Successful Sailboat Racing: Do Sweat the Small Stuff 

On New Year’s weekend, after nine months away for wingfoiling and other on-the-water adventures, Paul and I rejoined the SailNewport Thumb Yachting Guild for some fierce model boat racing. I should’ve reread 9 Lessons from Racing Model Sailboats, because it felt like I was sailing with two left thumbs AND my eyes closed. On the first day of 2023, I even became the fleet’s problem child; over an hour of racing, I lost count of the number of times I heard someone ask, “341, what the %^&* are you doing?”

Finally two Sundays ago, I got my mojo back and finished second for the day in a fleet of 16; my best DF95 results ever. The SailNewport Thumb Yachting Guild is a very competitive group that’s dominated by two world-champion brothers, Brad and Ken Read, who usually take the top two slots. That day, though, a string of top five finishes (and not a single penalty turn) were enough to edge out Brad. There are definitely worse places to be than the meat in a Read sandwich!

DragonFlite 95s are only 95cm long but a full-sized boatload of fun to race—as long as the details are sorted.

So what did I do differently that day? It was the not-small matter of getting all the little things right, so I could focus on racing. The previous day, I’d realized that replacing several tiny lines had knocked my boat so far out of balance that I could barely tack; downwind, the jib wasn’t jibing or winging out. Since the problems weren’t something I could fix standing on an icy dock, I took over as race committee for a very aggressive fleet—which provided a chance to learn from both the victories and mistakes of others. 

Back in the “boat shop” that afternoon, I retuned my entire boat. The DF95s are as finicky as a Snipe, and it took at least an hour of tweaking before I had the sail plan back in balance. Another model boat lesson: a boat that gets up to speed and sails in a straight line on its own also maneuvers much more consistently.

Sunday’s conditions definitely played to my personal strengths. A 2-5 knot easterly kept the course small and close to the dock, so it was much easier to see marks and judge distances. And, full disclosure, Brad did catch a VERY LARGE piece of seaweed on his keel. But none of that would’ve mattered if I hadn’t been able to focus on racing. Which is so much more fun than being the fleet problem child!

Brad Read dubbed this “the Seaweed MONSTA

There are a lot of theories about why the Read brothers dominate weekend after weekend, a micro-sized version of the age-old dilemma: What Makes a Champion? I believe one major part of their success is what I stumbled onto that day: the not-small matter of getting all the little things right. The difference is that Brad and Ken have both the experience and the concentration to achieve that week after week, in a range of conditions. They are always racing, not falling into classic model-boat-racing pitfalls like missed marks and boat entanglements. (Unlike most of the fleet, I’ve never ever heard either of them swear, and maybe apologize, after simply turning the rudder the wrong way.)

This weekend, I’ll be taking this lesson back to full-sized sailing. Supercrew Kim Couranz is joining me for the Snipe Comodoro Rasco in Miami, our first regatta together in seven months. Though the details are totally different from model boats, the end goal is the same: to sweat the small stuff ahead of time so we can focus on racing and having fun. And, of course, to avoid the gut-wrenching dismay of becoming the fleet’s problem child. 

Got another theory about what makes a champion, Olympic or otherwise? Share it in the comments below or send me an email. I read every single one, with gratitude.

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