Tuesday, September 04, 2012

Sailing and Luck

How large a role does luck play in sailboat racing?

Are some people luckier than others?

What should you do about bad luck?

How do you deal with good luck?

What is "luck" anyway?

A very good sailor once told me many years ago that, "Good sailors make their own luck."

That's a variation on another quote about luck: "The harder I work the luckier I get."

The thought has been credited to everyone from Thomas Jefferson to Gary Player.

What the hell does it mean anyway?

Surely, luck is just a away of talking about unpredictability.

The outcome of most sporting events, especially a sailboat race, is usually unpredictable. If you could always predict the finishing order of every race, the sport would be very boring.

In sailing there are so many factors, wind shifts, lulls, stupidity of other competitors, stupidity of race committee, container ship steaming through the fleet (don't laugh - it really happened in the Olympics a few years ago) that you can never really predict how your race will turn out.

So, if something unpredictable happens that makes someone finish lower than they think they deserve, they call it bad luck.

But surprisingly when someone does better than they usually do, they can almost alway explain what brilliant choices they made to achieve the result and how well deserved it was. They rarely credit good luck.

So does your luck really improve, the harder you practice? Can good sailors make their own luck?

Of course not.

If you work hard and improve your skills and your boat tuning, you are just making it more likely that you will finish nearer the front of the fleet.

But there is still unpredictability. Some idiot may still crash into you on the start line. A rogue wave may push you into hitting a race mark. And where there is unpredictability there is "luck." Bad and good.

So how should you think about luck?

At one extreme, attributing the outcome of every race to bad or good luck is pointless. Much better to think about what you learned from the race and what skills you need to work on in order to improve. If every race is purely a game of chance then you might as well sit on the shore and toss dice to determine who should take the trophies home.

At the other extreme, should you resist blaming the outcome of a race on luck at all? Some athletes cling to the idea that nothing should be left to chance. They want to be in control of everything.  But then what do they do when something totally unpredictable does ruin their race? How do they explain it?

So what to do?

Go out, have fun, do your best, see what happens.

It's only a game.

So just play.



Dan said...

I will take good luck any time I can, but sometimes I do recognize "bad luck" when it happens. But often during races in technically challenging conditions, I compare the conditions to past races in similar conditions when we did well. For the most part, we do well with certain races that have current conditions on the course that are easy to predict. I have developed certain "formulas" for repetitive conditions.

Some of my competitors that tradionally bring up the rear of the fleet say that it is just luck on my part.

Baydog said...

These days, I'm lucky to just get out sailing

my2fish said...

yeah, what Baydog said.

O Docker said...

The game of life is one of chance.

How many of the major decisions of our lives come down to luck - who we marry, what jobs we fall into, where we end up living?

The more successful are those who recognize opportunites and know how to turn them to their advantage - who know when to abandon a plan and adapt to changing conditions. I think that holds for most things in life, including sailboat races.

No one makes their own luck, but some are better at making lemonade.

Keep Reaching said...

This really opens up a much bigger issue of karma, predestination or whatever is out there driving or not driving our universe(s). But rather than trying to find an answer to the impossible questions about the overall scheme of things the most important (and only really valid) thing to do is make the most of the moment. Of course that will involve things like preparing for the future and learning from mistakes etc. Concentrating on the present is tough.

Doc Häagen-Dazs said...

What Baydog says. (& My2Fish!)

ckh said...

"Luck favors the prepared." How will you notice a great opportunity without practicing enough to know you have received a lucky break?

Tillerman said...

Luck is a very slippery concept to pin down, partly because the word does have different meanings.

I defined it for the purposes of sailboat races as just a way of talking about the inevitable unpredictability of race outcomes. But I think Baydog and Doc and my2fish are using the word in a different sense. They certainly are fortunate to be able to go sailing but I don't think that they can go sailing purely because of some random unpredictable event. Somewhere along the way they made some conscious decisions to learn to sail, live near the water, buy a boat, and they are still making conscious decisions to use some or all of their leisure time for sailing. They did build it (to coin a phrase currently in vogue.)

Personally I'm not a believer in the concepts that Keep Reaching mentions - karma, predestination etc. - although it is true that some people like to think about "luck" in that way.

