Racing With Consistent and Constant Improvements

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12 January 2011

Racing With Consistent and Constant Improvements

Eric Hood of Melges Performance Sailboats Interviews Ted Keller
 
Today we are visiting with Ted Keller who has worked his way over the years up to the highest levels of championship sailboat racing.  Ted sails in several Melges classes including the Melges MC Scow, C Scow, E Scow and recently has jumped into the Melges 20 Sportboat class.  Ted also has a very unusual club situation.  He belongs to two clubs.  One club being one of the smallest lakes in the scow world and that is Hoover Lake where he, his wife Amy and their children live near in Columbus, Ohio during the winter.  Then the family summer home at one of the largest and certainly most beautiful lakes in the scow world Torch Lake in northern Michigan during the summer.  I along with the rest of Team Melges have watched as Ted has methodically and consistently made improvements in his style of sailing from year to year.  That being said we wanted to interview Ted, get his take and have him share some wisdom about how he has done this.
 
MELGES – Ted I know just from sailing against you in the MC Class that you have an incredible consistency of top end finishes all the time.  I remember your early days in the class and that was not the case.  Now when I see you at a regatta and I look at the landscape of sailors for that race, I see you and I just say to myself “Ted will be in the very top group” when this race is done today.  Share with us why that is and if you would be so kind as to name 3 or 4 absolutes to consistent sailing.
 
TED KELLER – Thanks for this thought, E.  It's something I like to work at.  Maybe it’s my Columbus, OH roots, but I'm a big fan of Jack Nicklaus as a sports figure.  To me he personifies consistency.  Everyone knows about Jack's 18 major victories, but did you know he finished in 2nd place in 19 majors?  Jack would tell you that it all comes down to putting yourself in a position to win.  When you can do that regularly, the law of averages will mean you'll get your share of wins, and you'll also get some runner ups and top 5's as well.  I really think that's been my approach: try to sail smart, sail conservative, don't do anything that's going to take you out of the running, try to be positioned to win at the end, and see what happens.

I remember those early days in the class back in the mid-90's.  I sure remember going to the Grand Rapids MC Regatta each spring, where there would be 60 to 70 boats on one of the smallest lakes on the MC circuit.  I was a local sailor back then, trying to become a real regatta sailor, and those first experiences were frustrating, even overwhelming at times, but worth their weight in gold in the experiences they taught me.  I've heard you and Andy often say how one regatta is worth a month of fleet racing, well these GRYC regattas had to be worth two months or more!  Cutting my teeth in the hot competition of the MC fleet really launched my growth curve, and equipped me with knowledge that I've been able to take to the C, E, and every other fleet I've raced in.

When I think of absolutes to consistent sailing a few things come to mind.  

  • First and foremost, I think you have to believe in your boatspeed.
    The old line is boatspeed can make you look really smart - well, it can definitely get you out of trouble.  It is sure nice when everything goes right and you pop out with a nice lead, but every regatta has a bad start or missed wind shift and you need to be able to dig out a finish.  I've seen many times that the regattas not won because of the win in race #2; more often it's won by turning a 12th into a 7th in race #6.  This requires speed you know you can count on.  And the understanding that every boat matters.
  • Second thing - Pete Comfort, my C boat teammate, likes to remind me "Don't swing for the fences."  Everybody loves to press to the edge and get the big shift that launches you into the lead.  But what happens when the shift goes the other way?  That’s when you have the 2 followed by the 20 on the scoreline.  It was Augusta in 2001 when I learned from Justin Hood the Nationals mantra of "top 10's, top 5's if you can" and I think it's true for every regatta.  Race wins are nice, but consistency pays: put a string of finishes together.
  • Third is having the ability to hit the 'reset' button mentally.  You've had a really good finish and you want to go to the keg and tell everyone about it, or you've had a really bad finish and you want to snap your paddle over your knee - either way you've got to floss the mind and be ready to set up and go again.  I think of Saturdays at the MC Blue Chip when you do four super-competitive races in one day.  How many times I've told myself "Let's go do it again".

MELGES - So now we have heard about consistency. What about constant, up and to the right improvement from year to year. A lesson I have learned from a sailing friend of mine Bill Hybels a couple of years ago is that you only need to get 5% better each year as a leader.  I translate that into sailing and I wonder how much more focused I might have been in my early years.  Just get 5% maybe 10% better at my overall sailing program.  Maybe some small areas can be a higher percentage but the overall picture needs to be consistent, up and to the right. I and our sailing audience of readers would like to know your thoughts on constant improvement. 
 
