Crashing into Blue Thought

This has been a month of great achievement, as a handful of our sport’s top athletes have secured their spot in the 2016 Olympic Games. The trickle down effects of this earned casts’ sweat and tears undoubtedly washes our sailing world with current of pride and anticipation. There is a growing bubbly feeling in my stomach just thinking about the battle-royal that will ensue beneath the shadow of Sugarloaf Mountain this summer.

But amid these lofted thoughts of herculean trial and sport, a recent life event near to me colors the frame of my mind’s eye. And the daily evolution of these events sends ripples across the ocean of my heart.

I want to tell you about a sailor on my team named Marnix.

I’ve been coaching him for the past two years and in that time his quick wit and analytical (read: annoyingly skeptical) mind have challenged nearly every word that comes out of my mouth. I love this trait in a sailor, one who questions and dissects everything. (Let’s face it, who am I to say what’s right and wrong in boat racing?) Marnix is the kind of person who looks for the logic within every situation. If he can’t find it, it’s an unsupported claim. (aka: bullshit)

This type of thinking put this impressive 15 year old at the top of our state’s “Future Business Leaders of America” competition. To give you an idea of his character and maturity, already at 15 we were grooming him to become a linchpin staff member. Gaining experience daily by volunteering with our adaptive sailing program and summer camp classes, Marnix had the chops to be a first rate instructor.

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Life can change within the blink of an eye. This is what happened: Christmas Eve Day, 2015 Marnix, was skiing with his family in Austria. A trip he’d been talking up for many months preceding. Marnix, who’s family is from the Netherlands, looked forward to spending the holidays in Europe with his grandparents. On what can be classified as a “blue” run, trailing his father by approximately 30 meters, Marnix crashed. A headfirst fall into the mountain broke his nose and left him fading in and out of consciousness.

His father, Sjoerd, recounted to me that after the crash Marnix could respond to commands like, “squeeze my hand.” “He was in and out for a few minutes, must have been five minutes but felt like 3 years for the ski [patrol] to get him on the sled,” said Sjoerd. Marnix lost consciousness as he was airlifted off the mountain. It was ten days in intensive care before Marnix awoke from the coma, his brain bruised and damaged, his body too fatigued to lift his head off the pillow.  

I want to pause a moment to write this again, ten days.

After several more weeks in a hospital in Salzburg, Marnix slowly regained speech and the strength to sit up for a few minutes at a time.The swelling around his nose and eyes had gone down, but his mental state was in infancy, or to be more accurate, to an early adolescence.

Marnix doesn’t remember anything from this time. To this day, he has no memory of the accident or the first two weeks in the hospital. However, there is one thing that remains vivid in his mind. Blue thoughts, or “blauwe gedachten” as he likes to say. As soon as he woke, after the initial shock of returning to this world, his parents and sister, and learning that he had fallen while skiing, Marnix recalled a profound feeling that stays with him since the accident.

I think of it as his lifeline back to reality. Marnix likens this sensation to being pulled by the wind and sliding across the water. This is “blue thought.” It’s more than the action of sailing, more than movement of the boat, the energy of the wind, or lapping of water. It is the sum of all parts encapsulated in this wonderful dance. These blue thoughts come together and form an entire landscape within Marnix’s mind.

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At the top of his list, created by his healing and fragile mind, which includes his family and his dog, Botje  (little bone), sailing sits as something most cherished. “My primary thoughts, even when I initially woke up from my coma, were thoughts of sailing,” says Marnix.

As sailors and water people, I think we are all drawn to this kind of sensation. In pursuit of chasing the magic that comes together when out flying atop the water. I know it is something I have devoted my whole life.  Which is why this story strikes me as so profound. The marks in the pavement where this whole story touches down for me is that sailing has really made a difference in Marnix’s life.

“[Sailing is] a primary motivator and encourager for me.”

More than a hobby or sport- sailing is the driving force to Marnix’s recovery. In the past few months I’ve spoken to his hospital team, calling on behalf of his doctors, to build a success plan for Marnix to return to sailing. Each day he gets closer to fullfulling his dream, Marnix continues to heal.

His dad will tell you that every thing the doctors tell them, things Marnix can’t do, Marnix responds determined to overcome those limitations.

