Avoiding the Pecking Order

I was racing in a club race a while back. It was a breezy day, a Force 4 to 5, and as I approached the first windward mark I could see I was going to round in second place. The boat ahead of me was someone who normally finished mid-fleet, but she'd had a great first beat, and was four or five boat-lengths ahead of me as we bore off onto the reach.

She was sailing with a very good crew (the same guy from whom I've learned so much when I've been lucky enough to race with him), and she's a good sailor in her own right. But as we headed on the first quick reach I very quickly felt I would overtake them soon. I could see her glancing behind, looking at where I was and what I was doing. I could also sense that, where their boat had been calm and ordered on the first beat, there was now a more flustered air - not panic, but much less control.

Pecking Order

I rounded the gybe mark just behind them, and as their gybe was a little ragged I went slightly high and had rolled them half way down the second reach. And then they capsized.

This kind of thing happens all the time. I've seen it loads, and I've done it many times myself. On this occasion it was particularly vivid - I could almost see the confidence drain from her the moment we rounded the windward mark and she took the first glance back. After sailing a great first beat, she suddenly turned into a different sailor, less sure of herself, hyper-conscious of what was going on behind her, less certain of what she should be doing herself.

She didn't feel comfortable leading the race. She was conscious of the pecking order, and was struggling as she was upsetting it.

It reminded me of one of the first championships I sailed in when I was 13 years old. On this occasion it was very light winds, and a sea breeze was trying to kick in and battling with the normal breeze. I rounded the windward mark "up among the chocolates" as Jim Saltonstall used to say. But, even better than this, several boats ahead of me were guys I was quite capable of beating.

But that wasn't how I saw it. I was much more conscious of the boats behind me that would normally beat me. It's hard to remember for sure so long after the event, but my overriding sense when thinking back to that race was that I was constantly thinking about how I would keep the boats that were behind me at bay, rather than how I could capitalize on the position I was in.

As a result I lost places, and ended up in the late teens.

I believe this kind of thing happens in every sailing race. People have a notion as to where they belong in the fleet, and often sail themselves up or down according to this. It is of great benefit to front-of-the-fleet sailors, and costly to the rest. And it is a very difficult psychological effect to shake.

And it doesn't affect just us mere mortals. I was really interested in the build up to the London Olympics to hear Tom Slingsby talk about how he wanted to remain unbeaten at Weymouth in all the regattas leading up to the Olympics. He was very conscious that Paul Goodison had been unbeaten at Qingdao before the 2008 Games, and went on to take Gold there. Slingsby established his place at the top of the pecking order at Weymouth, and he went on to win the gold at the Olympics.

Also, John Bertrand was deeply conscious that his team needed to avoid an inferiority complex when heading to Newport Rhode Island for the 1983 America's Cup. He was way ahead of his time, and had a sports psychologist as part of his set-up to help his crew deal with as many of these potential issues as they could before they even entered battle with Dennis Connor and his crew.

When I got back into sailing after several years away from the sport, I was quite conscious that this was something I wanted to avoid. So I used a few techniques (and still do now) to try to combat the negative effects a pecking order can have, and I'll describe them in a couple of posts this week.

But I'd also love to know - is this something you're conscious of when you're sailing? And do you use any techniques or tricks to avoid the negative effects?

These are the follow up posts to this piece:

5 thoughts on “Avoiding the Pecking Order

  1. Good post – I recognized it all too well – being in the (rare) case in which I find myself ahead of the pecking order and ending up behind it. Doubly frustrating. And I look forward to your posts describing your techniques for combatting the negative effects, because I have not found anything that really cures it easily. It reminds me of the quote attributed to Henry Ford – “Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t–you’re right.”

    I wonder if the George Clooney technique you described might help?

    • That’s a good quote – I wish I’d thought of it when I was writing this. I certainly believe that if you think you can’t then you won’t, and if you think you can (and are willing to put in the hard yards) then you can.

  2. Absolutely. I have suffered from this and benefited from it.

    The toughest fleet I sail in is the Newport Laser Fleet and I am usually way down in the bottom half of the fleet or worse. But one day a couple of winters ago I found myself in the lead at the first mark. And then my mind started worrying about being passed and sure enough a few boats did pass me on the final beat.

    On the other hand when I go to Minorca Sailing I am usually one of the best Laser sailors there. So even if I have a bad start or a bad first beat I always have the confidence to keep plugging away and can usually get back at or near the front of the fleet by the finish. And if I am in the lead early there ,I am thinking that that is where I belong and so I usually manage to hold on to the lead.

    Look forward to your further posts on this topic because I haven’t found the answer even though I recognize the problem. Visualization? Self talk? Focus on sailing well rather than place in the order?

  3. It’s about Slip-Slipping Away! In soccer it’s been said that the worst development for a team is when its lead changes from 2-nil to 2-1. It’s all about the (fictional) suggestion of momentum being a controlling factor. You can’t allow yourself to be pulled out of the grove, of keeping your mind in your boat. Sail the damned boat. Comes down to being the difference between being and just seeming.

  4. I agree Doc. I understand what people mean when they talk about momentum, but I’m not sure what evidence there is that it really exists.

    Whenever a team starts to make a comeback, people talk about the momentum having changed, and if they fail to win then the momentum has swung back to the other team. All of which sounds like a long way of saying that one team was playing better than the other at certain points in the match.

    Tillerman – you’re right, some of those are the general techniques I use. I don’t think there is a quick, easy or fail-safe way of avoiding the pitfalls of the pecking order, but there are a few mental tricks that have helped me. I hope they help others too – and hopefully others will suggest a few more good ones.

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