Life lessons from boat racing – take your gains when you can

Wind shifts. They are the bane and the reward when you are boat racing. If you are on the wrong side of a wind shift, you are cursing the weather gods. If you are on the good side of a wind shift you are patting yourself on the back as being a superior tactician.

The one thing that you can pretty much guarantee is that during a race there will be wind shifts, and your success or failure to read and adapt to them will determine your overall outcome. Yes, there are lot of other factors in play, such as your placement with other boats, but there is no other single factor that can make such a huge difference in your results.

Now the one thing that a lot of us do is to hang on to a gain for too long, and then find that a shift has come and the gain that you had has now turned into a loss. I suppose it is only human nature to try to play the gain for as long as possible, but that can quite often leave you holding a losing hand.  The other mistake that can easily be made is hoping that an adverse shift will come back and give you a gain.

The idea is to bank your gains when you can and then go looking for another one. Obviously you need to temper this with observations about what is happening around you, but by banking your gain you have it locked up. A good example of this is when you are riding a left shift on starboard tack. The boats that are inside of you will be slowly falling behind you and you will find that there will come a point that boats that you couldn’t clear if you tacked are now clearable. The bad part of this is that boats on the other tack are being lifted. By tacking you are banking that gain and clearing those boats. Not only that you are now on the favored tack and you will be lifted inside the boats that are downwind of you on the new tack. The moment the left shift ends though, all of these gains stop, so the trick is to bank when you can. The moment you can clear the boats you are gaining on – go for it, and then you will still have some more of the shift to get gains on the boats on the port tack

In boat racing, it is quite common to get what is known as an oscillating breeze, where it will shift to the right for a while, and then shift back to the left, and this happens on a regular basis, so 5 minutes in one direction and then 5 minutes in another. If you are well enough prepared and have been out on the race course before the start checking out the shifts, then you can keep taking advantage of the shift during the race.

This is equally true of life off the water, where the tendency is to get greedy when there is an advantageous business situation. Always keep a weather eye out so that you have an exit plan that will allow you to bank your gains when you can. Small gains are great and much better than boom and bust.

Life lessons from boat racing – keep a light hand

This year we have been struggling a bit with the balance of the boat. Once the wind pipes up a bit, there has been an ever increasing amount of weather helm.

After significant fiddling around, including taking the furling apart, we have managed to adjust the balance of the rig a little further forward and now seem to have it  mostly under control. Going upwind now in a 15 knot breeze gives a small amount of weather helm and that can be tuned out to a neutral helm using the traveller.

The issue we had before is that the excess weather helm was causing significant added drag under the water. We would need the rudder significantly off the center line to counter balance the weather helm and keep the boat on track. This meant that the top speed was knocked down a bit and more significantly the boat was slow to accelerate out of a tack. It also meant that you really needed to pay attention to your line as the boat would tend to head up with even a split seconds wandering of concentration by the helm.

Now the boat is in balance, the helm can steer with two fingers and we are minimizing extra underwater drag. It is simply a more pleasant boat to sail, not to mention faster.

The application of this to the business world is that in any organization you need to look for situations where the organization is out of balance. Maybe this is due to inadequate or even potentially over staffing, it could be because of poor or over complex business processes. The list is potentially endless, but the bottom line is that the organization is having to work a lot harder to produce results than it needs to. Dealing with this may be easy, or it may be hard, but the rewards are significant, both in terms of productivity and also your business will be a more pleasant place to work as the frustration level will fall.


From a management perspective, just like on the boat, you will be able to steer your organization with a much lighter hand.

Life lessons from boat racing – leaders lead

When we first starting racing many years ago, I was trying to do everything. I drove the boat, called tactics, called sail trim and generally annoyed the hell out of my crew as they sat around waiting for the next order.

Well our results showed that. We improved gradually, but then hit a wall and couldn’t get any better than middle of the pack. Not only that, but I was not enjoying racing and would come off the lake with my head ready to explode.