Last October, months before his accident, Marnix saved up enough money to purchase a Lightning from our local fleet. He made a payment plan with his dad and negotiated with the boat’s previous owner. He even took a job at a local store to make some cash to pay for repairs. The boat, “Beater,” a Lightning from the 1960s had a laundry list of work to be done. In need of new rigging, rebuilt wooden fittings, and delamination in the floor; an aggressive list for anyone.  One warm fall day, I helped Marnix step the mast so he could trailer his boat home.

Once he returned home from the hospital in Salzburg, Marnix became an inpatient at Craig Hospital (known for it’s incredible work with spinal chord injury patents). Side note: our sailing program partners with Craig to offer sailing outings to their out-patients, to provide confidence boosting recreation for patients and families. Patients come out of Craig to join our program. I never imagined it would be the other way around.

Craig’s basement is filled with workspaces where their three in-house engineers tinker with sporting gear to custom fit these tools for their patients to get outdoors. During his stay at Craig, Marnix spent as much time in the workshop as he could. Under close supervision at first, he soon earned the freedom to work with power tools again.

The gears in his head turning the whole time thinking of “Beater” in his garage and all the work that needed to be done.

“The boat project in the garage has been excellent for Marnix’s rehabilitation,” remarks Sjoerd. I visited Marnix this past weekend and found “Beater” nearly race ready. New wood trim, varnished, a rebuilt rudder, reinforced rigging platforms, and trailer rebuild.

“In January, when he woke up, Marnix said ‘I’m going to sail ‘ and in April, as soon as we got the chance, we were sailing,” says Sjoerd.

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Last week, we rigged up one of our adaptive keelboats and turned the keys over to Marnix. He and his dad cruised around the reservoir on a light wind day.

I can’t quantify how full my heart felt watching these two sail together in light of all they’ve gone through this winter. Soon, maybe as early as next week, Marnix will put the mast up on his lightning to sail for the first time as a proud boat’s owner. With shiny new varnish and rigging, this time instead of ‘beater’ the stern will read “Blue Thoughts.” And I look forward to following the path  of its wake.

Phantom Shifts & Whacky Chop: c420 MidWinter’s

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I just completed my drive (yes, drive-Crazy, I know) back to Colorado. I had lots of time to think about a debrief from the Club420 MidWinter’s Regatta in Jensen Beach, Florida. This event for me holds a special place in my heart. The USSCMC being my home club, it’s first iteration which was an RV on cinder blocks and a few boat racks where me and all my siblings learned to sail boats, fast forward to the year 2000 when the current venue hosted the Mistral class Olympic Trials, where I defeatedly finished 9th. The point is, I’ve shed lots of blood, sweat, and tears into those waters and love sailing there.

This year’s event was incredible. Good breeze, solid racing, and a stacked deck of players. Here are the stats are: 206 competitors racing as teams of two sailors in 103 boats representing 4 countries and 17 states. One of those states being Colorado, from whence I brought 4 sailors. Booyah!

A very challenging and competitive fleet, which we knew going into it and great breeze. I did a lot of work forecasting for this event, so I feel the need to share what I saw on the race course and get a bit technical in this post.

LET’S TALK ABOUT THE BREEZE

Lots of big wind shifts due to several factors: gradient, thermals, cloud cover, geographical shifts. I think we all can agree that the outer loop’s left was a pot of gold for many people. And Sunday when the sun came out the righty midway up the first beat proved favorable for many boats. What’s the takeaway from all this?

Forecasting can be a tough thing to count on. But knowing what characteristics to look for, i.e. when the land heats up expect the breeze to shift (seabreeze) or the effects of a windward shoreline  (bends the breeze left from creating lower pressure as wind slows from resistance over land), will help you hedge your bets.

Preparation is a big factor in the equation for success. I spend a lot of time researching the forecast every night so I can share in the morning’s brief. There’s a saying ( I forget by who) that the sailor who wins the event has already done so before the race even starts. What does that mean? It means that your game-day performance directly relates to the amount of preparation you’ve put into your equipment, training, forecast, experience, and the list goes on. Preparation equals success.

