Interview with Laser Masters World Champion Bill Symes

Colin Gowland:           Hi, Bill.

Bill Symes:                     Hey, Colin. How are you doing?

Colin Gowland:            I'm doing great. How are you? You had a good trip/regatta?

Bill Symes:                     Oh, yeah. Yeah, it was great. The Worlds Regatta was great and then we spent a week touring around. We went to Northern Ireland and stayed at this cool little pub called The Brown Trout. I just did a little bit of rest and recovery for three or four days. And then we came back down to Dublin and spent the last three days in Dublin, just rocking out with the crowds. That place is party central.

Colin Gowland:           Really?

Bill Symes:                    Unbelievable. Yeah.

Colin Gowland:           That's phenomenal. I went there on a rugby tour in my youth. It was a great experience on and off the field.

Bill Symes:                    Oh, yeah. It's a fun town.

Colin Gowland:           Bill, what are you, a great grandmaster now?

Bill Symes:                    Yeah. I'm halfway through my great grand masterhood. 71-years-old, loving every minute of it.

Colin Gowland:           Was it a challenge to keep the body holding together during all that sailing?

Bill Symes:                    Amazingly enough I felt really good throughout the whole thing. It was a really windy regatta. The first three days especially it averaged around 20 with puffs around 30 and very shifty, puffy, challenging conditions. I don't know why but I felt really good. My energy level was high, my strength held up, and I just put it down to the fact that I trained more than 20 days in the gorge this summer, a lot of it was with Andrew Holdsworth. He moved to Seattle in August so he was coming down here every weekend and we were sailing two or three days out in the Gorge in almost the exact same condition that we had in Dublin. He's younger, very fit and very fast in a breeze. (Andrew finished 4th in the Radial Laser Masters Division at Worlds) It was windy, shifty, puffy. The sea state was very similar, big, short, chop. I think that by the end of August I had a pretty good comfort level in those conditions.

Colin Gowland:             What was your game plan? Did you have a speed advantage out there? It looked like you had some pretty dominant results. To me, just looking at that scorecard that's what I would think right away. Did you feel like you had an advantage in boat speed? Or did you have the strategy wired? Or did you just sail consistently? What was your secret to success or was it a mix of everything?

Bill Symes:                    I did have a bit of a boat speed advantage. You know what they say about how boat speed makes you look smart. It made it easy for me to execute everything I needed to do. I was always able to get off the line clear.

I was usually able to get on to the lifted tack right away and that was my game plan.

It was basically to try and get clear starts, get onto the right track, and then just cover the fleet. In most races, that's what happened. I was able to kind of jump out if not into the lead at least into the first group and stay there to the weather mark. I had a pretty big speed advantage downwind so if I wasn't first at the weather mark I was usually first at the leeward mark. I think that, especially in the Great  Grandmasters fleet, the top guys are pretty fast but a lot of guys are just in survival mode. I mean, it was blowing pretty hard and the downwind was pretty crazy, but I was used to that from my training in the Gorge. I mean, that's the conditions we sail in so I felt very comfortable. I was still racing, doing my turns and going for more and more speed downwind. I think that made a lot of difference.

Colin Gowland:            You live in Portland so your home venue really is the Gorge. That's got to be a massive advantage given all the training you did this summer… and over past years.

Bill Symes:                     It certainly was for this venue because the conditions in Dublin turned out to be very, very similar to what I sail in here.

Colin Gowland:            Usually when you look at successful sailors in big breeze, they are typically either the biggest or the fittest or both. You don't do much traditional fitness outside of sailing, right? You just go sail in big breeze and that's sort of your formula?

Bill Symes:                    Pretty much. I'm not really big on going to the gym or doing any kind of fitness-specific exercise. I'll ride the bike as much as I can, try to work on some aerobic fitness, but mostly I just sail.


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Colin Gowland:           Right. Do you put together sort of an annual plan about how your sailings going to go for the whole year with the World's like a goal or are it just something you start thinking about a few months before?

Bill Symes:  

I have a goal and a rough game plan which, as you know, it's to spend two or three weeks in Mexico in the spring to jump start my training program. Then, I have a goal of doing 80 days on the water which I reached - just. (sailed my 80th day the day before Worlds!)

