Roll Tacks - September 2012

There are some sailors who become master of one particular type of boat but don’t seem to be able to translate their ability to kinds of sailing. A ‘one trick pony’ would be an unkind way of putting it, but then, better to have one trick than no tricks!  

Then there are others who seem able to transfer seamlessly from one branch of the sport to the next. If we didn’t know it already, Ben Ainslie’s performance in the AC45 catamaran in San Francisco in October confirms that he is very much in this category. Not just a great Finn sailor, but a renaissance man who can turn his hand to anything.  

Flying out to San Francisco for the America’s Cup World Series event at the end of August just a couple of weeks after winning his fourth Olympic gold medal, Ben’s performance - 10th out of 11 teams - was nothing to write home about. Some people were wondering what was wrong, although Ainslie professed himself surprised that people should have expected any more of him after such a short time at the helm of his new JP Morgan BAR Racing AC45.  

Well, what a difference a month makes. A few weeks’ intensive practice in San Francisco has made a world of difference. From second to last, to second to first! Ben finished on equal points with James Spithill of Oracle Racing and second on countback. Were it not for the big-points final race which Spithill won, in a straight series Ben would have won quite easily. His consistency was unmatched in the fleet. Legendary America’s Cup trimmer, Simon Daubney is enjoying sailing with Ainslie on the AC45: “The thing that I keep getting impressed with by Ben, he learns something once and then he just nails it, he’s figured out a lot of stuff really quickly.”  

While other sailors have had a year to get used to the high-speed reaching starts, Ainslie seems to have discovered the formula in a matter of days. The more I follow Ben’s career, the more I marvel at his talent for learning new skills in a short time. Whereas when he was in his teens we might have thought that he was just an extraordinarily talented Laser sailor, particularly in the black art of sailing fast downwind in waves, now we see that he is equally adept at learning the very different skills of judging time-on-distance, which is what is so crucial in the start of these AC45 reaching starts.  

There were many similar examples of an athlete’s ability to adapt from one discipline to another in the recent Paralympic Games. Sarah Storey, for example, won her first two Paralympic gold medals in the pool in Barcelona 20 years ago, but when a series of ear infections forced her to take some time out of swimming in 2005, she dabbled with cycling to keep fit. She started enjoying her new sport so much that she retired from swimming and has since won six gold medals on her bike at the past two Paralympic Games.  

For many of us in dinghy sailing, this is the time of year when we take stock of our season and consider whether to carry on sailing the same boat or to try something new. We look at other boats and wonder if they might be more fun but also wonder whether we’re going to be any good at sailing them. People keep on telling me I should buy an International Moth, and I’m thinking I still make enough of an arse of myself in the Musto Skiff, although less than I did when I started two years ago. I’m still enjoying the learning curve of the Musto Skiff, although the Moth is certainly tempting. To be honest, neither boat is particularly practical for my personal situation, with limited time to go sailing between work and family commitments, although the Musto Skiff is such a good class I can’t leave it alone.  

Talking of people trying new things, I’m fortunate to have 49er squad sailor Alain Sign joining an already large crowd of Musto Skiff sailors at Stokes Bay. As you might expect, Alain is showing Ainslie-like abilities of mastering the Musto Skiff, which in many respects is a single-handed 49er. It won’t be long before Alain is giving our resident Musto Skiff world champion, Bruce Keen, a good run for his money.  

While Alain has opted for the Musto Skiff, his 49er skipper Dylan Fletcher is getting into Moth sailing, as is 49er Olympic representative Stevie Morrison. Mucking about in lots of different boats has certainly done Nathan Outteridge no harm. Winner of three out of the last four 49er World Championships and recent winner of the Olympic gold medal, the 26-year-old Australian has been seen in many other different boats over the last two years, including world championships in the 505, the SB20 and the Moth, a championship he won at the beginning of 2011. And Nathan has managed to squeeze in his helming job for Team Korea on the America’s Cup World Series circuit, more recently being poached by Artemis Racing.  

It’s a very different approach to the generally much more specialist and single-focused approach of most of the sailors in the British sailing squad, who tend to stick solely to their Olympic class. After the success of the Australian sailing team, becoming the most successful sailing nation for the first time at these recent Olympics, perhaps there is something to be learned from this more diverse approach to the sport.  

Of course a notable exception in the British squad is Stuart Bithell who loves his grassroots dinghy racing. A couple of weeks after winning his silver medal in Weymouth, the 470 crew went a few miles further down the Dorset coast to compete in the Merlin Rocket Nationals at Lyme Regis. Crewed by Christian Birrell, Stu won at his last attempt in 2010 and won again, although only by the skin of his teeth this time, from the 2011 National Champions Andy ‘Taxi’ Davis and Tom Pygall.  

Stu was representing the 470 class at the Endeavour Trophy, with his fellow silver medallist and helmsman Luke Patience doing the crewing for a change. They came 5th at the Champion of Champions regatta. Swapping roles in the boat, and getting to grips with all kinds of different boats - variety is the spice of life, and one of the key ingredients to becoming a better sailor.  




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