Monday, August 13, 2012

The Self-Imposed Agony of Defeat

Remember the old TV sports show, Wide World of Sports?  Its introductory catch-phrase was “the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.”   What I remember most is the concurrence of the phrase “agony of defeat” and the video of a skier crashing through a fence on a missed landing from an enormous ski jump.  I was convinced the guy broke several bones and/or suffered a debilitating head injury.

At this year’s Olympics, “the agony of defeat” took on a whole new meaning.  Instead of describing a horrible failure in the execution of a sports skill, it better described the silver medalists’ reaction to the scoring and the podium presentations.  The silver medalists accomplished amazing things and had spectacular performances, but one person in a world of 6,790,000,000 had a very slightly better performance.  It was absolutely crushing.


For most of us, especially us very competitive folks, it is easy to understand the disappointment of getting so close to victory and then finishing second because of one small imperfection.  For Chinese athletes, the emotions extend to letting down the entire country of 600,000,000 people and whole communist/capitalist system of government.  (Are we still doing national medal counts because we are trying to prove that democracy is better than communism, or the other way around, or is it just nationalism?)

Personally, I quite naturally slip into thinking that there is one winner and everyone else is a loser.  That makes me, and probably many of you, a loser almost all of the time.  I am right at home feeling inadequate and unworthy.  I relate to grumpy silver medal winners losers more than gold medal winners, and even more to devastated fourth place non-podium Olympic Games participants bigger losers …. I attribute my reaction to lack of affection and unconditional approval from my parents, and consider it a character defect – one more inadequacy.  I had no idea that so many suffer from the same malady.

At the highest level of sport, it seems very competitive athletes can turn something they love and excel at into a miserable grind with a painful payoff.  Just once I would like to hear an athlete say “I loved the four years of training” and the competition at the Olympics was “the most exhilarating experience of my life even though I didn’t win gold.”  Instead they talk about all the grueling work and how bad they “want it.”  For all but one, they are some of the world’s best examples of the Buddhist principle that “desire causes suffering.”  Even for the one, there seems to be a lot of agony in victory.

So let’s CUT IT OUT!  Playing sports is fun!  Getting better at something is satisfying.  Playing the game is a fascinating challenge in itself.  Can’t that be enough?  Get some perspective. 

It’s therapeutic to say that, but saying and doing are different things.  A week ago, I spent the afternoon racing my laser in about 17 knots of wind.  I would have been comfortable in my radial, but the wind looked to be only 10 when we went out, so we all sailed full rigs.  Most of us were totally overpowered.   It was a hard day of racing, perhaps even miserable.  Every upwind was a slow, painful, poorly sailed grind.  Speed and positions were determined by sailor weight.  The same guy (not me) was out front every time.  I never even challenged him.  Only grievous errors like terrible tacks and knots in mainsheets changed the finishing order of us lightweights.  After about two-thirds of our usual sailing time, we had all had it. 

Once on shore, I realized that it had never even occurred to me to enjoy all that wind by taking a few minutes to go off on a screaming planing reach just for fun.  It hadn’t occurred to any of us.  Our mindset was that racing and trying to win were everything, even when there was very little competition.  I ended my day feeling like an exhausted, unsatisfied silver medalist. 

Of course racing is fun and challenging and full of goodness.  But some days, maybe sailing should just be this:

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

An Incomplete and Non-scientific Guide to Finding Yourself a Sailing Helmet Part 2- Selecting a Sailing Helmet

In view of the colossal failure in manufacturer marketing of sailing helmets, I thought it might be helpful to those with some interest to share what I have learned about available helmets.

The world of helmets is surprisingly large.  There seems to be a helmet for everything – biking, skiing, skateboarding, surfing, windsurfing, hockey, girls’ soccer, kayaking, whitewater rafting, and on and on.  (By the way, when I was young, all of these things were done without helmets.) 

