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 – 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 – 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 – 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 – 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.

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.

Life lessons learned from boat racing – play to your strengths

I sailed a CS27 called L’Autre Femme for years, and by the end of my tenure with the boat, I knew exactly what it could do well and what it couldn’t. The boat pointed very well, so sailing up wind in a fleet was easy as I could keep as high as everyone else in the fleet, and if forced I could squeak out an extra little. That meant that I wasn’t usually in a situation where the boat was sinking down behind someone else and getting stalled by them.

The sails on the boat were getting a little old and didn’t have quite the shape that they had in their youth (oh boy does that also apply to life) so really pushing the boat hard to wind wasn’t something you did except in dire circumstances. What suited the boat was sailing a little lower and faster, but pointing high was still definitely a tool in the tool box.

L’Autre Femme was designed as a cruiser rather than a racer, so it is heavy. That means you race it like racing a truck. You get it up to speed and do everything you can to keep the speed up. It isn’t agile and you can’t sail it that way. You need to minimize tacks and never get into a tacking duel with an agile boat like a J24.

My new boat is a CS36 Merlin called Emrys. It is again a racer/cruiser so fairly heavy, but it carries a lot of sail so powers up quite quickly. It is a wing keel as opposed to the fin on L’Autre Femme, and doesn’t tend to point quite as well but goes like a train a couple of degrees off hard to wind. Its headsail is in very poor shape and needs replacing, but until that is done, finding the upwind slot is very touchy and it is easy to stall the boat, so trying to go high upwind is a low percentage move.

It also has a wheel as opposed to the tiller on L’Autre Femme, so you don’t get to feel the helm response quite as much and can load up a lot of weather helm if you aren’t paying attention, and the cues are a lot different. It can tack quite quickly, but it is a lot of work to haul the sails in, so we can get into tacking duels, but not long ones as our arms sue for divorce after the 3rd tack.

The new boat is also carrying a LOT more sail, so it powers up in light winds very well, but you are looking to reef at a lot lower wind velocity.

So two different boats with very different characteristics, and you race them very differently to play to their strengths and try to avoid their weaknesses.

With L’Autre Femme I would quite often fight for the committee boat end at the start and pinch up a little above the fleet. With Emrys, I hardly ever start at the committee boat end and much prefer hitting midline at full speed.

With L’Autre Femme I would always consider trying to point a little higher to get out of trouble, with Emrys that isn’t on the cards, so you foot the boat and power through.

Neither boat is one that you want to get into a tacking duel with lighter more agile boats, so that is to be avoided with both.

With L’Autre Femme you would always consider pushing the upper end of the sail as the wind increased, With Emrys, you downsail or reef early.

Emrys has a brutal handicap, so you simply can’t afford to be trapped within the fleet, whereas L’Autre Femmes handicap allowed you to think a little more about options in that situation.

In life it is exactly the same, you play to your strengths and avoid your weaknesses. If you are a detail person, those are the tasks you will excel at. If you like to paint with a broader brush, you should avoid jobs that need that detail skill. If you are not a people person, then sales isn’t for you. The list goes on, but in sailing as in life, the first trick is to understand your strengths and weaknesses of you and your  boat and capitalize on the good ones and avoid the other.


Life lessons learned from boat racing

I’m about to head out to my boat club for our weekly race around the cans that occurs every Wednesday. I’m a keen sailor and have been for many years, and have had mixed results on the race course.

For the first few years, I was learning the trade and spent a lot of time at the back of the fleet. Slowly my results improved to the point that I had a good few years as the club champion in my fleet. Two years ago I bought a new boat and since that point my results again have been less than stellar.

I’m not dragging ass at the back end of the fleet, but compared to the results with my old boat, there is a lot of improvement that still needs to be made. That had me thinking about what we need to do to get us back to the podium, and hence this series of articles. Each and every time you go out to race your boat you learn lessons. Some are given to you by other competitors, some are learned through making mistakes and some are taught to you by the weather and other factors that aren’t really in your control. Each and every one of them is not only applicable in the world of boat racing, they are also applicable in the wider world.

The list is long, and I’m sure that as I go through it, I will see more, but like boat racing if you don’t start you can’t finish, so without further ago I will get started on the first. They aren’t in any real order of importance, they are just presented as they occurred to me.