You’ve Got to Sync Visual, Intellect, and Feel – Luther Carpenter

You’ve Got to Sync Visual, Intellect, and Feel

US Sailing Team Head Coach, Luther Carpenter

Greetings One-design sailors of America!  I thought it might be interesting to share an article I wrote for our US Team last summer. My passion is to make observations usually centered around boat speed, which every sailor is eager to hear.  

My approach is to evaluate the last data points collected from my most recent regatta and set goals to improve. Returning from a World Championships in Europe, I saw three areas that we needed to improve on teamwide.  

  1. We need better preparation so we can sail with more confidence 
  2. We need to sail more consistently in shifty conditions 
  3. We need to approach our sailing with a stronger bond between feel and visual intellect. 

Let’s start with feel. Feel encompasses a wide range of important sensations which are key to “listen to” (write this list down in your notebook):   

A. How fast is the boat going? 

B. Do I have a balanced helm? 

C. Is the groove difficult and/or elusive, or do I have the perfect ability to gear change? 

D. Is the boat balanced? 

E. Am I over-powered or under-powered? 

F. Do I accelerate well on demand? 

G. Is my technique solid through transition? 

H. Can I race well with the boat feeling like this? 

I. Do I have different modes to choose from, and can I shift gears quickly to each? 

J. Is my hiking technique strong, efficient, and translating into boat speed? 

K. Am I in sync with the subtlety of the wind velocity increase and decreases? 

L. Do I feel efficiency on the centerboard? 

M. Do I feel the subtle sheet pressure on the sail, and have I found the right range? “The last 3-5 inches of mainsheet trim are what defines the fastest boats” 

N. Do I know what absolute fast forward is? 

O. Do I know max-height mode? 

P. Do I accurately know the “stall points” of sail trim and angle sailed? 


My favorite question is to ask: “How does it feel?.”  As your coach, I am looking for answers from the list above. I am reminding you to think in depth about your sensations.  I don’t want to hear a simple “good” or “terrible” as a response. I want you to answer in an intellectual manner. 

Be assured, I don’t want you to over-complicate moments. I want to teach you how to arrive at answers with no hesitation, especially as you train yourself to feel and think with those checklists in mind. This is your new fast track template.  

Intellect is a term used in studies of the human mind, and refers to the ability of the mind to come to correct conclusions about what is true or real, and about how to solve problems. 

In the sailing world, there are many types of intellect needed. Feel intellect is essential and ALL successful sailors have a PHD in it. You will too. (See questions A-P above) 

  • Visual intellect is the ability to recognize things and immediately perceive the complete story. When trimming sails, a glance at your mainsail leech is visual intellect – you must decide if the twist and depth is right in an eye’s moment. “Snapshots” is a term we use to identify familiar and repeating tactical situations. An approaching wind field or mixed puff pattern must be part of our visual intellect. In general, visual intellect is calling on a vast library of stored knowledge in our brain. Our eyes see it, it triggers experience data, and we react. The best sailors in the world dominate with visual intellect. 
  • Board room intellect is used more in depth when designing equipment or studying detailed weather phenomena. It is also used when creating our budgets and strategizing fundraising. It is essential deeper thought but is not appropriate in the cockpit during a race.  
  • Post action intellect is what we do when we debrief. 

Visual intellect is an area where all of us can improve dramatically. I want our team to draw “more detailed information” from quick looks with confidence. We need to be better at trimming sails by training our eyes to relate “what we see” to “how we feel.”   This relationship is key. We should be able to look at a snapshot of a sail and know exactly how that boat feels. Visual intellect and feel are bonded as one. 

I was asked a few years ago: “What’s more important, being able to see it or feel it?.”  It is both. 

Let’s look at a common example:  If the wind is steady 8-9 knots in smooth water, we can sail our boat very accurately in a narrow groove. Trim and telltale behavior can be described as accurate and twitchy, creating a boat that has minimal feel while being highly efficient. That is the unique relationship of speed and height for those specific sailing conditions.  