TED KELLER - That's a great question.  To me it really comes down to continually learning.  Sailing is a complicated sport where things are always changing and there is no 'one' answer that works every time.  There is always something new to learn.  Yet, it's human nature to think 'well, I already know everything I could possibly need to know about sailing MC's.'  That's when the curve flattens out.  I'm still learning new things about the boat, and there's always a curve ball waiting out there in a scenario on the water you've never seen before.  I'd also have to admit that I wasn't always open to new knowledge.  In my early days in the fleet, my wife Amy would try to give me an observation right after a frustrating race and I wouldn't really want to hear it.  So then I learned to say "tell me, but just not at the dock."  But those observations and what I learned from them was the doorway to success, big-time.  So now when she says "Cam McNeil is still sailing the C boat flatter than you guys" I'll say "Wow, tell me more."  So with an appetite for more racing experiences and a thirst for knowledge, I think the curve climbs in the proper direction and at a good clip too.  And if you really think you know it all, just try switching to a different boat!
 
 
MELGES - A favorite question of mine when speaking with other sailors who have seen great success or simply great improvement is what are your top 5 non-negotiables for the success of your sailing program?
 
TED KELLER - Having the support of your spouse and family is an important foundation.  Amy and I love to sail together and love to jump in the car to go to regattas together, sometimes just the two of us, and other times we bring the whole tribe.  I think my daughter Casey might have had the most fun of all of us at last summer's Western Michigan at Spring Lake.

Beyond that, I think it’s important to test yourself and get out of your comfort zone.  I think it turbocharges the learning we just spoke of.  One of the best pieces of advice I ever got goes something like this, "if you really want to get better at sailing, get off your home lake."  As you noted, I grew up sailing on Torch Lake which is darn close to paradise, so going away to sail somewhere else isn't all that urgent.  But I really wanted to get better.  That Grand Rapids regatta I went to back in the 90's, almost all the top spots would always go to Spring Lake sailors.  Why were those guys so good?  Because those SLers take their triple trailers and go sail everywhere!  So that's what Amy and I did.  And that is the fastest way to get that learning curve to jump up and to the right.

Also get out of your comfort zone by sailing other boats.  I started racing a Laser, and then Pete and I started racing a C boat together - and the payoff to my MC sailing was remarkable.  If you've ever felt really overpowered in the MC, sailing a C boat will put a stop to that!  Cross-training definitely makes you better.

I guess one more thing is to have the drive to get to that next goal that's out there in front of you.  And when you reach it, set another goal.  
That can be performance oriented rather than outcome, such as improving on the starting technique or mark rounding’s you've been working on.  Having goals keeps me motivated to get out in my boat and practice, keeps me pursuing 'what's next.'  I like that Sail22 tag line, 'Always Happy. Never Satisfied.'

MELGES –
Last question but this is really important.  I want to ask this question as many times as possible of other sailors like you who have helped us at Melges Performance Sailboats promote the sport of sailing.  What are some of your top priorities you see for the growth of our sport and for its sustainability? Broad question but you have been a promoter of the sport so please give us your thoughts.
 
TED KELLER - Last winter I read 'Saving Sailing' and it really resonated with me.  I really agree with the idea of how important the family is to promoting the sport of sailing.  The perfect model for me, whom I had the pleasure of knowing and sailing with here in Ohio, was George Fisher.  George was a great sailor, and a competitive one.  I don't know many other 80 year olds with a hiking bench.  Yet he was an even bigger proponent of the sport.  He shared his knowledge and passion with his sons, Matt and Greg, and later with his grandchildren, but well beyond that through dedicated support of sail instruction and junior sailing.  George touched more people than one can count through the sport of sailing, and encouraged so many to take up the sport by giving his time and sharing his love of sailing.
 
To me promoting the sport is really a matter of trying to be more like George.

Last thought is making it fun for everyone.  After the MC races at Hoover we have a 'sail rolling party' with a few beers in the parking lot to enjoy the war stories from the day.  It’s a great time to share a laugh, maybe talk a little technique or go fast and make the fleet's time together more than the race around the buoys or the race to the dock.

MELGES - Ted on behalf of Team Melges we want to thank you and congratulate you.  Thank you for helping so many folks out with your time and talents.  Fantastic GOLD NUGGETS of wisdom above. We want to congratulate you on the high skill levels of sailing you have reached.  Also, thank you for all of your thoughts in this interview.
 
TED KELLER -
Thanks E.  Look forward to seeing you on the water in 2011!