As I started to look around at this multifaceted world, I was lucky to stumble onto some marketing from a kayak helmet manufacturer telling me that their foam padding is wonderful because it does not absorb water.  Foam in other helmets turns into a sponge when wet, and sponges are neither good padding nor comfortable on the head.  Ah ha!  The helmet world is divided, and watersport helmet land is the place to look.

Every kind of helmet I looked at claimed it was rugged and safe.  There is a standard certification, the CE 1385 international standard for headgear for whitewater sports, which indicates if a helmet is safe enough.  They all seem to have it, but one should actually verify.  Mostly I go by the pictures.  If people wear a particular helmet to kayak over waterfalls or surf 40 foot waves, it is good enough for me.  Also, my point of comparison for ruggedness and safety is the baseball hat I have been wearing – a pretty low standard.

Turns out helmet safety is closely related to how well the thing actually stays on the head during impacts.  Helmets that move around aren’t so safe.  One universal in this snug fit concept is that there needs to be support of the occipital lobe, the back of the head a little below the equator.  There are two approaches to this.  One is an adjustable strap and the other is a helmet that extends down behind the head a couple of inches further down than a baseball hat.  The majority of kayak helmets use the first method.  The bowling ball shaped helmets use the latter.

As a laser sailor, I have a very specific need for a low profile helmet.  In any boat with a low boom, there is a tradeoff between seeking protection from a bump and making one’s head bigger and higher to more likely receive that bump.  Minimal distance between the top of my head and the top of the helmet is imperative.  This criterion eliminates many kayak helmets that otherwise appear to be durable and well designed.  The biggest problem is that only a few models are called “low profile”, and even then, the term is undefined.  You are left guessing from pictures that were never intended to show what you are looking for.

A helmet for sailing ought to be comfortable.  It ought to be unobtrusive, lightweight, and not cause overheating or sweating.  Many helmets have holes for ventilation.  For those of us replacing a baseball hat with a helmet, the helmet should have a visor to keep sun out of the eyes.  The internet can show us some of this but determining if a particular helmet is too hot or otherwise uncomfortable requires trying it on and testing it out.

And maybe it matters what the helmet looks like and how it affects our image.  Let’s face it, sailors don’t want to appear dorky.  Since sailing pros are definitely not dorky, I wanted to know what they are wearing.    Part 1 of this blog post covers some of this. So, having determined some of the things a sailing helmet ought to be, I tried a few out.

