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 – keep your eyes on the prize

This is a follow up to an earlier post about roles – you can read it here but it is well worth expanding on, and it is the simple fact that when there is a lot going on you tend to get lost in the details.

The old saying “when you are up to you ass in alligators it is difficult to remember that your task was to drain the swamp” is very true, both on the water and off. Where I get tripped up on the water is allowing all of the things going on around me to distract from my job of managing the race and making good tactical decisions. I get to the end of a race and in the post race analysis that runs around in my head, I can always manage to do better and can always see where the wheels fell of the wagon (or prop fell of the boat), but in the heat of battle it is a lot more difficult.

The trick is to limit the number of things that you are responsible for to a manageable number, and then get people around you that can do the other things and then let them do them. Easier said than done, as you have a built in tendency to oversee, and that takes up cycles, which you may or may not have, and if you don’t it will come back and bite you at the most inopportune time. It is difficult and goes against all of the ethos of the “skipper” who is responsible for everything.

Off the water, this is also the same challenge faced by most small business owners, and is probably the biggest (well next to the economy) limit to growth. It is self limiting on both your business and your sanity if you can’t let go. So, plan and structure. Define the roles you need to have performed, give people their roles and then discipline yourself to a reducing amount of oversight. Once you trust people to do their jobs, let them get on with it and hold yourself to just enough oversight to ensure that things are proceeding well and no more. Your stress level will thank you and your results will astound you.

Life lessons from boat racing – perform your role

I’m really guilty of this on the boat. I do my job and then I do everyone elses too.

In the middle of a race, I’m calling tactics, calling trim and a host of other things too and it doesn’t work that well. I lose focus on the things that I have to do, and then those don’t get done as well as they should. We get into tactical situations that we should have avoided, and usually the reason is that I didn’t focus on the tasks that were my main reason for being on the boat, which is to manage a good sound tactical race.

I know there are reasons that I do this, and what I need to focus on as part of the new season is to give  everyone else the freedom to do their job without me looking over their shoulder. Will there be a few missed assignments, yes, of course there will be, but it is only by letting go of the responsibility that others will step up and take it. I need to act as a coach, and help others do their job better, but not try to do it for them.

Away from the water, this is the first trap that new managers fall into. Usually they get the role to manage because they were very good at the job, and it is so hard to let others do tasks that you know that you can do better, but it is part of growth to allow others the freedom to make mistakes and learn and maybe offer a few helpful pointers when asked..

Life lessons from boat racing – if it is broke fix it

Lets say I am good at putting things off, especially if it means getting all hot and sweaty. That means that things on the boat, especially in the height of summer will get put off until the weather cools. I repeat, I am not good in the heat, and tools and other articles do tend to get airborne after a few expletives when I miss something due to sweat in my eyes. I’m also old enough that I forget where I put tools down and spend a fair amount of time getting pissed off that I can’t find bits.

That being said, there is a point that you need to do things as the level of irritation with a problem become annoying or something is just plain broke. It is the first of these that I want to talk about today, the second is pretty self evident  just go ahead and fix it. The second is a little more pernicious, both in life and on the water.

For most of this season I have not been particularly happy with the boat handing. We just have a bit too much weather helm when the wind pipes up, It isn’t that anything is broken, it just isn’t working as well as it should. When we head off up wind, the rudder is too far off the center line and we have more drag than we should. The fix is to change the balance of the boat and move the center of effort of the sail plan forward. This shouldn’t be a  difficult job, but it is the first time that I have done this on this boat, so there is always a risk of things going awry. The other factor is that the furling on this boat isn’t a current model so getting replacement parts could be a little difficult if things go bubbles.

So, guess what, I’ve been putting it off and living with a sub-par situation. That is called procrastination, and it isn’t a good thing. It can happen for a lot of reasons – for me it is when I’m uncertain of obtaining the outcome I want.

So the trick is to figure out what needs to be done by whatever means necessary and attempt to disaster proof your plan before you start. In this case I found a really useful youtube video that walked me through the process. I had read the manual as well and with both of these I felt that it wasn’t beyond my capabilities. If it is beyond your capabilities, then at this point stop, do not pass go and get the right help, as failure will reinforce your procrastination in the future.