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ALL SHOOK UP

Other Environmental Factors: I heard from a lot of people that the chop was a challenge. I would say that compared to Orange Bowl and the way Biscayne Bay gets on a breezy weekend afternoon (boat wake that makes the inside of a washing  machine look placid), the Indian River was very flat- with much smaller, tighter chop- especially on the left side of the course beneath the island on the last day.

How do you get more proficient and efficient sailing in chop? Spend more time practicing in choppy and open water, duh? Seriously, we hear stories all the time about Olympic class skiers who grew up practicing on icey hills in New England. During practice we need to make life harder for ourselves. This will set the challenge to overcome moving and turbulent water, to find stability in the boat,and  work toward better boat handling and overall VMG.

OFF THE LINE

The starting line was jam-packed. Very short, not a lot of space to find your spot. Coaches have waxed poetica reinforcing the importance of starts. I just read a Scuttlebutt blurb from Quantum Sail’s David Flynn says “you don’t have to win the start” (check it out.) While that may be true in some cases (especially non/sub-planing conditions) and crossing beneath the fleet and setting up to windward of the fleet may be okay in some situations, when it’s breeze on you’re left in the dust unless you can get off the line. So, how to increase the rate of improvement to be ready for the ballet dance of tight boat handling ?

Rudderless sailing! practice will help a lot. Steering with your body weight and sails allows the boat to make large adjustments without forcing the skipper to use the rudder too much. I like to say, “The rudder is nothing more than a brake,” and when you don’t have momentum forward, like when you’re holding a spot on the line, all you do is slide sideways and downwind with every turn of that sluggish blade.

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Every year I complete this event with a slew of new notes. It is such a motivating event for me, to come away with new techniques to experiment with. I truly hope all the sailors have the same feeling.Great job by the athletes who joined me from Key Biscayne YC, Lauderdale YC, Balboa YC and Community Sailing of Colorado. I was very proud to bring 4 sailors from Colorado to this event and our Colorado group performed above and beyond expected. They all can be very proud of their performance. My goals coming into this event were for each of them to progress as sailors, gain more comfort and confidence in the boat, and experience a side of sailing that is new and challenging. Goals met.

 

 

Out of the Mouth’s of Babes

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This year’s USODA Valentine’s Day Regatta, hosted by the St. Petersburg Yacht Club, was all about love. Of course, right. What else would you expect? And to express it’s own special love for us, the state of Florida showed the 5 Colorado families how much it had LOVE it had to give, providing cloudy skies, temps in the 50s and lower 60s, along with rain and breeze. And I mean BREEZE.

Whatever visions our crew had about sunny, warm beaches in February were quickly drowned out by rain bands from the low pressure system that touched down in Florida about the same time our planes landed.

I say all this to reinforce this statement: Our Colorado sailors proved that within their bones is the type of mettle that could call any miner into the darkest of mountain caves. Our little Tommyknockers (Optimist sailors) dug deep within themselves finding new strength and confidence in the harshest of conditions.

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The boys mad sure to tighten and double check their sail ties for Sunday’s sustained winds of 20, gusting upwards of 28 knots. One coach remarked to me in the boat park that he had never seem Tampa Bay so gnarly (translation: big chop, white spray everywhere, dark skies, and rain) the type of conditions that keep most at home.

LESSONS LEARNED

Coming out of this regatta I did something a little different. Rather than send a diatribe of my own personal observations and suggestions, I decided I wanted to hear from the sailors in their own words, what they took from this regatta. They were the ones living the conditions an challenged by the tight starting line, upstream current, and shifty conditions of their 73 boat fleet. Here’s what they said…

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A lot of what I received back from them were comments that pointed to inexperience or lack of focus. “I need to pull in my sail more to point higher,” “I want to hike harder.” These are great things to hear. A few sailors surprised me with their reflection: “I need more experience racing so I have more confidence on the starting line.” Or in one sailor’s words, “The final is knowing when to tack, jibe, know the course, and knowing where the wind is coming from. These are all important things to know because knowing gives you an advantage on the race course.”

Wow, out of the mouths of babes. Or should I say our herculean 10 and 12 year olds. Awesome.

To me this type of feedback proves that what we’re doing is working. I can’t thank the sailors for bringing their A-Game and the parents for supporting their efforts in sport.

