Sunday, May 15, 2016

Is Sailing More Like Solving Rubik's Cube Than Riding a Bike?

How is it possible to forget how to sail?

At Minorca Sailing on Saturday it was blowing 10-15 knots and I sailed an RS Aero 7 and practiced with about ten Laser sailors from the Advanced Laser Class. I hadn't been in an RS Aero since the Archipelago Rally last October, although I did sail my Laser about a dozen times over the winter.

The RS Aero felt very strange and unfamiliar.

It was almost like going back to the first time I sailed an RS Aero, here in Minorca in October of 2014. In fact, on re-reading that post about my first time in an RS Aero it seemed like I am even more of a klutz in the boat now than I was then. But that might have been because the wind on Saturday was very shifty and gusty demanding quick reactions to every change in wind speed and direction.

We practiced tacks and gybes and "follow the leader" on every point of sail. Upwind I was struggling to keep the boat flat and every tack and gybe was an adventure. Reaching and sailing downwind was a lot more fun. It always is in an Aero.

But after being out of an Aero for over six months it seems like my "muscle memory" for how to balance the boat and do tacks and gybes without drama has deserted me. But then that's why I am here. I figured a couple of weeks pre-season tune-up in an RS Aero wouldn't do any harm at all.

After we came off the water I was comparing notes with the other sailors. After I explained how strange and new the Aero felt to me, one of the Laser sailors commented, "It's just like riding a bike. You don't forget how to sail."

Hmmm. I'm not so sure. I think sailing is more like solving the Rubik's Cube than riding a bike.

Here are two reasons for this assertion...

1. Nobody really needs to be taught to ride a bike. You just practice for a bit, perhaps with training wheels, and eventually it comes to you.

On the other hand not many people can work out how to solve a Rubik's cube without having to be instructed  on the moves to make for each step of the process. Then you have to memorize those moves. Then you practice those moves until it seems like your conscious mind is not remembering the instructions but rather that your fingers "know" what to do at each stage of the process.

Similarly not many people just go out in a sailboat and learn by trial and error how to sail. They take some lessons and learn how to reach and beat and run and tack and gybe and all that good stuff. They learn how to set the sail controls and how to trim the sail for each point of sail. At first they have to think hard about what they have been taught but the more they practice the more it comes naturally.

Much more like learning to solve a Rubik's Cube than learning to ride a bike.

2. Once you know how to ride a bike you really don't forget. Sometimes I don't ride a bike for a couple of years but I can still get back on a bike and my mind knows perfectly how to pedal and steer and balance a bike.

But you can forget how to solve a Rubik's cube. 30 years ago I knew how to do it. I picked a cube up a few weeks ago and realized I had completely forgotten how to solve it. So I found a good website with all the instructions and relearned the process. I practiced the process and now my fingers "know" what to do.  It'a a great trick for impressing the grandchildren!

And if I don't sail for a few months - or even don't sail one particular class for a few months - then when I get back in the the boat I do find I have forgotten how to sail the boat properly. Sure my conscious mind knows the basics like which way to push the tiller or when to sheet in or out. But the automatic ability to sail the boat efficiently and keep it flat when sailing upwind and to do nice smooth tacks and gybes has gone. I need to practice and practice and practice to relearn those skills. That's where I was with the RS Aero on Saturday.

You can lose many of your sailing skills if you don't practice them regularly.

Much like forgetting how to solve a Rubik's Cube. But you never forget how to ride a bike.

What do you think? Is sailing like riding a bike? Or more like solving a Rubik's cube?

More importantly why do we lose some skills if we don't practice them regularly, but not lose other skills that we don't use for years?


George A said...

Welcome to my world, Tillerman. I think that most complex activities require constant practice or one slowly or in some cases, rapidly goes backwards skill-wise. In some activities it takes multiple sessions per week just to retain a given skill level and more than that (with coaching) to improve. If I have more than a week's break between skating sessions it takes an infuriatingly long time to claw my way back to the level I was before the pause. I further think the analogy with riding a bicycle is erroneous. Yes, if the bike riding is confined to low level recreational riding then I'd agree that it would take a very long time for one's riding skill to waste totally away. However if we're talking about competitive cycling with fast pace line drafting, fast scary decents, etc. which demand top notch bike handling skills then I think one would quickly slide backwards in terms of ability. How much of this loss is due to a decline in fitness vs a decline in proprioception is open to debate and probably varies from one activity to another and very definitely varies with the level at which the skills are being used. Another example is that even after a long lay off from driving a car, say due to a recoverable illness, most people can slide behind the wheel and instinctively find the brake pedal without having to take their eyes off the road to consciously look at the floor board and then consciously place their foot on the brake pedal. But again, we're not talking Formula One--we're talking driving the family station wagon to the doughnut shop. I haven't touched on how age factors into this discussion, but of course it does (balance, reaction time, loss of fast twitch muscle fibers, and so on)--which is part of the reason younger people can endure longer breaks before their skills suffer.

