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The sailing mind: Unlimited variables that are oddly clear

2016 September 1

A sailor will often tell you that they sail to clear the mind.

They don’t worry or fret, think about work, traffic or trouble when they are on the water. They just focus, like a laser, on sailing. How does it happen that a person who was road-raging minutes before can be a contributing member of a high-performing team as soon as he or she steps aboard?

The key is in the limitlessness of the cognitive experience.

In the mind of a newcomer, everything about sailing is foreign and disconnected: the sensations, the equipment, methods, jargon and time-scale. Wrapping your head around whether to push or pull on a tiller while your teacher is speaking in tongues is understandably confounding.

This is because our bodies and minds have measurable limits; we can only do so many things at a time and, studies show, we can only think so many thoughts at a time. When variables mount and multiply, brain performance—the ability to make a decision or take confident action—temporarily diminishes, until the person invests the time to explore and finds a path through the problem. “Relational complexity theory” is the psychology of how the quantity of and interplay between variables affect decisions. One-way problems aren’t hard to grasp, but they also aren’t very interesting. Do you want fries or chips with that burger? 

As you might expect, a challenge like sailing is interesting precisely because it is a random progression of many co-mingled, connected decisions, some with one possible outcome, others with many. When a new sailor first attempts to trim a jib, much time is wasted getting the line around a winch in the correct direction while under pressure and without context. It seems scary. But with guidance and practice, the rote work is minimized (in terms of energy and time) and the focus is shifted to more stimulating, complex and contextual challenges: speed, efficiency, coordination of work, and then, to studying shapes and experimenting with and mixing ease, trim, angle, camber, draft and twist to link the physical phenomenon of foiling with the helmsperson’s quirky driving and mother nature’s whims. That’s not scary, it’s amazing.

The human mind thrives on multivariate challenges like sailing.

Say, for example, that you’re skippering a midsized keelboat in your club’s Wednesday night racing series. Your team has performed well all season, and you’re within striking distance of a flag, if you can find a way to finish in the top five in the last race. You want that flag. These are the dimensions of your challenge:

  1. Six people, each with jobs and commutes, have to make it to the boat by 5 p.m., provisioned, healthy and trained. Six people times four basic needs equals 24 factors. Miss one, and you may miss both the race and the podium.
  2. The boat has to be safe, smooth, light, well-equipped and fully operational. Is the rig tuned? No halyard can be frayed. No kite can be poorly packed. Is the bottom clean?
  3. Once on the water, foundational decisions about setup, goals, tuning and race strategy must be made. Who will do what? Which sails are right for the wind? Who is the competition and what can be expected from them? 
  4. Once underway, environmental and circumstantial variables pile on: wind, sea state, sail shape, roles and responsibilities, mistakes and recoveries. Nature and Murphy cometh and luck probably won’t.
  5. Once in the groove, tiny decisions consume. Are speed and angle targets being met? How should you steer through the waves? When should you set-up for the next leg? What is the competition doing? Cover or clear? When to pass? What tactics will you use?
  6. Finally, winning (at least consistently) depends on collective judgement, or the ability of you and your team to see, digest and respond instantaneously to any combination of factors.

Statisticians would account for the complexity of just this one race with a “factorial function” with at least 265,000 billion billion billion possible combinations affecting the outcome, given the 30 key factors listed here. Research psychologists would call the ability to see, grasp and act in this complex space a “cognitive structure.” It’s an intense mental workout; our brains are awake, sharp, alert, and, as some science suggests, becoming more fit with each active hour. Sailors experience it as the clear-minded state that is addicting and can become an all-consuming lifelong passion.

Like other spiritual endeavors—yoga,meditation, playing music, vigorous exercise—sailing has the power to occupy and swell into every cranny of our physical and cognitive selves. While sailing, we willingly max out our bodies and minds. There simply isn’t room for worry or other unimportant things.

Clear mindedness while sailing has a zen counterpart in breathing during a yoga class. In yoga, the practice is deliberately focused inward and done by reducing stimuli. In sailing, however, mind-clearing comes from opening the brain and body to as much stimuli as we can handle. Like filling an infinitely stretchable water balloon with a firehose.

So with spell check complete and deadline met, tonight’s Wednesday night race calls. I must go sailing to exorcise my worries and exercise my brain.