“Want to check the keel?” North U Coach Geoff Becker calls to me from back by the transom. We’ve just suffered our worst finish in the regatta and are absolutely flying on our way back to shore, spinnaker up and heeling at an angle that feels like maybe we’re tempting fate. Geoff’s whipping the boat, a Flying Tiger 7.5, up to speed in an effort to cheer us up—and it’s working.
We’ve all agreed it would be a copout to blame our former lack of boatspeed on some hypothetical debris wrapped around the keel, but Geoff instructs me to check anyway. With the help of my teammate Eric, I slide down the hull, hanging upside-down from the safety line by my knees. We’re heeled far enough that when I stretch out my arms, I can’t quite touch the water. Instead, the spray reaches up for me and spatters my face. I grin despite myself, all frustration whisked away by the breeze.
I recently had the pleasure of sailing with Geoff, Eric and a couple named Sabine and Richard as part of the North U Regatta Experience program. Piggybacking on well-known regattas around the country—in this case the three-day Miami Sailing Week—the program includes two days of coaching before the regatta and then several days of racing with a coach on board throughout. Our group consisted of 24 sailors aboard five boats. Each day on the water began and ended with a classroom session. In the morning, these typically included the forecast for the day, notes on rig tuning and what drills or courses to expect. It’s in the afternoon, though, that North U really shines.
“Welcome to today’s post-sail session, titled ‘It Looks so Easy From Here, Part…’ how many of these have we done?” North U director Bill Gladstone jokes as we assemble for an afternoon session. The sailors in the program and our coaches are sitting in a casual jumble of chairs around a large screen. On the monitor is one of the many videos of our practice that day, shot from Bill’s launch. The first few days I’d watched with more than a little trepidation, waiting to see myself on the monitor as some embarrassing flaw was pointed out, but it never happened. The North U guys are seriously committed to keeping things friendly, whether it’s onshore or out on the water, never singling out anyone. They also make a point of highlighting the particular strengths of the different crews, which in many cases can be just as informative as the weaknesses.
In the words of fellow participant EC Helme, “Bill is like a legend, so a chance to have him both give you some coaching before you get out on the water and then dissect what you’re doing [afterward] is an amazing opportunity.” This is high praise, as EC’s no novice. He owns a J/92 which he races with the help of several of our other classmates. They’d all decided to enroll in the North U program together and get some pre-season practice in.
Despite part of the class regularly sailing together at home, there was a pretty broad range of backgrounds across the fleet. On my boat alone, Eric was part of EC’s group, Richard and Sabine had done several North U clinics in the Flying Tigers and I’d had only limited experience in keelboats. (Geoff took great joy in calling out my clumsy “opti hop,” when crossing the boat; Flying Tigers are much harder to jump across than dinghies, and I had an astonishing rainbow of bruises to prove it.)
Bill teaches with an easy and endearing humility, frequently saying, “I don’t know if it works, let’s test it tomorrow,” whenever he sees something new. And as the North U coaches will tell you, there is always something new. With each class of racers comes a fresh set of skills, experiences and mishaps, all caught on tape by Bill from aboard his RIB, giving each participant the ability to watch themselves in action afterward.
“Sometimes when you’re doing something either good or bad, you’re not exactly sure. And when you see it watching the video, and they’re walking you through it, that’s really helpful,” said Stephanie Lambert French, who traveled from Rhode Island to take part in the program, and she couldn’t have been more right. Watching yourself, your trim and your heading from a different perspective with the expert guidance of several professional coaches is an eye-opener. I think EC put it well when he said, “You don’t know what you don’t know.”
Another one of Bill’s favorite lessons is the “Two Percent Rule.” It goes like this: most victories happen by being just two percent faster than the competition. “In a 100-minute race, winning by two minutes is a pretty significant lead,” he says. So, instead of trying to teach some dramatic tactical moves, North U focuses on the finer points to score just two percent more boatspeed. EC, for example, whose J/92 is similar to a Flying Tiger, told me he was surprised to see this principle in action with a simple change of the angle to the wind. “We’ve been sailing these boats a lot thinner than I would’ve expected,” he says. “I’m not sure we would have believed it would have worked, but in the regatta today it was very apparent that the coaches were absolutely right. If it wasn’t for [my coach Brian] I’d be sailing this boat entirely differently.”
