Monday, September 25, 2006



How do we know if it's good?

How do we respond if it's a little off-target?

How long do we keep smiling and accept it with gracious equanimity and heartfelt thanks when we know that it is, well, just a wee bit unfair or based on incomplete information?


A sailor, who hadn't been sailing much lately but who is said to have a very high level of experience sailing mostly bigger boats on the ocean, saw Carol Anne and her crew on what may not have been our best day. She had bought the boat just a few months before, and because of work needed on the boat and other sailing commitments had only sailed the boat for two months. She had sailed the boat perhaps ten times with various crew; as a family, we had sailed the boat together perhaps five times.

Heron Lake is known among sailors for a unique feature, "The Narrows", a half-mile long cliff-bound passage between the main body of the lake and Willow Creek Cove, where the marina is sited. The passage runs about 50 to 100 yards wide (at current lake levels) and has a few twists to it. Sometimes it funnels and intensifies the wind; sometimes wind piles up and strengthens or weakens or even disappears in places behind the cliffs, and sometimes it swirls around, descends at some vertical angle, or even reverses direction. It's a funky place.

A few local sailors know it well and can generally master its moods and tricks, and even enjoy sailing through the Narrows. Other sailors will sail through when moderate prevailing breezes allow a gentle downwind run. But, most cruisers, novice sailors, and the lazier or more impatient racer-cruiser folks simply motor through the Narrows. Especially during the 75% or so of the time that it seems to be upwind!

Before Carol Anne got her go-fast boat, we were among the sailors who would more often than not motor through; perhaps we'd motor about 80% of the time when it was upwind and 40% of the time when the passage was downwind. In our partial defense, we had a water-ballast centerboard trailer-cruiser boat that was not particularly weatherly, which heeled quickly even in moderate winds, and which was hard to control upwind in a breeze.

Once we got the Etchell, however, we started to appreciate the discipline and training the Narrows could offer us. However, we have only begun our "studies" and have much to learn. Plus, the boat is still new to us, we've only been racing for a very short time, and we still need to do a lot of work on crew roles and communications. So, perhaps it wasn't such a huge surprise that when Mr. Grizzled Ocean Veteran sailed with us, he had the following

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Criticism: Your boat handling isn't instinctive. You should have anticipated the wind shifts in the Narrows and been prepared for them before they hit. The helmsperson needs to have her head out of the boat and see and anticipate the new wind, no matter where it comes from or how fast. You don't have time to read stuff out of a book and think about it. You need to know exactly what to do, and do it, BEFORE you get caught by a puff or shift or microburst or storm or whatever.
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And, when we got caught docking in tight quarters as a passing storm boiled up shifty winds, we had more lessons to learn. The Etchells sails quite well under either main or jib. Under main only, it still has a lot of power and requires careful navigation and good boat handling skills in tight quarters. Under jib only, the Etchells is nicely depowered in a blow, but tacks through a much greater angle and is more vulnerable to sideslipping or falling into irons if pinched. And, even docking under bare poles, life can get quite "interesting" if the crew's timing isn't perfect or if the wind decides to change at just the wrong moment.

A combination of tight quarters, strong quartering winds, crew miscommunication, and a last-second change in wind direction taught us a hard lesson the weekend of July 4th, resulting in a very awkward docking and bit of unhappy fiberglass. Unfortunately, the bow rode up into a cleat on the pier; had it not hit the cleat there would have been a most only a small scratch. As it was, the damage gave Carol Anne and Gerald an opportunity to learn fiberglass patching. Their first job, while not perfectly smooth or up to professional standards, came out very nicely, and is surprisingly hard to find if you don't know just where to look.

So, it was no big deal in the long run, though Carol Anne was clearly unhappy for a week until she got her boat back in full commission. And, since then, we've been getting better and better at our dockings and departures. Most times we sail out of our slip and return without touching the motor. (It wasn't even on board for our last race.) We've practiced upwind and downwind dockings with various sails, under bare poles, etc., both at Heron and at the Butte. We've gradually improved crew communication and the understanding of who does what. We've traded crew roles to better understand each others' jobs and needs. We've talked about what we need to improve as a crew. And, we've even impressed some of the local Heron sailors, who shake their heads and say, "Why do you guys even have a motor -- you hardly ever use it."

However, the bad docking did lead to another

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Criticism: When things go haywire, you have to do everything right. Instinctively.
You should crew with better sailors until you know exactly what you're doing. Otherwise you'll be sending yourselves or someone to the hospital. The helm has to keep her crew under her control and make sure they understand her plan for docking and are trained to react instantly and correctly to any sudden changes in wind or to the reactions of other boats. Anything that goes wrong is the helm's fault for not anticipating.
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Hmmm. I think this is somewhere between a little too harsh and pure b.s.

