Friday, August 22, 2014

Sunday Sailing: Family Fun Team Goes Big Time.

J/70 sailing fast with Brandon Flack and family (Rochester, NY)- Brandon Flack combined family fun with competition at this year’s J/70 North American Championship.  Here’s Brandon’s story:

“Whoever wrote that ‘pure fun is simply messing around with boats’ has never rigged a J/70 by himself in a hot parking lot. Yeah sure, the kids and wife could’ve stuck around tapping their feet and helping here and there, but my goal is to inspire their love of sailing— and it’s hard to find family fun in stepping a mast and folding away covers. The battle is better won by just getting the job done while letting them explore. For proof that this worked, ask either of my kids what their favorite part of the first day was, and the unanimous answer would be “playing in the pool while Dad rigged the boat.”

Brandon Flack and family sailing J/70In truth, the incentive behind packing up our young family—  11 year old Lily, 9 year old Dylan, and my wife Cindy—  and driving six hours to the Rochester Yacht Club for the J/70 North American Championship was more selfish then selfless. Sailing and family are two passions that there just never seems to be enough time for. By finding a way to combine them, maybe I could find the best of both worlds? So we packed up boat and family (not as easy as it sounds), and when we got there I rigged by myself while they played.

We have been sailing our J/70 Torqeedo for almost two years now.  Each event has been labeled a family vacation with the focus on fun, learning, and spending some real quality time together. Secretly I’m hoping to plant the seeds for a future championship team, but there’s no need to inform the crew of that goal just yet.

For now, setting more modest goals has become part of our pre-regatta ritual. Of course at this event Dylan decided to announce his arrival by walking up to class champion Tim Healy of North Sails and proclaiming, “We are going to give you a real run for your money this time.”  (I swear I have no idea where the kid gets that kind of attitude.) I have to laugh at how far his expectation levels have come from our first J70 event, where this same boy declared that coming in last was just fine with him… as long as a trip to the pool was on the docket for each day.

Dylan Flack-  family sailing J/70With performance goals as clear as mud, sometimes it’s easier to focus on picking the right venue, because location is paramount to the success of our family trips. Yes, we try to find lighter air events… as we are a very small, very light, and sometimes even very scared team. But add in a family-oriented yacht club with a pool and an amazing loaner yacht for a crew camp out, and we had a perfect recipe for success.

Our team continues to delight and amaze me every time we go sailing—and they attract the attention of the rest of the fleet too. Dylan is a bit small for his age, and he likes to steer between races and downwind. When we sail by someone we haven’t raced against before, they stare at our little driver—who can barely see over the cabin house.

But it’s our daughter who has learned the most from our regattas together. Lily is very attentive to details, and when setting the spinnaker for our first day of practice she noticed that the sheets were led wrong and soon would be a massive mess. She went right to work on making it right, all on her own. That problem-solving ability is not something kids can pick up on the ball field or in the gym today.

Even more impressive is that Lily has grown into our team’s tactician. Together we have a pre-start routine where we look upwind and compare thoughts on what we each see. Early on this started with a lot of “I’m not sure Dad, it all looks the same,” and then that grew into “It looks a bit windier on the left.” Now the conversation has matured all the way up to “Big hole in the middle, Dad, and more breeze on the right… let’s take that one around to the top.” It’s hard to believe this is the same girl who just a few years ago could not tell me where the wind was coming from!

One of the best moments of the week happened on the second beat of a shifty race. Lily thought there was more wind to the right and asked me to tack for it.  Without looking, I trusted the sound in her voice and rolled the boat into a turn. That decision helped us pass fifteen very well-sailed boats.  As we tacked back and crossed Rolex Yachtsman of the Year Jud Smith, the inside of me was burning with sailor-dad pride.

Brandon Flack and family sailing J/70Our crew work has also improved the past few years. The family has learned a lot about how one person’s job affects the other. By taking ownership of our roles and working together, the little things are now getting done right and everyone’s job is a lot easier.  No longer are our maneuvers something that could be featured on TV’s best Fear Factor moments.

As our crew work has improved, so have our results. At the North Americans, our first finish was a 26th in a deeply talented 70-plus boat fleet. The rest of the family honestly did not think it was that great a race for us—though I knew from previous NAs (with a pro crew of friends) that anything in the top 30 was a keeper. It turned out to be our best finish of the series.

Now, I have been humbled by good, big fleets before, but this was a new experience for my family, who had gotten used to finishing in the top half at smaller regional events. So we had the conversation about how sailing against the best is how you improve. We talked about how everyone at such a big event was really good, and that we needed to work on the finer points of changing gears and perfecting mark roundings to take that next step. No one on our team wants to settle for just finishing a race; that’s not all right with them anymore. The game is on, and climbing the scoreboard ladder is now a big part of the fun equation.

My wife Cindy is a sailor by marriage, so her litmus tests for success are much easier to achieve. She loved being part of a big event with a lot of boats. She found it very exciting when compared with local racing, as there was always a lot of action going on, and it was easy to tell when we did something right or made a mistake. However, she still loves the simple part: being away from it all and being together on the water. Getting hugs on the rail easily outweighs getting yelled at by the skipper for blowing a tack at “just” the wrong moment.

Our story would not be complete without sharing one of those “wrong” moments. It was race four, and we had gotten a great start. So “There We Were,” approaching the windward mark in the top 10, surrounded by many of the best sailors in the world.  As we tacked onto the layline the boat started to go slower and slower and slower.

At first we thought maybe it was just bad air from the leaders. Then we started to get passed by boats both to windward and leeward, and we knew something was really wrong. We finally spotted a small tree (taller then Dylan, as you can see from the photos) stuck on the keel.

After trying to back down (and losing 30 boats really fast), the problem tree was still there. I finally had to jump into the water (to the horror of the kids, who did not think I was going to come back) while the other 40 boats went by.  To make a long story short, we went from top 10 at the first mark to dead last (71st) at the second mark. Not a pretty sight.

Despite a few tough moments, racing with my kids and wife these past two years has really combined the best of competition and family for me. Sure, there are times when our competitors are probably thinking about calling social services, as the family values get pushed down the ladder a bit. And the jury might still be out on how my occasional meltdowns will mold our relationships in the future. But the good absolutely outweighs the bad. Each time our family leaves the dock, we have more than won our own personal regatta, together.” Thanks for contribution from Brandon Flack and