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When is Coaching Unfair?
by Paige Brooks
(January 7, 2009) - In the Etchells class, the North American rules recently changed to limit coaching at all US events to before the warning signal through the end of the last race of the day. The first test of this rule happened at the Piana Cup in December, the first of four regattas in the Jaguar Cup Series on Biscayne Bay. The reaction of the competitors was mild, of the coaches, nearly vitriolic. This is not new to one design sailing, the Farr 40 rules do not allow contact with coaches after the boat leaves the dock. The Star class also recently decided to limit coaching in a similar fashion.
At some point in their career, most sailors seek out coaches to work with their team to help them sail faster, trim their sails properly, more nimbly shift gears; essentially help them move from the so-called B-Fleet to the A-Fleet. We see the coaches motoring around the pre-start area, following the fleet up the course, recording the mark roundings, waiting at the finish, and eventually towing their clients in to the club. What we often donít see are the pre-race huddles, the hour-long debriefs, the photos and video, and time and research the coaches put into making each race and regatta a good or better one for their sailors.
The genesis of the rule change was the permission of coaches to work with their clients between races at the Annapolis YC hosted Etchells North Americans this past fall. Those who werenít coached wondered what information the clients, who included regatta winner Jud Smith, were getting. In the RRS, outside help during a race is limited, and in the Etchells Class, the only electronics allowed on the boat are a VHF (only for emergencies in Worlds competition, and more frequently used in local and regional regattas) and a very basic TackTic. No rules were broken, but the amateur consensus was that the allowance of this close coaching wasnít fair.
Some of the more talented Cat 1 sailors donít have coaches and a few seem not to trust them at all. According to one experienced and often outspoken sailor, if the coach goes up the left side of the course, it means thereís a big shift their clients need to chase left. And woe be to the coach who tips up an engine near the top mark.
We all understand the general benefits of coaching, so the question becomes what is reasonable, fair, and avoids the hint of impropriety? In talking to Jud after the Piana Cup, he was not so concerned for himself about losing the between-racing chalk talks, but more for the other seven teams who had shared the cost of his coach, Larry Suter. Larry insisted no self-respecting coach would tip an engine or raise a flag to help their teams during a race, as they risk losing their job and reputation. About between race coaching, he contended that students use tutors all the time leading up to a test. So the question becomes, when is the test? Is it each race, a day, an entire regatta? I suppose we should be happy there arenít soccer moms or sailing dads driving up the sidelines yelling at us to trim or hike. To echo Judís thoughts, what if those B-Fleet sailors never see a top 10 finish among 50 or more boats? Will they keep sailing? On the other hand, does the between race coaching add that much?
When a sailor hires a coach who is not aboard for a day, he or she can expect the following:
Detailed forecast and local knowledge
General strategies with regard to the conditions and the competitors in the regatta
Sail selection suggestions
Wind direction and current at the starting line, top mark, left and right sides of the course
Sail selection suggestions
Ambient condition changes since the last race
Strategies and potentially tactics Ė what could have been done better, how to approach the next race Ė in small and / or big fleet racing
Trimming and tuning suggestions for the existing conditions
Debrief on all of the above, photo and video review, if available
Morale boosts and encouragement (one would hope)
Day 2 planning
Most skilled teams run through these checks on a regular basis, but with a team new to the class, to big fleet racing, or to one design racing, the coaching certainly bolsters their skills. The question for the organizing authorities is whether the value of avoiding the appearance of illegal information outweighs the potential for enhancing the level of competition. The question underlying this entire issue is whether between race information not available to everyone is fair.
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