Whether you’re a new college grad who wants to continue to sail competitively or a club sailor who wants to expand your sailing opportunities, we’ve got some tips for you. We asked Lara Dallman-Weiss to share her recommendations for becoming a more active sailor.
I was told four years ago that the only way to move up from being a “green” sailor is to race every single day. Dedicating many hours to the sport contributes to building the instincts that a well-rounded sailor possesses. Even if you can’t sail every day, making a commitment to sailing as often as possible and in as many conditions as possible is key. I recommend reading High Performance Sailing by Frank Bethwaite. Here are some of the lessons I learned and advice for other enthusiastic sailors wanting to take their sailing to the next level.
Know yourself well enough to play up your strengths and improve on your weaknesses. Are you introverted or extroverted? Understanding my personality type helped me determine which teams I would have a good rapport with, which I found necessary in creating effective communication on the boat. If a driver or tactician is introverted, for example, I’ll ask questions to keep everyone in the loop because I know the introvert may need prompting. It is also helpful to know that people recharge differently, so allow those who need an hour to themselves post-race to have it.
Another important aspect of knowing yourself is to recognize what you have fun doing and how it contributes to the program. Is an early morning walk to clean the boat, rig, and sort sails fun? Or is your style staying late and checking off work list items? Even with a full-time boat captain, everyone on the team should pull their weight in ways they enjoy.
Find a love
Determine what you love beyond the sport. Finding common interests will connect you to other like-minded athletes in the sport and provide you with a healthy outlet from the constant grind of racing and endless travel. For me, it’s caring for the environment. I relish helping with a beach clean-up, but others might choose to volunteer with youth programs, rig specific systems for handicapped boats, take a team leadership course, become a certified judge, or attend weather classes.
Be aware and enlist common sense at all times. Observe how highly esteemed pro sailors behave. The more you observe how they conduct themselves and operate, the more you will understand how to be part of the smaller team within the larger team. Try helping the main trimmer load battens. Slowly gain trust by asking questions and being accountable. Eventually you may notice something that seems off, and your observation might just save the day. Perhaps you have an engineering mind and it’s easy to recognize when systems can run better. The key here is to ask, never tell! Even if it’s obvious the outhaul has to be eased, nobody likes to be embarrassed by a younger sailor telling them how to do their job.
Learn the language and develop a wide range of skills. Master the bow, repair sails, know how to fix a broken engine, service a winch, become versed in meteorology; but, never stop learning! These skills are helpful for both inshore and offshore sailing and add to your value as a professional sailor.
It is important to find a balance between pushing your limits and relaxation. Even if it’s not your style, force yourself to attend post-racing events or join in on the popular evening activities. Tent parties and joining others at the bar offer opportunities to network. I remember sitting at the yacht club tiki bar with a friend during an Olympic Classes Regatta in Miami when a well-known media figure approached us and said, “There is something so wrong with the way this sport is going if you’re the only two sailors at the bar.” We talked with this man for a while, and he has proven to be a valuable connection. Take this tip with a grain of salt, to socialize appropriately doesn’t mean showing up hungover for racing. The best professional sailors, even if they drink socially, always know when to call it a night.
Part of staying relevant in the field is by pulling your weight physically. It quickly gets old when others complain about sore backs and knees. Good nutrition and regular stretching are worth the investment. You should start both at as young of an age as possible. Balance and strength are important for high-level competition, and joint and nerve health are worth investing in. Talk to experts who train sailors to learn about specific routines and sailing body maintenance to practice while on the road.
And don’t forget about your skin! Not only do the sun and salt water age sailors quickly, but they invite in cancerous cells. Zinc, neck buffs, and hydration will all pay off now and down the road.
Develop a support system of both males and females in the industry with whom you can build trust. There will be times when you need to vent, and it’s healthy to have someone who will say, “Yes, I’ve been through that, too.” These friends will help you find teams that need crew, help set your expectations, and help share costs if you need to split a hotel or cab. My rule is to race only with teams that have at least one person who knows me as an athlete. Having someone back me up and be there with a “She knows what she is doing” has been valuable.
Own your emotions
Be careful not to become negative. It’s easy to do: We are constantly matched with new teammates and must figure out how to make the boat perform, promise the owner a good time, and get along with different personality types in close quarters. It can be hard, but don't let your emotions get in the way! Practice visualization to know how to react in tense moments. And add some humor into the program–it will go a long way.
Keeping your emotions in check is important when you are cut from a program. It will hurt, but it happens to everyone, so learn from it and move on. It isn’t worth holding a grudge or badmouthing anyone in the industry. Call the team leader and be frank: “I have no hard feelings. I just want to know what will make me irreplaceable in the future.” Professional and respectful team leaders will be honest. You can then decide to take their comments to heart or disagree and get on with it. I recommend reading the book How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie; it will give you advice on how to keep your emotions in check.
It wasn’t until I returned to a specific sailing venue for the second time that I realized how important it is to keep a sailing record. Find a system that works for you and keep specific notes for boats sailed and venues raced. Keep track of specific boat setups for conditions that day and any discoveries the team made. The next time I return to that venue or boat, I will have an easy refresh before practice and can quickly email notes to new teammates.
Buy a beer for someone or go out of your way to help someone, especially at sail lofts and boatyards. This is valuable advice: Simple acts of kindness open the door to making friends in the industry. Sometimes the favor is returned in a cross on the race course, with sail setup advice, or by borrowing a spare spin pole. Sometimes it is returned as an invitation to sail a Wednesday night beer can race, which can lead to racing a bigger regatta the following weekend. If you have the right attitude, you may soon be a big part of the team.
We all have different financial circumstances. If you don’t have a flexible full time job and if you’re either too green to ask for pay or plan to keep your amateur status, finding short-term ways to make money while still being available is critical. Places like West Marine or Home Depot offer part-time hours and employee discounts. I have worked as a contract writer, pet sitter, sailing media consultant, and sailing photography gallery worker. These creative jobs allowed me to network in the industry and place myself in opportune positions.
If a more professional route is your goal, when it comes to asking for pay, be clear and honest about what you want and what the job entails. Communication is key to keeping the situation positive. Follow through with what you promise to do and be diligent about writing an organized invoice in a timely manner. If you wish to be taken seriously, act professionally. Learn your worth by talking to peers in the industry about what they charge so you know you’re playing fair. Before you negotiate, have a sense for the number you feel good about making, so you aren’t left feeling overworked and underpaid. At the same time, be mindful not to overcharge and break the trust of the owner.
Bonus tip for the ladies
Embrace your XX chromosomes, ladies. Don’t be tough on yourself–you are skilled and on the team for a reason. Psychologically, women put a lot of responsibility and pressure on their shoulders. I’ve spent a considerable amount of time understanding how to fit in with the guys, pull my weight, and learn their language. Although it is important to know how to relate to others in a male-dominated industry, I’ve learned it is okay to dress up and look and feel awesome! Be confident in what you know, and don’t let anyone get in your head.
There are many ways to become a more active sailor, so figure out where you want to get and find your path. Try to enjoy the journey and remember that people won't call you out of the blue as you’re starting that journey, so it’s up to you to make it happen. Make known your commitment to the sport, stick with it, and don't be afraid to follow up. If you have a positive work ethic when the going gets tough and the willingness to own up to your mistakes, you will get called.