Tuesday, January 19, 2016

RS:X women stand up to escalating regatta costs

In preparation for the Miami Olympic Classes Regatta, the first World Cup event of 2016, many sailors competed in "Midwinters" regattas held at the sailing clubs in Coconut Grove.  These small events have a history of about 4-5 years and are normally used as a low-key warm up before the World Cup.  However, this year one little regatta was the victim of an unfortunate trend in both the  Olympic class circuit and the American racing scene:  escalating costs for sailors, facilitating exclusivity. 

The men's and women's RS:X fleets were stunned when confronted with a $200 entry fee for a small three-day event. The cost of the three-day Midwinters event combined with the cost of the World Cup ($350 for singlehanded boats plus $150 coach entry) can run sailors as much as $700 just to participate in the regattas. In Europe or South America, regatta fees for small events are normally around 40-60 euro, or  $50-75.  High level European World Cup regattas, week-long events, cost around 200 euro or $220.  Factoring in travel expenses, coaching or a boat (a critical need for RS:X sailors to reach the starting line on time in light wind and carry food and water), and the high cost of housing in Miami, this event can push even the most financially solvent competitor over budget.  American sailors are required to compete in Miami almost every year to qualify for the US Sailing Team.  For "average Janes" like me, it's a steep hurdle indeed, and one that will remove any middle-class, self-funded but motivated sailor from the racing community. 

Because less women than men were registered and paid online for the Midwinters, the women decided to defect from the regatta and hold their own event or "coaches' regatta" while the men stayed with the original event.  (Even so, a third of the men did not compete due to the cost).  The entire women's fleet removing themselves from the event was the fault of both sailors and organizers, but the incident strongly serves as an example of what can happen when sailing federations and clubs try to profit from sailors instead of promoting the sport. 

When organizing the event, US Sailing was faced with a number of issues.  The first is that ISAF  (or World Sailing as they are now called) pushed US Sailing to hold the event without much assistance, creating extra hassle before the Miami World Cup regatta.  Secondly, the sailing clubs in Miami are charging more and more money to host events, and some have refused to host visiting sailors at all.  This year marked the first time clubs charged visiting windsurfers training just a short time before the event ($15/day until the regatta) and also raised prices for US Sailing to hold the event.  The event was also not well publicized.  For the RS:X class, the NOR was published online only two weeks before the regatta (after there was a late entry fee added), and the website for the regatta was very difficult to find as it was hidden within the Miami World Cup site.  An email went out to some American sailors, also only two weeks before the event.

Even through the organizational rush, to me it was obvious that someone was trying to profit from the sailors.  Because the RS:X women defected the evening before the regatta began, US Sailing panicked because they would lose money and the effort of organizing the event.  As a result, we negotiated the regatta entry down to $125, which would cover costs and be a reasonable entry fee for sailors.  Unfortunately, it was too late for the majority of the women, who had already met with their coaches to arrange their separate event.  At that point, there was nothing else I could do to help the organizers.  Because my close friend, (who does an amazing job promoting windsurfing in Miami) was running the RS:X circle, I personally registered for the regatta at the price of $125 but did not compete.  However, I had delayed entering the two weeks before the event due to the steep price.

Men get launched in 25-30 knot breeze at the Midwinters. (Photo Alex Morales)

If the regatta price had been a reasonable $125 from the beginning, there would have been no problem getting the women to enter and create a good event.  Instead, regatta organizers and sailors were put at opposition, furthering the "us vs. them" mentality between sailing federations, clubs, and athletes.  Raising the costs of events each year is detrimental to all sailors and organizers, and does nothing to promote the sport of Olympic class sailing, which is already a very difficult and exclusive sport to enter.  This trend is not limited to the Miami events - clubs all over the USA are constantly imposing higher prices and more restrictions on sailors.  My hope is that sailing federations and clubs can look at the bigger picture, and instead of trying to profit from sailors and promote exclusivity, try to promote our sport to everyone. 

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Copa Brasil de Vela

US Olympic Trials preparations are underway, and most American sailors competed in the Copa Brasil de Vela last week, held on the Niteroi side of Rio de Janeiro, as a tune-up.  Taking place on the Olympic courses on Guanabara Bay with a strong international fleet, this event was a competitive learning experience for me. 

