today i went racing

Kevin Hall went sailboat racing. What did he learn? Brought to you by Mauri Pro Sailing

I competed in a sailboat race over the weekend, for the first time in seventeen months. This is the longest gap between races for me since I learned to sail.

The J Class boats racing on the bay with us at the Superyacht Cup in Palma were spectacular, majestic, very impressive. The racing looked close enough to one-design racing to not be too confusing. I think one race might have been won by a margin of .39 seconds. A very high degree of precision, indeed.

The Superyacht fleet ranged in length from 24 meters to 46 meters. Every single one of them was immaculate. Some were breathtakingly beautiful. They all looked to be well sailed. Some very well sailed. The event organizers put on a spectacular few days’ racing. There was a huge roster of America’s Cup, Volvo, Whitbread, and Olympic winners and podium-finishers in the beer tent at the end of the day.

I just finished reading a book by Jordan Ellenberg with the provocative title How Not to Be Wrong. It starts with a great story about Abraham Wald, and the pattern of bullet holes on the warplanes which returned from missions in World War Two. The task was to use math to increase the armor on the parts of the planes which needed more armor, but save the weight where the planes didn’t need more armor.

Here is the list of holes per square foot data: Engine: 1.11, Fuselage: 1.73, Fuel System: 1.55, Rest of Plane: 1.8. Hard data. Carefully measured data. Data which implies a course of action. Take a second to think about how you would use this data to make the plane you’re going fly into battle sufficiently armored but also as light as possible. Got your plan?

You may have forgotten to ask yourself first where the measurements for the missing holes are. Don’t beat yourself up, it’s not an easy way to think. The missing holes are in the engines of the planes that were shot down. They are not represented in the data set. If we did have those holes to count, and that data, it would be obvious where we need more armor.

At the end of the Superyacht Cup I spent some time going back through our navigational data. We did two extra gybes on a light run, which is very costly. We overstood the finish and came in hot with the foot of the A2 in the water. Two days in a row, for cluck’s sake. We maybe could have dropped the A3 a tiny bit earlier, on a long reach on the third day, but as it was we were 112 TWA on the jib to the mark, sailing into a dying breeze. Seemed about right. Tally up all the mistakes, add a bit knowing that pride is likely to shade it in one’s favor, come up with a number.

On day one we could perhaps have sailed five minutes faster around the track, give or take. We missed out on the podium by seventeen minutes. So, assuming the rest of the fleet sailed a perfect race, there are about twelve minutes worth of bullet holes to find in those conditions and that race format with the current ratings.

I’m not here to shoot holes. I’m going to throw out a crazy idea instead.

First the assumptions. One. Everyone agrees that it is a nearly impossible cat to skin. Two. A huge amount of effort and an appropriate level of resource have been dedicated to making Superyacht handicap racing as robust a system as possible. Three: The ISYR represents a great deal of evolution of a dynamic problem. Four: I am not letting a cat out of the bag. There is general awareness that it is a tricky problem.

I believe that better data is not the answer. Humans are. The data gives a false sense of impartiality and thoroughness. It resists the subjective, or perhaps intuitive part of the equation. Data can even preclude common sense, which is why George Lucas made the Force the hero when Luke shot down the Death Star. Luke just had to turn off his computer and look out the window.

Here’s my solution. Each Superyacht is assigned an Analyst for a day, who sails on the boat. These hypothetical people are volunteers with a strong background in sailboat racing and the ability to learn to handle some software, and a piece of paper and a pencil.

They rotate through the fleet to make it fair, like changing boats in college racing. They aren’t expected to be perfect, but they are expected to be thorough. They tally the seconds their boat sails past Laylines. They note whether the headsail is in range or the wrong one. They note the time back from the startline. They make a tidy list, and then present it to the crew at the end of the race. The crew might disagree slightly with an assessment. A slight overstand was called for to setup a high lane out of the gybeset, perhaps. Give us that minute back.

In a perfect world, a crew might call attention to mistakes the Analyst didn’t notice. This would add an interesting element of people watching and honor to the system. I believe a majority of people would play fairly. I’m not so naïve to think it would be everyone. Those trophies were big, and very shiny.

But. Imagine how satisfying it would be to look at a huge shiny trophy on your mantelpiece that you had won despite copping to all the mistakes you knew you made.