So we tried an experiment. I gave up the helm. The reasoning behind this was that in most circumstances, driving the boat was fairly mechanical but required absolute concentration, and it alone was a full time job, especially on a short course. If you let your concentration waver by calling tactics or calling sail trim, you simply weren’t driving as well as you could. Not only that, I was also missing a fair bit on the tactics and sail trim side as I simply couldn’t do those and helm at the same time.

It worked well, and to this day I rarely drive the boat in a race. Instead I concentrate on tactics, and now rely on others looking after the mechanics of getting the boat going well. Is it working perfectly, no but it is working well and I’m doing just one job which is to try to figure out the best way around the course, with minor departures looking at trim. Our results improved dramatically and with the old boat, we ran off a 5 year championship string. With the new boat, we are still figuring it out, so our results are middle of the pack but we are getting better as we figure out the responsibilities.

If you equate this to life off the water, it is the recognition that in any team there is a person that calls the shots but he or she doesn’t have to do all of the critical things. They need to train others and then let them get on with the job. Of course they need to keep an eye on things, but their job is to make sure the process is proceeding in the right direction and that all of the jobs are being done well. If you train people well, then they can do the jobs better than you can, and you can keep your eyes open for bumps in the road or considering the topic of these articles, waves in the lake.

I also learned that there is only so much that I can do and still be effective. If I take on too much then I don’t do anything well, so I concentrate on the tasks that have the highest return.

Life lessons from boat racing – tactics, tactics, tactics

The search for the newest go faster gadget is one of the things that keeps us boat racers interested. It certainly is fun, and can be pretty expensive, but the lesson I have learned is that these things come last on the list. Yes, you have to have functioning gear, in good order, but there isn’t a magic bullet.

Instead you need to concentrate on doing things right – start well, pick the right side of the course, read the wind, tack on wind shifts, stay out of trouble and execute well. All of these things don’t need technology, they need common sense and a heads up game. Poor tactics can lose you minutes over the course of a race, whereas the latest go faster toy will gain you seconds. It isn’t rocket science which one gives you the bigger gain.

Yes – all things being equal, then the gadget may help – but they never are. Boat racing, just like life is based upon making the fewest mistakes, and when you do make a mistake, and you will, how you recover and move on. It is seeing the advantage and then capitalizing on it.

I’ve worked in Information Technology for the whole of my life, and it has been one unending search for the better mousetrap. Looking back, I can say that new tools certainly can help – but if you concentrate on doing things effectively and well, with a good vision of what you want to achieve then the gains will be much greater. Not only that – but each time you try a new mousetrap there is a learning curve, sometimes huge, sometimes small that you have to endure, so being expert at what you do is a never ending chase.

I’m not a luddite, so exploring new technology, both on and off the water isn’t something that I’m averse to, and no-one can sit on their laurels and hope to retain gains. What I find though is that while you need to introduce new things, you also need to make sure you are and continue to do all of the basics right first.

Life lessons learned from boat racing – communication

One of the keys to boat racing is to get your crew doing the right thing at the right time. When you have a crew that has been with you for years, it becomes much easier as they pretty much know what to do, but even then you can get into trouble making assumptions.

To that end, unless it is an emergency, such as we are about to t-bone another boat, one of the things that we try to do is to have a brief discussion of who is going to what and when, prior to starting any maneuver. It doesn’t matter whether this is something that we have done many times before, or whether it is a first time through. It may be as simple as Bill, you are on release, Terry you are tailing, John you are on main – are we all ready? Ok – helm over.

The number of times we have aborted an action because someone said – no – hold on – the sheet is twisted, or highlighted some other issue makes it well worth it, as holding off on a maneuver is usually a heck of a lot better than messing one up. The other thing that is important is that if there is an issue, anyone who notices it speaks up. The idea is that we do our maneuvers as well as we can, and everyone is key to getting it right. If it doesn’t go right – then there is a quick debrief about how we need to do it differently next time, but we aren’t looking to assign blame, we are just looking to improve.

Wouldn’t it be nice if other areas of our lives worked the same way – so no egos, or turf wars or cover ups. I can’t say that all of these things will go away, but it is certainly worth a try and open communication is pretty key to this.