Sailing Strategy: The Tactical Disagreement

The racecourse is no place for a dysfunctional-decision-making.


Hal Mayforth

Rob: Hey Doc! Got a minute?

Doc: Certainly. How’s it going?

Rob: Sue and I are having a disagreement, and we want you to sort it out.


Doc: Go on.

Rob: We were in third place about halfway up the second beat. You saw the conditions today—about 10 to 12 knots and flat water. We were to leeward and slightly forward of Godzilla, and we were both heading right about halfway out to the right-hand layline. Well, Godzilla tacked back to starboard, and Sue called for a tack to follow him. But I said that was wrong, that we needed some separation, so we held on port.

Sue: Right out to the layline.


Rob: But we didn’t lose much.

Doc: Sue, it sounds like you don’t agree with that decision.

Sue: Exactly. We didn’t need to take that risk. We ended up losing any chance we had of catching Godzilla.


Rob: But we were never going to pass him just following him around.

Doc: Whose decision is it to make?

Rob: Well, Sue is the tactician, and she makes all the calls, but if I think she’s making a big mistake I will override her.


Sue: That happens in just about every race we do. I get so frustrated. I know I’m not going to get every decision right, but each time Rob changes my call my whole game plan goes out the window.

Doc: One of the keys to discussing tactical differences of opinion is to separate the data from the reasoning—or, if you like, the assumptions from the principles applied. Sue, what was your thinking behind making the call to tack?

Sue: Well, we, and Godzilla, were among the most right-hand boats in the fleet. We both sailed into a five-degree header. I was worried that the boats on the left were getting too much leverage, and I expected it to shift back. So I treated it as an oscillation, and called for a tack in a pretty clear lane.

Doc: How does that sound, Rob?

Rob: That’s all well and good, but she wasn’t taking into account that it looked soft on the left. With the leader heading off that way too, we only needed a little more right shift or a little more pressure, and we would have been in front.

Doc: So you’re saying Sue’s reasoning was sound, but didn’t take into account the soft pressure you saw on the left.

Rob: Yes, I guess.

Doc: Let’s get a perspective on this. The value of this discussion is entirely based on how helpful it is for you both in making future decisions. That’s the only reason for having any debate at all. If the debate occurs for any other reason, then it’s just a blame game, and that can be destructive. So, let’s see if we can work out whether this is a difference of data or a difference of reasoning. It might give you perspective to make these differences easier to bridge in the future. Sue, if the breeze was soft on the left, would that have influenced your decision?

Sue: If we had been sailing in a generally softer breeze, then yes, it would have weighed much more heavily on my decision. Tacks are more expensive in that lighter stuff, and you just have to be more patient in those conditions. But there wasn’t much pressure difference. Godzilla sailed all the way over to the left in good pressure the entire way.

Doc: Rob, if you thought the breeze were solid as a whole way over to the left, would you have been happy to tack when Sue called?

Rob: Well, I guess. But we still would have lost an opportunity for getting some separation from Godzilla.

Doc: So we have two differences. There is a data difference: Was the breeze really softer on the left? And there is a reasoning difference: To get past Godzilla at this point we need to get leverage on him. Is that a fair summary?

Sue: I think that is it.

Rob: This feels like a protest hearing.

Doc: Funny you should say that. That is why protest hearings are constructed the way they are. You look for the facts first—the data—and then you apply the rules—the reasoning or principles. It’s really the only way of discussing the rights and wrongs of a situation. The protest committee exercises its judgment only around the facts found—at least in theory. Once those are established, then the decision is no more than a reasoning exercise through applying the rules.

Rob: So this is a protest hearing.

Doc: If you two can agree on tactical principles—the reasoning—then Rob, you can let Sue get on with her job of making the decisions in the areas that you both agree are her prerogative.

Rob: Easy on the big words.

Doc: The data, on the other hand, is always up for discussion. That’s where multiple opinions and eyes can be really valuable. But, again, in the end someone has to hold the right to make the call.

Sue: How does this work in practice?

Doc: It works best when there are three things in place. Firstly, you talk ahead of time about how the tactical decision-making will work, and you make explicit agreements about the process—not least is who gets to decide, and who gets to overrule and when that is OK. This should be done as an initial part of a crew coming together, and also at the start of each season.

Secondly, you need to stick to the agreements—no changing the rules mid-race. Finally, and this is an important part, in your post-race debriefs you keep talking about how the agreements are working, and discuss what you’ll try differently next time. That is, you don’t just talk about the rights and wrongs of individual decisions. You also talk about how the decision-making is working and what needs to change. If you bend the rules, you bend the relationships.

Rob: And when it comes to reviewing individual decisions after the race?

Sue: Well, this conversation worked OK. Just don’t let it get personal.

Doc: The trick to talking about individual decisions is finding a way to get past the “I was right and you were wrong” game. What seems to work is understanding where the detail of the differences lie—whether it’s in the data (a bit like the “facts found” in a protest), or the reasoning (disagreements about tactical principles and what should be done in relation to the data). No one wins the “we should have tacked/we should have dipped” argument. You have to dig deeper.

Sue: … [staring deadpan at Rob] like I’ll be doing when I’m digging the hole for you next time you undermine me!