To win an Olympic gold medal

Don McNamara’s loss to Australian Bill Northam in the 5.5 meter class at the 1964 Olympics was analyzed so that similar mistakes might be avoided by other sailors. The loss of the heavily-favored American was attributed to magical thinking that can either produce timidity or excessive daring.

At the 1964 Olympics, the gold medal in the 5.5 Meter class was won and lost in the final yards of the final race. Had American Don McNamara in Bingo maintained his lead as he approached the finish line, he would have won the gold medal. But, after daring a too-close port crossing of the Swede, Lars Thorn, he was forced to retire. As a consequence, Australian Bill Northam, who at the leeward mark had been second to Thorn (but on the final beat dropped to fifth) took the gold. Thorn won the silver, and McNamara settled for the bronze.

In his fascinating and beautifully written book, White Sails, Black Clouds, McNamara writes: “Years have passed since that seventh and final race, but I still wake up at night in a cold sweat, reliving my decisions of that day.”

Because similar, inappropriate decisions are made every day on every racecourse in the world, McNamara’s incident warrants a careful analysis. What compels an experienced helmsperson to make a decision that is so clearly wrong?

Everyone expected McNamara – the renowned American with the fastest boat and 50 bags of sails – to win the gold medal. No one expected the Aussie representative to win anything. McNamara, the young hotshot, was the privileged East Coast yachtsman; Northam, the old-timer, was the rough-and-ready sailor. McNamara, at 32, had been at the top of the 5.5 Meter class for the past nine years. Northam, 65, a golfer, race-car driver, and occasional big-boat sailor, had never been in an around-the-buoys race prior to the ’64 Australian 5.5 Championship! He said that he had learned to sail a 5.5 in that regatta and in the Olympic trials. “He was so offhand ashore, so full of clowning and jokes – he seemed to know so little about the technical details of sailing that you wondered what was going to happen next,” said Dick Sargent, his crew. But he got the ultimate out of the boat; his concentration was so complete that he seemed oblivious to everything else.

Northam was a realist. He was focused on speed. He delegated the responsibility for such esoteric matters as strategy and tactics to his (very experienced) crew. Driving a race car had taught him to make accurate assessments of the possible and the impossible. He learned that there were times to attack and times to wait for the opponent to make a mistake.

McNamara was a romantic. His book demonstrates that he was driven to win by a crusader’s fervor; for him nothing was impossible, no victory unattainable. He was amazed when a competitor snatched away a triumph that was intended for him. He attributed his failures to “black clouds” – external forces that opened main-halyard shackles when an event was on the line – and his successes to fortuitous integration of the wind with his boat and crew.

After five races of the Olympic regatta, McNamara was leading Northam by a few points, and the stage was set for a showdown in the final. Although McNamara had to beat Northam and, if he was first, put one boat between them (and if second, two), he must have been confident that the gold would be his. He was the famous American with the fastest boat and the best sails. He had won two of the previous races by huge margins. He deserved to win.

In the seventh race, McNamara had an excellent start and Northam a poor one. But toward the end of the first beat, McNamara revealed the first evidence of impaired judgment. Instead of covering the second and third boats to the layline, he tacked away from what proved to be a zone of stronger air and lost both boats at the mark. He was now third, and Northam was seventh. At the leeward mark, McNamara was second to the Australian’s fifth. On the second beat, Northam tacked to starboard, and McNamara, apparently convinced that his performance would not determine the outcome, let him go. In the left corner Northam found a big back and at the second weather mark was second behind the Swede, Lars Thorn, and ahead of McNamara! The three began the final beat within two boatlengths of each other. McNamara tacked to starboard immediately, and Northam tacked to cover.

McNamara must have been shocked to be overtaken but seems to have remained convinced that he could work through Northam. After a series of tacks and beneficial shifts, he emerged on Northam’s leebow and came back to the rhumb line with the Aussie slightly to windward and dropping astern. Thorn, on starboard, crossed close ahead and tacked to port on Northam’s wind. McNamara pulled ahead on Thorn’s leebow and, approximately 500 yards from the finish line, when he reached a line of stronger, veered air, tacked to cross close astern of Thorn. He broke into clear air as Thorn tacked to cover and was amazed to find that he was laying the pin. All he had to do was hold his position and let them lead him home.

