Observe and Win

Observe and Win

The contrast between sports is marked.  Primary skills to succeed vary widely from sport to sport.  We also have sets of skills in various sports that ensure success, so we can then have sports like sailing, which are complex and involve physical coordination, “feel” for tuning, technical, tactical, fitness and strategy.  We can have sports like road cycling, which are also on the complex side with a bigger emphasis on physical, but power generation is complex, climbs, flat, time trials, etc all have their own complexities.  On the flip side we have some swimming, track and field, etc where repetitive action over a short time duration is practised and honed to near perfection.  The contrast is massive in terms of difference.  It would be insane and unjust to say that one sport is “better” than another, but for sure they are different and we happen to have an infinitely complex sport, because the environment we perform in is infinitely variable with wave angles, wave size, wave speed, wind speed, strength, oscillations, gusts etc. etc.  This leads us to require a massive range of tuning for our equipment, far wider than a set of gear ratios on a bike, yet simple enough for sailor to alter massively during the course of a one hour race where conditions may vary hugely.  This huge variation and the requirements lead us to require a skill of observation, combined with a knowledge of the implications of those observations.

Observations are therefore a key to sailing success.  If we are smart we can beat boats that are faster, as well as boats that aren’t as smart.  Observation is the feed to our internal computers/calculators.  If we “see” a change coming before it happens we can prepare for it and gain massively over those that haven’t seen it.  Being proactive in sailing gives the same bonus results that being proactive in business gives, as against waiting for a market change and only then reacting. The same rules apply – if we are not certain of the change, we’re better hanging out in our current position and making decisions after it happens, rather than making the wrong decisions.  Equally we are better off knowing that there will be a change and waiting to deal with it than those who are surprised by its arrival.

Anticipation is a points scorer – managing change is another points scorer that good observation skills enable us to cash in on.  In order to collect data we need to observe at least the following:

From the time we get up:

We look at cloud speed and general sky patterns

We look for increasing or decreasing wind patterns

We look for changes in direction

We look at a trustworthy forecast and always compare it through the day to the reality we experience

We look for ridges of clouds in the sky, troughs and fronts

We observe any nearby rain

We observe light offshore winds and the cumulous they generate, knowing they will probably invert to an onshore sea breeze


From the time we reach the boat park:

We gather any sense of pattern up or down, or both in windspeed.

Keep looking at flags for angle changes

Look on the water and see if we see gusty conditions or constant

Find out what the club forecast is, compare with our own, especially anticipated times of any changes


From the time we launch:

Take wind angle readings constantly and establish any patterns

See which tack gusts are lifting/knocking

Observe what the shift pattern is (example two right to one left)

Gain a sense of timing of the shifts

Establish anything about the nature of the wind that we can predict (example, gusts lift on port)


From the time we reach the course:

Establish any areas of higher pressure on the course, and any wind hole areas

Check that the patterns you have collected on the way out are the same on the course

Look above the course and see if there are any boats sailing different angles, as that shift will probably reach you at the startline

Look for windbends, especially if the course is close (within 2km) to land

Establish where you are in any shift patterns when the warning signal goes, and if you have a coach or training partner on the water check in with them

Although the above list is not complete, it covers most of the aspects that you need to make the best quality decisions that are possible.  Rather like feeding information into a computer, it becomes more refined after the data is gathered, so we can ask ourselves is it a pressure day or an angle day (in other words do we get the most benefit from taking angles or looking for pressure).  Is the course sided.  Where are the gusts coming on the downwind, etc. etc.  In this way the more experience we have, the more we can prioritise and filter the information into useable chunks.  We can also rely on a good coach to do this, and focus us on the important factors of decision making.

Good observation is needed in order to consistently play “chess on the water”.  Being smart needs consistency, not guesswork, so “working” on observation routines is as much a part of training as tuning for speed.  At Toplevel not only do we encourage the development of these observation skills, but we also explain the theory behind anything that happens.  Understanding implications of change can take years.  We shortcut this by our guidance of information priorities and explanation of the data.

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