Big Congrats to Leo, Rhino, Willis, Rocket, and J.D. for working hard, learning new things, and pushing the boundaries of your comfort zone. Great sailing to J.D. and Willis for finishing fourth and fifth place in the Silver Fleet, white and blue divisions, way to bring the hardware home for Colorado.

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Need I say more about how impressed I am with these young sailors and grateful to their parents from making the trek down to Florida. Looking forward to more from this group of all stars.aed9d1b9-9311-4ce2-81bc-dc61521e9bc9

Sailing World Cup Miami reView

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TAKING IT ALL IN

It’s taken me nearly two weeks to mentally digest the part 1 of two 2016 Olympic Trials. The regatta that my sister continues to remind me is no longer called the Miami OCR but rather Sailing World Cup Miami presented by Sunbrella. This event may have only lasted a week, five-days of racing with the sixth day for the top 10 finishers in each class. But this week that encompasses over 6 nautical miles of Biscayne Bay, hosting close 713 sailors from something like 62 nations, began a year ago for me. It was something I dreamed about, focused on, and have worked toward daily for a long time coming.

Racing is a dream come true. Honestly. This was my third Olympic Trials: 2000, 2004 & 2016 and I’m so proud to have participated in this regatta by taking time off work and training in the ways I could. I’m grateful for all the knowledge I received from new friends in the class. And overwhelmed by the support I received from friends and family to make this happen. As for the racing, it was a week of pushing physical limits, testing patience, finding motivation, and locating perspective to enjoy the ride. Pretty cool to come away as 5th American in the fleet. Could not have done it with out support from my wife, help from my sister and siblings and backing from Adventure Sports & Magic Marine, along with the friends and family sending lots of positive vibes, sharing floor space, and cooking yummy dinners.

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I will admit, I was feeling low, very low at points. Physically and mentally exhausted. Lucky for me, this pity-party only lasted a day, while talking to 2012 gold medalist Dorian van Rijsselberghe before he stood on the podium at the awards ceremony. He said “This is a really hard board to sail, man.” Knowing that the guy at the top of the mountain recognizes the challenge is incredibly motivating because you know what “it is hard” and it should be.

GET REAL

For most sailors this event is four years in the making. This is the trials for the 2016 Summer Olympic Games and the qualification regatta for North and South America. What was I thinking jumping in at the 11th hour to race against former and future Olympians and the best in the sport? Foolish, right. Maybe. But where there is risk there is the opportunity for reward.

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PREPARATION: YOU’RE JOKING, RIGHT?

My year of preparation was not perfect. Nor was it proper. I recently read that LeBron works on ballhandling from 8:30-10, does a cardio and strength training session from 11-1pm before capping his day off with another 2 hour shooting practice. That is a champion’s training schedule. Lots of focused training with recovery time. (Did I just compare myself to LeBron? Not a chance!)

Days when the race committee boat stood as if atop a glass mirror of Biscayne Bay, with instruments recording wind averages of 3.5 knots.  On those special days (of which there were two and a half), I learned no training or cross training prepares you for a windsurfing event like windsurfing does.

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Pumping for 10 minutes off the start line to get to the weather mark is the forearm burn of rock-climbing el Cap and the core and lower body blast of dolphin kicking the  500. Heart rate jacked. The one-two punch here is explosive strength with the endurance to last. And repeat. And repeat. You have to be a machine.

Could I’ve done more? Of course. And knowing that leaves an acidic burn in my mouth and some pain in my sciatic. Instead of sailing day in and out, I logged a few hundred miles pounding feet to pavement to prep for two half-marathons which I ran with my lovely wife this past year. Truly, the hours spent on those stretches of road paved deeper connections between the two of us and our marriage, something I tapped into to find depth and strength in during the tougher parts of the trials.

FITNESS WITH A CAPITAL “F”

Gold Medalist, Anna Tunicliffe says fitness is the only thing you can control in a sailboat race. I think she’s right. My body is old. Or rather, feels old. I turned 30 this year. Which is light years away from 20 when it comes to elasticity and recovery time. So, I spent more time preparing for and recovering from exercise then I did exercising each day to stave off soreness.
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WALKING IN BIG KID SHOES

It was incredible though to dip my feet into the shoes of the professional sailing world, where the day’s activities and meals revolve around the event itself, along with preparation and recovery peppered with fresh foods and lots of loud, grunty stretch sessions. Pretty sweet way to live.

