Thursday, June 19, 2008

What Would Ben Do?

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?


merrifie said...

Did the article talk about different levels of aggression during a race? You can afford to take more risks early in the race. Toward the end, you want to protect your position and sail more conservatively. The longer the race, the more time you have to recover from risks taken early that didn't pan out. There are other factors that contribute to deciding whether to attempt an aggressive move. Knowing when and which move to make seems as important as executing the move itself.

PeconicPuffin said...

We take more chances/sail more aggressively, and reduce whatever safety margin we have from failure...that's my theory.

Meanwhile, there was a first chicken. It was born from the first chicken egg. The first chicken egg was layed by a bird that was almost but not quite a chicken...the egg was a mutation.

The egg came first.

'least that's what they taught us at science school.

David said...

This is a great post, Tillerman. Thanks for it. It got me thinking so much that I started to write an obnoxiously long comment. So, instead, I cut it and pasted it into a blog back at ya.
Odds Are

Pat said...

Seems to me the bold moves would work out best ... and the fiberglass bills and repair bills and time spent away from the Room would be minimized if a would-be aggressive sailor focused first on acquiring solid boat handling skills.

Another consideration is matching the sailor's aggression level to the right sort of regatta. A hyper-aggressive sailor may become a shunned, despised, avoided pariah in casual, low-key beer can races. And someone who makes lots of protest room work for everyone else isn't going to be Mr. or Ms. Popularity -- especially if the sailor's boat handling skills and rules knowledge are a bit suspect and the sailor's attitude comes across as combative and disrespectful to fellow competitors and volunteers.

Anonymous said...

Love the question Tillerman! And also love David's Odds Are response. My $.02 is that you need to develop the skill set/boathandling ability to be aggressive when warranted. But you can't be aggressive all the time. Need to know when to pick your spots. As a race or series advances, know when to press at the right time to go for the win. Maybe its a line so favored that you need to get in there and fight for the pin. Or a shift of which you'll take a bit more of a bite. Or at a mark rounding where you may pick off a handful of baots at once. That said, there are times I've seen the pros I race against experience a setback and try to make a dramatic comeback by stringing three or four aggressive moves together - more often than not they get burned on one of them and end up in even worse shape.
It's a good tool to have in the tool box, and know how to use it when you need to pull it out. Like fire - it can keep you warm, but it can also burn your house down. Choose wisely.


Anonymous said...

I'm a reasonably aggressive driver on the start line. Frankly, in a 2 hour PHRF race, I think the start is completely overrated. In one design, it's critical.

So yesterday, I'm in a loveable Olson 30 and I can totally close the door on a $250,000 40 foot custom Frers driven by someone I know who has crashed into an RC boat before.

Do I slam the door shut on the line? No, I footed off a little and let him and his bad ass boat through. I didn't want to see that boat up on the stand again for the next two months.

Did he say thank you at the Club. No.

Anonymous said...

1) Build boathandling skills.
2) Be more aggressive in smaller fleets.
3) Learn to get off the line in big fleets to sail in the "small fleet".

I think a key is the smaller fleet. Ainslie is sailing in the small fleet at the front of the big fleet. It's just plain easier up there. No wingnuts doing dumb stuff. No 10 long, 3 deep lines on a Starboard layline to try to negotiate. More like 3-6 boats, all of whom are probably laying and whom you can leebow REAL tight.

Of course, that three-step plan takes a LOT of practice. :-)

Tillerman said...

Thanks Brian.
Great advice.
And well done this weekend.

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