Sunday, November 15, 2015

Honing Your Game: Using Pros to Get Better in the Offseason

J/22 women's sailing team (Annapolis, MD)- Duffy Perkins, a new J/22 owner, shares her story in the October 2015 issue of Spinsheet magazine:

“I like to think I’m a decent crew member. I’m not afraid to aggressively hike out. I always remember who likes mayo on their sandwich, and who thinks the red Gatorade is disgusting. I’ll even run the bow if the bowman is too hungover.

The only thing I won’t do on a boat is drive. If you try to get me to drive, I have multiple elaborate excuses, ranging from insurance issues to a mild concussion I suffered (six years ago, but still). I’ll explain that I’m a nervous hurler.

But, back to being a good crew member: life sometimes gets in the way of your sailing. I got married, we moved from Boston to Annapolis, and within two years we had two kids. My sailing was still happening, but I was rusty.

Knowing that I needed to get my butt back in the game, I contacted Kristen Berry of J/World, asking about options for the early spring sailing circuit, when everyone on the Bay is still wearing socks. He mentioned that he had a spot on a J/70 for Charleston Race Week and told me I’d mesh well with his crew. My husband Trevor found a ride on another J/70 for the regatta, the grandparents agreed to babysit the kids, and we were off.

We drove all night from Annapolis to Charleston, arriving at the J/World dock at promptly 9 a.m. on Wednesday morning. My team for the week was Tom Kase, a Canadian sailor, and Wayne Cassady, a J/22 sailor from Kentucky. Kristen was sailing with us, but he wasn’t able to touch the tiller during racing due to J/World protocol.

Both Tom and Wayne were experienced skippers, and I was ready to bang around the 70’s front position for them. But the J/World philosophy involves getting crew members to switch positions during racing, so I would be moving around the boat. I didn’t feel comfortable doing this, so to get some practice, Kristen had us rig the boat and we headed out onto the water.

Charleston Harbor is unique on the East Coast for its somewhat indecipherable currents. Three rivers spill into the harbor; the Wando, the Cooper, and the Ashley. Add in tide, shallows, and wind direction, and you have one of the most schizophrenic bodies of water on the East Coast.

We planned two days of practice before the official regatta, getting used to the boat, the currents, and fine tuning our communication skills. And there’s no better way to work on your communication than to have a man overboard situation.

Winds were above 40 knots, and we had the kite up when we experienced a death roll gybe. I ended up pulling Wayne back into the boat. It was the first time that had ever happened to me, and having a coach present made a significant difference (not that I still wasn’t freaked out).

By the time racing started Friday morning, I felt I could hang on the boat just as well as anyone. But on the race course, it became very obvious just how much time J/70 crews put in to getting their boats dialed down. Kristen reminded me that we had multiple days on the water, but other boats had months, years, even decades of sailing together, getting their communication down, knowing just where their bodies should be positioned on the boat.

Needless to say, once racing started, we weren’t winning the regatta.

The J/World program necessitates that every crew member changes position on the boat after each race. But I felt differently. I wasn’t there to learn to drive. I shouldn’t drive! Insurance! Coma! Nervous hurling over the side!

So I was beyond surprised when Kristen pulled me aside and said, “Duffy, you’re on the helm for the first race tomorrow.” You never want a woman on a boat to ask you to hold her hair, but I did indeed ask Wayne to hold my hair while I hung over the stern and lost everything in my stomach. I pulled him into the boat during the MOB, so it was only fair.

Kristen understood my panic and agreed to be on the main and talk me through the start, which was undoubtedly the most nerve wracking for me. With 40 boats on the line (and 80 on the course), no one is safe, and we saw much more experienced crews getting mixed up with each other (and even the RC boat).

For the first start, Kristen talked me through finding a sliver of a lane near the boat, keeping myself moving while others stalled out and froze. Unfortunately, a general recall brought us all back. I fought back nerves (and my stomach) while we got in sequence for the second start. Unfortunately, there’s no such thing as an ‘okay’ start, and as the final seconds ticked off, I felt the whole boat slow and my enthusiasm deplete with it. The boat stalled on the line, and while Kristen never so much as raised his voice, I had so much shouting in my head that I felt lost. He brought me back to the course, getting me settled in and clawing us back into the fleet. “I know you can sail this boat faster than this,” he said to me. But how?

The answer was to get out of my head. Start talking to my jib trimmer Wayne, telling him when I felt pressed or stalled. Talking to my spinnaker trimmer Tom, telling him when I needed to come up for speed and letting him tell me when I needed to soak down. Wayne called the wind, and after our first downwind leg, my husband snapped a picture of me from behind.

Of course, the race has four legs. And in the third leg, the screaming panic in my head became almost unbearable. Kristen was talking to me the whole time, but it wasn’t working. “Enough with this $&*%,” I told him. “I need some tough love!” The look Kristen gave me was one of total astonishment, but then he pounced. He criticized me when I was too low, he yelled “Quit pinching!” when I was too high. Finally, the screaming in my head was silenced, and I was focused solely on the moment.

There’s no comeback story here, if you’re waiting for one. I think we beat one boat that race. But we crossed the line at the back of the fleet, not miles behind anyone. If I were a better skipper, I could have picked off 10 boats easily on the last run. But I’m not a skipper at all.

Finishing the race, we quickly switched positions and Wayne drove one of our best races in the regatta. I felt calm, dialed in, and appreciative of his skill on the helm. As we headed in, he recalled past J/22 regattas. “You get used to the panic feeling,” he said, “but you have to do a lot of it before you get used to it.” Tom sailed the first race of the third day, and as I trimmed his kite, I kept in the back of my mind that it was my turn next on the stick. The wind was down, and we were fighting the tide. Waiting for the second race to happen, we realized the current was heading out at four knots while the wind was pushing at three in the opposite direction. Race committee sent us in.

Sailing in, a big part of me was disappointed that I wasn’t going to have a chance on the helm for the final race. I wanted more time sailing with my team; five days wasn’t nearly enough for what I wanted to accomplish.

That’s the beauty of the J/World course: you realize just how much potential you truly have.

Being a better crew member isn’t about mayo and Gatorade. It’s about racing your sailboat as often as you can, switching positions, dialing down your communication skills, and working with your team until you think and move as one. It takes practice; lots and lots of practice.

So we decided to listen to Wayne’s advice: Trevor and I came back to Annapolis and bought a J/22. I’ve already let J/World know I’m ready for more tough love.”

To up your game before the 2016 sailing season, check out J/World’s programs for CRW, Key West Race Week, and many other regattas here: