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Lessons From Star Champion Diego Negri

Diego Negri’s Quantum-powered Star has been rocketing to the front of the class this year. Quantum Sails’ George Szabo sat down with him to get the scoop and found that his secrets apply to dinghy and big-boat racers alike. 

For the Win - Diego Negri and Sergio Lambertenghi sail for the win at the Eastern Hemisphere Championship. Photo by Andrea Falcon.

Diego Negri and crew Sergio Lambertenghi are perpetually on the podium, but this year they’ve already had impressive wins at both the Star Bacardi Cup and the Star Eastern Hemisphere Championship. Enjoy this interview with the champion and, if you’re a Star sailor, don’t miss his tuning tricks at the end!

George Szabo: It has been a good year for you so far, and I’m having fun watching you sail so well again. What do you attribute this to? What do you think has changed this year?

Diego Negri: I don’t know what has changed but we have been working hard over the past few years, and the results were pretty consistent. We were one point behind Stanjek at the Bacardi Cup in 2016, second behind Augie at the Worlds in Miami, and we were always right there, close to the win. Sooner or later it was going to be our turn. And the time came, and, of course, it was a good way to start out the season. But most important is that it comes from my way of sailing. I never play the corner or for the bullet but play for the consistent top five at the top mark. Sailing where the weather is changing is tricky. That is what we had in Miami and in Trieste. Two different conditions over the regatta, but we stayed with our plan.

GS: Why are you sailing better now compared to years past when you practiced so hard and worked so hard to be better? How much are you practicing now?

DN: I just think I got more consistent about what I was doing in the past. That gave me a couple points’ advantage. 

Before we focused on sailing 200 days per year, six to 10 major events, but in the end there was lots of training and not many regattas. Now I am sailing J/70, Dragon, some Melges 32, and coaching ORC and MOMO Maxi 72 [World Champion in 2017]. I was coaching the J/70 in the Bundesliga, and my guys won the first event. So now I am on the race course a lot more frequently and getting more experience about the conditions and the different picture that you have on each ocean and sailing venue. One week in the Atlantic, one week in the Mediterranean, and another time on a lake. The wind is different in each place. Now I am always thinking more about the regatta. This gives us adrenaline like we are all little sharks. Our blood is always awake, and it gives us a good feeling. 

GS: What effect has your Star sailing had on your pro sailing? And vice versa?

DN: The dream is always to jump on a Star and go sailing. The Star is the most technical, high level, and amazing boat. So when you are with a big team, you are a secondary part of the game. The thing I like most is to steer, so when I do that I combine my experiences from the team approach to my personal approach. As tactician, sometimes I need to explain to my helmsman what the concept is and what we are doing–higher, lower, faster and so on, so everything becomes clearer. This is what I get from the Star. 

GS: I always felt that my Star sailing kept my pro sailing sharp. Do you feel the same? 

DN: Absolutely, yes. Being tactician on a big boat you could watch the whole race; you spend more time on the analysis. On the Star you only have a couple of seconds to see what is going on. Both experiences keep a sailor’s skills sharp.

GS: How has your sailing philosophy been influenced by Valentin Mankin, winner of three gold and one silver Olympic medal?

DN: My sailing philosophy, because I spent so much time with him, is his philosophy. I always try to think what he taught me, as he was with me for so long. He always said to try to solve the problem one by one. Not go for the bullet, but go for consistency. After a bad start, recover one by one. Do the best you can. If you start and think about passing 10 boats in one shot, this is the way you lose. You start looking at it one by one and it gets makeable and much more easy. And, as it is in the training, racing is always about trying to receive some result. Define what it is you will achieve before you start.

GS: It seems that it would be a disadvantage to sail so many different Star boats through the year. How do you get into a new boat before a regatta and get it set up quickly to go fast?

DN: So, for me, the only thing I don’t like about getting into another boat is the possibility of having some damage in the rigging. You don’t know the condition of the rig and stiffness of the mast, but it is pretty easy for me to get used to the hull and shape of the boat. Just give it a chance and the boat will tell you what she likes. You just need to feel the message from the boat and adjust your steering this way. Some boats perform better in some conditions, so try to get the best of what you have. Sometimes you are lucky. 

GS: At the Bacardi cup this year, Paul Cayard thought you might not have been the fastest all the time, but you were always ahead of him. Any thoughts?

