Mike Schroff (Melges 15 – USA242) is a lifelong, winning dinghy and big boat sailor, originally from Rhode Island, who eventually moved to the Chicago / Lake Michigan sailing scene and now Sarasota, FL. Crew Abby Brown (Canada) grew up in British Columbia, Canada sailing at Vancouver Island, over 3,200 miles from where she and Mike teamed up to achieve 2nd place by one point in the Helly Hansen Sailing World event at St. Petersburg, FL in 2023. Mike won this event in 2022. We spoke with Mike and Abby in St. Petersburg to ask them how they came together as a team and sailed so fast at the event.
Abby started sailing in the Vancouver / Vancouver Island area of British Columbia, Canada at the Maple Bay Yacht Club and is currently in college sailing in Ontario. She started early with keel boats and then went on to 420s and the Melges 24 and J70s. While she didn’t always love sailing, she now has the passion and skills to be a force in the sport. She is now a college student and sailing coach.
Mike was originally from Rhode Island sailing boats from the Sunfish to keel boats. He went on to the University of Rhode Island where he was mentored by the greats Tom Burnham and John Ziskind. They taught Mike that the bowperson should be the “2nd best tactician on the planet”. Perhaps his biggest influence is John Mollicone, whom he met at age 12, raced sunfish against each other, coached him to become a good Farr 40 mainsail trimmer and was the main game changer for Electric Pickle phase 2 (in getting Mike going on the J70).
Mike shared how his social awkwardness was eased by success in sailing.
…throughout my whole life, sailing has always made me feel the best. I’ve been socially a bit challenged as everybody knows and when you’re…it creates the skills…it just boosts an incredible level of confidence…and it’s really carried forward.Mike
Mike eventually moved to Chicago, competing on boats that kept growing his skills – Farr 40s, J111, Vanguard 15s, FJs, Sunfish…and is ever on the hunt for mentors. More recently, Mike created a training program called the “Electric Pickle Experience” (named after his first sailing instructors boat name) melding creativity and scientific thinking with sailing.
Electric Pickle is about motivation. It’s named Electric Pickle Experience. It’s experiences that make life worthwhile. That’s what the whole thing is founded on and that’s what the energy is that attracts people to it and it’s just been a ride that just puts a huge smile on my face.Mike
Coming Together as a Team
When you start out with…a new crew member, new Skipper…you really don’t know them. You don’t know…what their capability is. You have to have a lot of faith going into it…because…everything is unknown. So…the first day we got out. We did about an hour of practice on Thursday and we were just kind of…trying to figure each other out. What calls do we like when…we’re tacking do you want a three-two-one countdown? <> It really just comes down to having confidence in each other. You have to earn it and prove to yourself, as well as your sailing partner, that you can do it. For me, I’ve always struggled with making tactic calls because I’m always <thinking> what if I’m wrong? What if this isn’t the right call? Really for me personally it was amazing that Mike just…he had the confidence in me and the faith in me that I was making the right call and that made me more confident. I had faith in myself then, because I knew…okay…if he believes in me and he believes that I’m making the right call then I’m also going to believe that I’m making the right call. I think that’s really how we gelled. Just having faith in each other and boosting each other’s confidence and just supporting each other through the learning process.Abby
It’s one thing (that) you had faith, but you earned the faith because you started to sail better. As soon as we started to get on the step (on plane) and that breakaway speed and we broke a plateau together…like something clicked and it’s…you’re (Abby) the huge confidence booster for me. I personally react a lot to that you know as sort of a spectrum type of mind there’s…lead with love or people need to have faith and it…just boosts me and even you, Rob, interviewing us just makes me light up like a sun. To race with Abby…it’s just…your (Abby) energy you know and it’s faith rewarded. If you’re fast, then tactics get easy. I knew (that) you’re a 29er sailor, but the technique was something at 110 pounds to pull us on the step and keep us jumping on waves doing 13.7 (knots) the whole time, which you know is… you’re sailing fast.Mike
You’re sailing fast. The boat’s getting a little bit (rocking motion) you know that we’re opening the vang up…the helm is getting neutral as you heal. One of the biggest things is when we have big waves about this tall (3-5 feet) and the wave starts coming and you’re kind of tempted to drive down and from my last crew, Emily Shandley Roberts – “tsk tsk tsk” – you know, I definitely got, uh, corrected by her. I applied these lessons. So when the wave comes, we kind of go up (the wave) and what did you (Abby) do? You kind of just threw your shoulders down (and out) and (sheeted in the spinnaker) and we shot down the wave like a surfboard. We didn’t hit any waves this weekend. Before you knew it, we sailed straight through the middle of the (fleet)…lower, faster. “Speed equals speed” to quote Eddie Cox (Melges)…which is classic 29er (thinking). The Melges 15 and the 29er are extraordinarily similar boats. …the Melges 15, they’re stable…the 29ers like a knife. In a Melges 15, you make a mistake, it’s okay. In a 29er, you’re upside down.Mike
