When you’re teaching a sailor new skills—there is a lot of information that has to get from the coach’s brain to the sailor’s brain. It’s a challenging task for any coach. 

You can try telling the sailors everything you know, but let’s be honest, we’ve all sat through that class where we’ve been talked at for 40 minutes and felt overwhelmed by the tsunami of information. It might have been fascinating information you really wanted to know, but by the end of that class, your brain was mush and your retention was low. Maybe you remember a few interesting nuggets, but you couldn’t necessarily explain it back to anyone. 

Your goal as a coach is knowledge acquisition and skills development, not overwhelm. So how do you find the right balance? 

Here are three tactics we use in our own coaching to help sailors, from beginner to experienced, learn new skills without the overwhelm. 

1. Use questions to guide them to make their own observations.

This tactic works on sailors of all levels. Even if it’s a sailor’s very first sailing class, you actually don’t need to impart information on them to start developing their sailing skills. Instead, you use questions to guide their attention, make observations, and articulate those observations in their own words. 

Use It in a Lesson

Here’s how this tactic looks in a basic sailing lesson: how to read the water. 

  • Have the sailors look at the water and ask them, how would you describe the texture of the water in your own words. 
  • Don’t worry if they’re not giving the right answers yet. You’re just asking questions and they’re making observations. 
  • Then point them to a different section of the water and ask them, what differences do you see between the two. How is this section different than the other?  
  • You can use questions to feed them the vocabulary we use in sailing: would you describe that section of water as glassy, scaly, wavy? 
  • How would you describe the color? How does the color of this patch of water compare to that patch? Is this patch lighter or darker. 
  • Now that they’re starting to accurately describe what they see, ask them, which patch do you think has more wind? The lighter patch or the darker patch? The glassy patch or the scaly patch? 
  • Even if the student couldn’t make accurate observations about the first patch of water, when they compare it to a different patch and you feed them vocabulary options, they’ll start to be able to make accurate observations and articulate their observations with the right words. 
  • Summarize the lesson by asking, so what are the two elements we use to read the water? Answer: color and texture.

Why It Helps

By using this technique, you have successfully taught the sailors the observation skills they need to read the water, the vocabulary they need to describe the water, and you’re helping them build a tangible relationship with the wind. All without a lecture. 

2. Use their existing knowledge to layer on new knowledge.

Every sailor has existing knowledge. The sailor on day 1 has at least felt the wind before. A sailor that’s been sailing a few times knows what luffing is and that it’s bad. A sailor that’s completed the basic sailing course knows what telltales are and that they should be streaming back. 

As a coach, you can use a sailor’s existing knowledge to introduce a new concept, for example, you can use a basic sailor’s knowledge of luffing and telltales to teach twist and how to adjust it.

Use It in a Lesson

Here’s a sample exercise (if you’re coaching dinghies, you might want to do this on land with just the jib up. If you’re on the water, make sure the driver can hold a steady course): 

  • Pull the jib car all the way back. 
  • Have the sailors look at the jib sail and ask them, what do you see? Is the sail luffing? Is only part of the sail luffing? How does the top of the sail compare to the bottom of the sail? 
  • Have them look at the different sets of telltales up the sail. Are the telltales breaking the same top to bottom? Say to them, knowing what you know about telltales, what would you do to correct the telltales at the top of the sail? 
  • Then, have them look at the leech of the sail. Does that look twisted or not twisted to you? 
  • At this point, don’t worry about correcting their answer or imparting information. Your objective is just to get them to observe and put their observations into words. You are a neutral guide. 
  • Now comes the fun part. Move the car forward 2/3 of the way. 
  • Have the students make their observations again. 
    • How does your sail look top to bottom now? Is there any luffing or leeching? 
    • Are the telltales breaking evenly top to bottom? 
    • Did the twist of the leech change? How? Does it look more or less twisted to you? 


