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Zhik 2012 Etchells National Championship: Clark's unusual pathway to success

22 March 2012 Tracey Johnstone

Happy times for Fifteen - David Clark, Andrew Smith and Alan Smith

"Happy times for Fifteen - David Clark, Andrew Smith and Alan Smith"

Photo by:
Damian Devine

Fifteen, the winning team at the 2012 Zhik Etchells Australian Championship followed an unusual pathway to success.

Skippered by the Sydney Fleet's, David Clark, the three-man team had to contend with one crewmember living in a diametrically opposed State geographically, and then they had to fit their restricted training and competition program into their normal working lives. On the race course though, it call came together as Clark, Andrew Smith and Alan Smith achieved a 1, 16, 10, 9, 7, 3 and 2 result for a total of 32 points and with that, the coveted National Championship title.

Clark spoke about the Fifteen program, the importance of doing it properly - particularly the preparatory work and about unexpectedly winning the National Championship.

Did you set your sights on winning the 2012 Australian Championship?.
No. We had a goal to finish in the top five for the event. Our primary focus, however, was the World Championship. The Nationals were to provide a springboard into the Worlds.

When did start your planning process for the Worlds? .
Twelve months out, I recognised that I would be changing my team. Because we have day jobs and would not be able to spend the time on the water that was required, as well as competing against professionals, I set up a spreadsheet. We had various worksheets inside that Excel document. One had a list of events that we wanted to do and what outcomes we wanted to achieve, but not necessarily what finishing results. For example, we were playing around with sails and we decided that after the NSW State Championship we would have to make a decision on what jib we were going to use in the Nationals and then into the Worlds. The spreadsheet had the events, the outcomes from those events and the timing of that outcome, like a due date.

As we couldn't spend time on the water, I decided we needed to take a really structured approach from the outset and that we meet each of the objectives; not so much the results objectives, but more like by that date we would have to have locked in that sail or by that date we would have needed to weigh in together at 285 kilos.

The other element was the third guy, Alan, who lived in Perth. We set up Skype and then we had regular Skype meetings, where we worked our way through the issues using the spreadsheet as our basis for discussions.

By the time we got together and went sailing, we had done all the groundwork and all we had to do was concentrate on the sailing.

What were Andrew 'Spot' Smith's key skills? .
We have sailed together for so long that we really know intimately how each other operate. That side of it is really, really critical for me. If I was going to have someone new on the boat, then I needed to also have a familiar person on my shoulder, and that was Spot. His skills were in keeping the boat perfect, even before went racing. He works for Ronstan, so that was a benefit in the hardware supply. Our gear was as good as, or even better than, everyone else.

A huge amount of thinking went around a couple of the simple things no one else had. We had jib halyard system that was truly unique, as we invented it. Spot, being the mechanical person, both engineered and implemented it. They are his primary strengths that I wanted to rely upon.

Why the choice of Alan Smith as the third man? .
I was hesitant to contact him for two reasons; I figured he had better things to do and because he was too small. He would have had to put on a huge amount of weight. When I contacted him, he expressed an interest in small boat sailing and was probably a bit sick of the 'entertainment' business that employs him most of the time.

He was very keen to sharpen his skills. He had seen what Noel Drennan and others were doing in the Etchells and thought it was something that was important for his CV, to show he was very capable in this class of boat.

About 10 years ago, we had match raced together when he was my tactician. We won a couple of Australian titles in Perth and so we thought we would have another crack at it.

What was the unique jib halyard design your team came up with? .
It was an idea we stole off the Soling. Spot had identified the problem and then Alan and I remembered how we used to solve that specific problem.

The halyard was a regular halyard, but with a loop in the tail of it and then rather than having a cleat or any other complicated system, we had a small post. You hoisted the sail then the loop sat over the post. What that meant was that every time you put the jib up it was in the identical position from where you dropped it before. That was key to when you came around the bottom mark, you knew wherever you left off at the top mark, well that was exactly where it was going to relocate.

How important was sail selection and your relationship with your sail maker? .
It was absolutely critical. We worked with Jud Smith due to the quality of the product. It was really solid in its consistency. Secondly, you don't just get the Doyle sails, you also get his intellectual property.

We had lots of meetings, formal and informal. I learnt so much about what makes an Etchells go and that was he was prepared to share that information. Well, probably not all of it...

In hindsight, would you have preferred to have more time on the water or was not absolutely necessary? .
I think if you have done all your homework and you are really, really, well prepared off the water, then for sure I would have loved to have spent more time on the water. Most people put too much emphasis on time on the water and they either burn out or they are not efficient. We found that whenever we were out sailing, we were so focused and so efficient in what we did. This applied to when we were racing or just two-boating.

I would have loved to spend more time on the water. I think we would have been stronger again if we could have done that.

What would you not change in this program? .
I would tackle it with the same methodology that we did with the spreadsheet. I found that it really kept me honest in terms of what I was trying to achieve. Otherwise, the sport is so complicated that other variables could easily distract you.

How much did winning the Nationals affect your Worlds campaign? .
We were really chuffed. We didn't expect to win. That wasn't our goal. We had a whole bunch of other goals away from the results.

The result didn't distract us, but it did show that most people who have won the Nationals before a Worlds don't then go on to perform particularly well at the Worlds. I was acutely aware of that of that irony.

After the Nationals, we did lift our expectations. Originally we would have been happy to finish in the top 10, but after the Nationals, we realised we had a pretty good chance of winning that regatta, since there weren't going to be many newcomers for the Worlds, except for Noel 'Nitro' Drennan. So we looked for a top five at the Worlds.

What's next? Will you defend the Nationals? .
We are all taking a break and the boat is up for sale. However, I haven't finished yet. I have learnt so much about these boats. I am going to be committed to them until I am a Grand Master.

Full Results for the Zhik Etchells Australian Championship


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