As things developed the next day…we could not go upwind to save our lives. Turns out…bow down by two degrees of everyone else is correct because you sail around people. But the next day, Abby wanted…let’s go jib forward. Turns out Abby was correct. Our (jib) leads were back. We were two holes showing (two holes on the jib lead car track showing behind the car). We had the jib way open. Had I (remembered Friday) to trim the boat flat, it would have been a low mode (and) that could have worked. Come day two, it’s still windy, but Abby moves the jib forward “what you went three holes or four showing?” Abby: “We started with three and then we went up to four as like the wind died a little bit and the waves got bigger.” Just magically when the jib is forward and you see the rounded foot and I look up through the telltale window, through the main (sail) window, to make sure we’ve got full flow. If I feel that the jib’s hard…I just look up there at the (Vakaros) Atlas 2 to see what the target speed is like. Check the angle…very, very useful device by the way, I was wrong. So all of a sudden you feel the bow, the boat heads up. You’re not driving into people now, it just picked the bow up. It’s that powerful shape that makes the boat go forward faster which generates more powerful lift. So it’s not a matter of driving up. It’s balance of power you know that I believe that uh drives the boat forward.Mike
SZ: Abby, you suggested to move the jib car forward. What were the clues that caused you to think that was the right thing to do?
I was really struggling with it on the first day because we were so overpowered because we were sailing so much lighter than everyone else. So we couldn’t keep the boat flat. So moving that car back was a way of opening up the leech of the sail and really spilling some power in hopes of like being able to get us flatter and de-power us a little bit. But the problem with that is it was so wavy. We were fighting so much current all weekend. We didn’t have the power to get through the waves. We didn’t have a way to really get up to speed to then be able to sail the boat properly. So then on day two, it was still pretty windy and I was like, you know what? Yesterday didn’t work. We tried that. It didn’t work. We know it didn’t work. So let’s try something different. So that’s where it kind of came from. We tried one thing, it was unsuccessful. So we tried another thing and it was really just being able to have the extra power in the jib to drive our bow down and get us through those waves. Made a huge difference in that wind.Abby
When you ask about the clues, that’s a great question because it’s about touch in the dinghy. To use numbers requires touch. I know that I should feel the boat drive up. Abby’s like “I think we’re not powerful enough in the jib…we’re missing power…we should have more power” and um okay, so we’ll do more power.Mike
Sailors Helping Sailors
SZ: Most sailors that I’ve experienced are very open about sharing everything because, if I give you my magic sauce about how to sail better the likelihood that you’re going to suddenly incorporate that into your sailing and beat me is pretty low. But also, I think sailors like competition. Most racing sailors like to have good competition. So they’re like “oh yeah. Well here’s what you did wrong and or here’s what I think you might have been doing wrong. You should think about this. So that sharing is just phenomenal. You’ve talked about that sharing between the crew members. There’s also sharing between competitors helping people get better…
There’s a lot of conversations in between the races and stuff. Us with other boats and other boats with other boats that you kind of picked up on and it was like “Hey! How many holes are showing or like Hey! What’s your rig at or Hey! What’s your vang at and all that kind of stuff. I know that a lot from dinghy sailing in the past. We would get out on the water and we would do a tune-up and whether I was tuning up with people from my team or I was racing through people from other teams that I was racing against. We were always sharing knowledge because the only way for you to get better is if your competition is also getting better because that’s going to push you to keep learning and keep doing better. But if you’re always at the top of the fleet and there’s no one pushing you to get better, it’s a lot harder for you to have motivation within yourself to get better…if you’re already sailing at a level that makes you think that you’re the best in the fleet. But if your fleet is all racing at the same level, I find that that’s when I learned the most. …it’s awesome to bounce ideas off of each otherAbby
SZ: We saw you just ripping downwind. Mike: “Yeah a little freaky.” SZ: What was the AHA Insight? What was the thing that happened that made you two go “Oh! This is working!”?