 

 

SHARED EXPERIENCE

Perhaps the most rewarding part of the entire regatta experience was getting together with my siblings, outside the constraints of a holiday, as adults. The day in/day out of living with them again was a time machine to the past. Cooking, eating, nerf gun fighting. It was quite special to be at an event where Meredith oversaw ‘mission control’ while Luke and I raced, as Nic supported from the coachboat. So many worlds coming together for team Muller. Freaking amazing.

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The next big event, and part 2 of the Olympic Trials is in Palma de Mallorca, Spain is at the end of March. Currently I’m positioned a whopping 20 points behind the top US sailor, Pedro Pascual. Reality bites: Is there any way I can take top spot while being so far behind? I guess there’s only one way to find out….

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Merz at the awards ceremony with Gary Jobson

Been A Longtime Coming, Miami

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It’s not often I make it on the racecourse as an athlete and competitor, but over the past few years a pressure has been boiling up inside me and finally burst. I had to get back in the game. Year after year of watching the affectionately known MOCR, Miami World Cup, from the sidelines I decided last January that I had to do the event this year.

This year’s event being the first of a two part qualifier for the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio I embraced a “what the hell” kind of attitude as I clicked to pay my registration for the event. Last weekend, during the MLK holiday, the RS:X MidWinter’s Regatta was held as a “test event” for the carnival of chaos that is about to ensue in the Biscayne Bay this upcoming week.

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IN A NUTSHELL

The three days of racing was a perfect prep-event. Saturday was windless, I mean, maybe 4 knots–a totally exhausting pumpfest that kept my heart rate jacked to 180 for what seemed like for-freaking-ever. (After the first race, I shared my exhaustion with 2008 Olympian and longtime buddy, Ben Barger. He laughed and reminded me that “during OCR they’ll run that for 45 minutes.”)

Sunday was maybe the best day of sailing of my life. And by that I mean the most extreme and terrifying and fastest. The RC boat recorded gusts up to 38, yes thirty-eight, during the first race. I’ve never seen the Bay so wavy, with 3ft steep chop rolling down in quick succession. We ran three races, with most of the fleet back on shore because of broken gear or fear of. The second race I was leading the pack coming out of the bottom rounding and focused on getting back up to the top. Halfway up the beat I realized everyone was stopping at the finish line. The race was one lap. I was doing two. First to last just like that. Ha! So I finished the full second lap and chocked it up to practice.

Monday, mixed conditions: windy in morning dead by the last race. So tough to sail in this marginal, patchy breeze. But an amazing exercise in connecting the dots and not over-sailing the course, definitely a physical chess match on the course.

TAKEAWAYS

My brother Nic came down to coach me on the water during this event and sitting with him on the coach boat I experienced a compete role reversal. To receive sound bites of coaching I give out to my sailors in between gulps of water and energy bars, was very informative. Here are some of my big lessons from last weekend.

DON’T FORGET THE NUTS & BOLTS

Like I said, Nic was coaching me in rote: “Get a good start. Look for the first shift. Consolidate the fleet. Protect the favored side. .” All excellent advice, given the circumstances on the course. While racing, I can even hear myself chanting these axioms of sailing.

This is the same type of coaching I would give a 10 year old Opti kid. Is it crazy that I would need the same advice while prepping for one of the most competitive regattas on tour? Absolutely. Because there are basic fundamental characteristics of putting together a successful race. They are called fundamentals for a reason (ugh, it hurts just to write something so trite) But it’s true. This is the connective tissue that pulls a good race together, without it you are racing too much against yourself and not enough against the fleet.

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GET YOUR HEAD OUT OF THE BOAT

So I did an extra lap, big deal. HUGE DEAL. First to last in a snap, not to mention I lost out on a ton of recovery time between races. It is damn hard to make decisions and think clearly when your burning calories like they’re drops of water on the stove. But take a breath, try and look at the big picture. And for the love of pete, check the course board on the back of the RC boat.