Colin Gowland:           80 days, how did you come up with that number?

Bill Symes:                   That's just a rule of thumb that I've developed over the years that if I can sail that much especially in challenging conditions I will definitely… well, maybe not definitely… but I will generally have reached the level of hiking fitness and sailing confidence that I need going into Worlds. I mean, it's worked for me over the last few years and so that's kind of the recipe I follow.

Colin Gowland:           Yeah. And then, you said you did some training in the spring. What about November, December, January, and February?

Bill Symes:                    I don't do much. Between now and the new year I probably won't sail too much. Maybe here in Portland. We have a Sunday race with our local fleet, Sunday series. I'll do that stuff just for fun but I won't do any serious training until spring. That usually starts with March or April in Mexico.

Colin Gowland:           It's interesting. I mean, I think since probably you were young you've probably been getting good results in sailing but my observation over the last four years is that you're still getting better. I don't know if you feel like you are or not. You mentioned in a past interview that learning is something that keeps you coming back and having fun with it. Can you just speak to that and if you feel like you're still making progress at 71 years old, knowing all that you know already?

Bill Symes:                    Definitely. I think I'm sailing better now than I probably have in my life. Of course, the problem you have as you get older, is it's like walking up the down escalator. You have to run faster and faster just to stay even. Yeah, I just wish I had known what I know now back when I had the body of a 20-year-old. Aside from just being competitive, I find it enjoyable again because I am making gains in my sailing speed, especially downwind. I think in the last couple of years the coaching that I've gotten from Vaughn and from Brett and yourself has just made a huge difference in the way I sail downwind, and I've practiced those techniques a lot - I've spent a lot of time in the Gorge just working on that. It has definitely made a difference. Plus it's fun.  it's made Laser Masters sailing more fun because I'm more comfortable in the boat in more conditions and I just really enjoy sailing it that way.

Colin Gowland:           You’ve been around the Laser Masters' fleets at your home club and internationally and seen a lot of guys train down here. If you were their coach and they were the average laser masters sailor, let's just say, what kind of advice would you give them in terms of should they do to be successful?  Replicate more or less your plan like training 80 days at a minimum? How should they do go about it? Do they identify weaknesses, they get coaching, do they just go race? What do you think is the best strategy for them?

Bill Symes:                    I don't really know any other way to do it than the way I do it, and so I would recommend that. The base of my program is lots of sailing; not just sailing, but training in good breeze and just logging the hours. I don't race that much. I used to try and hit all the big regattas, I don't do that anymore. This year I just hit a couple. I did a couple of winter regattas down in California, I did the Laser Masters' North Americans in San Francisco and I did the Laser PCC's in the gorge and just a couple of other local regattas in the Northwest. I don't travel that much, not as much as I used to.

Bill Symes:                    This is not to say that it isn't important to sail in big competitions, because it is. But I don't think that has helped me as much as just the training I do with a couple of fast training partners. I've been lucky to have Andrew living in Seattle now, and also Rob Hodson and Dave Jursik, a couple of other local guys who were also training for Worlds in the Gorge.

We just go out and beat each other up out there and that has, I think, helped me more than traveling around to all the big regattas. You know you'll find a lot of guys that take sort of the opposite track and try to hit all the big regattas. I'm sure there's a lot of value to that, especially for improving starting skills, because that's the only way to really practice starting.

Bill Symes:                    But you know, I think I'm a pretty strong starter anyway. I don't feel like that's a huge weakness, but certainly going to the big regattas helps that part of your game.

Colin Gowland:           Yeah.

Bill Symes:                    I mostly focus, my focus the last few years has just been on boat speed. I figure if I'm confident in my boat speed, that pretty much takes care of all the other issues.

Colin Gowland:           Right, yeah. Yeah, it is a race after all.

Bill Symes:                    Yeah, [laughs].

Colin Gowland:           I guess when you say, maybe you don't do so many regattas, but you do training, and you said focusing on boat speed with good training partners, but, what do you do? What do you guys ... When you go out to train let's say, what do you do out there?