(It) really was the wave jumping and learning to keep the vang off. I mean through the video, I remember Brad Funk saying like dude you gotta hike harder and keep the boom over the back of the boat to open the top…which lets you head up. It was the point where I wasn’t chasing the waves low. I just kind of went up and the boat loaded up and we rocketed. <> We’d head up. We’d go up. It’s like hit and hold. Just wait and then VOOM. Then all of a sudden, after that, your confidence goes up and it’s now a truth. It’s a simple truth. You know the feel. We run straight into you and, if you’re in the way, we just trace through a jibe, nice and smooth. With Abby saying “you are a magic driver in the waves” that makes you start to trust yourself. That’s the aha moment where we blast. Then as we went from like mid-fleet to 100 yards ahead is that…not seeing the sea turtle. <laughs – see video below> She turns to me and she’s like “Oh my God! Look at where we are! Look back!” I go, “Would it be bad to take a camera selfie?” She’s like “NO!”.
We have a lot of fun laughing, but when you’re doing well, you start laughing. Laughing is faster. One of my great mentors, Jimmy Elvart, he said “What should be happening is you should be having a good time enjoying and knowing the mentality though that you race the boat.” We sail well.Mike
Abby Sees a Sea Turtle While Racing
The other thing…you have to help each other, not upset each other by being open to doing well and not having an ego about it or wanting to be seen. What was it that Goethe wrote in “Faust” – “people want want knowledge and love” – and you want to learn something. When you truly do learn something, and we did learn, and it really, it really straddled us forward. It was that wave jumping AHA Moment for me. I don’t know what would you say Abby. When you got it?Mike
WOW! It’s hard to like think about it and not smile.
It was a big confidence boost because sailing upwind in that boat, it’s a lot. There’s jib cars and there’s no windward sheeting and 29ers have a self-tacking jib. So I don’t even touch the jib on the upwinds. I have the main sheet in my hand. So that boat was a lot different than dinghies that I had sailed on the upwinds. …and then when we went downwind, it was a lot like a 29er, it’s still not the same, but it felt a lot more familiar to me. Just being able to be like “Oh! I know how to do this. I’ve done this before. I know what to do.” I’m small. I am maybe 110 pounds. So it takes a lot. In that kind of breeze that we had on Friday and Saturday… Mike: “15 to 20. yeah. 15 to too much man” Yeah. I can’t trim that kite with my arms, so I have to use my entire upper body. That really ends up helping, because, as I’m trimming with my body, when it comes in, I’m leaning out, we’re driving down. …and then when I’m coming in, it’s to ease it, because it’s getting lighter and we don’t need all that weight out. So it ends up working out a lot better because I need to use my body to trim the kite so my body is moving us and it’s becoming beneficial. So I feel like, in a way, me being very light helped us out a lot on the downwinds because I was a lot more active with moving my body as well as trimming the kite. Having us be lighter also allowed us to sail on the step planing a lot lower than the other boats because we could get onto it that much faster and we could hold it that much lower because we didn’t have as much weight in our boat.Abby
SZ: Tell us about how you handled some tough spots.
As they started to answer the question, they mentioned a 3-5-7 Drill that Abby had them practice before the regatta. We asked them to explain it.
