The right amount of preseason preparation

Tips are given on how sailors can prepare for the coming sailboat racing season. Some of the mistakes that sailors commit at the start of the racing season are due to improper preparation.

Some of the problems we experience at the start of the season stem from the extremes of preparation. There are sailors, like Joe B. Casual, who have done absolutely nothing since they parked the boat last November. They simply launch the boat and head out for the first race, ripe for breakdown, injury, and frustration.

At the other extreme is Peter Prepared, who’s been to every seminar, surfed the web all winter, meticulously prepared his boat, and worked out at the gym. As a coach, I would prefer to work with Peter rather than Joe, but Peter might suffer from having made too many changes, and having expectations that are too high. Both Joe and Peter could alter their preseason preparation to be more effective.

Recipe for the Overprepared

First, consider Peter. He has done a seemingly thorough job of preparation, but he still might get disappointing results at his first test of the season. I can hear him now, “I can’t believe Joe beat me, he’s outta shape, his boat is a wreck, and he doesn’t even have an MRI-enhanced code X hyper-Mylar jib! How can this be?”

Dance with the girl that brung ya. Peter needs to surf his boat, not the web. After a winter of analyzing the latest go-fasts, he may have fallen victim to the hype surrounding new equipment and techniques. It’s important to be current, but the latest fads must be avoided. Instead, Peter should learn how to use standard equipment better than the next guy. Only after a major change in gear, tuning, or technique is widely adopted should Peter join the crowd. And when he does make those changes, he must allow practice time to adjust his boathandling routines.

Analyze to learn, internalize to know. If you gave Peter a written test on the complete works of Stuart Walker, he would get an “A.” But on the water, he can’t recognize the highly fluid situations quick enough to apply the correct answer. Studying tactics is great, but there’s no substitute for time in the boat. Peter needs to get in as many short-course races as possible so he can “internalize” the lessons and respond without thinking. (See “Top 10 Early Season Tactical Errors.”) Winter frostbite racing is ideal for this.

Sail yourself into shape. After an off-season of serious exercise, Peter should be in better shape than Joe. But the fittest person doesn’t always win, whether in sailing or other sports. More commonly, the most highly skilled athlete wins. Fitness is important, but beyond a certain level, there are diminishing returns, and the “principle of specificity” states that only highly specialized conditioning will significantly improve performance. Hiking in a Snipe may not improve your fitness for hiking in a Laser. The training has to be very specific.

Heavy-air sailing in your own boat is the best training, once you’ve reached a certain level of fitness. This is the Catch-22. You have to sail in heavy air to get in shape to sail in heavy air, Skill and conditioning aren’t the same thing, but achieving both is interrelated. Because Peter hasn’t sailed in heavy air for months, he shouldn’t put unrealistic expectations on his heavy-air speed. He’s ready for some heavy-air practice, and by the end of the sailing season he should finally have the speed he deserves.

Recipe for the Underprepared

Joe B. Casual will tell you that he sails for fun, has a real life, and just doesn’t have the time to match Peter’s perfectionism. “And hey,” says Joe, “we beat Peter half the time last year anyway.” But with no preparation for his first regatta, at best Joe is likely to have a mediocre finish. At worst, breakdown or injury could mean no finish at all. While I’m not going to condone Joe’s lack of preparation, there are some last-minute things he could do to improve the situation.

Stretch to avoid injury. Stretching is the single most important preparation you can do. It should be done both before and after sailing. Studies suggest that you shouldn’t stretch cold muscles, so first perform some light calisthenics, then stretch the major muscle groups. If he wants to get in shape quickly, the best single exercise for small-boat sailing is to ride a bike, either stationary or on the road. Joe should try to do this for 30 minutes three times a week.

Relax while commuting. Sailing is a low-intensity sport, so reducing stress and anxiety is important. Now Joe is a casual kind of guy, so maybe he has this all figured out, but it never hurts to practice relaxation skills. While commuting to work, he should focus on isolating and relaxing his muscles, paying particular attention to his facial, neck, shoulder, and buttock muscles. When someone cuts him off in traffic, he can inhale, then exhale and let the road rage go.

Remember: Rust never sleeps. There is no need to stress all winter about your equipment. But Joe should dig out his gear a week before the first regatta and spend a couple of evenings in the garage. Replace the questionable, make a few upgrades, and finish the hit list left over from last summer. This doesn’t have to take long, if he has the right tools and a good space to work.

Plan a weekend without expectations. Dedicate an afternoon to practicing with your crew. Pick two marks and go windward/leeward, round and round. Spend half your time on boathandling and half on boatspeed. Go straight line, all by yourself, and concentrate on steering, sail trim, heel, and feel. Pay attention to the puffs, lulls, waves, and windshifts while you’re grooving along. Go rudderless if possible, or centerline the tiller with bungy, and steer with weight and sail trim.

The next day, arrange a practice session with a few friends in their boats. Do the same simple drills, but in a race-like atmosphere. Chase your buddies around the windward/leeward. Use a rabbit start to line up for speed testing. Finally, and this holds true for both Peter and Joe, pick a relatively minor regatta for the first test of your off-season preparation.


  1. Crash and burn while starting at the pin, or barging at the boat
  2. Failure to “cross ’em when you can”
  3. Leebowing when you should’ve ducked
  4. Tacking too close when you should’ve ducked
  5. Tacking short of the layline (see above)
  6. Overstanding the layline
  7. Last boat of a group going high on a reach
  8. Caught up in clumps of boats on the run
  9. Outside at marks
  10. Covering when it’s inappropriate


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