Getting greedy on the race course

One of my favourite chapters of Stuart Walker’s 1986 book Advanced Racing Tactics is that on greed.

Being greedy, as far as sailboat racing goes, usually means trying to dominate or ‘smash them’ and win by a lot or gain a lot in a single risky move.

Typically, greed is about attempting to nail strategy and do the extreme thing to get to the next mark in the shortest time. This usually involves risking a lot by sailing away from the opposition.

Walker says greed has no place in the smart, tactical sailor’s game, labelling it more as a contagious disease, which if left unchecked would leave the infected lamenting the one that got away.

Greed obscures an accurate assessment of the risks and blocks a rational choice. … Greed is unrealistic, irrational, a belief that because success is desired it is obtainable, regardless of the risks involved – Stuart Walker

So, risks need to be calculated and based upon rational assessment. Of course, taking a big risk can work. When you’re well behind in a race and running out of time to recover to an acceptable position, then you should be more risky.

But after risking big and suddenly finding yourself in a position you are happy to accept then it does not make sense to risk more to gain further – that would be greedy!

Actually, instead of saying ‘risk’ we should use the term ‘reckless’, meaning that the latter is less calculating and less measured.

Greed is Good?

Greed, for lack of a better word, is good. Greed is right. Greed works. Greed clarifies, cuts through, and captures, the essence of the evolutionary spirit. Greed, in all of its forms; greed for life, for money, for love, knowledge, has marked the upward surge of mankind… .
– Gordon Gecko, Wall Street.

I can picture Gordon Gecko, the fictional stockbroking character in the 1987 movie Wall Street, had read that Walker chapter and then gone sailboat racing, hitting the right corner.

Clearly, Gecko frames greed in a motivational way, while Walker prefers to keep motivation out of it. There is plenty of evidence suggesting that better tactical and strategical decision making will occur when emotions are kept in check.

However, Gecko does have a point about greed helping to clarify. There can be race courses where hitting a corner is everything. The northern area of Lake Garda in Italy is a commonly given example where boats often do best by banging the right corner.

And there are many other race courses where tidal and geographic effects mean that a singular focus on doing what’s needed to rapidly get to one side of the course will yield success.

Similarly, if you think of greed as a high level desire to win, then it’s fair to say that Emirates Team New Zealand were not greedy enough when they agreed to a lay day requested by Oracle Team USA in the last America’s Cup.

The Cup rules stated that one team could request a lay day, but the other also had to agree. ETNZ had Oracle Team USA on the ropes and should have been greedier to nail home their advantage.

Winning by Too Much?

Many displays of greed are seen when people find themselves in the lead. Feeling overly good about one’s position can be detrimental and lead to the mental condition ‘sudden situational over-confidence.’

Affected individuals begin to think it’s OK to ignore the opposition because ‘I saw something over there’ or ‘I was still lifted.’

The greed to win by a lot must always be balanced by a healthy scepticism. It’s best to regularly win by a little bit than flip flop between winning by a lot and losing by a lot.

If you find yourself in the lead and ‘you’re not meant to be there’ according to your fleet’s pecking order, then it’s tempting to believe you need to continue to do something special to maintain your position. My recommendation in this case is not to try to be too clever but to keep doing the basics well.

Imagine how this process might work in your mind with respect to the techniques, tactics and strategies you use. No doubt you’re learning more about the game of sailing all the time and leading into a national title you’re keen to put into practice all the new stuff you have learnt.

However, it’s probably best not to view your development as linear; instead think about a spiral – you might learn a new and higher skill days before the regatta, but instead choose to make your approach more conservative and run with behaviours that are more familiar and less risky.

Trying to be smarter than you have previously proven yourself to be is somewhat greedy.

In summary, not being greedy means:

  • Not trying to take more of a lead than you need
  • Racing the opposition rather than nailing strategy
  • When in the lead, not splitting from the majority towards what looks like better air
  • Settling for one small gain at a time

In the big picture, just one of the balances that must be struck is that between greed and complacency.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Michael Blackburn is an Olympic bronze medallist and former World Laser Champion. He is now Lead Coach of the Australian Sailing Team’s single handed classes. Michael contributes to Sailing – a resources library and self-development site for sailors.

This article was first published in the June-July 2014 issue of Australian Sailing + Yachting.


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