I’m a big race team coach. I coach a lot of kids like all the way up – learn to sail and then try and get them into regattas – mostly 420s at Port Dover Yacht Club. It’s a cottage club kind of thing on Lake Erie. So I coached them from, at that club I think we start at seven and then just kind of getting them all the way up through. Then they’re 18 and they want to move on to a race team and we don’t have a full-blown race team. But I have enough to get them up and get them through their first two or three regattas and then I send them off to someone with a bigger budget and a bigger team that can coach them through the rest of the year. But a big one is, whenever I get a new team together and they’re in the boat, I do this 3-5-7 drill. It’s a really common one in Canada. I’m sure everyone uses it down here, it might just be a different name. There’s a windward-leeward and on the first one you do 3 tacks and one jibe. Then you do it again and you do 5 tacks and 3 jibes Then you do 7 tacks and 5 jibes. I just make them keep going until they’re not sailing anymore, they’re just tacking so much. Because, that is when you’re communicating the most. I find that when new teams get together and they’re just sailing in a straight line, there’s a lot less communication going on. But if they’re moving through a movement, like a tack or a jibe or a hoist or a bear away or a douse or whatever, there’s a lot more communication and they get comfortable communicating with each other. So when they do start to sail in a straight line, they can keep up their communication. It’s just not the same communication that you use through a tack. SZ: “Even the non-verbal. It would seem like going through that motion so often, you really don’t have to say this or that…you get beyond…” Exactly. Yeah, and you start to work through the boat as a team. When we first got out on the boat and we were tacking, our roll tacks were…okay. It was our first time together. We hadn’t figured each other out. Even on Friday, we were a little bit better, but we had to watch each other to make sure that we were moving as a team. When Saturday rolled around, I’m sure you feel the same way, I didn’t really have to look back. I just knew that we were moving through the boat together as a team. Mike: “So, I was following you. I can see you. You know.” I think that was a big help…being able to go through the process of all of those movements a bunch of times together. Working out…what we need to do to get through the boat as a team.Abby
At the start, they had adjusted the entire course except for the pin end of the starting line. They had shifted everything so the boat was incredibly favored, like terrifying the amount of favored, and I was like okay, we have to start at the boat. But the problem was, we were so set up at the boat I didn’t realize that there was a huge puff at the pin end. So we started in a lot less breeze than the rest of the fleet because I was so focused on the boat being so favored that I didn’t realize that there was so much more pressure at the other side of the course. At that point, the pressure was more favored than the boat. So we started at the boat. We did okay on the start line. I wouldn’t say we won it, but we did all right. We tacked out and all of the J24s that were on our course were rounding the leeward mark at that point. We are now on the right side of the course under, I don’t know how many J24s there were. There were Flying Dutchman, a lot Melges 15s… Mike: “We were like we’re going right.” Everyone was going right right on top of us. In the end, our J24 friends helped us out a lot with that one because there was another boat on our hip, so we didn’t have a spot to tack. So we very politely asked them if they would tack…and they tacked for us! It was amazing. Mike: “We thanked them on the way downwind.” That’s another thing about sailing. They aren’t racing against us, they’re racing against their Fleet. So they don’t want to try and screw us over that. That doesn’t benefit them at all. So they were amazing and they helped us tack and I got distracted by a sea turtle.Abby
We had an AHA Moment there that was actually confirmed later. There were these other guys that we’re sailing under and I’m grumbling, you know, but we kind of sailed out from under and sure enough Eddie’s like, yeah, “I sail bow down and go”, we went around them and then we ended up haphazardly into the righty. It did materialize and eventually you know we kind of sailed up, rounded the weather mark in 16th or 15th and aggressively not front. So we rounded the mark and went down just ripping, ripping downwind. We dive a little, you know, and when we jibe very smooth and even kind of went down the face of a wave and started timing the drop, chased the wave into the jibe. We would go down and just trace right down the wave. When I turn it’s really, it’s a gentle turn. I don’t want to go up and stop. You want to feel it. If you’re not super technical, you want to feel that the boat traces through the jibe. You have to watch it on video. Next thing you know, we’re in third place. Abby: “It’s always a lot easier to drive when you are going fast.” Yeah. When you’re going fast and the helm is neutral.Mike
SZ: Tell us about how you make the decision to jibe downwind – and set / jibe or jibe / set.
