Monday, February 18, 2013

Are Words of Wisdom a Waste of Time?

We racing sailors like "words of wisdom."

"Words of Wisdom" are what they call those reports by winners after a regatta or an afternoon of club racing.

Everyone who wasn't a winner wants to read them so they can pick up tips on how to be winners.

I'm as guilty as the rest of the non-winners.

But I have bad news for you other non-winners.

I think that words of wisdom might be a waste of time.

Why would I say that?

Well, a few weeks back I thought I would start posting some words of wisdom from various race winners and regatta winners on this blog. I thought that if I extracted the key points from some words of wisdom and rewrote them in my own words on my blog, then I might remember them, and then I would apply the words of wisdom in actual races.

The reaction from my readers surprised me at first...

I wrote some words of wisdom from Bill Brangiforte on sailing upwind in a large fleet and got a couple of comments that they were "pretty much right out of Stuart Walker's books."

I summarized some video interviews on the Improper Course blog which had words of wisdom from winners at the Florida Laser Masters Week. A commenter on the original post, remarked, "Well, nothing new here, but it's all about getting those basics right isn't it?"

What? These words of wisdom from top sailors who had won major regattas were "basics" and right out of some books?

Well, yes. I guess they were.

So what is going on? If regatta winners do so well by simply applying well-known principles about how to start, or what strategies to use in different wind conditions, or how to go fast downwind... then why aren't we all doing these things and winning regattas too?

I thought about it for a while, and came up with these seven possible reasons why words of wisdom might be a waste of time.

1. Perhaps these top sailors are not spilling the real secrets of how they won the races? Maybe they are just explaining how they won by repeating well-known "basics" or stuff from Stuart Walker's books? This is true as far as it goes, but really they also know some super secret go-faster techniques that they are never going to reveal to everyone on the Interwebs. This theory does appeal to the paranoid side of my personality, not to mention stoking my negative self-esteem and fueling my feeling that I will always be a crap sailor. But I do find it hard to believe that the top guys could be so mean.

2. On the other hand, perhaps these top sailors have some ways of going faster and winning races that are totally subconscious? They don't even know themselves why they are so fast. They are not deliberately hiding their go-faster secrets from us mere mortal mid-fleet mediocrities because they are not even really conscious of what they are doing themselves. I like this theory even better because it means the winners are not diabolically plotting to keep the rest of us down by deliberately misleading us. I can still think of them as nice guys. But their words of wisdom are still a waste of time.

3. Or perhaps these top sailors have magical powers and super sharp senses? For example, perhaps they can see what the wind is doing way better than those of us with average (or below average) eyesight? It's all very well to know that you should stay in the puffs but if you are not seeing the stronger patches of wind on the water as well as the eagle-eyed top sailors, then no amount of words of wisdom are going to help you. I think this is my favorite theory. The winners are super-heroes with magical powers. It's not so bad getting beaten every week by sailors with extraordinary superhuman powers.

On the other hand perhaps getting the basics right is all there is to winning sailboat races? There are no secrets. Everything worth knowing on the topic has already been written and talked about and published on the Interwebs. But for some reasons, those of us who are perpetual non-winners simply don't execute the basics right. Now why would that be?

4. Perhaps we are just too unfit to get the basics right and win races? This probably does apply to some of the words of wisdom I read about Laser racing. It's all very well to say that you should hike the whole beat with straight legs and your shoulders back, or sail the whole run balanced on the soles of your feet as if you were on a surfboard, but unless you have quads of iron you are not going to be able to do those things as well as the winners do.

5. Perhaps we know the right moves but we haven't practiced them enough to execute them properly? It's all very well to read some expert talking about catching waves and to always be sailing "downhill" on waves on a run, but it's a lot harder to do it right all the time unless you've spent an enormous amount of time sailing downwind in waves.

6. Perhaps we have bad habits and even though we know, for example, what we should be doing to get a great start, when the pressure is on we revert to our old habits designed to guarantee a mediocre start?

7. Or perhaps we don't have the right mental attitude to apply the words of wisdom we have heard or read? After all there are so many things to know. In the heat of the moment on the racecourse we forget all the words of wisdom about strategy and tactics and boatspeed and boat handling and boat tuning etc. etc. and hack around the course watching the winners disappear into the distance just like they always do.

So where does that leave us?

For sure you won't win races by spending every weekend by the fireside reading words of wisdom.

If you have been racing for a few years, you probably already know pretty much everything you need to know about winning sailboat races.

All it takes now is to improve your physical fitness; develop the right mental attitude; break all your bad habits; practice, practice, practice; and then go out and race a lot.

Oh good.

Who knew it could be so easy?

So what do you think?

Am I missing something?

Do you really learn new stuff from words of wisdom?

Does reading words of wisdom make you a better sailor?


JP said...

As Yoda put it "Do or do not, there is not try"

Truly, he would have been a great Laser sailor.

Or not

Tillerman said...

Talking of Yoda the Laser sailor, a quick Google discovered this article which I hadn't seen before. It's hilarious and I especially like the bit where it defines a Laser Great Grand Master as "that rarest of sailors- a kind of cross between Yoda and a Jedi Knight (looks like the former but dances like the latter.)"

Even better, the Great Grandmaster whose photo is in the article (second photo) is a friend of mine. Does he look like Yoda?

And by the way, the first photo is of Doug from the Improper Course blog.

JP said...

"Cantankerous old bastards ... had time to work up some serious grudges... zimmer frames.... lap dancing ... pensioners discount ... geriatric old fart waiting to die ... natty pair of fishnets"

What a great post!