But I do agree with the philosophy proposed by O Docker and ckh and the final part of KR's comment. Life is full of unpredictability. The best one can do is to be prepared to take advantage of whatever happens - on the racecourse and in life. Tack on the headers and sail for the darker patches and the other sailors will say you are lucky, like Dan.

/Pam said...

Sailing success isn't luck! I've been conducting unscientific experiments with Doug for a couple of years now and you've inspired me to write my own post about it. It appears the man manipulates the universe by calling headers and lifts and they arrive on command. Luck, manipulating the universe, or experience?

Tillerman said...

Quite right Pam. People like your husband who are consistently successful racers have worked hard to raise their skills to the levels they are today. Experience, practice, smarts and a lot of natural talent. Not luck.

On the other hand, Doug only won 7 of the 8 races at the Austin Centerboard Regatta. His 3rd in the other race must have been due to bad luck!

SoxSail said...

Bad luck can turn somber as it did off Newfoundland yesterday when Ned Cabot was swept off the deck by a rogue wave, just before clipping in his harness as he emerged from below deck. RIP to a great man and a great sailor: http://www.boston.com/news/local/massachusetts/2012/09/02/edmund-cabot-brahmin-scion-and-avid-yachtsman-drowns-off-newfoundland/o10CcgCVIIt74OQRmNKx9N/story.html

Tillerman said...

We all have to die some time.

It is bad luck if it happens too young.

It is bad luck if it is slow and painful for you and your relatives.

Speaking purely personally, I think it would be good luck to die quickly in a sailing accident after a long, rewarding, healthy life. Which is not to say that I have any right to say whether Mr. Cabot's death was good or bad luck, and not to diminish the loss that his friends and family must be feeling.

Cheat the nursing home. Die on your LASER.

Lindy said...

Here's a discription of good and bad luck;

Five boats headed to the bottom mark.

Four bunched together and me 30 lengths back.

A giant power boat comes by and I ride his wave and catch the four leaders right at the mark and then have to tack off with the others.

Good luck for me, bad luck for the other four.

I blew the beat to the finish and still finished fifth.

Tim Platt said...

The science of probability suggests that over a period of time you will get 'good luck' 50% of the time.

Sailing on a very small lake in Maidenhead, where conditions are changing all the time, and where they can vary significantly from one side of the lake to the other at the same point in time, the difference between the guys who win consistently, versus those that make up the back markers, is not the amount of luck they get, but how they deal with the conditions as they are.

The front markers are better at minimising the effects of 'bad luck' and make the most of their 'good luck'. They know that although they may be suffering a case of 'bad luck' now, the next piece of 'good luck' is just about to happen, and they actively seek it out.

So although, to the untrained eye, it might appear that they get more luck it is actually that they are better at adapting to the conditions, or 'changing gears' as Stuart Walker called it.

The back markers also tend to be very blinkered in their vision. Their world, on the race course, appears to extend for only a few boat lengths around them, whereas the guys who consistently win tend to be aware of what's happening on the other side of the lake. As such they look and think further ahead up the course, avoiding the worst of the lulls, or the mass pile ups at the mark roundings etc etc.

Tillerman said...

Great comment Tim.

By the way, I started my sailing career at Taplow Lake (which is now defunct as a sailing club I believe) and did sail in at least one Open Meeting at Maidenhead Sailing Club (which is where I assume you are writing about.)

I totally agree with what you say about the difference between the front and back of the fleet when sailing on small lakes. After moving from the UK to the US I did a lot of lake sailing in New Jersey and the guys who were consistently at the front there seemed to have the ability to see and understand what the wind was doing and what it would be doing in the future so much better than us mere mid-fleet mortals.

PeconicPuffin said...

I like the definition "Luck is when preparation meets opportunity." I believe it. Therefore I believe practice improves your luck.

This is different from the luck involved when a door falls off the back of a truck, three cows fall out, roll sideways and crush your feet as you're walking by. The next day at the race you will not be your best, no matter what your preparation.

Now if the cows had fallen on your opponents feet...

Unknown said...

Given my sailing skills, it's luck when I win a race.

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