Tuesday, April 28, 2015


Definition: An experiment is an orderly procedure carried out with the goal of verifying, refuting, or establishing the validity of a hypothesis.

Hmmm. What do experiments have to do with sailing?

I had a bit of a revelation about how important experimentation is to sailing during one long afternoon racing with the Duxbury Laser Fleet last year. I was not having a good day. I figured I was of a similar standard to the top 5 or 6 sailors in the fleet but somehow I never seemed to be at the front of the fleet that day. I was getting a bit frustrated to be perfectly honest. I thought I was sailing the boat well. I thought I had a good strategy and was getting good starts. But somehow it never paid off in my results.

After the racing was over and we were back on shore, I asked one of my friends, who had had some excellent races, what her strategy for the day had been. Her answer was something like, "Well, at first I thought the left looked good so I went that way in the first race but that didn't work out. So the next race I went right and that was worse. So after that I just played the shifts up the middle in every race and that seemed best, so I stuck with it."

Ahah! That explained a lot. In every race, I had checked the wind before the course and thought I could see more pressure on the left so I always went that way. And it never worked out. But I was stubborn and kept persisting in my failing strategy. In retrospect I think there was more pressure out to the left but often it was beyond the layline of our (short) courses and so it did me no good. What's the definition of insanity again?

Another of my friends had capsized while going downwind in one race. I asked him what had happened. "Oh, I rounded the windward mark in third place but I wasn't prepared to settle for that, so I tried sailing by an extreme angle by the lee and heeling to windward more than usual." It didn't work out for him but he was experimenting, trying something a bit different, getting out of his comfort zone, testing a hypothesis you might say… and in the process learning something.

It's OK to use some races as learning experiences. Eric Twiname said so in his classic book about self-coaching, Sail, Race and Win. In fact he recommended that you use some races to experiment with your technique, recognizing that this means your race results will probably get worse before they get better.

Now that I remember it, on that long afternoon last summer in Duxbury, I did notice that I was doing mediocre tacks. But I didn't do anything about it. I was trying too hard to do well in the races. In retrospect I should have said, "I am just going to use the next beat to work out why my tacks are all wrong and try some different things until I get it right. Bucket."

The reference to a bucket won't make any sense to you unless you listened to President Obama's speech at the White House Correspondent's Dinner last Saturday night.

So that's another resolution for racing this year.

Experiment more.



Keep Reaching said...

Another way to look at experimenting is that if you are losing, trying something different has an upside and not much of a downside.

Tillerman said...

Exactly KR.

And the thing I didn't mention in the post was that I think being prepared to experiment and try different things in races will keep each race fresh and different. Looking back on that day I was actually sailing the same race over and and over again and, not surprisingly, getting a bit bored with the whole experience after 6 or 8 iterations.

I seem to remember you wrote a post a while back, KR, about trying something different from the conventional wisdom in a race (something to do with tide avoidance I think) and having success with it.

Deborah said...

What a great post! And now, after having just finished the Twiname book, I have to thank you again for recommending it! You're right: his approach and thinking are very similar to what I've developed in my own way.

I agree about taking the long view, and not being afraid to experiment, even though it may affect your standings. The other thing I like to do is to "try out" against another boat. If you find someone of similar skill, you can help each other out this way. One holds course, the other tries stuff out, seeing what can and can't be accomplished. You can really work on sail trim, footing/pinching, and just figuring out what makes your boat go fast.

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