It is the “feel” of mainsheet tension in your hand; a completely neutral helm; butt/leg pressure down on the deck (while feeling good load against the efficient centerboard); wind on your face; “seeing” just enough twist; upper batten telltale behavior; jib tell tales slightly kicking; while viewing the next approaching wind feature. It is a LENGTHY list, and you must cycle through it with precision. It is fun and it is a cycle where visual leads you to feel which, in turn, sends you back to visual, etc. So, the intellectual knows that “zero feel is good, the groove can be narrow, and the boat can have great power and pointing! Our mainsheet is trimmed through a fairly small range, and once the boat is moving it can be sailed quite flat with maximum efficiency.” 

It is the “computer” running the show. 

Let’s talk bigger picture. How do we sail more consistently over the length of a regatta? That goal is achieved by having the proper (intellectual) mindset pre-race, during the race, and being intellectually focused on each specific condition. Our minds are mini-computers being challenged with a series of scenarios, which we constantly react to playing out the best percentage moves in rapid order. 

A single sailboat race is a collection of 600 (!) probable input/reaction moments. Here’s my math:  40-minute race (2,400 seconds), an input and decision/reaction every 4 seconds = 600.  That could be a telltale flick, a wave to steer around, a boat to duck, a puff to hike/ease/trim, a layline to hit, etc.  When you really think about it, it is amazing that we can process and react to everything. Pole vaulters run, jam a stick in the ground, and arch over a bar – done! We are major multi-taskers, switching from “more vang”, to “aft thigh,” to “am I crossing?”, “down 8”, “3 minutes off lay line”, and maybe even “15-degree right shift – gybe setting!”. 

In regatta debriefs, we’ll sometimes say “your event was three key decisions away from finishing top 5”. Really? 600 x 8 races = 4,800 decisions. And I only screwed up 3 times? I am sure my desktop math is flawed somewhat, but clearly some inputs and decision moments have more “value” and implications than others. 

Let’s dig deeper. If I’m having a visual input every 4 seconds, how do I know which ones are the most important to pay attention to? It’s like going to the Houston Rodeo in Reliant Stadium:  Cowgirls/Cowboys, bucking broncos, Margaritas, flashing lights, 60,000 people.  It is hard to know what to look at!  So, we categorize and highlight the top priorities to watch each race. On the water, you assess, discuss with your teammates, and use your coach as the information vessel – “Coach what are you seeing on the course?.”   

But it is more than a pre-race discussion or cherry-picking a single 4 second moment. It is the ability to chain together multiple looks and assess bigger picture decisions. In split seconds, your mind is telling you “This is different, and the moment of opportunity is NOW,” or “Hmm,  I’m getting a “feeling” the puffs are coming from the right more often.”  Or, maybe in the midst of a crazy day, your veteran intellect is telling you “A finish between 4th and 6th is just fine, position properly to maintain your place”. 

I think sailors love racing for it IS that adrenaline of thinking all the time that is such an intense high. When we get it right, it is nirvana. 


Now as I emphasize intellect, it is important to mention that a big challenge in competitive regattas is that everyone is an intellectual. Banging a corner off by yourself begs the question “Why am I the only one over here?.”  Why am I gambling leverage? What is the percentage play that my internal computer figures for my best overall regatta score? There is “smart leverage”, which is splitting short-term for something better; and then there is desperation, gambling, or looking for the easy way out.  Of course, there is “sticking with the fleet, positioning better, and being patient for the next snapshot to move up the chains.”   

Intellect is seizing opportunity, while also staying the course. In poker, we don’t go “all-in” every hand. We wait to keep losses low until the better cards arrive.  And even in the midst of a good hand, we still manage risk as related to our chances of winning the hand. Sailboat racing is the same – there is a lifted tack, there are laylines, and there is fleet geometry. With so many knowns, why bet on unknowns? 

The reason I am emphasizing visual intellect/feel is that I want to give you the tools to be more comfortable and dominate in the subtle positioning game. Certain wind conditions deliver a racecourse that keeps the fleet quite compressed as everyone arrives together at the first mark. Can you thrive in the knife-fight conditions? Do you love rounding the weather mark with 25 boats close behind? To win your answer must be “YES!.” 

