May 12, 2015

Not guilty of distracted sailing

I WAS LISTENING to the evening news the other night. Someone had just been found guilty of distracted driving, presumably in a car. I don’t remember what distracted him from his driving, but it did make me think that sailing a boat is full of distractions. And you have to attend  to each and every one of them at the same time.

I presume that if distracted driving in a car is against the law, then what the law requires is undistracted driving, which happens to be the opposite of multi-tasking.

Now, my friend Peter Ashwell used to tell me I was no good at multi-tasking. Being a scientific man, he always described as it as an inability to handle disparate attention, a description that worried me quite a lot at the time, but which meant the same thing as being lousy at multi-tasking.

I suspect now that he was bluffing me. We were fierce competitors in international-class racing dinghies. He never forgave me for sailing past him to the finish one time when I had just got a brand-new mainsail, upon which I had stuck several used Band-Aids to make it look old and blown-out.

It was one of the few occasions when I managed to beat him. And he was probably right about my concentration span. When I was going to windward I concentrated fully on the jib. I watched the leech for flutters and the telltales for positive flow. Nothing else mattered.

I should, of course, have also been paying attention to windshifts, the position of fellow competitors, the curvature in the mainsail, and a dozen other factors. But no, my little world revolved around the jib. If the jib was drawing perfectly, I knew I was getting to windward in the most efficient way possible.

Unfortunately, it’s not always the fastest boat to windward that wins a yacht race. Multi-tasking is what it’s all about. Perhaps no other sport requires you to be aware of so many situations and act upon them simultaneously, particularly if you’re singlehanding.

If you’re on port tack you have to be very aware of how closely the starboard boats are going to cross your bows. You not only have to watch your jib, but you have to decide whether to pull off to go behind them or try to make it across in front of them. You may have to sheet in the main to point a bit higher, and waggle the tiller to go in the right diection. You have to watch the water for stronger puffs and either luff up or ease the mainsheet.

All these things, and many others, distract you from the important task of watching the jib, if you are of the distractable kind. But dealing with distracted sailing, as I have learned the hard way, is how sailboat races are won. You have to be able to carry out many tasks all at once. Perhaps each separate task will not receive the full amount of attention it deserves, but, believe me, if you teach yourself to deal with many things at once, instead of focusing blindly on one aspect of the game, you will come out ahead in the end.

And if sailboat skippers can use distracted driving to garner success, why should it be illegal for landlubbers to practice it in cars?

Today’s Thought
When we think we're multitasking we're actually multiswitching. That is what the brain is very good at doing - quickly diverting its attention from one place to the next. We think we're being productive. We are, indeed, being busy. But in reality we're simply giving ourselves extra work.
— Michael Harris

An attractive woman playing bridge with three men felt a foot run up and down her calf.
“If that’s my husband,” she said calmly, “I bid three no trumps. If it’s anyone else, I bid you watch out for my husband.”

(Drop by every Monday, Wednesday, Friday for a new Mainly about Boats column.)


Edward said...

I'm surprised that the myth of mulit-tasking efficiency has survived. It's been know for many years that the most efficient method is to complete one task, then switch to the next task. There is a mental "cost" in every task switch, think of it as the boat length loss in a Tack. But naturally we need to both Tack and Switch to get through a race and a day:)

Alden Smith said...

Multi - tasking is by definition a continuous round of attention to different tasks that make up one overall intention and is required whether you are sailing a yacht, flying an aeroplane or driving a car.

Distracted driving is when you pay more attention to the curves of some beautiful woman walking on the sidewalk instead of the multitasking subset of watching the curves in the road.