Thursday, May 19, 2016

Proprioception in Sailing

In a comment to my previous post on bikes and cubes, George A suggested that the reason why we lose certain skills if we don't practice them regularly could be due to a decline in "proprioception."

Proprioception. That's not a word you see every day on sailing blogs.

It's not a word I use every day in any context, so I had to look it up.

According to Wikipedia (which is never wrong) proprioception is "the sense of the relative position of neighboring parts of the body and strength of effort being employed in movement."


As a kid I was gangly and clumsy and uncoordinated. I was always knocking things over and breaking things. My father used to scold me, "Tillerboy, you seem to have no idea what your arms and legs are doing!"

He was right.

Or to put it another way I have very poor proprioception.


Of course. That's one of my major problem with sailing too. I have no idea what my arms and legs are doing.

Not only do I not usually have a clear plan of what my arms and legs should be doing while executing a roll gybe, say, but I am pretty sure I don't even do the same things with my arms and legs every time I do a roll gybe (or any other maneuver for that matter.)

Oops moment
Not me

Is it any surprise that my boat-handling is terrible and full of stumbles and accidents and drama and "oops" moments?

So this week I have been working on improving my proprioception in the RS Aero.

On Sunday and Monday I sailed an RS Aero 7 with the Laser training group in the mornings and received a lot of useful feedback from the instructor.

By Monday I had got over that "I have totally forgotten how to sail this boat feeling" that I had on Saturday. Maybe sailing is like riding a bike after all? You don't forget. At least not for long.

Riding a bike
Not me

We were doing long upwinds and downwind on both days. By Monday I had really found my groove upwind and was crushing - totally crushing - all the Lasers and a couple of D-zeros upwind. I love looking back and seeing all those beady little eyes looking upwind at me. Children can be so cruel at my age.

And once the instructor had pointed out to me a flaw in my sail settings I was doing much the same downwind. Now I remember why I bought an RS Aero!

But on Sunday afternoon, and on Tuesday and Wednesday, I went sailing by myself in an RS Aero 9 and worked on my proprioception. I find that if I want to focus on the nuances of boat-handling technique, and experiment with different ways of doing things to see what works best, and train myself to execute maneuvers in a consistent way, then I really need to get out on my own away from other boats and evil instructors blowing whistles and shouting, "Everybody tack NOW!" or "Follow me!"

I explored such burning questions as...

  • how can I make smoother hand swaps after tacks and gybes?
  • does it work better to have the front knee up or down when going into roll gybes?
  • what are the best positions to sit and for my legs and feet upwind in various wind strengths and what's the best way to transition between them?
  • what's the best position for legs and knees and feet for sailing downwind in various wind strengths?
  • And many other similar secrets of the universe.

And then when I had figure out what worked best, I practiced and practiced to try and make all this stuff automatic.

I really enjoyed working on my own on improving my proprioception.

Or perhaps I am just an antisocial bastard.

By the way, don't ask me to explain what that picture at the top of the page has to do with proprioception.

But it does.

Trust me.

So what do you think?

How proprioceptive are you?


George A said...

Hey kids: use a word that Tillerman hasn't heard before and get a mention in his next blog post. A thing worth keeping in mind, probably in a cautionary tale sort of a way.

As for proprioception my advise would be to pick one rig or the other and settle down with it until you can sail the boat fast just by the way she feels (without looking at tell tails, etc.) Changing rigs would be the equivalent of me wearing different skates each time I go to the rink to practice.

I do have two pairs of skates. I retained my old boots and blades after I got the current new ones with the plan of using the old gear when I go pond skating. The idea is to spare my new blades the abuse from the dirt and grit that collects on outdoor ice. Combined with ice-melt water, that stuff makes a nice grinding paste that quickly knocks the edges off one's blades. Anyway the point here is that although the two pairs of boots and blades are the same brands, models, sizes etc. my feet immediately know when I'm in the old skates rather than the newer ones and although the differences are small it takes 20 or 30 minutes of skating to transition back to the older equipment before I feel anywhere near safe enough to practice anything beyond forward stroking(the older boots are broken down and thus not as stiff and supportive as the new ones, the blade profile of the older blades is a bit flatter in terms of rocker, due to many more sharpenings than the newer ones for example. If my feet can pick up the small differences between my two sets of skates think how much changing from one rig to another affects the many proprioceptors you are using when trying to optimally sail your Aero. Just a thought.

Tillerman said...

But I read somewhere that proprioceptively dynamic activities improve working memory.

George A said...

With the amount of effort we put into proprioceptive activities we both should be going to the Olympics while being repeat diners at the Nobel banquet. Our invitations were probably lost in the mail.

O Docker said...

What? Now you need five-syllable words to describe what you do on that silly little boat?

I wouldn't think there's enough room on an RS Aero for a word that long unless it folds in the middle somehow.

If years of introspection, self-analysis, and blogging using ordinary words has still left you with more questions than answers, I don't see how this is going to help at all. Seeking clarity and resolution in words of more than four syllables is a sad act of desperation, perhaps even a cry for help or intervention.