Bill Symes:                   We do focus drills, kind of like you do at ISA. We will do lineups, upwind lineups. This summer, Andrew and I did a lot of reaching because we both felt that was an area we needed to strengthen. We did a lot of heavy air reaching, and I definitely improved in that area as a result. We worked on trim and sail controls. We practiced different vang tensions, different downhaul and outhaul tensions, different trims, different ways of steering through the waves.

Colin Gowland:           Yea that deliberate practice is something we really promote here. What else?

Bill Symes:                    We just banged away at it. We'd reach across the river, we'd stop, and regroup, and reach across the river again. We'd do this nine or ten times in practice. Like I say, we do the upwind lineups, we do short racing, we do lots of long downwind. We do like five-mile downwind going through the different wave conditions in the Gorge. You've got short mostly flat water at the top of the run, and then as you get down - actually upriver, but downwind - you get into much bigger, almost oceanic waves. We had a range of conditions, a range of wind speeds. The training went up and down, and up and down. We did a little bit of starting practice, focusing on acceleration and holding a lane, we pretty much try to practice all the fundamentals.

Colin Gowland:            Yeah, it sounds like a pretty productive session. I think what a lot of guys tend to do is go out once every couple weeks in the spring/summer/fall, probably that’s being generous, and then they go out and just race on Sunday, and do six, seven races, whatever it is, and come back in. You look at those fleets, and who's at the top, and who's at the bottom, and who's in the middle, and it's very rare to see much of a mix up over a period of years with that kind of approach. I think this is because mostly everyone is sailing the exact same way they have in the past focusing on “strategy/tactics” when there is still so much boat speed and boat handling available for them to learn.

Bill Symes:                    Yeah, I think you nailed it with that analysis. It’s common to see that mentality in Laser fleets.

Colin Gowland:            I understand you have a new winter residence now?

Bill Symes:                     Yeah!

Colin Gowland:           That's great. Why did you decide to set that up?

Bill Symes:                    Well, as you know, we've been coming down there for the last three or four years and training at ISA. I just find the clinics enormously helpful and enormously fun. My wife, Laura-Lee, has fallen in love with the town of La Cruz. It's just a nice environment. It's a beautiful site, right on the north shore of Banderas Bay. I don't know,  we’ve always sort of had it in the back of our mind, that it would be nice to have a winter getaway spot, because, in Portland, Oregon in January and February can be pretty bleak.

That just seemed like the perfect spot. It's warm, it's beautiful, it's close to great Laser Masters sailing. The quality of the sailing is fantastic. It's affordable.

It's certainly easier to buy a beachfront residence in La Cruz than it is in Oregon or California.

Colin Gowland:            No kidding. We’re really happy that you made that decision and that we'll get to see more of you down here, and do a bunch more training together and whatnot. It’s really awesome, congratulations. I’d expect to see more dedicated sailors making similar investments as the years go on.

Bill Symes:                     Yeah, we're looking forward to it.

Colin Gowland:            How many clinics did you sail last year at ISA to prep for Worlds?

Bill Symes:                    I think I did two in Mexico.

Bill Symes:                    And one in the Gorge, or most of one in the Gorge. I also had that little half session in the summer with you and Jonathan Sherretz.

Colin Gowland:            Yeah, that's right.

Bill Symes:                    Which, you know, it was a really good year for me in terms of sailing in Mexico. We just had a lot of opportunity to get down there and conditions were great. Even the last one in June we had good conditions.

Colin Gowland:             That was nice, people don’t know necessarily that our wind can stay really nice here all the way through July.

Bill Symes:                    That was great. I really look forward to more of that in the future.

Colin Gowland:             What do you think beyond what you do just training on your own, what do you think what is the value in the clinics that you attend here?

Bill Symes:                    I think it has pushed me to think about Laser Masters sailing in new ways, think about Laser sailing in new ways. You know, it's hard to teach an old dog new tricks, and I've been doing this off and on since the '70s.

It's (attending clinics) forced me to take a much deeper dive into how to sail a Laser, and what are the factors that you need to be considering to make it go faster.

Laser Masters World Championships 2018

I learned a lot from Vaughn, who really sort of brought home how important apparent wind is. I always, I think most competitive sailors understand apparent wind and think about it when they're sailing, but he has really helped me understand how important it is, and how you can use it in the way you think about sail trim, and angle, and all that.

