How to Slowly Sail Faster

I suffer from a delusion that by making improvements in my boat-handling, sailing strategy, fitness etc. etc. – not to mention tweaks to my boat’s rigging – I will somehow rise up the ranks in the RS Aero fleet and maybe even start winning races and regattas one day.

But is it a delusion?

Maybe not.


I take some comfort from the words of author James Clear. The graph above has been popping up on the Interwebs in various places in the last few weeks since Mr. Clear’s new book, Atomic Habits, was published. Don’t let the math dispirit you. Just focus on the indisputable fact that if you can get better at something by 1% a day, then in a year you will be 37 times better at that thing.

Wow! 37 times better! Leave aside, for a moment, the fact that I can’t get my head around what it would mean to be 37 times better at RS Aero racing. How would you even measure it? What Mr. Clear is saying is that if you consistently make small improvements, all those tiny gains will work like compound interest and you will see meaningful change in the long run. Check out How to Master the Art of Continuous Improvement.


Another way to look at improvements in sailboat racing with which I like to delude myself is to consider how much better than me the folk ahead of me in the fleet really are. OK – maybe there are a couple of superstars who are always at the top of the fleet. I am not going to overtake them in the near future by making 1% improvements. But how about the other mid-fleet mediocrities like myself, the guys who beat me usually but not by a lot. Surely I don’t need to be much better to move ahead of that group. In a 30 minute race, someone who beats me by 18 seconds is 1% faster than me. How many places in how many races would I gain if I were only 18 seconds faster in each race? Hmmm!


Of course I could always fall back on another delusion that maybe there is a magic bullet  – that one (or two or three) little things – like a tighter vang,  a shinier bottom, or a few minutes a day on a hiking bench – will somehow immediately propel me to the top of the fleet. An incident from earlier this year at the Sarasota One Design Midwinters springs to mind. One of my friends was struggling along near the back of the RS Aero 7 rig fleet in every race until uber-coach Peter Barton gave him a tip on boat-handling in the prevailing conditions, and in the remaining races that day my friend surged to the front of his fleet. Peter told us, “You are only ever a couple of tips away from fleet domination!”  Maybe sometimes, a small change will deliver huge gains in this crazy sport of ours? If so, why grind away every day trying to make all those 1% improvements?



Actually, I am not totally convinced by any of these arguments.

What do you think?

I think I’ll go and do some push-ups now.



  • The concepts of incremental improvements and compound interest are correct, but the author’s time scale is way off and the outcomes are massively unrealistic.

    At Toyota, one of the birth places of continuous improvement, an improvement rate of 1% _per month_ is a success. After a year at this rate, you’d have a 10-12% net improvement, and over several years you’re gaining momentum. After a decade of continuous improvement, you’re the leader.

    BUT, one must remember that it gets increasingly difficult to squeeze out improvements of the same magnitude. 5% will become 0.5% will become .05%, and the time between each step will grow. Without this awareness, you will become disillusioned and quit.

    So embrace the concept of continuous improvement, use to learn the simple tools for capturing and understanding the data, but be realistic about the pace and the outcomes.

    It really is a journey, and not a destination


  • I am sure you are right Scott.

    I don’t think the actual mathematical model applies to sailing at all. Or perhaps not to any kind of sporting endeavor.

    I think sailing is probably a bit like running (my other sport) in that when you start it’s relatively easy to improver your running pace by 1 minute a mile say. But as you get faster the gains you can make are smaller and smaller take longer to achieve – if at all. Eventually you plateau and then actually start getting slower as you get older.

    So I don’t take Mr. Clear’s model literally but more as an inspiration to keep on trying to make a small improvement here and there as often as I can. At least it will be better than not trying to change at all. Also I get some satisfaction from mastering a skill like a good roll tack or a front-line start for its own sake – irrespective of its impact on my finishing position in a race,

  • I hate to be ‘that’ guy but I think you may be off by a decimal place. If you make a 1% per day improvement that means you’ll 365% better at the end of the year. Isn’t that a 3.65 times improvement?

    Still, I agree with what you’re saying whole-heartedly.

    • Thanks for the comment Rick. You are correct if you improve something by 1% of its original value every day. But Mr. Clear’s calculation is correct if you are improving by 1% of the latest value every day. It’s the difference between simple and compound interest.

      However these are largely academic issues when it comes to sports because, as I said in an earlier comment, most things you can improve in sports follow a law of diminishing returns. The better you get, you tend to make smaller and smaller improvements until you reach a plateau.

      The real message that Mr. Clear is trying to communicate (I think) is that consistent (ideally daily) small improvements do deliver significant gains over time.

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