So, moving from back of the boat forward again in the decision making hierarchy… Now we’re quite specific because Abby’s trimming downwind. Sometimes, a couple times, I was like “Don’t look. Curl only (watch the sail shape). Because you pass boats the last 100 feet every time and you’ve got to come in (to the gate) super hot. People drive down, as a side note, at the leeward mark and you lose a ton of boats doing that stuff. The boats take a lot to get on step (plane). Max Lopez told me something. He’s like “You know dude. Set, go straight. You think you’re on the layline, go some more.” We want to just get going. Rip. Go ripping. Tactics is boat speed first. Fast through the water is number one, then tactics gets a lot easier. We’re gonna set and go straight. Then at some point you’re like, “I think we want to jibe” or you’re like “should we jibe” and I’m like “hold on” or are just waiting for a puff. You jibe into pressure and open air. Setting, going straight gets you up on the plane and it’s simple and gets you going. We did a jibe / set. I mean, it wasn’t the greatest. We haven’t practiced it. You jibe / set just fine, but if it’s a huge fleet of boats, that’s under a wall. So you have to get going straight. Ideally, if all things considered, if nothing changes by yourself strategically, you just want to go straight because jibing is slow. If you jibe, it takes a couple seconds to jibe and it’s a very long three seconds for me. In three seconds off the step can be 50 yards. We don’t slow down. Dinghy sailors. College sailing. We don’t ever slow down. …and we don’t hit waves. That’s the real reason we got so far forward. We just look for the puff, jibe and you don’t want to jibe in the lull.Mike
I think that the main thing for me is when I get in a new boat, I ask a lot of questions. I’m trying to figure out how that boat works. I know a lot of the time if I’m hopping in a new boat it’s to sail with a crew that has been in that boat for a while. So I’m asking a lot of questions and, you can speak to this I’m sure… What do you think of this or like what do you normally do with the jib cars and what do you normally do for jib trim and all the different sail controls. Just trying to figure out what is typical for making that boat go. Mike: “Probing questions.” Trying to figure out what is normal and what is what they’re used to about that boat and I think a lot of the time that comes across as me not being… or a lot of people take that as I’m not a confident sailor and I don’t know what I’m talking about. But it’s not that I don’t know what I’m talking about. I just don’t know the boat. SZ: “To me, it actually sounds like a language translator. If you’re used to sailing a 29er and you’re getting in a Melges 15, you’re asking these questions to try to see how there are differences…see how they’re similar.” Exactly. Yeah. SZ: “That way, in your head, if you find yourself doing a behavior you would do in a different type of boat, then you go… Okay. In this one, I need to modify my thinking or it reinforces I do it the same way I would do it in my other other boat.” Exactly. Yeah. So, a lot of the time I’ll get in a boat and I’ll do that and some of the sailors in that boat see that as me not being confident or me not knowing what I’m doing. But the second they just answer the questions, I’m able to figure out the boat. They’re like…Oh. She was doing it to figure out the boat. She wasn’t doing it to figure out how to sail. So don’t be afraid to ask questions is my big thing. They might take it as you don’t know how to sail, but it will improve your sailing regardless. If you can understand the boat better, you can sail the boat better. So my big thing is just keep asking questions… Mike: “Ask the right questions too.” SZ: “The second side is, if you’re the one getting asked the questions, be receptive and understand that the reason you’re being asked the question might actually be to help you.” Yeah. Mike: “I’m going to take that back towards the quiet mind, because I also kept you away from unnecessary questions (that weren’t necessary detail).”Abby
SZ: It’s awesome to speak with both of you. Congratulations on second place in this big event. A lot of fun. You both walk away with huge smiles on your faces. Mike: “We did. Yeah.” It’s not just trophies. The trophy is the learning and the fun and… Abbie: “Yeah.” …that moment where you go WOW whether it’s about a sea turtle… which is also an amazing thing. Abbie: “Yeah!”
If you would like to contribute to a cause that Abby supports…
Abby: (2023) Our Canadian college team is fundraising for some overseas events coming up. https://www.windathletes.ca/athletes/team-canada-world-university-championships