Don’t take unnecessary chances
|By Dave Dellenbaugh|
In the second race of a regional championship, Joe Cool was sailing up the first beat in 15 knots of wind. He had been fourth in the last race, and all he had to do was finish in the top five of this seven-race regatta to achieve his goal, which was qualifying for the Nationals.
Joe started at the committee boat end in this second race, but got squeezed off and ended up playing the left side of the first leg pretty hard. Luckily, the wind shifted left during the leg, which put Joe near the front of the fleet. However, all the other 40 boats were to his right.
As Joe approached the mark on port tack, he converged with a line-up of starboard tackers. At first, it looked like he could cross the lead boat (and the rest). That was good because it would put him in second place. He didn’t want to duck below the first boat because he would have had to go behind about six others, too. And he didn’t want to tack to starboard because he was already near the port-tack layline.
So Mr. Cool decided to go for the cross. Unfortunately, the other boat was a little closer than he had thought, and she claimed she had to bear off slightly to avoid contact. Joe didn’t believe this, so after a bit of debate amongst his crew, he continued racing and finished third.
That finish really put him in good shape, but the boat he crossed filed a protest. Bad luck again. The jury agreed with the other boat and disqualified Joe from the race. Joe had to use this race as his discard, and his chances of getting to the Nationals had just gone from great to marginal. What went wrong?
Joe’s problem on the first beat was a common mistake that sailors make—ill-advised risk-taking. A risk is a chance you take on the race course. Sometimes, taking a risk will result in a gain, or reward. More often, a risky move will cause you to lose distance, get passed by other boats, or both.
By itself, risk is neither good nor bad. It depends on your situation in a race or series and your assessment of the probable success of that risk.
However, a lot of risks are not worth taking. Many times you don’t want to risk losing anything, or at least the reward you might get is not worth the risk you’d have to take. This is typically the case near the beginning of a race or series and when you are doing well.
To be successful in sailing, you must perform consistently well for entire races and, then, for long series. In a sport like tennis or basketball, the down-side of taking a risk is that you’ll lose a point. In sailing, a bad risk can put you so far behind you’ll never catch up.
There are two questions you need to answer on a continual basis while you are racing. First of all, how much risk are you willing to take and how much reward do you need? This depends on a number of variables including your position in the race or series, and how much time is left in the race or series. For example, if you’re not happy with your position, you’d probably be willing to take a large risk in order to get a big reward.
The second thing you must do is evaluate how much
risk and reward are involved with any decision you
make. For example, in a windy race you’re thinking
about doing a jibe set at the windward mark. How much
will you gain by this, and how much are you risking,
based on your crew’s experience, the positions of
other boats and so on.
Once you know how much risk you’re willing to take and how much risk is is involved in any decision you might make, all you have to do is make the choices that match your risk and reward levels. Of course, it’s easier to do this in theory than in the midst of a race, but you should aim for this kind of thinking.
With this in mind, let’s go back to the story of Joe Cool’s second race and examine his decisions from a risk and reward perspective.
One of the things Joe should have thought about before he started that race was how much risk he was willing to assume and how well he needed to do. Here are some of the factors he should have considered: It was only the second race of a seven-race series. Joe’s goal was to finish in the top five and qualify for the Nationals. In the first race, Joe got a respectable fourth, which showed that he was very competitive in this fleet.
Based on all these factors, it seems fairly obvious that Joe should have minimized his risk in race two, at least early in the race. He was in good shape for finishing in the top five, and there was still plenty of time left in the series. But did Joe do this? Let’s take a closer look:
The start - Joe started right at the committee boat end, which was a high-risk move not compatible with Joe’s overall risk tolerance. Joe didn’t need to win the start; he would have been much better off with a more conservative start away from either end.
First beat strategy - Joe went all the way left until he was the farthest boat to that side. This was another high-risk move that was unnecessary. If the wind hadn’t gone left, Joe would have been near the back of the fleet. It would have been much smarter to stay closer to the middle and try to round the mark in the top ten—then work his way up during the rest of the race.
The crossing situation - As Joe got near the windward mark, he had to decide whether or not to try crossing a starboard tacker. The reward for success was second place; the risk for failure was having to do a 720 and falling back to 10th. Would you have tried this? I think I would have played it safe by doing a lee-bow tack, and hopefully forcing the other boat to tack before I reached the port-tack layline.
A 720 or not? - Failing to do a 720º penalty was probably Joe’s biggest risk (mistake) of all. Just after the crossing he was in second place and being protested. If he had done a 720 he would have lost about eight boats, but he still would have rounded the mark near tenth place. If he didn’t do a 720, he was taking a large risk of being DSQ’d, which is what happened. Since it was only the first leg of the second race, and Joe needed to finish only fifth in the series, this was a risk he should not have taken.
The moral from this story is that, when it comes to risk and reward, you have to think ahead and keep the big picture in mind. Figure out how much risk you’re willing to take and/or how much reward you need to get. Then make race-course choices that are consistent with these levels.
If you make decisions at the last moment or with your head in the boat, you are bound to take too many unnecessary risks. And that is not a good way to get consistent results or achieve your goals.
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