How do we know whether our sailboat racing skills are improving or not?
Sailing is not like a sport such as running, say. If I run a marathon one year in 5 hours and then the following year, in similar conditions, I run it in 4 hours and 20 minutes, I can legitimately say that I am running faster.
But in sailing, we can only assess our racing performance by looking at how we compare to our competition. Are we moving up the fleet or down? The problem is that often we are not racing against exactly the same people at every regatta. And their skills may be changing too. So how do we know how we are doing?
For example, I moved up from about 75% of the way down the Grand Master fleet at the Laser Worlds in 2003 to the top half of the fleet in 2007. Why? What could be the possible explanations? I can think of three...
1. Luck. There sure is a large element of luck in sailboat racing. But in a long regatta (nine races over six days in a variety of wind conditions in this case) does luck even out? Are the final rankings determined by luck or are they a good indicator of the sailors' true abilities?
There was an interesting article in the Boston Globe this weekend by Bill James, the famous baseball statistician. He discussed the relative importance of predetermination and randomness (roughly the same as ability and luck) in deciding which team will win in various professional sports. His argument was that no league will thrive if either factor is too dominant. If the same team always wins the league then the players' motivation and team spirit are weakened. On the other hand if the outcome of the competition is a total crapshoot then why should the players try hard at all?
Where does sailing fall on this continuum? It's certainly true that the outcome of any given race can be pretty random. But over a season or a long regatta the same sailors always seem to rise to the top of the scoreboard.
So maybe I got lucky. But I like to think not. In any case, a world champion sailor once told me, "Good sailors make their own luck."
2. The fleet was weaker in 2007 than 2003. If true, that would certainly explain my better result in 2007. But it is pretty insulting to my fellow competitors in 2007 to assume this explanation. I've looked through the names in the two fleets in both years and although some of the leaders are the same it's a very different cast of characters further down the fleet. (Of course in a fleet that is for sailors of ages 55 to 64, there's bound to be a lot of turnover in four years anyway.)
I can see that one sailor right next to me this year was way ahead of me in 2003. But what does that prove? He might be much slower than he used to be.
So it's tough to know whether there is any truth in the "whole fleet is slower" hypothesis or not. However, both regattas were in Spain at almost exactly the same time of the year, so you would expect them to attract a similar crowd of sailors.
3. I'm sailing better in 2007 than 2003. I'd like to believe this. But what was different? Why should I be any better? Sounds like the subject of another post to me.
So what do you think? How should we assess individual progress in this crazy sport? How do you know if you are sailing faster and smarter or slower and dumber.