Denial: A Sailing Allegory

(Photo courtesy of Ted Morgan)

By Carol Cronin (published on her blog: Carol Newman Cronin – Author, Editor, Olympian)

A few weeks ago, Kim and I won the Colonial Cup, a Snipe invitational regatta in Annapolis—by one measly point. It all came down to the start of the fourth and final race on Sunday, so let me set the scene for you: we’d won the previous race, and finished second the race before that. But our first score that day had been a sixth, and several other teams had been more consistent. To have any shot at winning, we needed another top three finish.

The southerly current was pushing the fleet over the starting line, so it was no surprise to hear the dreaded extra horn right after the starting gun, indicating that at least one boat would be scored OCS (On Course Side, one point worse than last place) if they didn’t turn back and restart. But that didn’t answer the most important question: Was it us?

We had just a split second to decide.

Starts are really hard

A perfect start puts us right on the starting line at full speed when the gun fires. But there’s no bright orange tape running between the two anchored boats that form that line—and even if there were, its exact location would vary from one moment to the next, as the boats bounce up and down and surge fore and aft on their anchor lines.

Because there are so many moving parts, knowing exactly where you are relative to the line is way harder than figuring out if a parking place is long enough for your car, or if your carryon bag will fit into an overhead bin. So when Sunday’s horn sounded, it could’ve been our bow that had poked out seconds before the starting gun. It also could’ve been someone else’s.

When in doubt, deny

Over the course of my sailing career, I’ve gone back to restart when I didn’t need to. I’ve also been scored OCS for starting early and not going back. But by far the most common surprise is to sail the whole race thinking I was over, only to find out I was safely behind the line when the gun went off. Which is why my first instinct in this critical situation can be summed up with one word: denial. Like the toddler who placed hands over eyes and announces, “you can’t see me!”

Not this time

On this particular start, Kim was absolutely convinced we were over—and my gut was in full agreement. So after only a momentary hesitation I turned the boat as hard as I could, narrowly missing the next boat to leeward, and went back to restart. By the time we trimmed in again, gritting our teeth and trying to find a patch of open water, the entire fleet was in front of us. The only encouragement was from the race committee, still calling in vain for the expected regatta winner (and our closest starting line neighbor) to come back too. (I’m not the only one who sometimes overplays the toddler-denial card.)

Never give up

That particular team now couldn’t win the regatta, but there were plenty of others who’d started clean and were well ahead of us on points. All we could do was to focus on catching as many boats as possible by the finish.

After two laps, we eventually crossed the finish line in tenth and headed back to the dock. After such stellar finishes earlier in the day, the last race felt like a disappointment—so I tried to salvage my pride by focusing on our “positive delta” (finishing better than we started). We also talked about what we’d learned, and finalized plans for our next regatta together (Snipe Nationals in Beverly, MA).

We both knew the points would be close, and neither of us had any idea who’d won. What we never considered is that it would be us.

Surprises ashore

When another competitor came over to tell us that, by his calculations, either we’d won or he had, I was stunned. As soon as the scores were posted, he gave us yet another surprise: “You got it, congrats!”

At a regatta attended by so many top sailors in the class, it was a very odd feeling to finish on such a down note and still come out on top. Still shaking my head on the drive home, I realized that we’d been rewarded for staring down denial and owning up to our mistakes; if we hadn’t restarted that last race, we would’ve finished sixth overall. We’d also been rewarded for something I’m much better at: persistence. (If we’d passed one less boat, we would’ve finished second.)

The morning after

The next day, I woke up still full of regret about the last start; how stupid, being over early! Then I laughed, remembering that we had won anyway—which qualifies us for the 2020 Snipe Western Hemisphere and Orient Championship. As Kim would say, “Denial ain’t just a river in Egypt.”

Got a story to share that taught you something about yourself? Add it into the comments below, or send me an email. Thanks for reading!

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