Zen and the art of sailboat racing

Sailors┬ámust prepare their psyche and body for them to perform optimally during competitions. They must not be overly focused on mistakes. They must also eat nutritious foods and avoid indulging before competitions. Sailors’ concentration is reduced when their bodies have to digest a lot of food.

“Why should we care who is the rest in the land at racing plastic boats around little rubber balls?” This question thoroughly stumped me until I discovered philosopher-runner Dr. George Sheehan, who exhorts us to “Play regularly. An hour’s play a day makes a man whole and healthy and long-lived.” (Running and Being; The Total Experience, Simon and Schuster.)

Sheehan gives play a supralogical, nonrational, mystical importance in our lives. “In play, you realize simultaneously the supreme importance and utter insignificance of what you are doing. And accept the paradox … Play, then, is the answer to the puzzle of our existence.”

Thank you, Dr. Sheehan. You’ve eased my mind. So our sport must be approached as recreation, although it is right, and sometimes mandatory to play as hard as possible. I’ll try to explain the art of living this paradox, from which stems Corinthian sportsmanship. This is about learning how to reach your potential, about becoming a calypso poet. About realizing, as Kierkegaard wrote, that “I, myself, am my only obstacle to perfection.”


Your expectations were high, but your results were lackluster. The crew didn’t have a great time. Mistakes compounded, tempers flared, you lost sight of the forest for the trees.

You know that you performed beneath your potential. Was it because you shied away from situations that tested your skills to their utmost (“duck out”), or did you “amp out” and start over-early at the pin three out of seven races? Was the game played at your rhythm? Were you dictating the offensives, causing your opponents to change their game plans?

“Well, yes, I’m nervous. This is the national championship, and I dearly want my best performance. For the life of me I can’t approach it as just another regatta. This is for all the marbles. This is the big one. Are these thoughts helping me sail? Why can’t I focus my energy on the task at hand? What is this pressure and where did it come from? From within me?”

Recognize that pressure is in your control, and that mistakes and falls are part of the process. Don’t dwell on what goes wrong. Worry about your mistakes later. My grandfather had a very sensible habit. He confined all his worrying to his daily bath.


Three rules of digestion have been known since antiquity: 1.) Eat foods that agree with you. 2.) Avoid foods that disagree with you. 3.) Don’t go to bed mad.

Leave aside taste for a moment and consider nutritional content, ease of digestibility, and toxicity. Toxins stress the body you want relaxed, so reduce your intake of these poisons (the toxins most common in the average American diet: caffeine, alcohol, tobacco, preservatives). Next consider balances both within each meal and among meals from day to day. Balance your overall diet, and counterbalance each meal: meat and potatoes; milk and Oreos; gin and tonic; fruit and granola….

Breakfast is the most important meal of the day because it refills your body after a spell of not eating. Skip breakfast, and you’ll be famished just as the first race starts. Eat a proportioned breakfast. Snack on a grapefruit midmorning and you’ll be at the peak of concentration throughout the first race. Lunch is optional. If you are sailing a physically demanding boat (e.g., a Laser in 20 knots) you will certainly detract from your afternoon performance if you scarf a huge lunch. The blood in your body is finite, and you want it replenishing your hiking muscles and your brain, not dilly-dallying around your stomach. Wait until dinner to feast.


Because sailing is mostly a cerebral sport, a lot of sailors are lax on their physical regimens. They should expect to get pummeled at the world level as long as they refuse to take conditioning seriously.

How does your body handle exercise? Are you in shape? Could you stand your trick at the helm of a planing Whitbread 60? Are you ready to go up the mast to make repairs? Can you trim a spinnaker perfectly for 30 minutes and more with no heed to the gale? Will you be sore on the third day of the event? How much stretching do you do?

I asked Skip Whyte, US Sailing Team coach, what successful fitness regimens he had observed. He said that yoga carries some of the most successful boardsailors that extra distance. So in sailing, as in life, physical conditioning is used to improve overall concentration and wellbeing – to promote control of the body and mind.


Most events are won and lost in the months before the boats hit the water. This is the time when winners are conditioning their bodies, sure, but more importantly, they’re taking time to visualize the championship in all its intricate details: the pain, the pressure, the sunburn, the missing ring dings, the breakdowns, the blood, the weeds on the rudder, and most importantly, the victory.

Visualize that the victory will hinge on a definitive moment. Picture that moment. Coming back from 36th to 12th twice on the second day? Winning a duel in the final race? Picture the outcome in your favor, and make that vision yours. Fuse yourself with your imagined future.

Visualization is when you change your thoughts from “If I do well at the Frakenlacker regatta …” to “When I win …”


A mantra is anything you can murmur to yourself that focuses your mind on the task at hand. “Eat two oranges. Eat two oranges. Eat two oranges… .” Concentration is heightened by this repetitive task.

I know a Laser sailor who was frustrated by repeated stumblings when she was learning to sail double handed boats. Her mentor and crew observed that when she sailed well, she was humming a tune or singing a favorite song. One day when she was sailing poorly, she took five minutes between races to listen to a favorite song. The tune stuck, she sang along, and was able to stay relaxed and focused.

Mark Allen, many-time Ironman Triathlon winner, said in an interview in Outside magazine, that when he’s racing, all he knows is the step he is making now. And so he settles down to count his footsteps or pedal turns: 1,2,3,4; 1,2,3,4; 1,2,3,4 … That’s a mantra.

I know an excellent crew who always counts out loud each of the last 20 seconds before the start. As the numbers get smaller, everyone on board settles into his or her battle station. Everyone focuses on winning that infinitely complex, slow-motion, jostling dogfight called the prestart. “5, 4, 3,” she counts, and at “GO!” they always go.


Here are two attainable goals I recommend setting for yourself: 1.) Pass the boat in front of you. 2.) Learn at least one thing from every race.

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