Next is to make a detailed plan of what you need to do the job and the steps involved, and a place to store your tools when you are working. Go through from beginning to the end, and  then you won’t find yourself in the situation where everything is apart all over the dock and you are running around looking for the tool you forgot to bring or have temporarily misplaced. I had both a mental and physical check list before I left to start work.

Now work your plan. Don’t skip steps and if things are struggling, then step back and regroup. I had to do this a couple of times when I ran into issues but in the end I had disaster proofed my plan well enough that nothing went sideways and now I’m on to the last step which is test and test again to ensure I have achieved my objective.

By the way, even with all of the planning I did forget one tool and had to improvise. It was something that I didn’t even think of during the planning process so it was a case of not knowing what I didn’t know. Next time I do this adjustment, I won’t have this surprise, but all in all I’m happy with how things went.

Life lessons from boat racing – sometimes you just get it wrong

Hopefully it doesn’t happen too many times, but it will, For all of the best reasons in the world, you are out in a race and you make some calls that look right at the time, but don’t work out.

Last Wednesday was a prime example – we started the race off fairly well – we were in clean air at the start and hit the line pretty close to the gun and headed off in the direction that we wanted. So far so good. We didn’t see any wind shifts but by the time we got to the uphill pin we were behind. No worries, just keep plugging away. We took out a couple of boats on the wing legs, but the wind velocity was starting to tail off and the committee boat indicated a shorten course was in play, so we rounded the last  downwind mark and headed off up wind to the finish – we were not in bad shape at this point – probably second or third in fleet. That is when the wheels came off.

We rounded the mark and headed off upwind. If you have been following this blog you will know that we don’t have the greatest of upwind angles, we simply cannot outpoint the fleet, so our best tactic is to just go fast and a little lower. If you can avoid being covered, this works just fine – we sail further but get there quicker. Not tonight.

Right off the mark, the wind slowly started to back and we were on a port tack, That meant that we were getting lifted, but the other boats were getting lifted inside of us. Not good – but not much we can do about it, so go for speed. We watched the fleet get away from us and by the time we hit the finish we were in last but one place.

We had done everything right – but this time it simply didn’t work, and in racing as in life that sometimes happen – and all you can do is to try to plan for the eventualities and have back up plans, but as Mary Chapin Carpenter sang, “sometimes you are the windshield, sometimes you are the bug”

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 from boat racing – heads up

The worst tangles that I have ever got into in a boat race come down to one thing and that is not keeping a weather eye out, If you see trouble coming then you have time to come up with a counter strategy which, while it may not eliminate the threat, will minimize the impact on you.

It could be a boat that is on starboard and you are on port, or it could be a traffic jam developing at a turning mark or being headed up at the starting line. If you see it coming then you can  figure out an exit strategy.

If you don’t see it coming, then there is usually lots of yelling followed by a sub optimal solution. Hopefully there isn’t any crashing sounds, but when you are blindsided that is definitely one of the possible outcomes.

Life works the same way – keep your head up and don’t get so engrossed in the task at hand that you can’t see that your path is taking you over a cliff.

Life lessons from boat racing – keep it clean

My boat is fairly quick, but is heavy and needs time to accelerate. I have a pretty stiff handicap and need to stretch out as much from slower boats as possible.

To that end, the best solution for me in a race is to get into clear air and keep it that way. That way there isn’t disturbed air coming off other boats, and I get a chance to accelerate up to full speed for the tack that I am on and keep it that way. If I get trapped in traffic, the boat doesn’t get a chance to use it’s full speed potential, and I get bogged down.

The same is true with sailing against a fleet – I need to keep in mind that the real objective is to get around the course as fast as possible by tactically playing it right and reading and using wind shifts and wind lanes to my best advantage. I only should engage with other boats when absolutely necessary and always keep in mind that when I’m battling another boat, the likelihood is that the rest of the fleet is making gains as we have our own little private war.

The same is true in life. If you get into a pissing competition, the likelihood is that you will both get wet feet, and the rest of the world will pass you by. You need to keep your eye on the end game and not get distracted.