Dublin/IRL: Fireball coaching sessions with Phil Lawton

22 July 2020

and invitation for the Fireball National Championships at Dun Laoghaire Motor Yacht Club / Dublin  on the 7th, 8th and 9th of August... 


Nine Fireballs took part in specialist coaching sessions at DMYC this weekend led by former Olympic sailor Phil Lawton. The event, supported by Irish Sailing, was geared towards optimizing crew work in a fast two-hander dinghy. Phil spent a solid year with Ger Owens practicing and perfecting their techniques in the 470 for the Beijing Olympics so it was a real bonus for the Fireball class to pick his brains. Amongst the regular Fireballers were some younger teams relatively new to Fireballs including Harry Thompson with Jack McDowell as helm, Ben Graf and Alexander Farrell from Lough Ree, and young Clodagh Fischer sailing with her father Glen. The opening message to the sailors was simple - there are two crews in a two- handed boat, what each does is very different but they have the same goal. While the emphasis throughout the sessions was on the (front!) crew's role the importance of communications and mutual support was emphasised throughout. This philosophy underlined Phil’s approach through the many exercise sessions.

 IRL coaching session july 20

 When a spinnaker drop is sticky for example the helm should be looking for the source of the problem at the back of the boat, which is frequently the location, rather than waiting for the crew to find the problem alone. And similarly, if at the leeward mark the kite drop is slow the helm should steer hard around the mark to get up on the new course, albeit with jib flapping and spinnaker tubed, rather than give distance away downwind. Throughout the many exercises, short windward leeward courses and rapid triangles the emphasis was on controlled aggression, smooth movements designed to keep the boat flat and driving. Smooth but firm crew movements were emphasised throughout. Phil suggested that the crew(s) actually write out each process on paper (starts, beats, reaches, runs, hoists, drops, mark rounding etc). When the process is fully recorded, assign tasks to each person in the boat. Analyse each action afterwards and see what are the problem areas, how can these be sorted out. Ask if tasks need reassignment - is one person overloaded, consider what happens to these processes in each of the different wind strengths – light, medium, heavy.

 The exercises were fast and furious, designed to put teams under pressure and show up any deficiencies in technique or coordination. For example, at one point the course was changed without warning so that a gybe set was required at the top mark. The tiny start line had a strong starboard bias forcing sailors to compete for any available room and oxygen at that side.  And to add further pressure on Saturday afternoon the wind kept shifting, shifting, shifting, keeping everyone on their toes. Courses set were deliberately set too short which made forced each leg and required co-ordinated action between crews if the boat was to successfully negotiate the course. During each 5 minute ‘race’ the emphasis was more on technique practice than on winners/losers although the fleet didn’t appreciate that too much and fought tooth and nail to be 1st over the line each time with several ‘liberal’ interpretations of the starting gun.

Amongst the tips from Phil were to break down and list all the duties/actions of crew and helm around the race course. Discuss and work out a breakdown of tasks, i.e. who does what and when and make this the standard routine. This is especially useful for spinnaker work; preparation, hoists, sets, gybes, drops. When it comes to spinnaker drops the crew should use the full height of their body and arms to get the kite down in a couple of pulls rather than “squirreling”. Build body or muscle memory for these and other set pieces.  Another exercise was to talk continually between each other about what you are doing and are about to do. The take-away suggestion was to get out on the water as a single boat and copy the practice sessions which we undertook at the weekend i.e. ultra-short mark rounding with either 1 or 2 buoys or other useful marks in the water at the time. This will build muscle memory. Without muscle memory established for each action it is not possible to work on boat speed. Boat speed only comes after all the tasks required to sail the boat are innate.

Overall, this event was a great success and sets the stage nicely for the Fireball National Championships at the DMYC on the 7th, 8th and 9th of August. Competitors are invited to enter online now at

Frank Miller