Hometown Advantage? Ha!
In the September issue of SAIL we ask the question, Do you believe in the hometown advantage? I don't, not in sailing.
It's a revered concept, but in 2005 we've had three world championships on my home waters of San Francisco Bay, California, USA. And we had winners from Australia, the Netherlands, and Chile. Locals did well, but . . .
29er Worlds: Jacqui Bonnitcha & Euan McNicol, Australia
470 Worlds: Nathan Wilmot/Malcolm Page, Australia, men's division, with Marcelien de Koning/Lobke Berkhout, Netherlands, women's division
Etchells Worlds: Tito Gonzales/Diego Gonzales/Bill Mauk/Jeff Linton, Chile
Two people who had an excellent overview of the Etchells racing, completed over the weekend at Richmond Yacht Club, on the eastern reach of San Francisco Bay, were committeemen Kers Clausen and Jim Taylor. On the subject of hometown advantage Taylor said, "Local knowledge could get you into a lot of trouble this week. The guys who went hard right on Race 7 (the standard hometown bet in races on the bay's Olympic Circle) turned into a real hard-luck case. Dennis Conner went that way, and I don't think he was too happy about it when the wind went left. Over six days of racing, we had a few days like that."
For the record, past Etchells world champion Dennis Conner rounded 50th at the first mark of Race 7 and finished 24th. Kers Clausen, who spent most of the week on committee boats, then decided that the affair was so "steady state" that he could afford to go racing for a day, was part of the contingent that got hung out to dry on the right-hand side: "The wind was going right, so we went right, and then there was a 20 degree shift to the left, and from that point we were just out for a daysail."
Richmond YC and Etchells Fleet 12 published a "local knowledge" briefing for the fleet and noted that, September being a month of transition, you could pretty well count on the reliable San Francisco Bay seabreeze. However, "It is particularly important to keep your head out of the boat this time of year."
Two local skippers made strong showings. Craig Healy won Race 5 (on his birthday, yet) and would have placed much higher than 21st if he hadn't had to eat OCS points after being called over-early twice. Shark Kahn was a model of consistency, winning two races and finishing only 3 points behind Gonzales. Kahn, in Race 7, led his pack left from the pin, and that came out rather well, thank you.
Gonzales, a four-time Lightning world champion, had his 17-year-old son in the crew, and they were new to the Etchells in 2005. Crewman Jeff Linton is another Lightning world champ, and he had Etchells experience, but it was the class itself that (in a class act) brought the team along. Gonzales said, "We came here two weeks before the series started, and we had a lot of help from Dennis Conner, who did a fabulous job of bringing us up speed, along with Vince Brun and the North Sails people. You gotta love the Etchells class."
And there's Jud Smith, who also deserves some love. This Marblehead guy is known as a solid, conservative sailor, and he looked good to win his first Worlds until he was called OCS in the final race. (OCS calls had a strangely powerful effect on this regatta, one must note.) That forced him to eat a 29th from Race 6, a day when, as Healy said, "anyone could have finished 29th; it was a difficult day to figure out." Smith wound up sixth.
And now, these ruminations:
Hometown advantage? Ha! The locals who win the big one at home are the same people who could have won it somewhere else, and I've seen too many championships on my home waters where some outsider rode into town, read the wind, read the currents, and rode off into the sunset with his name etched on the trophy. In fact, that's the percentage play.
For an even stronger point of view there's Soling silver medallist crew and Olympic sailing team advisor Bob Billingham, who says, "Heaven forbid the world championship comes to your own home town."
Billingham (aka "Buddha") counsels U.S. Sailing Team members and other high-level compaigners on behalf of US Sailing. He proved himself as logistics manager and middle crew for John Kostecki. But you don't have to be an Olympic campaigner to take his rather strong statement to heart.
It's all about distractions, accounting first for the good things that benefit a sailor away from home, and then for the very different issues that tug at you when you wake up in your own bed and people know where to find you.
One of the beauties of the sailing life is the way that rivals form friendships and then help each other (within limits, but genuinely). When the racing comes home, Billingham says, "It's payback time. You've probably already been involved in organizing the event. You've been fielding questions from the regatta chairman for months, and now your sailing friends are calling, just the way you called them when the races were happening in their hometowns. Maybe they're hoping to sleep on the sofa, or they need to find a hotel close to the racing, or they need spare parts—
"You become a de facto host, and that's an important post. You can't desert. You have to anticipate it and plan for it," Billingham says." Compare that to what happens when you travel: "On the road, you leave other matters behind. The disconnect helps you get focused. Your bowling buddies don't call; your wife doesn't ask you to pick up the kids. You're with your teammates or maybe going out to dinner with another team. It's all about the game."
To compete at the top level at home, you need the same level of focus, and that's difficult to achieve. Billingham says: "The typical thing is to drop into the office in the morning before the race planning to just check emails and go. But it's never like that. By the time you finally rush out the door you're late, you're stressed, and the phone's still ringing."
What Billingham tells U.S. Sailing Team members is this: Do everything you can to disconnect from daily life. Focus on the regatta. Leave a "sorry, I'm gone" message on your voicemail. Don't even think about going to the office. If there are distractions at home, move to a hotel. And all through, anticipate the pressure points so that you can play the role of friendly host. You wouldn't really want it any other way, would you? K.L.