Why It Helps

In this lesson, sailors already have an understanding of luffing vs. not luffing and what corrections they need to make to their trim if their telltales are breaking. You use their existing knowledge to introduce the concept of twist, how to see that twist in the sail, and how adjustments to the car position affect the twist of the sail. 

You could try explaining it all to them in a lecture—it’s going to go in one ear and out the other. By using this teaching technique, the sailors stay fully engaged in the lesson and will have a better understanding of the material than if you had tried to just explain it all to them in the classroom.

3. Use video to show them what good looks like.

This is an important tactic for teaching sailors complex multi-step maneuvers, and thanks to the plethora of content on YouTube, one you can incorporate pretty easily into your coaching. 

Let’s say you’re helping sailors transition from the Opti to the Laser. These kids know how to sail, but the challenge is helping them adjust to the nuances of the boat. 

Use It in a Lesson

Here’s how you can use video to teach sailors the nuances of tacking in a Laser: 

  • Before you go sailing, have them watch videos of experienced Laser sailors doing tacks. Share clips from different camera angles if you can—camera at the bow, camera at the stern, camera on the coach boat. 
  • Have the sailors make their own observations. What do you see? How far does the tiller go over? How long does he wait to move? How far forward or aft does she sit? How windy is it in this video? What does she do with her mainsheet? 
  • Again, don’t worry at this point about “teaching” them how to sail the Laser. Just let them make their own observations. If there are important points you want to make sure they get, ask questions that bring their attention to that element of the maneuver, but you don’t necessarily need to “teach” yet. Give them enough information to keep them safe, but otherwise keep your “teaching” to a minimum at this point. 


On the Water

Now it’s time to go sailing. 

Give each sailor a GoPro to put on their boat so they can record their maneuvers. (If you don’t have a camera per sailor, don’t stress. You can rotate the cameras during practice so each sailor gets a handful of tacks recorded). 

When you get back to shore, upload the video to the KINETIX ai software so you can quickly zero in on the maneuvers and avoid wasting time fast-forwarding through a 2-hour training session. (You can collect the cameras and upload the footage while the sailors are putting their boats away).

Side Note

When you record your sailing sessions, it actually takes the pressure off the debrief. You can have the debrief right away, you can save it for the top of the next session, or you can debrief over Zoom. Recording your sessions gives you choices.

The Debrief

Here’s how you structure the conversation for the post-sailing debrief: 

  • At the beginning of the debrief, rewatch some of the experienced sailor footage. 
  • Once again, have the sailors articulate their observations. Now that they have experience on the boat doing the same maneuvers, their observations will likely be more insightful and specific. They’ll notice things they didn’t notice before. 
  • Then have them watch their own footage.
  • Ask them what they notice about their own maneuvers. 
    • What felt awkward or uncomfortable to you? What felt smooth?  
    • Where are you sitting? How far over do you push your tiller? When do you bring it back towards center? How is your flow crossing the boat? 
  • Go back and forth between the experienced footage and their footage and have them compare what they see. 
  • If there is an important element of their maneuver that they’re not noticing, bring their attention to that particular spot. Ask them to watch how they’re doing it and how the experienced sailor does it. Then have them articulate the differences they observe. 

At this point, you can supplement with additional information that the sailor needs to know to make the necessary corrections. 

Slow Down to Go Fast

Using this sailor-led teaching technique might feel slower than simply telling the sailors what they need to know (goodness, we just took two debriefs and a sailing session to teach them when you could have told them in 40 minutes). 

But think back to how you felt when you were inundated with that tsunami of information. 

This technique slows the teaching own, but the sailors are actively engaged the entire time. You’re helping them build essential observation skills and consequently the judgment skills they will need to make corrections without building dependency on you, their coach. You’re also helping them understand the material on a much deeper, more physical level, so they can actually retain the information. As a result, even though the lesson takes longer to teach, your sailors’ learning will be faster.  

Step Up Your Coaching Game

Want to level up your coaching with technology? Schedule an appointment to learn more about Kinetix AI.