Inside the Monarchy
Needing an edge to make nationals, ODU’s sailing team turned to their computers
by Rich Radford
It’s been a brutal spring semester for the Old Dominion University sailing team.
If it hasn’t been cold, it’s been raining. If it hasn’t been raining, it’s been snowing.
Even when the sun has come out, it seems nearly unmanageable 30-mile-per-hour winds have blown from the south down the Elizabeth River. And the last thing you want to be is down river trying to navigate upstream harsh blowers.
It’s been challenging to say the least, particularly in co-ed team race, an event that pits three boats from one school against three from another. It’s a race that isn’t so much about sheer speed as it is about strategy.
There are pick-and-roll moves involved in team race. And there’s trapping. There are even times when it’s best to slow down the pace of a race rather than to run full-out. The more ODU coach Mitch Brindley talked about it, the more co-ed team race sounded like a basketball game. Brindley agreed, pointing out that it’s the one event he gets amped up for because of the actual strategy involved.
The problem with this season, however, was that ODU has a rather youthful bunch on its roster and coaching high-end strategy in team race takes real communication.
“You get out on the water sometimes in practice and you turn around and a boat is three football fields away from you like that,” Brindley said. “It’s tough to try to explain a strategic move from three football fields away.”
The nasty, brutal weather that has been the winter of 2014 may have been, in a strange way, ODU’s friend. With as raw and as cold and as nasty as it has been, assistant coach Charles Higgins suggested a different approach: Why not have the sailors play out races on a computer program instead of trying to coach them on the water in less-than-ideal conditions?
Necessity, it appears, can really be the mother of invention.
Or in this case, adaption.
So in today’s high-tech mentality where people bank on smartphones and shop on tablets, Higgins made an unusual suggestion: “Why not coach on the computer screen?”
Brindley bought into it and had his team convene in a classroom at the sail center, where they lined up three laptop computers and simultaneously logged into a website called SailX.com, a site devoted to the computer simulation of boat races.
“Years ago when I was an assistant, K.C. Fullmer used to take the team into the old H&P gym and we’d walk through the plays in a big room to try to recreate what we wanted to do on the water,” Brindley said. “We probably would have gone for the computer programming back then, but the most high-tech game out there in 1991 was Tetris.”
The SailX.com experience must have paid dividends because ODU will be going to nationals this year in co-ed team race, taking team members Esteban Forrer, Jake Spracher, Joe David, Daniel Lochner, Gabriel Smith, Julia Wiesner, Chloe Constants and Colin Voigt. They qualified this past week with a fourth-place finish at the Prosser Trophy races in Annapolis, Md. While the Monarchs have a long and deep tradition of national-event successes in sailing, this marks the first time in 12 years that ODU has qualified for nationals in co-ed team race.
The Team Race Nationals take place May 31 to June 2 at St. Mary’s in Maryland, on the St. Mary’s Peninsula on the Chesapeake Bay.
Forrer, a sophomore and one of the team’s skippers, was a bit skeptical about the idea of racing on a simulator when it was first proposed.
“I’d gone on the SailX.com website before with mixed results,” said the native of San Diego. “But this time was different. We logged in and began racing, but it wasn’t just that. We were talking about strategy and we put up white boards and projectors in the classroom and suddenly it was all making sense.
“I really didn’t think at first that the game would cooperate with what we were trying to do, but then I saw my teammates applying the strategies we’d talked about out on the water that very afternoon.”
Forrer, by the way, is looking to take life on the water from college passion to eventual life-long employment. He’s majoring in maritime supply chain management, meaning he’ll be job seeking one day at places like Norfolk International Terminals and working the world’s shipping lines.
For now, however, he and his teammates are keen on boxing in the opponent or pulling the old pick-and-roll. And they might do it with a bit more panache now that they’ve scratched it out on a white board and tried it out on a simulator.
Score one for the computer geeks.