Tillerman said...

Great points George. I think you exposed the flaw in my analogy that compared basic recreational cycling to sailing a lightweight sailing dinghy at a level good enough to be competitive in races. It's like comparing apples and oranges.

Fitness and proprioception are, of course, both factors that cause us to go backwards in skill level, and god knows I am not as fit right now as I should be for sailing Lasers and RS Aeros. But my problems on Saturday were 99% mental I think.

And I do suspect age is an issue. Do we need to practice even more to stop going backwards as we get older?

Anyway, I have a couple of weeks to practice in the sunshine with expert feedback. We will see what progress I can make.

George A said...

I didn't think to mention the issue of having an "off" day even if you are otherwise at the top of your game in terms of skill. Athletes, musicians, and probably even surgeons have those all the time. Each time I test or compete in front of judges I wonder which pair of legs will report for duty--my good ones or the not so good ones.

Barubi said...

Different ships, different long splices. A saying that doesn't really fit the situation, but I like to sound salty sea dog.
Different craft require similar skills, but with differing emphasis. Last season I sailed an Etchells on Saturdays, a Laser on Sundays and an old production 26' on Wednesdays. Same waters, waves, winds and weather and the same things go wrong, but with differing scales of outcome.
Some years ago one of my sons asked me to crew his 29er, so as an old skiff sailor I thought I'd show him how it's done. After numerous capsizes it seemed my trapeze skills weren't coming back quickly. With waning strength I took over the tiller and it soon became apparent my skippering skills weren't coming back either. I do hope the step up from Laser to Aero isn't as daunting as from Laser to 29er and that age isn't an insurmountable obstacle.

Tillerman said...

Good point George. Maybe I was just having a bad day. But it is true that I always seem to have a bad day the first time I step back into a Laser or an RS Aero after not sailing one for several months.

Thanks for your comments Barubi. I don't think the "step up" (I like the way you phrased that) from Laser to RS Aero should be too daunting for anybody. After all last season I sailed my RS Aero in 4 different regattas and acquitted myself reasonably well by my own standards.

Age will, I am afraid, sooner or later be an insurmountable obstacle. I don't run as fast as I could 25 years ago. I get more tired after long days of sailing than I did 15 years ago. (At least as best as I can recall it.) But I look on Laser sailing and RS Aero sailing as activities that challenge me and motivate me to maintain my fitness and take me to new places and introduce me to new people and force me to learn new skills (or relearn old ones which is what this post is really about I suppose.) I see all that as positive and good things to do as I get older.

Anonymous said...

To refer to a slightly different thread, all the more reason to keep doing Laser Masters worlds, whether it be in Adelaide or Croatia, just doing it will keep the mind and body focussed and keep you young and interested. See you there.

O Docker said...

I'm also not sure if sailing is more like solving Rubik's cube or riding a bicycle.

It could just be that as we age we gradually lose our ability to draw accurate analogies.

Tillerman said...

Croatia? Is that what they are saying now?

Tillerman said...

O Docker - or ir could be that as we age we almost lose the ability to write any blog posts at all.

O Docker said...

I was trying to keep the focus on sailing.

Maybe sailing is like riding a bicycle but avoiding capsizes is like solving Rubik's cube.

Tillerman said...

O Docker - are you feeling OK? In the old days I could always rely on you not to keep the focus on anything.

O Docker said...

My optometrist tells me prescription lenses have improved my focus, but my memory is such that I can't remember how things used to look.

I do remember that sailing a Laser made you a stronger swimmer. Do you get the same sort of cross-training effect with the Aero?

Tillerman said...

Sadly no - O Docker. When I was on earth I kept my RS Aero on its dolly on a trailer. I didn't need to swim out to a mooring to access it.

And here in heaven where I am now, beautiful young angels rig the boat for me and launch it for me. There's no swimming in heaven.

O Docker said...

That's great news, Tillerman. And thanks for confirming something else I've long suspected.

There is WiFi in heaven.

Tillerman said...

Of course there is. What is the point of heaven if there isn't WiFi and Branston Pickle?

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