South for the Winter

A sailing director from the North goes South to the Orange Bowl

By Kurt Thomsen

Columbia Yacht Club's trailer heading for Orange Bowl 2013As the Sailing Director for the Columbia Yacht Club in Chicago, one of the biggest challenges I face every winter is getting my team ready to compete down south in Florida. Below, is a brief description of what it takes to prepare for and execute a successful trip, from coaching suggestions, to the actual logistics of transporting a team and their equipment across the country.

We are constantly battling to keep athletes interested in sailing, especially during the winter months. Competing across the country in a place like Florida when temperatures in Chicago are below zero degrees is a great way to keep kids engaged.

High school sailing is growing in Chicago; most of our kids who compete in the Orange Bowl or one of the other mid-winter events have been competing throughout the fall. Opti’s and Lasers have some changes, long courses and big fleet tactics. 420 sailors have to get back into spinnaker and trap mode most importantly they have to get in sync with a new partner that usually differs from their high school teammate. With high school sailing ending in Mid-November, school commitments, and maybe even a burnt out sailor, before you travel to Florida to compete you have to know there is not enough time to do everything you want to do in preparation.

If you are lucky enough to have the same coach with your kids throughout the year, they should be able to come up with a plan of the most important areas of the athletes “game” to work on over the winter. Athletes need a high level of self awareness and humility in order for this process to be most effective. Some athletes might find this process to be difficult, having a constructive conversation were you give positive feedback as well as some negative, then receive the same, is the only way to make sure you are on the same page before and during the event. The process is as important for Opti and Laser sailors but they are being critical of themselves not a partner. The trip is an undertaking for everyone involved so it is vital to make sure the athlete, coach, and parent all share the same expectations.

I like to have a goals conversation when we start planning the trip in August. I will plan out practices at the end of high school sailing season (maybe some mixed throughout the season if able) with drills working on the plan that came out of this talk. With the weather getting worse the later we go, we are quickly down to half day practices before the cold becomes unsafe, so we are really trying to focus on the discussed goals and plan. After the fall, as we prepare to head to Florida, as well as the day before the event starts, we will once again check in on goals and expectations.

420's at Orange Bowl 2012It is important to get to the event with enough time to be in the boat and sailing before the race starts. If you have the time to run a full practice that is an added bonus, but at the very least you want to get in the boat and sail to knock off some of the rust and start working together as a team.

There are now training camps run by some of the top coaches in the country becoming available before winter events. If you have the time and money, I would strongly recommend taking advantage of these unique coaching opportunities. If you are like most sailors, this might be out of reach financially; which is OK considering that the experience of the actual event is the most important part. Parents and coaches alike want to give their athletes as much as they can for a price that is reasonable. It should be noted that scholarships are available, but you have to invest considerable time to look and apply for them.

The cost for chartering boats and hiring coaches for winter events adds up quickly. If you spend the money and hire a new coach, there are a couple things you should consider as there is no shortage when it comes to great sailors willing to coach at these events. How many kids will they be coaching at the event? There is no way to actively coach a single sailor when you are trying to spot them in a crowd of 80 boats a half mile away and you have to keep track of the 10+ others. While this situation may be necessary to ease the financial burden of the trip amongst a large group, it is not acceptable for coaches charging upwards of $200 per day. What is the skill level of the group being coached? As a coach, you pick a side of the course to head up and try to stay in line with your sailors, it helps if they are on the same skill level. They more they spread out, the harder it is to watch them all.

If your club is unable to bring its own trailer, try to find a trailer headed that way with another club or family. If you are the group bringing the trailer, reach out to others in your area to help fill the space. Splitting cost is the most cost effective way to get equipment to events, even by bartering with other clubs or groups. We are very fortunate in Chicago to have a few good sized programs in a small area, all of which work very well with each other and are happy to contribute. We all regularly put boats on each other’s trailers for these trips, as well as help with coaching.

One of the qualities that make our sport differ from all others is the sense of community, if you are trying to sail during the winter months, someone in this community will help you succeed in doing so, do not be shy about reaching out for advice and support.

Kurt Thomsen, sailing director at Columbia Sailing School
Kurt Thomsen, sailing director at Columbia Sailing School

Capt. Kurt Thomsen is the Sailing Director at Columbia Yacht Club, Chicago.  He is a US Sailing Level 1 Instructor Trainer, Keelboat and Powerboat instructor.

[420 photo courtesy of Coral Reef Yacht Club

Trailer photo from Columbia Sailing on Facebook]