Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Returning to my Roots

Twelve months ago, I raced at the Rolex Miami OCR in the 14-foot Laser class after a 30-year hiatus from top-level Laser competition. I did it as a reward to myself for getting back to my “Laser weight”, which is the equivalent of one’s “high school wrestling weight.” This is the weight you can brag you once were, even if it was only for a day. For me that meant being just under 180 lbs (81.5 kgs). The only problem was that I had only about an hour’s worth of practice to get reacquainted with the boat before the first day of the regatta.

Needless to say, the 2009 OCR regatta was a humbling experience but one that I wouldn’t trade. I thoroughly enjoyed it even though losing weight by going to the gym and eating right for six months does not make one fit enough to effectively sail a Laser by any stretch. However, it was good enough to allow me to show up every day sore but not broken. More than once people commented on my ear-to-ear smile between races or post-racing. It was thrilling to be competing again instead of occupying my normal position perched on the coach boat.

As a person who passed the half-century mark a few years ago, what compelled me to put myself back in a young man's class? I was inspired by two people in particular. Also, a specific circumstance conspired to push me in this direction.

Brad Funk, who I coached to a second place finish at the 2008 Olympic Trials in the Laser, and to a top ten finish in almost every ISAF Grade One event he entered, always said there is no reason why I couldn't or shouldn't be racing a Laser. Brad is one of the most talented natural sailors I have come across and is a free spirit. His enthusiasm is contagious (one of the reasons he is universally liked) and it motivated me to get back in the boat.

In 2008 I raced on Scout, an IMS 41 owned by Dorsey Ruley, who hails from Chicago. We won our division in the 100th anniversary Chicago to Mackinac Race, which for any racer, is a major achievement. Being a Chicago native and winning the 100th Chi-Mac is indescribable, a life's dream come true. The most inspiring thing about Dorsey is not only has he competed in the race many times, he is also a quadriplegic. He was paralyzed from the neck down at a very young age and hasn’t let his disability slow him down in any way. He is in charge of the boat and involved in all tactical, navigational and sail decisions. When I was lacking motivation to hit the gym or in life I thought about his daily routine and would quickly snap out of any thought of slacking off.

The last reason I’m back in the Laser is that the economy has put the pinch of the number of pro sailing jobs available these days. This is an opportunity to refine my tactical skills during the slump we are experiencing.

Now, after a year, I am back at the Rolex Miami OCR looking for redemption. Over the past year I continued to work out. I’m still 180 lbs but more fit. I can hike hard for more than a minute at a time without resting. I sailed in four regattas with no or little practice, including the Laser Master's World Championship (placing 10th). In the past two months I have been training in Florida with some of the top sailors in the world. It has been a time of discovery and revelation about modern top-level Laser sailing, and about my own sailing.

Firstly, these sailors are in their 20s and incredibly fit (and most are tall). Upwind in a breeze not much has changed. It's all about power sailing and hiking hard. In light winds the roll tacks, roll jibes, and mark roundings (inter-collegiate style) play a bigger role in getting to the top of the fleet than they used to. These things I can relate to, and are automatic, stored in my muscle memory. However, the new downwind technique is completely foreign to me. Because of advances in the line systems, it is very easy to adjust the outhaul and vang to power up the sail. Therefore, downwind Laser sailing has dramatically changed. Sailing by the lee is the primary “powered up” mode and is easy in smooth water. It gets complicated when you throw in waves, especially in marginal planing conditions where the mode is all about “legal rocking” and surfing. Sailors will head up and bear off while trimming and easing the sheet, and a whole fleet will sail the run heading every which way doing their own thing. Try and sail a steady straight course and your hair will blow forward as the fleet flies past you.

As a second-time beginner to Laser sailing, I have to establish my own expectations. Like I tell the sailors I coach, I'm looking for performance and not results. I will expect to make good tactical decisions, look for opportunities to execute and gain from boat handling, positive speed line ups, and a positive starting ratio.

Did I mention there are 106 boats entered?

I'll attempt to write a nightly update to give you insight about how my day of racing went, and also give some news about U.S. and international sailors.

For information about the Rolex Miami OCR go to


  1. Good luck John! We'll be watching from SF and looking forward to seeing you out here this Spring for some practice on the City Front!

  2. Great story! Thanks for sharing. This motivates me to get my Laser off the dock and race it. I've slacked off too many things I really enjoy. Don't want to be the guy saying "I wish I'd spent more time sailing".

  3. Good lucj at the mocr John
    Lookinf forwardto your reports.

  4. John....Great job! I plan to cross tacks with you in a few of the master events this year. Sorry I couldn't join you at the worlds! Racing a Laser at our age is challenging yet incredibly rewarding.

    Scott Young

  5. What a great story John - the best end to it would be another top 10 finish - best of luck and keep the updates coming.

  6. Rock and Pump like crazy downwind! you qualify for the "Master Exemption."

  7. John, inspiring stuff and I will have a spin in my Laser still with the old fashioned rigging as soon as I get home! Don't sail much anymore but remember the sailing we did in Cabo Frio as the most exhilarating runs ever (only 33 years ago!). Greetings from Qatar, John Hesse

  8. You are always an inspiration to the people around you. While it is important to know where you are in life, it is more important to know where you want to be and then use your strengths to get there...

    Dorsey Ruley