Tuesday, September 28, 2010

2011 Laser Masters Worlds Wrap Up - Getting better, and the lessons learned along the way

For me, the 2010 Laser Masters World Championships was more about seeing how much I could improve in the year after the 2009 Masters Worlds, than about whether or not I won another Laser title. I was a last minute entry in the 2009 championships, having only sailed in a couple regattas since coming back into the class after a 30 year hiatus. I ended up finishing 10th overall in the 2009 worlds which was surprisingly good given that I couldn't hike very long in the windy conditions, which meant I wasn't particularly fast. Nor was I very smooth or fluid in the boat. But I knew that the opportunity to challenge and test myself both mentally and physically over the next year would have far-reaching benefits beyond Laser sailing, but Lasers gave me a focused goal to work towards.

My plan was pretty simple. Shift the workout plan from general fitness to focus on increasing my sailing fitness. Do more on-the-water training to improve boat handling, starting, boat speed, and fluidity. And finally, do more racing to increase confidence and re-learn big fleet championship tactics and strategy.

Chris Herrera works on strengthening my shoulder

For my fitness program I contacted Chris Herrera, who is the trainer for the US Sailing Team AlphaGraphics and co-owner of Bow Down Training and Jaguar PT. Chris is very hands-on and creates sailing-specific workouts based on the latest scientific training principles, that also employ a balanced full body workout. One of the benefits of his program is that it changes every 4-6 weeks and the programs are delivered online with video descriptions of each lift or workout movement. Chris's program enabled me to reach a really high level of fitness and as it turned out, be able to hop back into the Laser after a six month layoff and still be effective.

the Swedish KSS national team was one of many international teams that I trained with in Florida last winter

I was fortunate to train with some of the world's top Laser sailors with coaching over a couple of months last winter. This included Clay Johnson (USA), Rob Crane (USA), Nick Thompson (GBR), David Wright (CAN), and many more international sailors and their individual coaches. They were preseason training in Florida for the first 2010 Sailing World Cup event, the Miami Rolex OCR, and I was able to join in. At first, it was quite humbling trying to keep pace and not get in the way. Even though I coached Brad Funk on the international circuit, it was good to experience the core fundamentals firsthand and see the subtle differences in techniques of the top laser sailors.

competing in the 2010 Miami Rolex OCR in the open division

Although my plan was to maintain a full schedule of regattas leading up to the Worlds, the reality was that my coaching schedule virtually eliminated any of my own racing or on-the-water training for most of the year. I was able to do the Rolex OCR (January), Laser Midwinters East (February), and Midwinters West (March). Prior to a few practice days before the worlds, I got in a few hours of sailing with a few San Francisco masters in July.

Even though I registered for the 2010 Masters Worlds at the first opportunity, I was still undecided about whether I was going until a few weeks before. I would have liked to had more boat time and racing, and I was considering joining a team for the Melges 32 Worlds which conflicted with the event. However, I felt strongly that I could still do well and would regret missing the opportunity and the experience.

The Masters Worlds is real championship racing in every sense and is not just some watered down regatta. The competition is top flight and every finishing position and overall placing is hard fought. The atmosphere on the shore is friendly and light hearted, but at the same time there is the sense of purpose that is unmistakable. On the water, the racing is just as intense as any world class fleet regardless of age.

Hayling Bay gave us a good variation of conditions challenging our heavy, moderate and light air speed over 10 races. The first and final days of the championships tested our fitness and heavy air sailing in ocean like conditions. Clean starts, good upwind speed and being fast and upright downwind ruled the day. Keeping inside the laylines given the upwind currents was another key factor in having a good result. The middle three days in the moderate to light winds was all about getting a quick start off the heavily favored start lines and staying out of the "black holes." This really tested our patience and ability to recover from picking the wrong side or randomly being dumped on.

pre-worlds training partner and two-time Grand Master Champion Wolfgang Gertz

A few key factors led to my success at the regatta, which included an early arrival for training, good starts, downwind speed, and overall physical fitness. Even though I didn't have much practice before coming to the regatta, it was important to get there early to get used to the conditions, especially the tides. Every day of training I got faster and let my body get over the shock of sailing after such a long layoff.

mid-line start just in front of the visible gap

Starting well is imperative to having a good series. The strong current could either help by holding you back from the line or hurt by pushing you over early. Always knowing what the current was doing and analyzing tide charts was critical. The other technique that I relied on was to constantly check both ends of the line before the start by sailing close hauled at each end and visually looking to see which end was favored. I also would check the wind direction constantly to determine the phasing of the shifts. I started mostly in the middle of the line, like overall winner Scott Ferguson. On the windy day, there weren't big shifts and clear air and speed was king, and on the lighter days the shifts were so big that the thought of being on the wrong side of a 20 degree shift was untenable. Being aggressive to the line is another key. I slipped a few starts and held back thinking my group was over early. Sure enough, they weren't, and I was stuck in bad air leading to a bad race.

You can't win or score well unless you have great downwind speed. When you see someone like Gold medalist Paul Goodison dominate the World Cup regattas, it's because he can round the first mark in the thirties and finish in the top five. His secret is that he is damn fast downwind. Fortunately, I am getting the hang of the new technique and was quite quick downwind.

being alert and fresh everyday is a big plus

Finally, fitness was what held it all together. As I tell the sailors I coach, it is a freebie. You don't need to spend hours on the water learning a new technique, testing new equipment, or going to regattas to improve your tactics, but you can work out anywhere and there is always time in every day to do some sort of workout. Being fit improves concentration on the race course and recovery in between race days.

I am pleased with how I performed in the championship finishing 3rd only one point shy of 2nd. It would be easy to look back at a capsize in the first race that cost me 3 places or the broken downhaul on the last day that cost me 5 spots, but I'm more than satisfied with 3rd, knowing that there is still more work to be done before the next Laser Masters Worlds, which are being held in my home waters in San Francisco in eleven months. There is no time to lose!

The greatest benefit of the Masters events is meeting friends from the past. (This is Dr. Alberto Larrea from Argentina, who competed with me in Takapuna, New Zealand, at the 1980 Finn Gold Cup.)


  1. Great post John. A lot of work to put it together and it shows. I will try two questions-- 1) do all those old guys use compass or do some of the really good ones still judge the angle of the other boats around?
    2)The really fast downwind is by the lee surfing waves and transitions?

  2. Sam, This was the first regatta I used a compass on a Laser and it was a huge help. The boat I chartered had one and I decided to try it out. The big problem is that they are small and hard to read anything less then fairly big shifts because of the boat bouncing around. But it was a big help checking the course and shifts before the start as well as checking the starting line. I hope the class approves electronic compasses soon like the Finn class just did.

    Yes it was faster in the windy races to sail by the lee for the most part. But it was impossible to sail the whole leg this way so it was important to be able to sail regular flow as well. You had to pick your spots when to go regular flow to get back to the mark. So picking a good set of waves made a big difference. The judges didn't allow much action in the light races so we didn't do much transitional sailing.

  3. Thanks. Our little Laser fleet is associated with our youth foundation and in order to keep costs down I have discouraged there use here. Actually I have at least two in storage now but am still working on lifts and headers without one.

  4. Based on the title of the post, it is pretty clear what your mind set is. Here in Cabarete, it is still 2010.
    Congratulations for your result, it was impressive to see how you never lost your cool when being (temporary) behind, during races.

  5. Oops!! Guess I'm thinking ahead. Already working out and making my reservations for San Francisco!!