When Sailors Should Split Tacks

American inventor Thomas Edison once said “Genius is one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration”A.  From my experience, when you are competing, whether for business or pleasure, or trying to solve a problem, or just trying to get something done, you can usually do very well without that stroke of genius if during the remaining 99% of the time you can just keep from screwing up.

The Sailing Example

One summer when I was younger, I had the opportunity to race sailboats by donating the perspiration needed to handle the sails.  Since sailboats can’t sail directly into the wind, which is often exactly where you need to go, you must regularly choose which side of the wind is best, or which side of the course is best, or . . . the bottom line is that in sailboat racing, as in life, there are plenty of decision-making opportunities.  If we happened to get behind early in the race, by the time we got to a point that needed a decision, our competition had already gotten to that point and had already made their decision.  Our skipper, reasoning that we would never catch up if we did everything our competition had done, invariably would make the opposite choice at that point (hence, splitting tacks, or sailing on the opposite side of the wind as our competition).  More often than not we would get further behind.  As it turned out, we won almost no races that summer. Now I will use just a little math to show you why not.

The Math

Without divine intervention or that long-awaited flash of inspiration, after a short time the leaders in this race will be the ones that make more correct moment-by-moment decisions. When our skipper got to his decision point, it is reasonable to assume that the competition ahead of him is batting above 500D and already chose the short path. If the current leader has a success rate of, say 70%, then by blindly taking the other path, our skipper was limiting his success rate to 30%. This is NOT a winning strategy. The more prudent leader would have chosen his battles; he would have evaluated every decision independently – more often than not this means he would have made the same choice as his competitor (assuming his own success rate is high enough to be competitive – certainly higher than 50%)  – and he would bide his time while waiting for the competition to make their mistake. When his own evaluation led him to a different decision, he would quickly recheck his work (out of respect for his competitor’s 70% success rate) and then he would pounce.

A Non-sailing Example – Rush Hour Traffic

“Rush Hour”, referring to  those busy couple of hours in the morning and another couple of hours in the afternoon when everybody is commuting to or from work at the same time and traffic is congested (as opposed to that time of day when Rush Limbaugh is delivering his political commentary), implies an urban environment, which implies a larger grid of streets and thus a richness of decision-making opportunities not completely unlike a fleet of sailboats tacking upwind, but familiar to a much larger segment of the population.  Many of you may have carpooled with somebody with the mentality of the skipper described above: either there is some sort of accident or s/he misjudged traffic again and finds him/herself behind schedule and facing the growing possibility that they will be late for work.  Lacking patience or maturity, they assume the traffic must be better on one of the many alternative routes and blindly makes a turn (tacks) at the next intersection.  When they discover that this path is also blocked, they immediately move to Plan C, then D, and so forth.  Each maneuver has a small cost, which rapidly adds up, and then the path actually starts to get longer and they continue to dig themselves a deeper and deeper hole (oops, that’s not a sailing reference).  The math is similar to that above.  To mix metaphors even more, compare this to the hitter swinging too hard for a home run.  The problem is that in this game, after each errant swing the outfield fence is moved ten yards further away.  Although still mathematically possible (at first), the odds of that game-winning home run drop with every swing.  Those are the perils of panicking, shutting off your brain, closing your eyes, and trying to slug your way out of your problems.

The Moral

As you might have guessed, this article is not really about sailing, or traffic, or baseball. Blindly splitting tacks is a tactic of desperation.  Desperation is often a result of one’s fears getting the best of them, and may be one of the consequences of ignorance.  It is never expedient to shut off your brain to save time (by the same token, except for specially trained pilots in specially designed aircraft, nobody would willingly turn off an airplane’s engines while still in the air), yet people try it every day.  This is what happens when you panic.  So get a grip!  Just as in the sailing example, the prudent driver would carefully evaluate every decision (the more you practice, the easier it gets) instead of assuming the worst, bide your time, and make your bold move only when the conditions are right.

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Silent

An old fictitious liberal of unknown race, gender, size, and sexual orientation that believes in both God and science and is not the least bit intimidated by numbers. Based on that description, you shouldn't rule out the possibility that we could be a composite character.

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