I'd recommend a week of uninterrupted sailing, somewhere with extraordinary weather.

Peter Barton said...

...and what was the flaw in your downwind sail settings, that we all need to be aware of? (not inverted batten I hope!)

Over the weekend I was a little to the northeast of you and about 600m above you at the RS Aero Czech Open. We had a beer sponsor, Pivovar Cvikov, but I suspect your weather was warmer.
With people talking of knee abrasion I gave a lot of thought to that in a variety of winds. As I suspected, I am barely ever on my knees and when I am I have little weight on them. On the cockpit floor I always have my foot down and when trying to get my weight well forward I may put my front shin on the deck by the daggerboard, my knee may touch the deck but my weight is spread from ankle to knee.
Having your bum down on the inside edge of the cockpit on a run keeps your weight low and thus stable. Those keeling up straight at the front of the cockpit have their weight much higher loosing stability, mobility and comfort. I tried it and it was uncomfortable, boottomns are for sitting on!

I saw Karlos drop a knee onto the cockpit floor during a tack as he led me at Lymington on Wed eve, which stood out to me as an unnecessary extra step.

Maybe a way of training at not using knees is to go out in a shortie, I use a shortie occasionally. If you strike knee blood on the first day I suggest you are doing it wrong! The warmth at Minorca would be perfect!

Tillerman said...

Thanks for all the feedback and ideas, Peter.

The flaw in my downwind sail setting was not letting my outhaul off enough. It seemed to make a huge difference to the ability to get the boat planing in marginal planing conditions.

I was experimenting with a position for downwind in light winds that had my front thigh on the deck by the daggerboard and my foot on the cockpit floor. So weight spread between thigh and foot. Hadn't thought about doing it with the front shin. Will have to try that next.

I realize now that my position in my current profile picture is totally wrong - all weight on knees, facing forwards and too far forwards anyway in those wind conditions. Oh, well I had only taken delivery of my Aero a couple of weeks before that photo.

Seeing your comment about dropping a knee on the floor during tacks make me think I might have that fault too. Need to work on proprioception for tacks next!

I like the idea of the "bloody knees" test with a shortie. Another thing to try!

George A said...

A couple small pieces of seadek non-skid foam glued down in the "approprioceptive" places will help in the bloody knee dept. That or some of those D3O Musto knee pads that APS sells (if Aero class rules frown upon common sense boat mods).

Tillerman said...

The issue of what kind of stuff should be stuck to the cockpit floor to prevent "Aero knee" has been a hot matter of debate in various online forums lately. I did suggest that the best material would be orange shag carpet but (as usual) nobody would take me seriously. One fellow was going to glue his wife's yoga mat to his boat's floor. I suspect all such modifications to the boat would be illegal under class rules. At least I couldn't find anywhere in the rules that says that orange shag carpet IS legal. But surprisingly some people actually don't care about class rules because they are buying Aeros just to have something called F.U.N. and they have no intention of racing. I will have to write a blog post about this strange phenomenon of people who go sailing just for F.U.N.

Peter Barton - for those who didn't know - is the RS Aero Class Manager and he also does a lot of high level coaching in Aeros. So I suspect that his advice on keeping your weight at least partly on your feet rather than your knees is not out of any concern for our bloody knees but because he believes, probably for very good reasons, that having your weight on your feet is a more effective way to balance the boat and to respond to changes in wind velocity etc. etc.

How did we get from proprioception to orange shag carpet? I blame O Docker (again.)

O Docker said...

Oh man, Tillerman, orange shag carpeting would give your boat such a groovy vibe!

Up the establishment! You've got to be free. Yours could be the only Aero in the fleet with a conversation pit.

Tillerman said...

I actually used a much simpler solution than knee pads or orange shag carpet. A little light sanding of the very aggressive non-skid surfaces of my RS Aero easily adjusted the roughness to the level where it will stop my butt from sliding off the boat but not scrape all the skin off my knees.

George A said...

"I suspect all such modifications to the boat would be illegal under class rules."

This is why I continue to sail Classic Moth Boats. I just don't have the patience to sail strict one-design classes.

Tillerman said...

Good for you George. I am way too lazy to be always thinking up ways to modify the boat to make it go faster which is why I love strict one-design classes. Different boats for different folks, as the old saying goes. Or something.

George A said...

Even Moths are getting too many rules. The rules for class boat measurement should be no longer than what the average sailor can commit to memory. That way all hands would know the rules and the class would never have too many rules.

Tillerman said...

Here's a class rule book I would like.

1. Take boat out of box.
2. Change nothing.
3. Go sailing.

George A said...

Even I could probably remember that list of rules. Problem is that I've yet to see a boat that I didn't think needed something changed to suit me--stuff like main sheet cam cleats located on deck right where I need to sit; sail shape controls that either don't have enough mechanical advantage or don't quite have a fair lead, and of course areas in the cockpit sole that need a small bit of seadek to spare the knees...

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