Lasers arrive at the beach for Copa Brasil de Vela (Fred Hoffmann)
 The trip marked my third time in Rio de Janeiro, and the first time I experienced the transitional weather patterns of the changing seasons.  Rio shifted from spring to summer weather in December, and just about every condition and weather pattern showed up during training and the event.   There was a variety of gradient wind, and we experienced both thermal and gradient-driven effects.  During the first week of training, steady rain occurred almost every day.  In the later weeks, we saw more of a summertime pattern with sea breeze varying with cloud cover and positioning of high and low pressure areas.  Most notably, we also experienced several strong evening thunderstorms.  The strength of these storms often were affected by the topography of the land, and during one night violent wind and rain tore through the valley in Niteroi, causing damage to buildings and trees. 

The intensity of this storm pummeled the sailing venue.  Held from the Sao Francisco beach in Niteroi, across Guanabara Bay, the tents and boats sitting on the beach were entirely unprotected from the blast.  Tents collapsed and several Nacra catamarans sustained costly damage.  As a result, the venue was closed until after the first day of racing. 

Venue issues notwithstanding, racing proceeded smoothly and on schedule for both competitors and organizers.  We had both light and strong wind, all as tricky and gusty as Rio can offer.  The event was a chance for me to make further gains to my strategic and tactical execution, and although I can't say brilliance suddenly occurred to me, I felt that I gained in intuitive ability and understanding. 

Rio didn't only offer me a chance to grow tactically as a sailor - I got to grow tactically as a driver as well.  I found a cheap rental car to shuttle my group around because getting from the club, home, and beach wasn't easy, and we were also schlepping around gear from various locations.  The six kilometers' commute contained so many unexplained traffic patterns, bumper-car drivers, and bottlenecks that it could take from seven minutes to one hour to get home.  Sometimes, traffic signals are optional - it took a few days for me to figure out which ones.  In many places, turning left or right off of main thoroughfares is not allowed, so one ends up driving back and forth around loops of road miles out of the way.  I was making "illegal" turns almost every day until I figured out the pattern.  I say "illegal" because it seems the police in Brazil are not interested in ticketing traffic violations.  I was also clipped twice by other cars, and it was fortunate that the rental car was relatively unscathed.  It was pretty exciting to go out in this Mario Kart environment every day. 

My next event will be the Miami OCR, the first Olympic Trials event.  I'm looking forward to some rest, good preparation, and a great regatta.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

RS:X World Championships, Al Mussanah, Oman

Last Saturday saw the conclusion of the very interesting RS:X World Championships in Al Mussanah, Oman.  For many international sailors, this was the culmination of an Olympic Team selection or a qualifier for their country’s slot in the Olympic Games.  Six new countries qualified for the Olympics; unfortunately the Americans were unable to qualify at this event.  We have one more shot in Miami as a continental qualifier, and we will qualify in Miami, regardless of performance.

In Oman, the women’s RS:X fleet was the strongest it’s ever been.  With high temperatures, light wind, and very choppy sea conditions, racing was very much biased towards the technical and physical, rather than strategical.  Physically, I held up really well as my fitness program has always been one of my strengths.  However, my technique was a bit off in the chop initially, and once I had dialed in the conditions, it was too late to make gains in the overall fleet standings.  A few small deficiencies in acceleration I had been suspecting during my training this year were accentuated in the light and choppy conditions.

 A start with the hotel in the background. (Photo: Jesus Renedo/Oman Sail)
Oman for me was a cumulation of all the problems that have been contributing to my underperformance this year.  Not enough rest, no time at home, and a constant fight for money have left me with lower energy levels.  Although I genuinely enjoy sailing at these events and feel positive and focused, I have been fighting just to keep treading water.  The fleet has become more and more professional, well funded and organized.  Before 2014, the front and back of the fleet was more well-defined, but in the past two years the middle of the fleet has become very strong.  Before 2012, it was possible to sail part-time and still get results.  Now, it’s almost impossible. With the USA’s Olympic Trials fast approaching, there are a lot of problems to still find an answer to.  Miami can be a mixed bag of conditions, competitors and requirements, but success is always an option.

 Photo: Jesus Renedo/Oman Sail
Performance always comes down to the individual and their situation, but politics are beginning to play an increasing role in the actions of the RS:X class and Olympic classes in an effort to keep ISAF or the IOC happy.  The selection of Oman as the venue for a World Championships became more controversial as the event approached and sailors had a chance to think about it.  While the organization and execution of the event itself was very good, logistical and political issues surfaced leading up to the event.  Oman as a venue,with its daily thermal breeze, offers the possibility of timely racing each day.  However, the only possibility for accommodation is to stay at the luxury hotel, which is too expensive for sailors who pay for themselves.  The hotel made about 700,000 euro from the event.  In addition to the expensive accommodation and food, Al Mussanah is a tricky place to get to.  There is only one airline that flies to Muscat that will take windsurfing equipment on board, which had the unfortunate result of a huge delay to our flight on departure.  The hotel is one hour from the airport, and transportation for sailors and equipment is not cheap.  There needs to be an airline sponsor for events in the future to prevent these complicated logistics.  Also, nobody takes credit cards, even at the airport.  What? 

