your just desserts.

What we need to do then is minimise the negative impact of our pre-race constraints (or even turn them to our advantage) to raise our standard and consequential race-placings. How best to do that? Below, I’ve taken some typical constraints and looked at how you can overcome them.

  • Lack of time to sail/practise
    Make the most of what you have. Cut down the pre- and post-race chit-chat a bit. Launch earlier, practise/sail hard from the moment you launch until the moment you come ashore (i.e. don’t meander back and forth for 15 minutes before the start). I bet you could often leave home 20 minutes earlier too. Cut the grass after work one evening, rather than leaving it until the weekend.
  • Low budget, old boat, tired sails
    Love your ship regardless. Give it a polish. Lubricate the fittings. Make sure it is still set up properly so nothing will break. Do a deal with a fleet hotshot for a set of his retired sails.Former National Champion Keith Videlo used to whop us all in a Laser with the most clapped-out, stretched, porous sail you ever saw, a daggerboard that looked like a shark had tried it for lunch and a hull covered in algae.Remember that when you get ahead of someone who is in a brand-new ship, they will be so frustrated at themselves.
  • Lack of fitness
    Given the choice, an hour on the water is preferable to an hour in the gym. No pain-no gain. Just go for it, push yourself and improved fitness will come.Padded hiking shorts are a revelation in some boat designs; suddenly sitting out is not so bad after all. If your gunwales dig into your legs, a pair of hikers may be the best sailing present you ever get.
  • Increasing age
    Paul Elvstrøm sailed a Tornado at the Seoul Olympics at the age of 60 and did not embarrass himself. Age is an attitude – ignore your kids’ leg-pulling, what do they know?Running for President of the USA in 1984 at the age of 73, against an opponent 20 years’ younger, Ronald Reagan said, “I want you to know that I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience”. Of course, he did just that, and so should you.
  • Inexperience
    …equals more open to learning and fewer entrenched bad habits. Get out there at every opportunity, rain or shine. Ask your fleet captain to assign you a buddy. Ask questions (but please not the same one five times). Soak up the knowledge and love climbing that learning curve.
  • Too light/heavy
    Learn how to make your rig work for your specific circumstances; after all, they are called tuning guides (not requirements)Some top light-air specialists have been heavyweights themselves and vice-versa. Weight mostly makes a (marginal) difference in marginal conditions. Be positive and turn it into a strength.Some realism won’t hurt either. Have a look at the section on choosing the right boat. If you are five-foot tall and seven stone in your hobnailed-boots then neither a Phantom nor a Finn is the right boat for you. Sorry.

Journalist sports commentators (as opposed to sporting-stars retired to the media) often talk about ‘will to win’. Utter nonsense mostly. Hating to lose, refusing to be beaten are negative emotions and far more powerful (and common) drivers. When you’re having a ding-dong with someone up the final beat, do you tend to think “I’ll be so happy if I finish in front of you” or “No way I am letting you beat me sunshine”?


We have all felt intimidated occasionally by the ‘throw loadsa money at it’ brigade. And yes, unconstrained budget can help.

But hang on – what’s the objective here? Surely it is to have fun. I bet someone on a tight (or no) budget has far more fun per pound spent than Mr Flash-the-Cash. Some big spenders certainly get upset when things do not go their way!

Do be sensible, though, about your choice of boat. Of course you will not win the International 14 Prince of Wales Cup with a £2,000 boat, but you can have lots of thrills and some great racing.


Unless you sail single-handed, you need them. Probably more than they need you. So be good to them. Always. When I heap praise on my son for, say, a great kiwi (a right on the mark gybe-kite-drop) he replies, “Of course it was. I did it.” Let it ride – and do not ever rant when something goes wrong – that only makes things worse.

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