EXPERIENCE IS EVERYTHING

Racing the RS:X is hard. It requires a lot of effort and fitness. Along with all the other experience and technical knowledge any craft demands. All in All, I’m just happy to be out there on the racecourse and glad to have been able to take the time away from work to compete. I know at the end of the event this year, I won’t be faced with the regret of missing another one. But most likely the shredded hands and throbbing ache of accomplishment. I can’t wait.

An ocean of thanks to Adventure Sports USA and MAGIC MARINE for supporting me this event. Please stay tuned on all the action in Miami World Cup this week. Thanks to my friend, Osvaldo Zamora for capturing some of the moments above.

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Help A Brother Out

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http://lukemullersailing.com/

I can’t think of anyone who has inspired me in both sailing and life to work harder, reach higher or dig deeper. My (not so) little brother Luke Muller has committed himself to becoming a world class sailor and first rate student (Go Stanford University Sailing Team). I encourage all of you to visit his site and, if you can, support him by donating to his efforts. WithISAF Sailing World Cup Miami closing in, Luke could use a little help.

After spending over half a decade in the Laser boat, and representing the USA at the ISAF Youth World Championships, Luke has spent the past two years gaining weight and muscle to bulk up for the big boy boat. He’s committed to the Finn class and spent this past summer and nearly all his free time in San Francisco working to meet the demands of the Finn. Check him out http://lukemullersailing.com/ Thanks!

Looking Back/Looking Ahead: Takeaways from OB & 2×15

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Happy new year. In looking forward to the new possibilities of the coming year, this fresh start provides a moment to take pause and reflect on some important lessons I’ve learned that I want to keep in the front of my mind this year.

Lots of us in the sailing world are recovering from the 2015 Orange Bowl International Youth Regatta, a marathon event that is often so much more than just the regatta, but includes several days before of training. This year was my 16th Orange Bowl, combing my years as both a sailor and a coach. This end of year event was special to me, particularly this year.

THE TEACHER BECOMES THE STUDENT

This year I had the pleasure of working with some great young athletes from Key Biscayne YC as well as a team from my Colorado program. Our group fared well and learned a ton throughout the week but we were reminded at the award’s ceremony of the importance of hard-work, dedication, and commitment that culminates into the satisfaction of a job well done, which at this particular regatta translates into a holding silver bowl of oranges.

imageI feel a special amount of pride in having worked with, in different capacities, many of the winners of this year’s event: Optimist RWB, C420 & Laser Radial fleets. Disclaimer: I do not assume to take any credit for these young athletes’ success in this event. They all share an exemplary level of commitment to the sport and train with great coaches and fellow athletes who they work with to attain their goals.

But I have been lucky enough to share some part of their journey with them. Looking back on those moments, I have reflected on some of the lessons these particular sailors taught me over the years and how their role as students and sailors have shaped mine as coach.

THE POWER OF POSSIBILITY- Bella Casaretto 1st Optimist RWB

Amazing to see this young lady, who I met as a smiley and tiny Opti green fleeter, develop into the powerhouse of a racer she has become. And no doubt Bella’s own fiery ambition has been stoked by, among others, talented coaches and sailors like bronze medalist Lucas Calabrese and Dartmouth athlete and leukemia survivor Christopher Williford (woot!).

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Many moons ago, I met Bella in the beginning of her sailing career, her sister Ariel and she sailed on my green fleet team. Green fleet is what it is and that’s not what I want to talk about. Fast forward to white fleet where Bella sprouted up to show a lot of promise after logging countless hours learning to hike and surf during ocean practice off Fort Lauderdale beach. Bella moved up the ranks, even at 10 years old, and worked her way on to one of our competitive team race team.

The event is the Team Race Midwinters in Jensen Beach, Bella is the youngest, by a few years on a team of five. She is our designated “rabbit.” Fast as either a pin end started or a boat end “tack and go right” boat. Our strategy for her is something like “she’s small and fast so let’s keep her away from traffic.”

We had been working on passbacks and hooks at mark 2 for a few weeks leading up to the event. Bella had become proficient but when it came game time, I had not intended to coach her to strike offensively but rather slip through the cracks or up the side and secure a 1,2, or 3 finish. Throughout the event Bella proved she could hold her own with the big boys. Upsetting many top sailors with her mark 2 hooks, specifically in two tough races that took our mid pack team to the top of the silver fleet standings.

