America's Cup: The Coach has an OK Busman's Holiday

OK Dinghy’s racing off Takapuna
Miranda Powrie

Emirates Team NZ Coach, Olympic Gold and Silver medalist, Rod Davis takes on the mighty NZ OK Dinghy fleet at the 50th National Championships, held at Napier in early January:

A couple of months ago I bought an OK dinghy. New Zealand has a long history in OK’s with Kiwi’s winning nearly a dozen world championships in the last 40 years. But winning or even finding the podium for the worlds or nationals for that matter, was not my motivation for getting an OK.

Greed was the biggest factor. I wanted to sail and race for myself, you know, just because it’s super fun thing to do.

As a professional sailor and coach, I do regattas all over the world and spend months away from shores of New Zealand. Each one is fun in its own way but each has the pressure of winning as the overriding (and only) measure of achievement. I have yet to meet an owner, sponsor or boss that does not have the attitude that winning is the only thing. That is fine with me, as that is what we do: It's our responsibility to increase teams' chances of winning, by out-thinking and out-working our competition.

All good but....and here is the imperative point, only one team can win. So there will be disappointment aplenty for those who think winning is the only thing. This can lead to a pressure cooker situation for sailors, coaches and owners. It is the same in all top end sports: Rugby, football, cricket... Still it is great fun out thinking your competition, if you like (or can handle) stress.

At the 50th OK NZ nationals last week, the difference between the my professional world and the new, or (should I say) re-found sailing for myself world, could not be clearer. First - get the boat to the regatta yourself, and rig it. I could spend hours and hours just fussing with boats, so rigging it and tinkering with this and that suits me perfectly. Measuring the mast rake, and sanding the bottom brings enjoyment. Just messing with boats is part of the fun. Raise the sail, push your boat to the water and your off - just like we all used to do when we got hooked on sailing.

If you want lunch or water.....you better bring it. There are no coach boats to follow you around and wipe your nose. Same goes for current or weather information. You want it, you go get it.

Rod Davis, Newport 1977 age: 21years old
. ..
I reckon it builds a stronger bond between the competitors, or maybe is just an OK sailors bond, but everyone is happy to help each other. Rake information, sharing weather forecasts, little ideas about how to improve this or that- makes the boat park a very different and friendlier world to the Olympic or America’s Cup one.

At the end of the day, after you pull your boat up the ramp, wash it off, bail it out and put it away the debrief starts. In the professional world debriefing starts with crew work videos, then goes into what that coaches saw and improvements to implement for tomorrow. In the OK Dinghy world, a debrief starts with an ice cold beer, chats on how get the best out of the boat and the occasional sea story. The debrief goes on for a couple of beers, the stories get better and better.

The Nationals first day was in 20-25 knots of wind. As I looked up wind a few times, the thought come to me, 'I just hope I finish this day without capsizing,..... too many times'. Not a great start (I couldn’t start a lawnmower the first day!) and was mid fleet at mark one. By the time I got to the first gybe mark there were two boats capsized trying to gybe around it. My turn, I keep repeating the three pieces of advice the vets gave me. Make sure you going fast into the gybe, vang off at last second and back on right away, overturn the boat (don’t come out on a low course) Oh, be brave - DON'T chicken out & be sure to duck! I survived it, NICE...but I did manage a capsize later on in the race.

The last time I raced a centreboard boat, I was 17 and the Laser had just been introduced. Been decades of Stars and Solings racing but they can’t capsize. The learning curve is steep but manageable. That just makes it more entertaining. It will be months before I am truly up to speed but the challenge of getting there is my goal, not getting instant results.

I had modest goals for the Nationals: Do the basics well (starting, tactics, & boat handling) and finish in the top half. Sometimes the 'sailor' didn’t carry out to the 'coaches' game plan, as in boat handling and too many capsizes. Hell I capsized twice sailing home one day. In fairness, one of the death rolls on the way home was trying find where the edge is between board up, vane off, boom out and by the lee. As the mast hit the water, I thought: make a note- the edge is somewhere less aggressive than these settings. By the end of the regatta I was going better down wind, competitive. Maybe, even a click better than some.

Another difference in my two worlds is: Money coming in the door vs Money going out the door. If the money is going out the door I am determined to maximize the fun factor. In that quest I could not ask for any more from my experience thus far. Most fun I had racing sail boats in the last decade!

I imagine there are lots of people like me, so the future of the OK class in NZ looks a lot better than just OK.