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Even middle-of-the-fleeters can win if they never give up

2011 May 3

We were slogging along in the middle of the fleet, which was our usual position and one that was quite comfortable, because we knew all the other middle-of-the-fleeters around us. The hotshots were out in front, of course, and we only saw them when we were launching and hauling out. The rest of the time they sailed their own race. 

But occasionally the gods need a good laugh.

We had just peeled away from the rest of the fleet because one of the hotshots had tacked on our wind out of what I can only attribute to pure spite and meanness, because there was no way that we could match him for boat speed.

And then it happened.

Out of nowhere, there was first a darker spot on the water ahead and then, there it was: our own private breeze. It was a lift.

A big lift. A strong lift. 

Suddenly, my crew and I were hiking as hard as we could, and we were laying the weather mark easily. And no one (no one!) else in the fleet had our lift. Tee hee.

We rounded the weather mark eons ahead, and after the chute was up and drawing, the first thing I did was check the course chart to make sure I wasn't doing something colossally stupid, which wouldn't exactly have been surprising. But, no, we were just out in front.

Way. Out. Front.

I looked at the bulky back of my crew and asked rhetorically, "What the heck was that all about?"

"That," he said with the voice of Moses handing down the tablet, "was a Gift Shift."

So it was. Somewhere the gods were laughing. 

And thus I came to recognize that every so often, especially for those of us who sail in that Never-Never Land between DFL and somewhere up toward the front, the gods toss down the occasional rosebud to keep us interested. To keep us believing that we really can beat the hotshot sailors.

We call it Never-Never Land because we are never going to get a trophy and we are never going to get back to the dock before there is a long waiting line for the hoist. We really ought to call it Never-Never-Never Land, because we're never going to get to the showers while there is still hot water, either.  So be it.
I would like to claim that we won that particular race through sheer boat speed combined with tactical brilliance, but I'm happy to just say that we won the race. The hotshots were carving our lead down at a great rate, but luckily for us, there was a mathematical absolute at work. The rate at which they were diminishing our lead did not equal the distance to the finish line. And so we won.

Not only did we win, but we were first to the hoist, first to the showers, and were awarded a daily first trophy, which quite clearly amazed everyone. Us included.

More important than any of those things, however, is that I learned a very important rule of sailing that isn't in any of the official rule books. In fact, it's actually a Rule of Life as well.

Don't give up too soon.

Seems simple, but it's something I often forget. Had I said, "Oh, what the hell, I'll just keep sailing in Mr. Hotshot's bad air. He'll be gone soon enough," that monumental victory would never have been ours. 

Looking back, I realized that there have been more than a few times when I've let my brain slip a few cogs from where it was in the minutes before the starting gun. By the second beat, I'm not only in the middle of the fleet, but I'm hungry. Telling my crew to stop hiking long enough to grab me a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich is the same as shouting to the world, "I'm OK finishing 24th in a 35-boat fleet."

Helen of Troy may have been the face that launched a thousand ships, but giving up too soon is the attitude that didn't launch a thousand giant corporations, didn't get that perfect-but-hard-to-convince girl, and didn't fight for the deserved raise.

When I was young, I believed that Rand McNally had invented the Midwest just to keep the East Coast from rubbing against the West Coast. Weird, I know, but I didn't actually know anyone from the Midwest so it was slightly reasonable.

I mention that because I also believe that there is the same sort of buffer in every sailboat fleet. It's that group of boats who are never in the front, but never in the tank, either. They would like to win, of course, and they would really hate to be DFL too. So they work hard enough to stay safely in the middle. There is a fine line between giving up and just not trying hard, and that's who they are.

But here are some non-sailing case histories to consider. She was dismissed from acting school for being too shy: Lucille Ball. They were told by Decca Records that guitars were out: The Beatles. His teacher said he was too stupid to learn anything: Thomas Edison. And he was once fired for lack of imagination: Walt Disney.

Did they give up? No. They just kept pushing.

So the next time you start thinking about how hungry you are or about that little drizzle of water inside the neck of your foul weather jacket, it's time to slap yourself in the face, look around, and figure out how to attack the leaders from behind. 

Because you never know when the gods will need a good laugh, and decide to bestow upon you a Gift Shift.