Can technology replace skill?

Published on July 22nd, 2020

While sailing is an equipment game, getting around the course has shifted from a test of sailing skill to a test of how well we use electronics to make decisions.

Among the electronics that have been developed to provide support is the starting tool that takes the inputs of the two ends of the start line and provides the crew with the measured distance from the line.

What once was done by line sights and “feel”, determining the distance to the start line can now be done with a credit card and user guide. All good? Principal Race Officer Blake Middleton (Wayzata, MN) isn’t so sure:

When I coached in college, one of my regular drills was having the whole team take turns circling through the middle of the start line, with skippers or crews throwing up an arm with a hail when they estimated their bow was on the line.

I’d immediately give feedback saying, “Two feet back,” or “6 inches over,” or “right on!” or “a whole damn boat lengths over,” etc. On many of the teams, the crews often judged the calls better than the skippers, but over time, pretty much everyone improved greatly at gauging time, speed, and distance.

Now, in many of the major events I run these days, I’m astounded at how poorly many sailors react to anything related to last minute shifts in wind speed or direction, dragging boat anchors, Race Committee boats swinging on long scope of anchor lines, and so on. And it’s because of technology.

Instead of glancing over their shoulders to gauge the starting line range marks on shore, and the relative position of the boats around them, eyes are focused directly forward at the fancy instruments mounted on the mast. Many of those poor starts could have been salvaged by sailors who instead had their heads on a swivel.

At an international regatta I ran last year, my Deputy race officer and I watched and listened as a line of boats came alongside and called their ‘pings’ on our end of the start line. We both looked in amazement as two top boats made verbal hails to ping their fancy instruments when they were clearly 2 or 3 feet past the start line. At the start, those two boats were both OCS by a couple feet.

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