It is very easy when racing to get caught up in individual battles at the cost of fleet position. Pam from the ever-brilliant Improper Course touched on this in her post entitled "Rules at the Front vs. the Middle and Back".
There are a few reasons for this, and one of them is the pecking order. These are some of the ways pecking order can lead to these individual contests:
- We often have a regular competitor, someone close to our ability level, that we like to beat, and we can get caught up in trying to beat them rather than concentrating on finishing as high as we can.
- Sometimes we're ahead of a sailor that we never normally beat, and we focus on trying to keep them behind us rather than racing the fleet
- Occasionally a battle develops with one or two other boats (rapid exchanges of positions would be an example), and we get caught up in trying to beat just those one or two boats
All of these reasons can be fun and, if they are what you enjoy, then by all means stick with them. But they are unlikely to improve your overall finishing position in a race or series. You might end up winning the battle but losing the war.
One thing I noticed when racing in a fleet in which I normally do well is that the focus of my attention is different to that in fleets in which I'm a middle-of-the-fleet sailor. If I get a bad start in a fleet in which I normally finish at or very near the front then my focus is divided between trying to pick my way through the boats that surround me, but also (crucially) on the leaders:
- How far behind the leaders am I?
- Am I gaining or losing ground on them?
- What can I learn from what is happening up in front (in terms of strategy, windshifts, etc.)?
But when I'm in middle-of-the-fleet mode this can change. I become far less aware of the leaders as they seem less relevant. I become more focused on gaining positions from the boats that are around me, and less concerned with boats that I don't believe I can catch.
All of which makes sense, of course.
Except that this means that I'm getting caught up in battles and losing sight of the war.
You see, there are still great advantages to focusing on the leaders, even if you may not be finishing up with them:
- Firstly, they still provide strategy and windshift information
- They keep your head out of the individual battles and on the bigger picture
- By keeping some of your attention on the leaders you develop a habit of looking up the racecourse - an important habit
The final reason takes a bit more elaboration. In almost all fleets, finishing within a minute or two minutes of the leader will guarantee a decent result. Only really high calibre fleets have large numbers of boats finishing within a 90 seconds of the winner. Therefore, if you can focus on keeping the distance between you and the race leader to a minimum then you will naturally gain positions as the race goes on. Such a mindset keeps you away from individual battles, encourages you to avoid time-wasting luffing matches, port-starboard incidents, tacking duels and so on, and instead keeps you focused on the bigger picture.
There are two important things to remember if using this tactic:
- Don't focus on one boat, focus on the top two or three, because any of these could win the race. It is the leader you're interested in, not the boat you perceive to be the best, the boat that was leading at the first mark, or the boat that you think will end up winning; and
- Don't forget the lesson of the red boat. keep an eye on the leaders, but try not to identify who exactly they are - keep them as anonymous as possible so they don't become another hurdle in later races.