I just had the opportunity to race at Key West Race Week in (you guessed it) Key West, Florida. We were the first boat from our club here in Newfoundland that had ever raced there. It was an amazing experience. We were racing in a professionally-run regatta, with some of the best sailors in the world and one of the largest events of its kind in North America.
Too say that I was intimidated going in was an understatement. We had chartered a boat identical to the one I have here at home in NL, and would be accompanied by an owner's representative for insurance purposes. When we arrived we were surprised to find that our "owner's representative" was actually a professional sailor/sail maker who was there to do a lot more than just supervise us. Once we got out on the water, and he saw what kind of sailors we were, he obviously knew that we were not ready for the level of competition that we were about to face.
In two days of practice, in heavy air, we practiced every maneuver we could, hoists, sets, tacks, jibes, takedowns. Racing in similar heavy air on Monday, we got our asses kicked and couldn't even finish the second race. By Tuesday, things started to come together, and by the end of the week, we did achieve our goal of not being last - even though we missed 2 of the 10 races! Sometimes you have to take the small victories.
What was interesting was how different people on my crew reacted to our coach. He was taskmaster - he had eyes in the back of his head. He only seemed to look your way when you did something wrong. He never caught anybody doing anything right. Some people didn't like this. They needed a pat on the back more often. Or not to be criticized so much. Or not have to "change" what they were used to doing in the middle of a regatta. Or rationalize at night saying "I know how to do this."
All I heard were excuses.
We were shown exactly what it takes to run a top level racing campaign. We weren't nearly as good as we thought we were. We didn't even know how little we knew. Once we were taken out of our "small pond" in Newfoundland, we were like the small fish about to be gobbled up by the sharks.
To me it was a revelation. I kept my ears open and learned everything I could. By Friday, I clearly felt like a better sailor, and I believe most of my crew did as well.
Lesson Learned? First, check your ego at the door. When in the presence of an expert in a field, listen to what they say and adapt as best you can to implement, modify or change the new information to best suit your needs. Turn off that part of your brain that comes up with the excuses as to why you can't take advantage of what you are learning. Change is hard for anybody, and for some people taking intense criticism is tough.
Second, constantly try to go outside your comfort zone. Push yourself to do things you don't want to do. It's only by striving for a greater challenge that you can ever improve.
I'm sure the crew of Warlock thought that they couldn't be ready to jibe in three seconds or that they wouldn't be able to drop a spinnaker and do a tight mark rounding in less than 10 seconds. Now they can.
And of course the satisfaction came in the last race of the week when as we were sailing upwind for the last time I said to our coach "Will, you've been awfully quiet this race". His answer: "Because you are all finally doing it right." That race was our best of the regatta. Sometimes the best praise you can receive is silence....