We used this newly discovered strategy later that season at the USODA Nationals and beat our the top team from our club, which was very motivating for our young bunch.

At the end of the Jensen Beach event Bella proved something amazing to her competitors, don’t underestimate anyone- even the smallest and smiliest sailor can flip the dynamic of a race on its head with same impact as Goliath’s head hitting the dirt. Respect the small and mighty.

Bella taught me to push sailors beyond their capacities. Not outer space beyond, but far enough that they can create and discover new depth within. Far enough that you allow them to surprise you and more importantly to surprise  themselves. That space is where progress is found.

BRING YOUR A GAME, JACK- Eduardo Mintzias (skipper) 1st Club420

I regret not having snapped a photo of Eduardo on the morning of the last day of racing at OB this year. I walked one of the sailors on my team over to the end of the dock, opposite of Eddie at the Shake-A-Leg boat ramp to use him as an example of how hungry for success one needs to be to succeed. Eddie was sitting alone, cross legged and staring out at the Bay. Calm, collected, hyper-focused. I imagine visualizing his future win and sizing up the challenge he had ahead. I was inspired looking at him and hoping to inspire my athlete by pointing him out.

imageBefore I continue, I first need to set the stage and give some more context to really tie this anecdote together. Early on in my tenure at LYC our team participated at a USODA East Coast Champs held in Marco Island, FL. This event delivered all the qualities one wants in a regatta: full days of racing with steady breeze and swelly chop, perfect gulf coast sailing. We had a sizable team fleet this event (nearly 30 sailors if I remember) and brought three coaches to assist the athletes on the water.

It seems to be standard operating procedure these days, especially for larger club teams, to fleet a big group of sailors who are across the spectrum in skill level. This regatta was no exception, we had a few sailors elbowing their way around the top 10 positions, about 60% of the group scattered throughout the middle of the pack, and a sailor or two trailing the back of the fleet. The big breeze and waves on the second day of racing were tough for our younger sailors, which makes a tough day for coaching when you have to switch gears between motivational speaker and tactical offensive coordinator. I was on clean up duty and spent lots of time talking the tears out of the eyes of our frustrated sailors.

I should tell you that Eddie is the type of kid I love to coach. He is headstrong and smart. He challenges everything you say and weighs it mentally against both his experience and his gut. At this event Eduardo was not in the back. But fighting for a top position in the regatta. He came to my boat after a tough second race and wanted  a plan for the next one. He was emotional: pissed off and frustrated.

Like I said, I had been working with some teary eyed sailors in the flight before his and hadn’t seen much of his race. He came to me with questions and wanted a plan. Handing Eddie some water, I spat out a line of coaching I thought would suffice, something like “get off the line with clear air and take that first shift right, make sure to hit the top left side on your final approach to the mark.”

Eddie’s retort put a halt to my quippy reply. Throwing his bottle back in my direction he shouted “I JUST DID THAT AND IT DIDN’T WORK.” Whatever I was selling, he wasn’t buying. This sailor was challenging me on the advice I was giving. I should have known better.

This moment taught me a few important things; 1) that coaching a big group means giving 100% to each kid, from the winner to the last boat across the finish line. Everyone deserves their fair shake. 2) know your shit, man and work harder. If you’re going to assume to speak from a position of authority, make sure you collect all the data and are attentive. 3) “I don’t know” or “I wasn’t watching” is not an acceptable answer. This is pretty much a reprise of #2 but important enough to say twice. Do you think Phil Jackson missed watching one of Michael Jordan’s blocked drives or Pippen’s picked off passes? I doubt it. You want to be a pro, then be a pro.

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I remember this nearly every time I see Eddie. And I use this experience as a reminder to better myself and my coaching. Watching him work to victory this year was amazing. And he did it because his drive and hunger calls him toward perfection.

ASK MORE QUESTIONS, DON’T JUST GIVE ANSWERS- Leo Boucher 1st Laser Radial

I met Leo this last summer at the US Sailing Youth Championships in Bristol Rhode Island. I was hired by US Sailing to coach the laser radial “fleet” at this event. I put “fleet” in quotes because the majority of the sailors at this event come with their own coaches. It turned out that about 16 radial sailors came without coaches, Leo was among the group.

