How to Slowly Sail Faster

Published on December 3rd, 2018

Aerobian is a light-hearted blog about sailing from the perspective of an RS Aero sailor. In this post, the author tackles the topic of improvement.

I suffer from a delusion that by making improvements in my boat-handling, sailing strategy, fitness etc. etc. – not to mention tweaks to my boat’s rigging – I will somehow rise up the ranks in the RS Aero fleet and maybe even start winning races and regattas one day.

But is it a delusion?

Maybe not.

I take some comfort from the words of author James Clear. The graph above has been popping up on the Interwebs in various places in the last few weeks since Mr. Clear’s new book, Atomic Habits, was published. Don’t let the math dispirit you. Just focus on the indisputable fact that if you can get better at something by 1% a day, then in a year you will be 37 times better at that thing.

Wow! 37 times better! Leave aside, for a moment, the fact that I can’t get my head around what it would mean to be 37 times better at RS Aero racing. How would you even measure it? What Mr. Clear is saying is that if you consistently make small improvements, all those tiny gains will work like compound interest and you will see meaningful change in the long run. Check out How to Master the Art of Continuous Improvement.

Another way to look at improvements in sailboat racing with which I like to delude myself is to consider how much better than me the folk ahead of me in the fleet really are. Okay – maybe there are a couple of superstars who are always at the top of the fleet. I am not going to overtake them in the near future by making 1% improvements.

But how about the other mid-fleet mediocrities like myself, the guys who beat me usually but not by a lot. Surely I don’t need to be much better to move ahead of that group. In a 30 minute race, someone who beats me by 18 seconds is 1% faster than me. How many places in how many races would I gain if I were only 18 seconds faster in each race? Hmmm!

Of course, I could always fall back on another delusion that maybe there is a magic bullet – that changing one little thing – like a tighter vang, a shinier bottom, or a few minutes a day on a hiking bench – will somehow immediately propel me to the top of the fleet.

An incident from earlier this year at the Sarasota One Design Midwinters springs to mind. One of my friends was struggling along near the back of the RS Aero 7 rig fleet in every race until uber-coach Peter Barton gave him a tip on how to adjust his controls better for the conditions and in the remaining races that day my friend surged to the front of his fleet.

Peter told us, “You are only a tip or two away from fleet domination!” Maybe sometimes, a small change will deliver huge gains in this crazy sport of ours? If so, why grind away every day trying to make all those 1% improvements?


Actually, I am not totally convinced by any of these arguments.

What do you think?

I think I’ll go and do some push-ups now.

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