Shred Ready “Sesh”.  I bought this helmet for kids on my sailing team after a few concussions and weeks of missed sailing time.   It’s a kayak helmet with applicable foam and safety certification.  It is sold in sizes with an adjustable occipital strap to make it secure.  It has no shims, so the fit is not quite perfect, but it is good enough.  It’s lightweight and has a low profile.  The protective foam is covered with a fabric that eliminates the clingy, somewhat sticky feeling of foam.  There are small gaps in the lining that promote air/water flow through the 11 ventilation holes. It’s comfortable and unobtrusive to wear.  In terms of image, it is a skateboard helmet (very round and no visor) adapted to watersports.  Maybe that is a good look for kids.  The price is great, $39, the least expensive helmet I considered.
Predator “Lee”.  This kayak helmet looks like a baseball hat which is apparently a cool look in the adventure kayak world.  Unfortunately, this helmet does not work at all for me.  It is too narrow for my head and even with ample shims, it does not fit right.  Although it was billed as a low profile design, it has a higher profile than any others I tried.  It also feels a bit heavy compared to others.  I had to send this one back.  Price $129.
ProTec “Ace”.  I tried this one on in a local REI store.  They had a grand total of 1 in stock.  Not a big seller.  It is a spherical type with a tight fit all around.  It is sold in several sizes and allows minor adjustments for sizing.  The one I tried was a good fit.  It is low profile and lightweight.  It has 16 ventilation holes and seems like it would do the job.  It does not have a visor of any kind, so it is not right for me, but it is the choice of Emeritus Team New Zealand.  Price $45.  A model with adjustable occipital strap is $65.
Gath “Gedi.”  This is my current favorite, and I wear mine quite often.  Gath helmets are spherical and come from the world of surfing. They seem to be the helmet of choice for surfing, windsurfing, and kiteboarding.  They have the usual foam and safety certification.  They come in several sizes, and the fit is quite snug with three interchangeable wrap around head band pieces to get a good fit.  The “Gedi” weighs less than a pound and its cousin, the “Surf”, weighs even less.  Gath prides itself on being low profile, and they are.  I bought the “Gedi” model because it comes with a removable visor.  It has vent holes at the top, but they are much smaller than those on the “Ace” or the “Sesh”.  I was afraid the snug fitting foam headband and smaller vents would make it too hot, but it was surprisingly comfortable when I wore it in 90 degree weather.  However, when the wind dropped below 5 MPH, it was hot – but isn’t every hat?  I have since tried a sweat resistant headband under the helmet and this feels cooler. The “Gedi” also comes with plugs for the vents when used in cooler months and insertable ear protectors.  Apparently surfers can burst eardrums in a fall, but I currently can’t get my laser to go fast enough to worry about that. In terms of image, I am aware that I am wearing the helmet of AC 45 sailors, but I’m not sure others realize how cool this makes me.
Shred Ready “Supper Scrappy.”  Eric is trying out this model and seems to like it.  It is a baseball hat style, but with a much smaller visor.  In addition to the standard safety certification, Shred Ready uses a different foam that is even better at impact resistance.  I was surprised to discover that it has as low a profile as any I have seen.  It has an occipital strap and shims to get a good fit.  Its baseball hat styling may be less jarring to those not used to seeing sailing helmets.  It looks like another good choice.

Okay.  I have done my best to market helmets that work for sailing, but I’m sure there are more helmets well suited to this purpose.  If there are any manufacturers out there who want an honest opinion and perhaps my invaluable endorsement of their product, you are most welcome to send me a helmet to test drive.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

"Respect" the line?

Why can’t sailing instructions just say what they mean and mean what they say?  If the sailors know what the race committee means to say, but they haven’t said what they mean, then what are the rules?  What the RC means?  Or what the Sailing Instructions say?  Of course, it has to be what the Regatta’s SI’s  say.  But when the RC can’t say what they mean, it frequently follows that is the SI’s are confusing, incomplete, self-contradictory, or just nonsensical.

Case in point:

The Sailing Instructions at a recent regatta I attended describe the start and the finish lines and then add this sentence in bold typeface:  “Before and After starting, Yachts shall respect the starting and finishing lines except when in the process of starting of finishing.”  (Capitalizations are theirs.)

One of the course diagrams is the following:

I think this is all an attempt to say that the start/finish line is closed. “Closed”  is a commonly used expression meaning that boats racing cannot cross it when heading from one mark of the course to the next mark of the course. Closed lines are used for two reasons.  One is to make things easier for the scorer; when a boat crosses the line, write down the number; the boat is finished.  (Of course when that boat crosses the line again, someone has to sort it all out.)  The other is to minimize the interference of boats sailing in different fleets or on different legs of the same course.

Given that this instruction was written for a situation where up to 4 fleets would be on the same course, I think it is safe to say that there was an appropriate concern for interference between fleets.  My opinion is that careful spacing of the starts and the use of courses that separate fleets are far more effective tools to accomplish the goal, but many also use a closed line as a tool.  Even a closed line does not guarantee boats will not interfere with each other, but it should reduce it.  (For the regatta in question, the RC very successfully spaced the starts so there was never anything remotely like interference in the vicinity of the start/finish line.)

