November 30, 2013

Racing strategy vs. tactics

IT WAS DINGHY RACING that taught me the difference between strategy and tactics. I started off thinking that the priority was to make the boat go as fast as possible, and I did quite well for a while, won a few races here and there. Raced on the bay in summer and bashed out through the surf in the warm dry winter to race on the Indian Ocean.

But then a man came along who consistently beat me. Peter Ashwell became my nemesis. It was a frustrating thing: he didn’t seem to be sailing any faster than me, but somehow he was always ahead at the finish.

One day, at a barbecue on the beach after a race, he explained my problem.  “You lack disparate attention. You can’t concentrate on more than one thing at a time,” he said. “You’re good at tactics but you’re missing out on strategy.” 

I was naturally insulted, and went off in a sulk to think about it. But eventually I discovered he was right. I used to concentrate solely on making the boat go faster. On the beat, I would watch the jib like a hawk. I mean, it was fierce concentration. I actually got to the stage where I could anticipate it was going to flutter at the luff, and react so quickly on the tiller that it never got a chance to luff at all. Meanwhile, I had no idea what the rest of the fleet was doing or what subtle changes were taking place with wind speed and direction. Inevitably, I lost ground when wind switches favored my opponents or I accidentally found myself in a lee-bow position. And then I would have to concentrate even harder to go faster.

Peter and I eventually become good friends.  His diagnosis of my problem would be described today as an inability to multi-task. I’ve never been any good at it.  My poor brain can’t handle more than one task at a time if it’s going to do a decent job.

Peter explained the difference between strategy and tactics. 

“You’re going to out to win the race,” he said. “What’s the strategy? Well, the southwesterly wind looks like it’s dying, and if it does the likelihood is that a new wind will fill in from the east, so we want to position ourselves over toward the eastern side of the course while we can still get there.  Then we’ll be in a position to reach to the next mark, rather than have to beat. That’s the first strategy. There might be others as the race progresses.

“As for tactics:  don’t pinch in this light wind, foot it. Don’t sheet the main in hard. Loosen the mainsail luff until small crinkles appear. Loosen the foot until the deepest chord is well aft. Keep still. Keep the boat upright. Watch the jib.”

I never solved my particular problem. I’m still no good at multi-tasking. I’m still all tactics and no strategy. But I did realize, eventually, the difference between winning a war (strategy) and winning individual battles (tactics).  I also realized that you can give your crew the task of watching for wind shifts and other boats coming toward you on starboard tack while you concentrate like hell on pointing high and making the boat go fast. And after that breakthrough we gave Peter much more of a run for his money.

Today’s Thought
Not to the swift, the race:
Not to the strong, the fight:
Not to the righteous, perfect grace:
Not to the wise, the light.

But often faltering feet
Come surest to the goal;
And they who walk in darkness meet
The sunrise of the soul.

— Henry van Dyke, Reliance

“It’s easy to identify the person who thinks a great deal of himself. His I’s are always too close together.”

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