Event coaching is strange and a brings a series of challenges. The first day holds all the pressures of a job interview or a blind date. First impressions are paramount to setting the right tone and rapport with the athletes immediately. Trust is established through investment and coaches build this over time. We didn’t have time. So I did my best to open up and make myself approachable to the sailors with a series of Taylor Swift references followed by a discussion of the forecast and environmental factors like current and water depth.

This event is chock full talented athletes. Sailors have to apply to get in. And rightfully so as it’s the qualifier for the ISAF Youth World Championship. My approach to best support the athletes on my team during this event was to use our on water talks between races to pull information out of them. This process helps me figure out what their strengths, weaknesses, habits, and how deep their experience base is. This is my own sort of coaching algorithm. From that process I know what information they need, be it technical, motivational, or what have you. I didn’t show up with this method in mind.

I realized quickly during the first day of racing, that this event was not the right time to “teach” Leo, or any of the other athletes something new. Practice is over when the game is on. So as we talked on the boat I asked myself what could I offer this crew to enhance their performance and race experience to fulfill their own potential during that week? With so many factors to control and overcome in a sailboat race, what could I do in my blow-up boat to lighten his load?

I quickly learned from these conversations and watching him sail how smart and strong Leo is. He was equally in tune with the shifts and current as he was with his rig set up. And Damn!, the kid can hike, the first day in a half of racing brought some big breeze and chop that had everyone’s legs burning. Leo was not afraid of setting himself up to leeward and burning through and upwind hike-a-thon.

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I figured out that to help him and the other sailors shut out distractions and externalities uncontrollable to focus on what was important. What’s the most important factor in any competitive atmosphere? Confidence. How do we gain confidence? Experience and knowledge. So I used the rest of the week to explore this new coaching style (for me) of extracting then highlighting information from the athletes. I became a lens, a spotlight, a microscope. Through probing and questioning, I learned to guide these sailors to find the solutions to the problems they faced through reflection.

Coming out of this event, my coaching style was changed. I promised to no longer spoon feed data to sailors. And believe me, sometimes this takes a lot of self-control. But in the long run, it’s better for the athletes to learn to work through their own experience and discover the answers with their own insight. With some helpful guidance, of course. Doing that they’re empowered to become better tacticians, athletes, and meteorogists and to find those qualities within. Working with Leo taught me that, and I can’t thank him enough.

A BIGGER SIDE OF SPORT

A sailor of mine, Jack David, won something prestigious (and often over looked) this past Orange Bowl. Jack, who I have been working with in Colorado for the past (nearly) two years was awarded the Sportsmanship Award for helping a fellow competitor re-unite with his capsized boat, during a race on the first day of the event.

Jack, who had up until this point, only raced sailboats in Colorado was in over his head at Orange Bowl. On the practice day, when we met at Key Biscayne Yacht Club, he was told he would be sailing his Opti across the bay to Coral Reef YC  and couldn’t believe it. He had never sailed on a body of water that expansive before, and in consistent breeze upwards of 20 mph—no way, jose’.

But he did, and throughout the week he developed new skills within himself that he never knew were there. He finished the regatta by putting 30 boats behind his transom, 30 boats who steadily passed him on the first day of the event. This event put hair on his chest.

JDBack to that first harrowing day of racing, as Jack rounded the course nearly a minute behind the second to last boat he overcame a powerful urge. The urge we all feel when we see someone stranded on the side of the road, looking helplessly at their cell phone with their hazards on. The urge that says, “they’ll be fine.” Jack stopped to help.

Even though he was struggling in his own right to keep his boat in control, Jack picked up the stranded competitor in the water and sailed the guy back to his half-capsized, half-drifting downwind Opti. I say all this from second hand accounts. I was unfortunately on another course at the time and didn’t witness this act of kindness, of sportsmanship, something so spirited and Corinthian it makes us all stand a little taller.

This is not an argument against competitiveness but rather a statement that the worth of sport is measured against the standards of decency and mutual respect. I am so proud of Jack and the example he gave us all who are involved in sport this year. Thanks Jack, for showing us that sailing is about something more.image