Interview with Masters World Champion Scott Leith

Scott: I value Laser coaching massively.  I think too many sailors waste a lot of time sailing a lot without good technique.  Fast forward your skills by getting coaching so you know what to concentrate on when you are without a coach.

Vaughn: Congrats on your latest victory. You’ve now won 9 World titles! Is this the beginning of your legacy? Can you see yourself competing for many more years to come?

Scott: Won 9 world titles having competed in the last 12 laser master worlds in a row.  My intention is to try and continue to train hard, to travel and compete for as long as I can.  I still really enjoy competing, it’s just a buzz being on the start line at the world champs having done a committed and tough training program, the anticipation for months, the build-up week at the venue and then the excitement of finally being able to do the business on race day when the horn goes signaling your first start.  Then that peaceful feeling as you have pulled through to the front of the fleet a few minutes into the race with the knowledge you are definitely fast and then buckling down to install the concentrated focus, being in the moment all the way around the track making the boat go to its maximum speed at all times.  Finally, feeling fulfilled at the end of the race knowing you have sailed to your very best.   The race is pretty much a blur as you were so highly tuned into the micro aspects of them now!

Outside the racing, I really enjoy catching up with all the sailors each year that I have met many times now (and feels like a family away from my family) and also meeting new and interesting sailors each year.  I see it as being quite indulgent and a real luxury to be able to compete and take enough time out each year to train and race so I feel really fortunate – it has become a big part of my lifestyle and yearly routine.

Vaughn: You put a huge priority on fitness not just for sailing but also for well-being. What advice would you give to other masters sailors if they had 5+ hours/week to commit to fitness and less than 5 hours/week to commit to a fitness

Scott: For people with less than 5 hours I would concentrate on time on the water, as that is the best bang for your time – especially if you have a coach/training partner(s) and good weather conditions for training.  If you can’t get on the water I would try to simulate sailing as best as possible, like hiking bench and arm pulley reps, and I always do a lot of spin – intensive cycling at the gym. I generally get to spin about 30 mins before the class starts so I’m pretty knackered when the class begins and keeps going hard until the end of spin 60 minutes later.

For more than 5 hours (I do around 20 hours a week for the 3 months build-up to worlds) you have more time to cover more bases.  I do 3 hard cycles per week of around 1.5 hours covering at least 50km in each session. This is great for dropping the few kilograms of weight (I like to hit my target weight), gets me very cardiovascular fit and gives me the confidence I can sail two hard races easily in a day going full noise without concern.  I also do a lot of stretching and holds (prone holds, static squats, lunges) at the gym after cycling for around 30 mins.

Then I sail as much as possible, mixing up coaches, training partners, by myself, short drills, short racing, hike offs, short intervals and long intervals and of course normal club and regatta racing.  I am fortunate to have very good training partners in our NZ Olympic girls and NZ top youth sailors to train with right at my club – also some of the best coaches on the planet via our Olympic boys and the Olympic and youth coaches.  They are all amazingly supportive and everyone is willing to help each other out. Whenever the breeze is up during any part of the day I try to be on the water hiking (kind of over hiking) as hard as I can for sustained periods – just to continually reinforce to myself I can hike harder for longer.  If its light winds for more than 2 days I will come ashore and do onshore hiking for generally 45 minutes spending about half an hour actually hiking horizontal to keep my legs/torso match fit. I can end up with an injury when I load up the hours so try and keep on top of sore backs, hips, shoulders, neck, etc. with regular visits to the physio and chiro and rehab exercises at the gym so this can add a few more hours to the mix each week.

For the 3 months build up I take a lot more interest in my diet cutting out the bad stuff (biscuits, snack food, alcohol, caffeine (although I never drink caffeine anyway) and drinking a lot more water.  I tend to sleep a lot more during this 3-month period falling asleep around an hour (or two!) earlier than otherwise.

In summary, around 6 hours + in the gym cycling, stretching per week, 3 hours rehabbing and around 10-15 hours on the water or at the yacht club hiking per week.

My general philosophy is to do something every day in a row, as I know it’s just a matter of time before I will get tied up with business, family or travel commitments that means I struggle for a day or two to get my training in.

 

Interview with Laser Masters World Champion Bill Symes

Vaughn: As a coach, you must have developed habits of ‘working on your weaknesses’. How often do you go out with the intention to work on improving a skill versus just going out for the ‘fun of it’?

Scott: Firstly, I never go out for the fun of it, I always train hard and always have a pre-planned program before I hit the water, I start with how long have I got, then how long will I do each exercise, and what I am concentrating on for each exercise.  With others sailing I will ask what they want help with and generally, we quickly agree on a session plan. Even by myself I set a strict plan and follow it (even when I am not up for it I will push through to do my last 20 minute upwind full hike practice so I know I can get up even when I am low on energy).   Having said that the wind is your master so you do need to be flexible depending on exactly what the wind does during your session.  I really enjoy learning new skills, like reversing out of the starting lineup became a new thing to do a couple of seasons ago, and lately, I have worked on my tactical gybes. Refining the skills I already have is where I concentrate.  I should also mention if the breeze and waves are way up I really love “for the fun of it” going for extended reaching.

Vaughn: Are you ever practicing specific skills for specific venues? How did you prepare for this win?

Scott: Yes, for sure, if the venue has particular features then I will go out of my way to recreate that at my home training.  For example, for San Fran worlds I gained weight and strength and sailed in very big winds and steep sea state about 5 miles up from my club.  I was often out in 30 knots and when I got to San Fran I found the conditions really comfortable. For Port Zealand, I concentrated practice on our offshore breezes closer to shore for flatter and shiftier conditions.  I lost weight as I knew flatter water I could be lighter, although I was hoping for a lot more wind than we got for the Port Zealand worlds I was prepared for the lighter shiftier conditions, concentrating on changing gears a lot and head out of the boat.

