There are a few things that I always try to do to avoid the pitfalls of the pecking order. A pecking order is great when it works for you - when you're an established front-of-fleet sailor - but it is a difficult barrier to break when it works against you.
I first came across the concept of a pecking order when, as a kid, I read Sail, Race and Win by Eric Twiname. He describes a time when he was crewing for someone, and how shocked he was at how his helm immediately became a worse sailor when they realised they were well ahead of where they normally were in the fleet.
It was something of a light-bulb moment for me, as it not only described something that I hadn't been that aware of, but it really rang true of my own psychology. It also suggested that it was something I could actively work to improve on.
Not long after I reading Twiname's book, I read John Bertrand's biography about Australia's victory in the 1983 America's Cup. Bertrand describes how he was concerned that the Australians might have an inferiority complex with regards to the American team, and he employed a number of strategies to try to counteract this.
Bertrand describes how he only ever referred to Dennis Connor's boat, Liberty, as "the red boat". He never referred to Dennis Connor or any of his crew by name, nor did he refer to their 12-Meter as Liberty. They were always "the red boat", never anything else.
His aim was to de-personalise the Americans, making them just another opponent with no established history and no inherent qualities. He wanted his crew to race against a boat, not against a legacy, a legend, a previously undefeated opponent.
So this is the first trick I use to avoid the pitfalls of pecking orders. When I sail in a new fleet, I make a point of not noting who looks good in the boat-park, before the racing, and even of registering who wins the early races. I avoid looking at sail numbers, avoid remembering boat names, avoid establishing who a sailor is by the clothes they wear. This is not as easy as it sounds, but it does help if, like me, you can barely remember your own name most of the time. All of this means that, at least for the early races, I have no established idea of who I "should" be beating, and who "should " be beating me.
This can be especially important if you have particular conditions you prefer. I took part in a regatta relatively recently, and I only knew a couple of the other boats racing. The first races were sailed in breezes that were too strong for me, but I did ok. Then the morning dawned and it was light air. A reasonable start and a good first beat saw me round the windward mark in second. Previously I would have been anxious about trying not to lose too many positions, but this time I had no established pecking order.
In fact, I'd been so good at not allowing myself to get caught up with who was good and who wasn't that it had two effects:
- I concentrated on trying to overtake the boat in front, rather than worry about the guys behind; and (less helpfully)
- I had no idea who to cover for the latter part of the race as the boats behind be were quite bunched heading onto the last beat.
I didn't take the lead, but I didn't lose any places either, and I established myself as a top-of-the-fleet sailor in light airs in that fleet, both in my mind and also in some of the other sailors' minds too.
This idea does have one more minor downfall. On shore after racing I might be chatting to someone and ask them how they got on in the races, and I'll get a funny look. I've come to learn that it probably means that we've been racing closely for most of the day.
Of course, this is less easy to use in a fleet in which you already sail regularly. But it is still worth doing, still worth trying to avoid registering who it is you're beating that you don't normally beat. The more anonymous they are to you, the less you attributes you can attach to them, the easier they are to beat.