Friday, June 23, 2006

Sailing in the Zone

Thanks to everyone who responded with comments to my post on Why is Sailing so Frustrating? As several of you pointed out in different ways, it's because sailboat racing is so complex and difficult and unpredictable that we love it so much. If it was easy to win all the time it wouldn't be any fun.

Some of you talked about that special feeling of being "in rhythm with the ocean" or of being "in the zone". And that's where I was heading with that post. Some days we are in the zone and everything goes well; and some days we're not. And we never know precisely why.

In the zone. What are other words to describe that feeling? Focused. Relaxed. Confident. Smooth. Competent.

What's the opposite? How do you feel when you're not "in the zone"? Distracted. Tense. Anxious. Clumsy. Outmatched.

Perhaps you have a better way to define it?

I was being a trifle disingenuous in my earlier post in implying that
I could never figure out what it is that I am doing mentally or physically to trigger those days when everything goes right on the racecourse. I do have some clues as to what works for me to create one of those rare days of sailing in the zone.

Practice. Oh no, it's not what you wanted to hear, I'm sure. But it is true that if I've spent some time before a regatta just sailing by myself, focusing on boathandling technique, repeating key moves such as tacks and gybes and mark roundings over and over again, there's a better chance that on the day of the racing I will be able to trust my muscle memory to sail the boat and can focus my mind on more important things like timing the start properly and wind strategy.

Go for a Run. This is a weird one. Some of my best races have been after a hard run on the previous day. Or even a moderate run early on the day of the race. I can't explain it except to say that there is something about the feeling of satisfaction and relaxation after a good run that occasionally triggers the "in the zone" experience when sailing. Maybe its the endorphins?

Sail Naked. Well, not exactly. But I have noticed that the less I wear (within reason) the better I sail. My best ever achievement in our North Jersey Sunfish series, when I won a regatta against people I considered much better sailors than me, was on a chilly, damp October day. Most of the competitors were wearing long wetsuits or foul weather gear. I was wearing a shortie wetsuit and no hat. Perhaps all that extra bare skin gave me extra sensitivity to the wind?

In our frostbite Laser series I usually try and stay as warm as possible -- wearing several thermal layers under a drysuit, ski-hat, glove liners and latex gloves, socks inside drysuit latex booties inside hiking boots. I'm not cold but I am clumsy. Several of the top sailors in the series wear wetsuits, will never wear a drysuit in the coldest conditions, saying that by wearing less they feel more in touch with the boat.

Last Sunday I had all three of these triggers working for me. I practiced on the reservoir on Thursday in conditions that turned out to be similar to the racing on Sunday; I went for a 40 minute run on Sunday morning; and, because it was a super-hot day I was sailing in shorts and T-shirt, no shoes, no gloves, no hiking pants. And I did have one of those "in the zone" days.

But, these things don't always work for me. And they probably won't work for you.

So do you have any tips on this topic? How do you get "in the zone"?

3 comments:

Tim said...

When I was about 18/19 I crewed for a guy for 6 months campaigning an Enterprise with the aim of doing the World Championships in Largs, Scotland in 1980.

We would do an open meeting every weekend and every week we would sail for about 2 hours.
Our practice coinsisted of role tacks and gybes, mark rounding, doing all the afore mentioned whilst blindfolded or rudderless, in all kinds of windstrengths and sea conditions.

We did well at open meetings and even won one but come the worlds we just blew it. I think the pressure of sailing in a fleet of 190 boats was to much for my helm, we finished 96th I think.

I'm all set to do the worlds this year with my daughter and we have been out on the water alot but no way are we upto the standard I was at 26 years ago. I am just trying to visualise the starts and working out what to do in my head in preparation. I think the mind game plan is really the most important preparation.

Andrew said...

I tried to get the women on the USC varsity sailing team to practice naked. They didn't believe me when I told them it would improve their skills -- I'll let them know you think it's a good idea too.

Fred said...

Tillerman,
only 5 days away from the compie and so much to read -only on your site-. Yes, I would love to tell you how to get "into the zone" but I do not know. My friend, Andreas John seemed to have managed it some years ago, when he became Laser-Master-WC in Newport (?). He tried to explain to me the "Flow-thing"...and sometimes, rarely, it works, but do no why! As Tim says: A mind game is the most important prep. Smooth sailing.
@Andrew: this naked sailing thing...ha ha, great idea! It seems to work on power boats...

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