Vaughn: What do you think were 4-5 technical skills the winners at 2019 World Championships were most efficient at?

Scott: In my opinion, the single most important skill was being able to read the wind.  By seeing the puffs up the course and having your head out of the boat almost full time around the whole course was critical.  The macro of each leg was hugely important studying the puffs coming down the course (they were rather sticky so you had to sail to them rather than wait for them to come to you), but also the micro of saying each 30 seconds, do I want to go high now to squeeze up to the next puff or lower to meet the correct side of the next puff.  Also, how can I maximize my boat speed for the next 30 seconds, less outhaul, less vang? Then having a good sense of now is the right time to sail on a lowish heading (rather than tacking) because there is a bigger puff ahead etc. Staying patient and confident when in a light spot because you have already got your next puff insight and sailing to it with strong purpose.

I think too many people got obsessed with compass angles and staying on a high tack rather than getting to the puff and only then being worried about the lifted tack. The long tack, to begin with, was always a default if in doubt. All the above is because the venue was dictated by pressure. I think I got this right (enough) in every leg of every race except the second beat of the 11th race.  In this race, the wind went too light to be on the side of the boat and I know in hindsight I was not looking up the course as I had been when I was sitting up and hiking out.  I also had the mindset of just ensuring a top 14 places to win the regatta – so I had an ultra-conservative start (I was sailing with a BFD) and sailed downwind ultra-conservative very mindful of R42 (I was also sailing with a Yellow).

My speed was fabulous on all points of sail and all breeze ranges and is fundamental in yacht racing.  Those that were not fast probably need coaching on how to get fast in all conditions and practice to be faster in a straight line.  There are many technical skills that makeup speed, especially in different wind ranges and on different points of sail.  Once hiking, fitness is key as well as great technique and trimming.

The extra speed edge I had upwind in breeze (we had two slightly windy races, races 7 & 8 which topped out at about 17 knots) was hugely satisfying, I won race 7 by a very large margin and was narrowly off first in race 8 even after starting last after I was taken out moments before the start, at the first top mark I was some hundreds of meters off first sitting about 15th out of the 50 in our combined fleet.  I gained around 1 minute on the leaders on the second beat through speed. Bearing in mind I had already used my drop with a BFD so after staring at last place 20 seconds after the start and getting back to 2nd was a key moment to set myself up for the title. All the training I’d put in made that race 8 comeback very satisfying,

Vaughn: What were a few standout tactics you were biased towards at the Laser Worlds in Port Zelande (e.g. shifts, pressure, start position) If it changed day to day, perhaps you could share some anecdotes.

Scott: As above pressure/puffs were the key factors, but every race was slightly different.  There were some key moments/parts to each race over and above long tack and pressure. For example, R1 a long 8-minute right phase came through on the second beat.  R5 and 6 were really shifty and up and down, R7 and 8 were boat speed races in bigger breeze, R11 was a massive righty on the second beat.

Vaughn: You mentioned being rather aggressive on the start line. Did this strategy pay off in PZ? What’s one thing you think you do differently to the rest of the fleet prior to ‘GO!’?

Scott: I like to start right at the favored end or side, rather than too conservatively.  I don’t like midline starts as a rule. I enjoy winning starts but at the Laser Worlds, this was not a necessity as the pressure and lifted tack were most important.  I guess overall my aggressive starts paid off as I was at the front end in most races. I was annoyed I got the BFD, I had a sailor go a bit early above me at the pin and I should have been patient for 1 more second, we both got BFD and I won the race comfortably in the end so didn’t need that extra second advantage.  From race 3 to race 10 I pretty well won or was at the front at some stage in the races and I had a mixed bag of starts – so the starts at PZ were not a key at all. In more stable breeze venues the starts are far more important.

The key thing I do differently is holding my spot on the line, going head to wind a lot more than those around me.  It can be hard in the masters fleet (I do a lot of open fleet sailing) as those above me often can’t hold up so I have to be watchful.  I also do not ‘run down the line’ giving up my leeward gap like some masters tend to do with time to kill just before the start.

Vaughn: How do you value Laser coaching as a tool for improvement? Is it possible to develop high-level techniques without coaching? If so, what kinds of things would supplement?

Scott: I value Laser coaching massively.  I think too many sailors waste a lot of time sailing a lot without good technique.  Fast forward your skills by getting coaching so you know what to concentrate on when you are without a coach.

I made the most significant improvements when I got some amazing 1 on 1 coaching about 10 years ago from the top Kiwi laser sailor Andrew Murdoch (Doc).  He would sit the coach boat just off my transom and give me micro feedback on each puff, each wave encouraging me to sail at a very high standard. It was really hard, to begin with for me (I did have self-doubt) but over a few months, I got pretty good even though I didn’t realize it.  It wasn’t until I was sailing against my normal peers and I would be winning by a lot that it showed me all the hard work had paid off. I can still hear Doc laughing and saying “wow” as big gusts would hit me I would keep the leeward deck dry.

Then hours and hours chasing another boat or more around tight short race tracks seems to work very well.

Vaughn: Any tips for sailors who want to make a considerable jump in their respective fleets before next year’s Laser Worlds?

Scott: Talk responsibility for making it happen, dream big, get involved with good coaches and training groups, work really hard, don’t shy away from things you can’t do – make changes rather than doing the same stuff, get fit and be super kind to your supportive spouse/family!


Vaughn Harrison

When Vaughn isn't coaching sailors at our week long, all-inclusive Laser clinics in Mexico, he continues his work with countless Olympians, youth and masters sailors. He coached at the 2016 Rio Olympic Games and founded ISA in 2008.


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