For the last six months, I’ve been obsessed with reinvigorating one of the loves of my youth … sailboat racing. Sailing the same type of single-handed dinghy I raced in my teens and 20s on about every other weekend on nearby Tempe Town Lake (which we now lovingly call “The Canal” … another story) brought me new joy and passion.
And in a weird twist, it brought failure for which — after some reflection — I am grateful.
Let me explain …
The Laser sailboat (now known as the ILCA) was designed in the early 1970s and is the most popular one-design sailboat in the world. More than 200,000 have been built and it remains the single-handed dinghy for the Olympic games. It is an athletic boat. It’s not very comfortable and requires a high degree of agility, strength, and cardio fitness to sail well. Most of the races this past spring season (unlike in the rest of the world, sailing in the Phoenix area is primarily a fall/winter/spring sport due to the summer heat) were sailed in light winds, where agility has been the primary limiting physical factor. I’m not nearly as flexible as I was four decades ago!
Nevertheless I was doing fairly well in the spring series, especially for a guy who hadn’t raced in 40 years. So, when stronger winds for one of the last races of the season were forecast, I looked forward to wringing some performance out of my borrowed boat.
As the wind filled-in from the southwest, I initially relished in the joy of the fresh breeze, but as the wind got stronger, I found my ability to hike out for any stretch of time extremely difficult. In the warm air, I was parched. As the wind gusted to 20 and even 25 knots, I found the boat very difficult to control, almost flipping it at least twice. I finished the first race dead last, well behind the leaders.
The second race was even worse. I nearly capsized right at the start. I was well behind the rest of the fleet at the first mark since I was unable to keep the boat flat and, therefore, fast. On the downwind leg, I was planing on the gusts, allowing me to catch up a bit, but the boat was on the verge of “wiping out.” And then it did. Before I knew it, I was in the water, swimming around the boat to put some weight on the centerboard to bring it upright. I crawled back in and just sat there for a few moments … I was completely exhausted. With wind gusts that some said approached 30 knots, I was really struggling to keep the boat upright and under control.
I called it a day. I quit.
Derigging and putting the boat in the yard, I was glad everyone was still out on the racecourse. I felt embarrassed and defeated. I drove home early, wallowing in my failure. Soon, however, my failure turned into resolve. I was defeated not by the boat or the wind, but my own lack of conditioning. I’m in pretty good shape for my age, but if sailing a Laser or any other dinghy is what I want to do, then I need to be in even better shape. My goals for the summer involve even more strength training in my home gym, time on The Rack (my homebuilt hiking trainer) and rowing workouts to improve my cardiovascular abilities. It was not a joyous day, but in the end, I realized my failure was actually a blessing in disguise. It humbled me and pushed me toward a better solution. For that, I am grateful.
Turns out I was not alone that day. At least one other experienced sailor quit early and several told me quitting was the right call. Exhaustion can lead to mistakes, which can lead to injury, or worse. An ILCA sailor was tragically killed recently when he was hit in the head by the boat’s boom. Which makes my resolve even greater. A couple weeks later, I got back up “on that horse that threw,” sailing in some breezy conditions. I even crossed the finish line with a strong second place behind the club’s fleet champion in one race. It was a good way to end the series. I’m working on my strength and cardio and looking forward to sailing in a double-handed dinghy with Judy this fall!
There’s a whole world out there waiting to be explored. Learning from your failures is all part of the journey.
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