Yeah, it's vital to train and drill the crew to respond correctly to changes in conditions and to forseeable emergencies. Sure, the helmsperson needs to communicate plans clearly and make sure the crew understands them. Yep, it's far better not to force a docking in bad weather, especially a downwind docking in swirling winds, and especially if a temporary docking can be made upwind. All valuable lessons, and all things we already knew, in theory at least, but didn't have the experience to implement automatically, correctly, and in time to meet the demands of fast-changing conditions. And, we're working on the cure: Time on the water. Practice. Communication. Coaching. Anticipation. We spent two afternoons on the water this weekend (and were almost the only sailboat on the water), with much more to come.

But, even the best trained, drilled, and experienced sailors can't anticipate every emergency or respond correctly to everything that happens on the water. Sometimes things happen too fast, sometimes things break, sometimes good crew just plain old screw up. Even world champion sailors make mistakes. Some are quite open about the mistakes they made as novices, and continue to have made as champions; others are a bit more reticent to discuss their not-so-stellar episodes. "The time I wiped out and keel-hauled and nearly drowned Bob" or "The time I jibed out of control and boomed Cathy in the face" understandably isn't some helmsperson's favorite cocktail-hour story. And, an experienced sailor was at the helm when Carol Anne got hit by a boom and went to the emergency room; and Carol Anne was crewing with an extremely experienced skipper and a very seasoned fellow crew member when she experienced her first dismasting.

Further, this sort of criticism could likely be applied to 90% of sailors in New Mexico. Only a relative handful of truly seasoned, experienced sailors are actively sailing in the region. Other experienced sailors live in the state, but have been inactive of late. For the rest of us, improvement comes slowly; we live in a state with no formal sailing schools, no chandleries or sailboat shops, no bricks-and-mortar (or pier-and-showroom) sailboat dealers, very few sailing instructors, limited regatta opportunities, few crew training oportunities, a very small corps of seasoned hands, and generally very little infrastructure to support sailing. Our lakes fluctuate with the passing seasons and droughts, sometimes leaving boat ramps or marinas high and dry. One dry summer we even convoyed a dozen boats almost a thousand miles to the ocean. Local sailors have to be pretty tough and desperate for their aquatic fix.

As a family, we've done the best we can to learn from the best local sailors. And, we've traveled to the ocean to take classes and lessons and do charters. We traveled hundreds of miles this summer to participate in a regatta with a hundred other boats. We've read books and magazines, watched videos, and prowled sailing blogs again and again. Within the limits of our schedules, budgets, and other commitments, we're seriously working hard to be better sailors and to share our knowledge with others. Rather obviously, we won't always get things right, but we do try to watch, listen, and learn -- even if it isn't always obvious that that's what we're doing. And, sometimes I know I need to learn when to shut my mouth and pay attention; to see what's really going on around me and to listen to people who know better.

Harsh, off-balance criticism doesn't help or motivate us to learn. But, insightful, constructive, supportive criticism is a whole different kettle of fish. That's the stuff we want, and are learning to crave.

Got any suggestions? Maybe even a really nifty Criticism?


At 2:45 PM, September 25, 2006, Blogger the skip said...

Criticism is an objective resource. sometimes it is helpful and sometimes It can be completely dismissed without another thought. Hold your course. It seems as though you know where your improvement is needed. It took me 2 years to be able to get my head out of the boat instead of constantly watching the crew. It takes time!

At 2:45 PM, September 25, 2006, Blogger the skip said...

Criticism is an objective resource. sometimes it is helpful and sometimes It can be completely dismissed without another thought. Hold your course. It seems as though you know where your improvement is needed. It took me 2 years to be able to get my head out of the boat instead of constantly watching the crew. It takes time!

At 12:29 AM, October 01, 2006, Anonymous AdriftAtSea said...

While the first criticism may be somewhat correct, I doubt that it is fair to apply it to a person sailing an unfamiliar boat in what must be very challenging conditions, like the Narrows.

The second criticism strikes me as way off base—how does a crew, especially a racing crew/team get to know what it is doing without making a few mistakes along the way. According to the critic, the helm must be both omniscient and omnipotent, and their crew is supposed to be perfect and be able to read the helm's mind or the helm has screwed up. Yeah, right... Not gonna happen.

Until Carol Anne and her crew have been together long enough to know how they mesh and how they react under most circumstances and situations, I don't see how it is possible for her or her crew to "react instantly and correctly to any sudden changes in wind or to the reactions of other boats." No one reacts instantly and correctly in every situation.

Also, does the critic bother to explain how Carol Anne is supposed to "keep her crew under her control and make sure they understand her plan for docking and are trained" if she is crewing with people other than her crew??? I'd be very curious to hear the critic's response to both of these questions.

Ignore the troll...listen to people only if they're willing to point out problems and give realistic possible solutions to the problems they've addressed.

At 11:13 PM, October 13, 2006, Blogger Mac said...

In the words of the English, (a culture with a rich sailing history) tell your critic to, "piss off". Wait 'til I hit the lake, you will seem like an "old salt" by comparison.


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