How important is it to be aggressive if you want to be a successful racing sailor?
A sailing magazine that I picked up in Australia started me thinking about this whole question of the role of aggression and boldness in racing. There was an article in the mag about Ben Ainslie, surely one of the accomplished sailboat racers of his generation... and likely by the time he has finished (he's only 31) to rank as one of the greatest racers of all time.
The essence of the article was that Ben is so good because he is not afraid to be aggressive in tight situations. If the pin end of the start line is favored he will fight to win the pin. If approaching the windward mark close to the port tack layline he will not hesitate to tack under and close to starboard tackers to squeeze between them and the buoy. If the left side of the run is favored he will immediately gybe on to port after rounding the windward mark even in heavy traffic.
Hmmm. I don't do those things. In fact most of the books I have read about sailing preach the exact opposite. Be conservative. Don't take big risks for small gains. Play the odds. If you like the left end of the start line, avoid the crowd at the pin and find a gap a bit further up the line. Don't jam your bow into a potential pile-up at the windward mark; instead duck a couple of starboard tackers and round in clear air above the mayhem of boats trying to luff around the buoy. Stay out of trouble. Sail clean.
I started wondering. What came first the chicken or the egg? Is Ben great because he goes for these risky, bold, aggressive moves? Or is he only able to pull off these moves because he has nerves of steel, superb boat-handling, razor-sharp reflexes, an uncanny ability to foresee developing multi-boat interactions... etc. etc.
More to the point, if an averagely talented mid-fleet sailor suddenly started to sail like Ben would their race results improve? Or would they be spending every evening of every regatta in the protest room? Speaking for myself, I suspect that if I changed my style tomorrow to always go for these daring maneuvers... win the pin in a tough fleet, approach a crowded windward mark on port tack and tack inside all the starboard tack boats... nine times out of ten I would screw up and end up doing 720's.
On the other hand, the top sailors do have the ability to succeed in these aggressive tactics. So how do the rest of us become more like them? Do we just do it? Start going for it every time, recognizing that we will make lots of mistakes (and maybe lots of enemies) at first, but over time we will develop the skills to be more successful? Or do we ease into it slowly by being bold when racing in small fleets in which we feel our abilities are as good or better than the opposition; and continue to sail a conservative game when playing against the big boys?
Just as an experiment I've been practicing the aggressive approach recently in SAILX (the tactical simulator formerly known as Tacticat). I'm not sure how true a simulation of real life it is in this respect but I'm coming to believe that trying to win the pin or tacking into the inside of a pack of starboard boats at the windward mark are not as high risk moves as I once thought. Even if you end up doing a 360 I figure you usually come out ahead of where you would have been by playing a more conservative game. (Did someone say Rule 31.2? Ah yes indeed. "If a boat has gained a significant advantage in the race or series by touching the mark she shall retire".)
So what do you think? How do you weigh up when to be daring and when to play it safe? How can a mid-fleet sailor develop a more aggressive style? What comes first... the mental attitude to be bold and daring, or the boat-handling skills to execute bold and daring moves? Chicken or egg?