Since women’s match racing was added to the Olympic family in November of 2008, there has been an explosion of interest worldwide and a merging of two of my worlds: the Olympic scene and the women’s match racing scene.
Sheboygan, WI is not yet recognized as a sailing mecca, mostly due to its short season. But thanks to the hard work of several individuals it now hosts one of the official US Sailing Centers, and is (as of early August) home to the first fleet of Elliott 6M’s, the new women’s Olympic class. Liz is a veteran coach but this is my first time looking at match racing from a powerboat. The view is dramatically different from the one I’m used to (the competitor’s perspective), and I’ve had to adjust what I take for granted. Wind shape, wave angles, and puffs are impossible to see in any detail. On the other hand, overlaps, speed differences, and every boathandling error are all too easy to spot and critique.
The competitors at this event vary in age, ability, and Olympic aspiration, but they share a common goal: to improve their skills in this subset of competitive sailing that rewards attacking your opponent. In match racing, two boats go head to head for a short fifteen minute sprint race. A “flight” consists of a series of starts that continue until all the pairs are racing. The short courses keep racing tight and hearts racing. Often the competition takes place close to shore, making it more appealing to spectators. An average day of match racing provides each team with six or seven starts and countless altercations. An average day on a fleet racing course might lead to two or three starts and usually (if you’re lucky) no altercations at all. It’s a totally different experience. I once compared fleet racing and match racing to an apricot and its dried version: match racing has a stronger flavor, takes less time to consume, and has no pit to throw away. The intensity doesn’t appeal to everyone, but for those who develop a taste for it the discipline can be positively addicting.
As coaches, we are trying to help the teams here improve without overwhelming them with everything we see (or underwhelming them with everything we miss). After two days of clinic and one day of regatta coaching, I’m gaining even more respect for the coaches who’ve helped me along the way. It is hard work, and if you do everything right your efforts are invisible. It’s only when you screw up that you draw attention to yourself.
We have two more days of regatta here in Sheboygan and then someone will be crowned the winner of the event and take home the trophy. Hopefully everyone will take home some new “aha moments,” as Liz calls them, about this sport we’ve all adopted. What a thrill to be able to watch the evolution of this great discipline and maybe, just maybe, help a few people climb the skills ladder along the way.