But somehow Thorn was holding position on his weather quarter. McNamara, writing two years later, indicates no concern that the wind would back, no awareness that he need to work up under Thorn to ensure that he finished ahead. He presumably felt that superior speed and ultimately backwinding were all that he would need to finish ahead or, if necessary to tack and cross Thorn. He seemed unconcerned that before they reached the port layline an attempt to tack and cross could be blocked by a Thorn luff, or that if the stalemate continued until they were beyond the port layline, Thorn could tack with him, ahead and to leeward, and finish ahead.

After sailing approximately 200 yards, McNamara recognized that the wind was backing: “The yellow mark gradually emerged from under the jib.” This matter-of-fact observation was apparently not recognized as a demand for action. Knowing that he could no longer fetch, knowing that he could only reach the finish by tacking, oblivious to his untenable position, he sailed blithely on. He seems to have surrendered, fully prepared to accept whatever the gods might ordain.

Seventy-five yards from the layline, McNamara asked, “Could we clear Sweden?” “I don’t think so; look for yourself,” the crew replied. McNamara describes the dosing moments: “The last 50 yards flew by. As we came on to the layline, the buoy was 15 yards abeam to weather. I glanced over my shoulder at Sweden’s bow and made the judgment of an instant.” Knowing that he could not cross Thorn, he tacked.

Tony Manford, the Australian manager, who watched from a boat at the finish line, thinks McNamara panicked. Even McNamara’s book indicates that he had already made up his mind 500 yards from the line, and he describes the action as if he were observing it from without – as if someone else were steering Bingo along a predetermined course. He was fetching the yellow buoy. There was no reason to alter the predetermined course. Nothing could prevent his victory.

That he did not employ a tactical solution as he approached the finish line is an indication of McNamara’s intention to withdraw himself from the conflict and to rely upon a magical solution. His only realistic hope of finishing ahead of Thorn was to luff. He could have luffed gradually, intermittently, until he forced him to tack. But during the last 500 yards, McNamara made no attempt to exchange the forward distance that he had gained for a move to weather.

An earlier incident of my own showed me that it’s possible for a leeward boat to escape from this predicament. I approached the finish line in the final race on starboard, needing to beat Sam Merrick, who was pinned on my leebow. Neither of us was laying the port end of the line. I only had to hold my position until we reached the layline, where I could tack to finish ahead. But he luffed – again and again – and came closer and closer. Finally, in response to his luff, my luff brought me to a complete standstill. He kept right on turning into a full tack and slipped across my bow.

The magical thinking that McNamara appears to have applied to his Olympic effort is evident almost daily. Most people use it only in extreme anxiety-provoking situations, but many use it whenever they’re under stress. Its purpose, often achieved, is to relieve anxiety by providing an escape from responsibility. It produces a state of narrowed and diminished awareness, impairs judgment, and opens the psychic door to irrational behavior. The outcomes of one’s actions are no longer attributable to one’s own decisions; victory or defeat is magically preordained.

Magical thinking may be associated with either excessive daring or timidity. Witness McNamara’s tacking away from head-to-head battles on the first and second beats and finally, when it was too late, his dramatic suicidal attack. There is a difference between the daring that is based upon rational expectations and that which is based upon irrational expectations. The magical thinker is unable to distinguish the possible from the impossible and, when considering the faintly possible, to compare the effects of an unlikely success with a likely failure.

Northam, perceiving the real world as it was, must have been distressed to see McNamara move through him into second and potentially into first, but he made no rash move that would jeopardize his standing. He recognized that sometimes the opponent has the upper hand and that such times call for passive sailing, a willingness to await the opponent’s mistake. McNamara, his judgment clouded by the self-protective perception that the result was out of his hands, was unable to distinguish the possible from the impossible – and attempted the impossible.

Magical thinking mesmerizes; the psyche becomes preoccupied with its own behavior. One of the most adverse effects is the loss of awareness of one’s opponents and their intentions, probable actions, and potential for mistakes. McNamara’s final-leg disasters – attributed by him to “black clouds” – demonstrate the frequency with which winners are determined by competitor’s mistakes rather than by one’s own performance.

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