 How much gear can we stuff onto one plane?
In addition to the logistcal hassle, the Israel windsurfing team could not compete due to misunderstandings during the process of issuing visas for Oman, resulting in lost opportunities for these sailors.  Oman itself only has one windsurfer (male) who did not compete at the Worlds, and no women sailing at all.  With no windsurfers competing at major events, Oman is not a country that is a good representative for the RS:X Class.  The political aspects of competing in Oman should have been discussed at the RS:X class meeting at which it was voted upon, but sailors are not necessarily good at paying attention to politics.  As a result of this sudden wake up call, many sailors are also questioning the venue for the 2016 Worlds:  Eliat, Israel.  Will this venue offer a fair opportunity for all sailors to enter the country and compete?

Even with the regatta-related issues, Oman was a special place to visit and I greatly enjoyed the short amount of time there.  At the opening ceremony, we experienced a small taste of the country’s culture (this could have been really cheesy for the locals, however).  We got to sit upon carpets and pillows, eat local food, get henna tattoos and check out some camels.  Most of the people, especially women, were friendly and curious about we westerners.  The people are educated and intelligent, and speak English well.  When we visited the local village, several people stopped and politely asked to take pictures with us, or with their kids and us, because we were very different looking.  It was a positive sample of curiosity and good intentions from both cultures, without the influence of news, politics, and disagreeable governments.   I was pleased that I could be a good ambassador from the USA to the folks living in Oman.

Monday, August 31, 2015

Aquece Rio Olympic Test Event

The Sailing Olympic Test Event was the fifth Aquece test event to be held in Rio de Janeiro after volleyball, rowing, triathlon, and equestrian.  The test events are ongoing through February 2016 as part of both organizers’  and athletes’ preparation for the Olympics Games.  At this event, the focus of organizers and ISAF was to make sure the racing was executed efficiently and smoothly and the recent negative press surrounding the pollution issue in Guanabara Bay was controlled. 

In the two weeks before the sailing test event, the pollution at the Olympic venue again became a hot topic.  Many reporters were on scene after the racing attempting to get quotes from athletes to back up their stories about pollution. The reporters were sometimes quite aggressive in trying to get sailors to say what the press wanted to hear.  Many athletes viewed this as a distraction and instead supplied reporters with quotes about good competition and interesting weather conditions, if they felt like speaking at all.

Guanabara Bay is polluted; all sailors know it to be true.  The physical levels of garbage floating around where we race near the mouth of the bay aren’t as bad as they are made out to be.  However, there is a pipe spouting out raw sewage right into the Olympic harbor at Marina da Gloria, and the level of bacteria and viruses in the water would shut down any of my home beaches on the Chesapeake Bay.  Although water quality is bad, the reality is that none of it will prevent the Olympic sailing event from happening as planned, and it won't impact athletes' focus and training on Guanabara Bay.  A few sailors have contracted infections from the water, but more have gotten sick from non-Guanabara Bay related causes.  Getting sick is a normal occurrence for visitors to a tropical country like Brazil, and it is part of the reality of competing there.  I was sick during a small pre-regatta before the Test Event, which set my training back (I blame the salad).  It’s a very frustrating experience but even if an athlete is in a fully closed team environment, there is no definite way to prevent sickness other than the usual traveler’s precautions.  This year, the Rio de Janeiro government is planning to divert the sewage pipe and continue its efforts to physically pick up trash with “eco-boats.”  The bay will still be quite polluted, but hopefully the direct source of sewage in the marina will be removed.  The sailing events currently seem to be well organized and with ISAF’s eye on the pollution at venue, we should anticipate good racing for the Olympic Games with hopefully no water-related illness.  If sailors get infections from the water at the Olympics, it will be quite an unfortunate legacy for Rio de Janeiro.

An eco-boat in action. Photo: Agencio o Globo/ Pedro Kirilos

On a more positive note, the Olympic venue is very attractive and pleasant.  Half is still under construction with a large building going up for athletes, staff and press.  The boards’ tent is located directly on Flamengo Beach, with plenty of shade and a large rigging area.  A hill near the athletes’ lounge makes for great viewing of racing on the Sugarloaf course, no boat needed.  There are grassy areas and trees, and it’s altogether a pleasant place for boat work, launching, and hanging out. 