On the water, we also rotated through the positions so that everyone had a chance to drive, trim and work the bow. For most of us who aren’t boat owners, the chance to drive in the middle of a regatta as prestigious as Miami Race Week is a rare opportunity, but North U’s rotation system allowed everyone a shot. Participant Mary Martin embraced this as a welcome challenge, saying that while she doesn’t often get time at the helm during races, she was eager to get more experience. When I asked if she thought she accomplished that, the grin that lit up her face more than answered my question.
“Today I was out there driving in 22 knots of breeze. We were planning. We were screaming along,” she told me. And she’s not alone. Everyone seemed to have a thrilling story of being at the helm in 20-plus knots of breeze. Of course, there were also just as many—though somewhat less readily told—catastrophic tales of blown gybes, shrimping spinnakers or, in my team’s case, running aground. (Geoff calmly freed us from the sandbar we hit, but not before each of us was soaked from hiking to lift the keel off the bottom). Despite being in class, there’s no shortage of adventure.
Of course, there’s also plenty of fun. When I asked Stephanie’s husband, Taber French, why he decided to come, he looked at me like I was nuts and reminded me that both of our home states were receiving several inches of snow that day. In fact, aside from Richard and Sabine, who are Miami locals, everyone in the program seemed to be escaping some kind of ghastly winter weather back home. And in retrospect, the warm, turquoise waters of Biscayne Bay in early March may well have been the most popular part of the program. Aside from a 20-minute downpour late one afternoon (which I deemed “team bonding” as we all shivered together) the weather was postcard-perfect. To add to the idyllic scene, dolphins frequently came by for a visit.
North U also shared the spotlight for our dazzling week on the water with its partner, 1D Sailing, which supplies the Flying Tigers. In fact, 1D puts a tremendous amount of work into preparing for this program, from trailering the boats cross-country to mid-regatta emergency fixes. 1D’s Dave Smith even showed me a diagram of the boat setup that they’d drawn in the dust on the rear window of his car, noting that they’re constantly working on how to best maintain the boats, even when drawing supplies aren’t available.
Throughout the week we got to know the guys from this Canadian company pretty well, and in keeping with national stereotypes, they proved great company. There wasn’t a single day when one of them didn’t ask me how I was doing and whether I was enjoying my time there. My answer was always “yes,” even on the afternoon I had to admit, only half-jokingly, to feeling like the weak link on my boat. The very next day, though, I drove to a first-place finish, and as soon as I got off the water it was the 1D guys who were the first to congratulate me, saying: “Hey, Miss Weak Link! Heard about your bullet today!” I offered much of the credit to my teammates, and Richard and Sabine smiled proudly since we’d also taken the overall lead. Richard asked me how to spell “fun,” and I answered “W-I-N,” a running joke on our modestly competitive boat (in the end, we managed to hold onto this lead and win the Flying Tiger class).
As the week went on, moments like this made a bunch of strangers sailing together for the first time feels more and more like a team. And many of our classmates on other boats started to feel like friends as well.
As Mary put it, “Sailing’s a community, a community of friends that support each other both on and off the water. That’s what it’s all about. You can expand your community by going to events like this.” If you’re just joining this class to solidify your racing with the guidance of pros, prepare yourself for a much bigger experience. From the beautiful locales to the friends you meet along the way, North U’s Regatta Experience is much more than a racing course.
North U and 1D host several Regatta Experience clinics each year during the winter and early spring. You’re on your own for travel, room and board, although Miami Sailing Week’s title sponsor, Bacardi, made sure we had plenty of alcohol. Each course costs $1,200 per person and includes the regatta entry fee, use of a Flying Tiger 7.5 and five days with a coach. For details, go to northu.com/regatta-experience