Although the goal of minimal interference is noble, and the closed line is a tool for accomplishing the goal, the Sailing Instructions still need to say exactly what is intended and prevent any unforeseen consequences.  Dick Rose does a great job of explaining all the possible unintended consequences and proposing sailing instruction wording to avoid them. Just for fun, let’s look carefully at what these particular Sailing Instructions say and the problems they could cause:

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First, there are the problems with closed lines that Dick Rose points out. 
e.g. A boat who believes she is OCS, but is not, and returns to the line has broken the rule.  The line actually becomes an obstruction for sailors except at a start or finish.  However, because safety is not involved, a boat cannot hail for room to tack at this obstruction, somewhat changing the RRS and possible racing tactics.

Then, “Before and after starting” means at all times except at the exact instant of starting.  This includes sailing in the prestart, sailing the course after the start, and all the time before racing, after racing and in between races – virtually the entire day.  Let’s just replace the phrase with “at all times.”  By making this provision in force at all times, any boat that crosses the line while sailing around in between races should be disqualified.  But in which race does the DSQ apply, the prior one or the next one?  This prohibition could apply even if no races are currently in progress.  Do they really mean this?  Could I have protested every boat that did this?  (I could have been the only boat left!)  A boat protested for this would have no way to exonerate herself, because it is not a Part 2 rule. 

Next, the word “respect” seems very peculiar, and I can’t recall seeing it used in a sailing context before.  “Respect” is certainly not a term defined in the RRS, so standard dictionary definitions apply.  The first definition in my Oxford dictionary (verb) is “regard with deference, esteem or honor.”  Should we salute the line?  The second and closer definition is “avoiding interfering with, harming, degrading, insulting, injuring or interrupting.”  Okay, it looks like non-interference is the point.  But must we respect the line, not the boats?  Is it supposed to mean “don’t cross the line” or “don’t interfere with starters and finishers?” If the intent is the first, why not just use the word ”cross”, instead of respect, like everyone else does?  If the intent is the latter, the rules become very problematic.  Would avoiding a starter or finisher override the RRS?  Imagine a starboard boat having to keep clear of a port boat.  Do they really mean this?

And the pièce de résistance is the combination of this peculiar wording with the course diagram above.  The diagram shows the second windward leg passing through the starting line in direct contradiction to what I think was intended.  This could have mattered in our regatta.  In one race, the first place boat informed the second place boat that the line was closed.  Both went around the line.  I was in third, didn’t hear and went right through the line.  Had I been disqualified, which I wasn’t, could I claim that I sailed the course as diagrammed and the other boats failed to do so, resulting in their disqualification and my reinstatement?

                                         *                     *                           *

In the regatta having these SI’s, I sailed over the start line …… I was not disqualified.  Why?  Was it because I saluted the line as I went through it or because I didn’t interfere with any starter or finishers?  Perhaps the use of the word “respect” was a clever way to leave the line open except when there could be interference with starters or finishers.  Probably it was because the RC was not keeping a close eye out for enforcing the rule at times when a closed line was completely unnecessary.   Why would the RC even think about it with boats spread out all over the course and no one interfering with anyone else?  Seems to me that selective enforcement, which creates a fundamental problem with any rule, could be a frequent result.

In general, I hate the whole idea of a closed line.  As we see here and in the Dick Rose article, it is difficult to write the SI’s to say what needs to be said.  It is too easy to create a rules disaster that may have no good resolution, and so it is too easy to cause selective enforcement.

I don’t like the idea of adding an obstruction in the middle of the race course.  Usually it forces an early commitment to picking one side or the other, not allowing the sailors to play shifts and puffs for a certain period of the race. 

And I think it is unnecessary.  It is the least effective of the available tools in preventing fleet interference.  Timing the starts correctly works very well.  If the RC makes a mistake, it can always abandon a starting sequence and start a new one when traffic clears.  Using courses that separate fleets also works extremely well.   Trapezoid courses and box shaped courses have separate windward- leeward legs so fleets do not run into each other.  My yacht club is using these course with great success; never any interference.

But if you insist on a closed line, for heaven’s sake, please write the Sailing Instructions properly and communicate clearly with the sailors.