DN: I have great respect for Paul, and he was congratulating me. He always sends me a message, and it is a big honor in sailing to get these messages from Paul. I am not always the fastest in the fleet. If you think you need to be the fastest and you are not, you lose your self-confidence. It will not always be me who is the fastest. Strategy is more important than speed, and sometimes you get more than you expect.

GS: One day at the SSL finals last year, the media guys told me I had the fastest boat speed all day (in light air), but that you had sailed about one kilometer shorter distance over the day’s racing, and you had sailed less distance than anyone else. Comments?

DN: Yeah, yeah, yeah! When I was younger with Mankin, we were working a lot on this concept with the goal to optimize the course. We were using GPS devices in their earliest days, when they were things you put on dogs or kids, to compare our distances. I was always surprised that you could be faster but not be leading. What was making the difference was making the shortest distance out of the course. Also when you approach the top mark, if you are in 20th, play in your mind that you want to keep this distance from the leader, and you finish top five. If you play the overlaps, if you over stand, then you go backwards. It is important to sail the tightest course possible when you are in the middle of the fleet. That is making the difference. It wasn’t easy 20 years ago when you didn’t have any GPS screen or display, and analysis could only be done after the race, but once you realize you were sailing faster that made you think a lot.

GS: It seems that you have been using the same sail designs for many years now. Some people want to have a specific sail for each condition so that they always have an edge. You have the same sails for every condition. What is the thought process there? Do you ever worry that you have the wrong sail for the day?

DN: It is not just the same model; it is the same sail. To be focused on the race is the most important consideration for me. Average speed in all conditions is what I aim to do. The jib we used in Bacardi is the same one we used in Nassau and Trieste. The package we have now is the 46 main and P-12 jib. It is a good balance from my point of view. I am confident that I can sail from light to very strong winds with these sails.

We were working on the first step forward with the main and adjusting the jib to get a bit more power in the bow. A fuller foot in the jib gives me good balance in the waves. We try to step forward with small changes at times, but the philosophy is the same: I want a rig where you can sail without too much thinking. 

GS: How many years have you been sailing with your crew? It seems there may be heated discussions on board at times, but it is all in Italian, so I’m not sure what you guys are discussing. What is the dynamic like on board?

DN: I started sailing with Sergio in 2013, so this is our fifth season, and I have to thank him a lot. The start was not a happy period. There was a lot of pressure in the beginning, but it is not that way now. I am really happy about our time spent together. Discussion is coming from the tension–everyone wants to do well under pressure. All the words you say on the seas stay on the seas, and that happens between us. Maybe you don’t understand Italian, but the tone, the volume, and the way it is said is what makes the difference. It is all good.

GS: What information is he giving you upwind? Downwind?

DN: We have a talk before the race. During the upwind it is difficult to help; trying to get him to say what is going on behind me upwind; trying to help on run. He can help me more by looking for pressure on the run. 

GS: I know you have this next one question calculated out already. How many weeks total do you think you can keep your Star Sailors League #1 world ranking?

DN: I didn’t calculate so much, but I was planning to stay in the lead until the next SSL in Nassau. I will sail the worlds, and I think I can try to be #1 in Nassau still. It was a good feeling to get back to the #1 position. Not to be there is good motivation to get back there. It is a good lesson for me. If I am not being #1, then I am going to push myself back to #1. It is very important to me. 

GS: What philosophy do you have for tuning the new Folli Star boat through the wind range, from light to medium to heavy?

DN: I make the thing very easy. We have upgrades from the mold, and now the boat is very easy for me. Now I set to my zero [base tuning], very open from six to 14 knots. From that I move from lighter to heavier conditions. Just one turn of shrouds and a change of rake and the jib car. Because of this, it is very easy. Not always the fastest but good in all conditions. This allows me to sail with a clear mind and play the regatta in a good way instead of just thinking about speed.

Through range, I change the rake only two centimeters. Only two to three turns from zero to 25 knots on the upper shrouds uppers and some turns for the lowers. For instance, in heavy air I’ll go plus-two turns upper, and plus-one turn lower. In light air, I ease both to go softer and get sag near the mast.

GS: So you tighten or ease both the lowers and uppers at the same time? 

DN: Yes, looking at the rigs of the J/70 and other boats, we ease the lowers in light air to make the main flatter. I am doing the same on the Star, and it is working well for me.

GS: I do the opposite and tighten my lowers when it gets light.

DN: What, you go to weather in the middle of the mast?

GS: Yes. We are still using the Andy Zawieja method where we work to have the middle of the mast to weather in all wind conditions.

DN: Maybe that is why you are good in light air. We need to trade some secrets.

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