View of the inside of the boards' tent
  Rio is a complicated place for racing, and there are a lot of factors at work in the venue.  Current, pressure, topography, and thermal heating all play different roles in this area.  Most teams have been frantically working to try and discover patterns, and boats have been everywhere in the course areas taking data during the pre-event training.  Teams have also been hanging out on top of the Sugarloaf Mountain tourist viewing area, as it offers a fantastic view of all the course areas.  On one day during the event, so many officials were hanging around with their expensive equipment that security decided to put a ban on tripods.  I spent most of my free time at the Test Event studying weather and current, which is an enjoyable pastime for me and I am getting a good understanding of the area.
 US sailor Carson Crain starts underneath the spy platform on Sugarloaf Mountain

Photos: US Sailing Team Sperry
I experienced some setbacks during the event. I’ve been home exactly five days out of the last ten months, and some of those months have been very stressful in terms of funding, logisitcs, and equipment issues.  One skill I’ve developed is the ability to be happy under these stressful circumstances, but I still get a level of burnout and that’s what I experienced during this regatta.  It was an important experience for me, because I’m really used to continually running on the treadmill keeping my campaign going and it’s been my level of “normal” for years.  I need to remember that it’s not what most sailors experience because they have more support or a better balance in their lives. I need to back off, create more rest and planning time in the upcoming months, and let what I’ve learned this year get absorbed.

I’m looking forward to my next training block in France in advance of the RS:X World Championships in Oman.  I have a good schedule planned out and I’m really looking forward to being back in Europe.  After my rest at home, it will be good to be back in action and regaining confidence. 

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Sicily and beyond

The last few weeks of June were quite the grand finale to my four months of training and racing in Europe. In just a few days, I will have been on three different continents in one month, sailed in two regattas with the Olympic Test Event on the horizon, and trained in two different disciplines of windsurfing. 

I ended the European tour with the RS:X European Championships in Sicily.  At this event, I was subjected to about every kind of pressure possible.  I’m happy to say I came out on top. 

Forces converged on me during the week of the Europeans. I experienced, to put it universally, birth, death, the end of a significant relationship, physical accidents, and mechanical breakdowns - all during a major competition.  However, these pressures proved to be a blessing.  I had to work harder to find focus and flow during both racing and spending time at the venue, and I did this very well.  I succeeded in putting myself in the “zone” each time I willed it to happen, something I have been working on for years but never quite perfecting the task like I did at the Europeans. 

 I was happy with a number of other things during the competition.  First, my preparation was good - I had a good setup with my equipment and top-level speed.  95% of my starts were good and so were all my mark roundings.  I feel that my board handling is within the level of the top 10 in the fleet.  The competition also pointed out another detail to work on:  intuitive sailing.  Although I have a lot of strategic and tactical knowledge, I sometimes don’t execute well because I am thinking too much!  Getting my responses to fleet and strategy on a more automatic level is a major goal for my next two events in Rio de Janeiro, where I begin next week.

I am currently in San Francisco for ABK windsurfing clinics, where I am consistently improving my sailing and teaching skills.  My time here is short, and next week I fly from San Francisco to Rio de Janeiro to compete in the Olympic Test Event and the pre-regatta Rio International Sailing Week.  The event will be an important test before the Games next year, as many sailors will be at a peak level.  I will be working with my Spanish training partner and coach in the period between the regattas. I am really looking forward to being in Rio again and to further make gains in my racing.

I do need to voice my disappointment about the organization of the RS:X Europeans; the next paragraph is a complaint to the organizers of this event and if you're skimming this blog quickly, you're excused from reading it.  We experienced too much waiting time during this event.  Waiting on shore isn't rest time - sailors may go out at any moment and must be prepared and focused on the job by staying physically and mentally ready.  Although every regatta contains a component of waiting, the incompetence of the RS:X women's race committee was a little shocking.  With seven fleets to race daily on two courses, the committee had a big job to begin with.  However, on the first day they passed up opportunities to race the women's fleets although conditions were ideal. The 60-some women there, most whose countries used the event as an Olympic qualifier, were sitting in the blazing heat all day without racing.  The committee also held us at the venue each day much longer than needed, and on the water, starts were postponed too long until the wind wasn't ideal and we were sent in - where we waited for hours only to be canceled again in the evening.  This caused scheduling delays and the women had to use the scheduled rest day to race.  Communication was also poor and although course areas were available to race, the committee held us on shore.  In one case, they wanted to send us home, but since they did not communicate well with the shore committee, we were held hours longer than was necessary because they forgot to take our flag down.  In addition, the committee was too lazy to prepare a medal race schedule on the last day, so the fleets were forced to wait onshore morning until evening to race. This caused a massive rush in a small area to pull coach boats out late and pack equipment for the night's ferry off the island.  With better organization, more races could have been held with much less waiting time - a shame because we did have some nice conditions in an attractive venue.

