Sunday, March 13, 2011

Turning Masters into Athletes - International Sailing Academy Laser Masters Racing Clinic

I just finished heading up the ISA Laser Masters Racing Clinic in PuertoVallarta, Mexico. Fourteen Masters sailors from the U.S. and Canada came to the “camp” to improve their skills and speed. Most, if not all, look forward to competing well in the upcoming Masters world championship this August in windy San Francisco Bay.

I was really excited with the format for the week of four days of training followed by the three day Mexican Laser Masters Championship. It provided an opportunity to do something that I’ve always wanted to do: hold a clinic during an actual regatta. After doing a number of Masters events where I spent time discussing what I did (or didn’t do) during the races that day with an inquisitive and eager group of sailors, I felt this was a perfect opportunity for sailors to get the knowledge and experience they desired reinforced by good coaching.

My philosophy was to run the camp just like the international Olympic sailors do when they have a seven-day training block. Namely, focus on boat handling with numerous drills, speed work, extensive videotaping and review, and short course racing. I wanted to emphasize those areas that would make the biggest difference to their performance around the course.

I shared coaching duties with ISA part owner and clinic organizer Vaughn Harrison. He went all out for the Masters by expanding the camp to accommodate a larger group. The ISA trademark is its all-inclusive package. ISA provides the boats, coaches, on the water support, housing, and meals. And it is all top of the line. The boats are in great shape, the housing is roomy, located on the beach right outside the world class marina, and a short five minute walk to the boats and meal service. The food deserves a special mention. It is prepared and served by Leah Holsten-Danielson, former cook on mega yachts and caterer extraordinaire. The food is served at her home overlooking the marina and Banderas bay. After sailing and quickly unrigging, the sailors (and coaches) walk to her home and are treated to ice cold face towels as they sit down to a delicious snack followed immediately by a healthy gourmet dinner.

An added benefit was that a local and highly world-ranked sailor, Tanya Elias Calles, trained with us for the week. During the regatta, top local Laser sailor Pablo Rabigo, and a group of juniors who traveled five hours to compete joined in. They were scored separately.

The first two days we focused on tacking, jibing, and mark rounding. The wind was not the classic strong sea breeze, but this worked to our advantage. Were able to fully develop technical skills in calmer conditions without the worry of fatigue. I felt it is important to mimic the same technique that the international sailors employ and not “dumb it down” for the master sailors. Here is an example of how to properly roll tack in light winds.

On day three, the wind kicked in and the group enjoyed some speed sailing. Day four was a long downwinder. We towed the group up the coast for over an hour before the sea breeze filled in, and spent the rest of the day chasing a free floating leeward mark working on downwind technique followed by three sprint races before heading in. The group was ready for the regatta to start and must have been feeling a little fatigued from all the drills and short course work of the four prior days.

The regatta was organized by the International Sailing Academy & Marina Riviera Nayarit, La Cruz de Huanacaxtle, Nayarit, Mexico. The committee work was exceptional. Many of the race officers will be running race courses for the upcoming Pan Am Games this October just a few miles down the coast in Puerto Vallarta. Not all the action was reserved for racing, however. Friday night, the Yacht Club hosted a Salsa party for the sailors that included salsa lessons, and a bonfire barbeque on the beach Saturday night.

I decided to race and not coach for the regatta. It was great to mix it up with the students at the start and around the track. Having both Standard and Radials meant that the fleet split into two groups after starting together. But with more breeze, the Radials were able to push the full rigs up the first beat.

Tracy Usher, who had a definite edge in the breeze, won the regatta as a Master. I missed the last two races, which started late, to catch an early flight out to Europe. But given the last two races were sailed in 20 knots, I was probably not going to beat him any way! First Grand Master was Richard Quinlan in from Canada and the first Apprentice was Kurt Wessells.

It was a great week all-around. For a week, the group experienced what it is like to train like the top sailors in the world. We enjoyed a five-star treatment on the shore and the nightly debriefs and video were insightful and productive.

We're making plans for a series of Masters clinics before this year's Laser Masters Worlds in San Francisco. The clinic will address the concerns of starting and racing in current, and heavy-weather maneuvers - critical for mastering San Francisco Bay! Details will be forthcoming shortly.