Colin Gowland:             Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Bill Symes:                    I think that was a big breakthrough for me. And clearly the downwind stuff, Vaughn's technique varies a little bit from Brett Beyers, but I think both of them have helped me to develop a better understanding of how to sail the boat downwind. Vaughn's emphasis on creating the energy through turning, and Brett's just a little more nuanced I think, just pressuring up the rig, and then using that pressure to take it down to the wave angle. Those are techniques that have really changed my whole sailing style, and in many ways forced me to break the old mold and learn a new one.

Colin Gowland:            Yeah it’s nice to have different coaches giving perspectives on technique. You mentioned the conditions here which are obviously a nice thing. What about the other people's training and sort of camaraderie of it? Do you enjoy that part, or are you more just down to put your nose to the grindstone and get your training in? What's your perspective on that aspect?

Bill Symes:                    Definitely I value the friendships and the relationships that I get through laser masters sailing. Really, that's what keeps me coming back to Laser Masters World, more than anything, is just that I've gotten to be so close to that group of guys that I would hate to miss it. It's like our annual party. Most of these guys I only see once a year and this is our opportunity to get together, socialize, eat and drink together, and just have a great time. It's wonderful.

Colin Gowland:            It seems like those friendships, really, they go pretty deep. It seems like a really important aspect particularly in Laser Masters sailing, but you see it in all types of sailing.

Bill Symes:                    Oh yeah, yeah, you see it in all different classes, and different kinds of competition, in Laser Masters and open competition. The Laser Masters, is in particular, is really just an extraordinary group of people. These are guys, most of whom have been sailing all their lives in one boat or another.

Many of them have achieved very high success in the Olympics or World Championships. The level of competition is still very high, but competition isn’t the only reason they're there. We hang out together after the races. We're able to have a beer and enjoy ourselves...

which is a little different than it was when we were sailing in the open fleet - there wasn't so much of that aprés sailing fun going on.

Colin Gowland:           Aprés sailing fun you say. Any funny anecdotes from the world? Anything notable that happened that you wish to tell?

Bill Symes:                    Funny, tragic maybe. In the third race and the 10th race, I don't see very well and when I'm sailing in those conditions I can't wear glasses, because they get too messed up with the spray. So I have trouble seeing the marks. In the 4th race, I had a pretty good lead coming around the leeward mark and going up to the second weather mark, I couldn't find it. I sailed a little far off to the left, and the next thing you know I rounding a mark, but it turned out I was on the outer loop of the trapezoid course when I was supposed to be on the inner loop.

Colin Gowland:           Good strategy. [laughs]

Bill Symes:                    Weather mark when I should have been going to the inner. I turned a first into a 29th in that race. I thought, "Oh, okay, I've burned my throw out, I've made my big mistake, I won't make that mistake again." Then in the 10th race, I had another situation where I was leading after the second beat, I took off on a screaming, fire-hose-in-the-face reach, but again I couldn't see the marks, didn't know where I was going and wound up heading for the leeward mark instead of the reach mark. By the time I got back in the boat race, I was 20th(which I had to keep in my score). With two more races to go, I was pretty sure I’d snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. That was not a happy night.

This is what happens when you get old and feeble. Your faculties start deserting you. Boat speed was great, but the brainpower was a little bit impaired.

Colin Gowland:             I’m not sure what kind of training we can do for that one Bill. Maybe some compass work! I wonder if it was too much Guinness the night before? Any wild antics from the streets of Dublin, or are those all sworn to secrecy?

Bill Symes:                    Well, some of that's classified, but all I can say is a very good time was had by all. We usually gather together in informal mobs and go out on the town and eat and drink until the wee hours. We did not skimp on the social side of things. It was a lot of fun.

Colin Gowland:             Sounds like these laser masters sailors know how to do it right! It’s a great community, and we’re always happy to have our Laser Masters World Champion hard training for sailors and having fun here at ISA too. All right Bill, thanks for taking the time. I think we covered some good ground here. I look forward to seeing you soon down in Mexico for some training and relaxing in the near future!

Bill Symes:                       Yeah, thanks to Colin, we’ll see you soon.

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