Mondello Beach - mountains, sun, sand, blue water

I believe sometimes racers can be too accepting of poor organization.  Elite athletes will accept what happens during an event to stay positive and focused (in this case, not sitting on shore angry and losing energy).  Then, in the rush to get packed up and long journeys back home, athletes are tired and not interested in speaking out.  However, at this caliber of event, especially with high-stakes national qualifiers in play close to the Olympic year, RS:X class organizers need to be more critical in the selection of venues and race committees, and have a greater understanding of the needs of the athletes. Hopefully we won't experience this microcosm of racing at a higher level during the Olympic Test Event. 

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

May and June Training

After finishing the French Olympic Week in April, I needed a training block to focus on improving certain technical and tactical aspects of my sailing.  I decided not to compete in May’s Eurosaf events in order to have the maximum water time possible and give me space to focus away from hectic regatta logistics.  The past month’s training has been critical technical preparation for the Rio Olympic Test Event in August and the RS:X Worlds in Oman this October.

I completed training camps in three different venues over the past month and a half, including Cadiz, Brest, and Palermo.  Cadiz, in southern Spain, is a windy venue that allowed me to test my speed and improve technique in planing, choppy conditions with fast training partners.  In Cadiz, I also sorted out equipment in preparation for the more important events later this year.  Small details such as these must be done well ahead of time; the weeks before important events must be focused on racing and rest rather than physical and technical preparation.

In Brest (north France), I worked with a coach on board handling, technique in marginal conditions, downwinds, and strategy in a variety of the tricky and cold conditions the venue is well known for.  A number of competitive French youth girls and boys also attended the sessions.  I was very happy with how I trained at this venue, and I am in the process of developing an automatic feel for being detail-oriented on a complicated racecourse.  Brest isn’t exactly a sunny vacation destination, so it was also a good chance to get caught up on equipment repair and organization, taking care of repairs to the van and boat, and the endless budgeting.

Vacation destinations definitely include Mondello Beach, just outside the city of Palermo in Sicily, where the RS:X Europeans are being held the last week of June.  This event will serve as a test for the skills I will need to improve before the Test Event and the Worlds.  After the 15 hour drive and 20 hour ferry, I’ve had an excellent training block here already with Spanish, Polish, and Italian sailors,and there is plenty of sunshine for all.  Racing here will definitely be interesting, because there are very strong coast effects that create a very one-sided course…except when the wind gets gusty and then it’s a directional free for all.  I’m happy to report that my speed is quite good and I’m stacking up well against the others.  The fleet is going to be very strong here and the girls I’ve been training with are all very quick, smart, and prepared.  There are already 60 girls registered in the senior fleet.  Many of the international teams are using the event as their first Olympic qualifier, so the atmosphere could be a little serious!  In the next few days I’ll be trying to sort out repairs and rest up before my coach arrives for another small training block before the regatta.  I’m looking forward to this event as a stepping stone to my peak events later this year.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Brest is the Best

For the past few weeks I've been training in Brest, France.  This Atlantic coastal town is located just about as far west as you can travel in northern France, and it's one place where I spend a lot of time training.  The best thing about Brest is it's a really interesting place to race and train.  It can be extremely windy or very marginal and shifty, and there is usually a ripping current going through the bay.  There is also a great group of enthusiastic and skilled young sailors to train with.

The countryside is also really lovely - dotted with small towns, harbors, and there are many farms that grow delicious strawberries.

However, a lot of the time Brest looks like this:

Is that really France? Let's compare to south France for a moment:

I guess living in Brest builds character.  The food is great though.

Here I am working on technique and strategy in a group.  Since the conditions are so diverse, there is a good amount of thinking that needs to happen during each stage of an exercise.  All the thinking happening now is actually helping to create automatic responses to different events during a race.  It is great preparation for the RS:X Europeans coming up in Sicily.

Last month I also trained in Puerto de Santa Maria, Spain, which is one of my favorite venues.  Here I worked on technique and equipment with a fast group. Both sessions have been productive and not too bad on the budget.

 Being on a budget means your $50 wetsuit from Decathlon is also 6 years old. Anyone want to sponsor a new sailing wardrobe?
I'm looking forward to training and racing in Sicily.  The event isn't "important," as it's not a qualifier for either the team or the country, but it will be very competitive and therefore a good test of the skills I've been practicing this month.  It will also be a performance benchmark before the Worlds, and will serve to delineate the most important things to improve before entering the major events of the fall and winter.