Let’s move on to racing in shifty unpredictable winds. It’s challenging because it is calling on the visual/feel skills at an alarming rate, even sometimes faster than every 4 seconds. Past history has less bankable value, and there is a premium on reacting quickly to change as it is occurring. Your goal is to be “seeing it” (or realizing it) before the others, and claiming the open lane as the new puff/shift comes in. 

Story time: Who is one of the most successful US Olympians in sailing? Answer: Paul Foerster (3 Olympic medals, 2 PanAm medals). Paul grew up sailing on Texas lakes and enjoys shifty conditions. He’s a quiet man who gets confidently down to business. His most important pre-race routine? Get out there as early as you can and sail the shifts to get a “feel” for the timing. That is Paul’s method regardless of condition. He trusts his eyes, his feel, and his experience more than a weather forecast or his coach. Paul needs to be our hero.  


When thinking about Paul, I create this mindset and advice for shifty days: 

  1. On shifty days when warming up, NEVER sail on a header. Sailing on the lifted tack ALWAYS feels better/easier, so follow Paul’s lead and get a “feel” for it. 
  2. On unpredictable days, history can’t be trusted, so you need more pre-race “data”.  Sail at least two test beats with some length, and then sail many “short-bursts.”  During postponements and recalls stay in phase, keep testing to increase your confidence, track the rhythm of the shifts, and reinforce transitioning well. The rhythm and feel of the wind are data for you to collect. 
  3. Acceleration and transition are two absolute requirements to race well in shifty conditions. As you sail in phase, don’t be afraid to crack sheet(s) to accelerate followed by a trim and climb in height. I would be willing to bet that in the last race you won, you accelerated well. 
  4. Success breeds confidence which multiplies success on shifty days. Arrive to the racecourse ready to feel and learn the conditions and stay sharp all day.  
  5. Your to do list is:  Always be in phase, accelerate well, always sail in clear lanes. 
  6. And a Paul bonus – He worked on his boat more, trained more, and wanted it more than anyone else.    


“Ok, how do I get better at visual intellect and match it with my feel sensations?”

It is simple – don’t fall prey to just reading about it, you must DO IT. 

A. Sail alone more and heighten your awareness.  

B. Become a master at gear changing, transitions, and acceleration because YOU feel it and react.  

C. Look at your sails and equate vision to feel. Experiment. Don’t always do it the same way. 

D. Become a master at identifying the “edges” of performance – i.e. what is just slightly too full, too flat, perfect depth. Where is the line when stall is approaching and how do you “reload”?  How quickly can you get into fast forward VMG, standard angle, and high pointing VMG, all in perfect trim? 

E. Use your coach, other team members, etc. to discuss trims and techniques. 

F. “Race” from the moment you leave the dock to return. Cruising will come later in your sailing life. 



So, it’s easy, right? Make 4,800 good decisions and you win a Gold Medal! That’s pretty daunting task, but the first step is to commit to sailing with focus and purpose. I like to ask: “What is the hardest thing about this condition, today?”  Once I have answered that question, that challenge becomes one of my primary focus points of the day. Tomorrow, instead of smashing into the chop and hating it, I’ll be psyched to heel slightly, keep a higher percentage of load on the rig and board, and sneak a 1.5 length gain in that nasty set of 3 waves in a row! 

The intensity at which you operate on the water needs to be high since there are always gains to be made. Step one is to tell yourself that you WILL BE the best at visual intellect and feel. You will see the wind more clearly; you will sense the wind going left with 20 seconds to go; be the master of slight twist for acceleration; and then squeeze in for a burst of high mode. Someone is always going to be the most aware, observing better and drawing confidence on the day. Why shouldn’t that someone be you? 

Another key attitude to have is “What’s next?”  If you train yourself to look forward, you will find that everything is easier. It means sailing more “head out of the boat” and gains will come more easily when you see the plot unfold. Lanes are easy to claim, and to quote Steve Hunt: “My tactics are insane cause I’m in my big fat lane!.”    

What are the conditions? What is the pre-race plan?  What does the line look like?  What phase is the wind in? How is the boat moving? What is the key to speed? What is my next move?  Feed the computer solid data and your mind will react with the best solution. Enjoy and embrace what our sport serves up. Nothing feels better than putting it all together on the racecourse! 

Luther Carpenter