Tillerman said...

Yes, brilliant, isn't it?

I am surprised I haven't seen it before but I guess it was targeted at Australians. It's also on the Sail-World site (which in spite of its name is also principally an Australian site.) The pictures are all from the 2008 Masters Worlds in Australia which I sailed in.

Dallas Dude said...

10,000 hours with hand on tiller. Everything else is window dressing.

Baydog said...

"If you have been racing for a few years, you probably already know pretty much everything you need to know about winning sailboat races."

Not so true in my case. But I think even though many 'words of wisdom' are nothing more than folks reciting what they've read in other sailors' books, eventually those words will sink in if you keep hearing them. At that point though, I'm usually worrying if there's enough ice in my cooler. Hence the lack of bullets in my chamber.

Unknown said...

The best words of wisdom come if you have the good fortune to be able to ask them directly. Hanging out with Bill Brangiforte after a race is like going to a racing clinic.

Tillerman said...

Excellent points from the dude, the dog and the Sunfish fleet.

Tweezerman said...

If after ten minutes after the start you find yourself in the top 5 (frostbite fleet) or the top 15 (large fleets) because a) you have enough tiller time to be fast through the water and/or b) particularly in a Laser/Sunfish you are fit enough to hike your ass off, tactics become simple (assuming you have the offwind speed and technique to hold it). If after ten minutes you are second or third level, tactics usually amount to getting bounced outside which is not good, or tacking willy-nilly to avoid bad air (again - not good). I find that, in the final reckoning, Laser sailing in hiking weather, irrespective of tactics, an unfit heavy weight will always beat an unfit light weight. To have any chance, do your Laser sailing in very shifty Lake sailing where most of the conventional wisdom has no bearing.

Tillerman said...

And then just when you least expect it, someone comes up with some really useful words of wisdom that you can't find in Stuart Walker's books. Thank you Tweezerman.

O Docker said...

I'm going with reason #2.

In any competitive endeavor, there are the pros and the rest of us. The pros always seem to have a confident, natural grace that the rest of us can never quite attain.

Whether it's a Ben Ainslie working his way to weather through a chop, a major league shortstop making a double play, or a Larry Ellison shaking down a city council for prime, waterfront property, the pro never seems to be going through a mental checklist of 'rules' before instinctively making the perfect move.

Words of wisdom may help us mere mortals, but they'll never give us that magic that the pros themselves probably don't understand.

Anonymous said...

Making good decisions comes from experience... and experience comes from making bad decisions.

Abe said...

Maybe just restating other comments, but...

Good tactics are easy if you are faster than most of the other boats. Good starts are easy if you have better boat handling than most the other sailors. Speed and handling (and the fitness they largely depend on) develop from more and more and more practice.

Words of wisdom from the winners usually focus on the tactics or strategy the winner employed, but most of the time, at least in reasonably fair racing conditions, the honest answer is that they were just sailing faster than everyone else.

Even when they give tips on what made them faster, they will necessarily focus one just one or two major points. But boat speed is really about doing hundreds of little things well, and doing them well consistently the whole way around the course.

Tillerman said...

Hmmm. If only that were true... Surely I've made enough bad decisions to be a world champion by now?

Tillerman said...

I think there's a lot of truth in that. And often modesty prevents the pro from coming right out and saying, "Well, the reason I won was that I am just faster than the rest of you."

John MacCausland came close to saying that in the first of Doug's interviews, something along the lines of, "In the light air I feel very very comfortable and I felt I had an edge on the majority of the rest of the fleet."

Doug / Pam said...

The next time I do an interview, I'm not going to ask "how did you win?" because we all know the basic answers and the result is like a newspaper report. Instead, I'm going to ask "tell us something that you did that no one else was doing." Less news, more learning.

Tillerman said...

Good idea Doug. Hope you didn't think I was getting at you in particular. I think it's a general issue with words of wisdom.

One think I didn't mention is that words of wisdom do sometimes reveal some aspect of local knowledge (e.g. always sail towards the fort when the wind is in the NW) that can really help people new to that fleet, but of course is of little use to anyone else.

And in my experience you can often get great insights by talking to a winner one-on-one or in a small group after racing (especially if you buy him a beer.) I do think there's a bit of truth in my first point; they don't always want to tell the whole world the secret of their success.

Doug / Pam said...

Agreed. It's interesting that we talked about this in Florida. The name of a very successful sailor came up because he does everything to not share his success. For me, I'm probably a better coach than sailor, so sharing on our blog very rewarding.

SarasotaSailing said...

When reading your post I couldn't help thinking of a book I am reading, The Inner Game of Tennis, which examines why we know what to do but can't seem to be able to do it - about tennis but applies to any sport.

Tillerman said...

One of my favorite books SS. I've had it for ages and actually picked it up again a few days ago. I think I've blogged about it here before and may well do so again. I think it's probably one of the best books ever about the mental side of sports.

Unknown said...

I suspect that point #2 is the most likely. If you look at the top coaches in almost any sport, you'll see that they are usually career minor leaguers or very short elite level careers. They become good coaches because they lacked the innate skill of the elite players and had to study the game to stay in it.

In a lot of cases #4 is right too. Looking at the various BoatCam videos that I've taken, I can see a clear difference in the sailing techniques of the A fleet sailors and the B fleet sailors. Most of it boils town to smoothness in the boat. The A fleet guys look like ballet dancers, gracefully moving through a tack, while guys like me look like beached whales flopping across the deck.

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