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I was recently reading an article in a sailing magazine that had asked its readers to write in with the number one reason they go sailboat racing. The results, supplied by a few hundred people, were not surprising to me. The overwhelming reason people named was the stimulating mental challenge racing provides. Other reasons – the physical challenge, the team-sport experience, the social value and the chance to get away – were all rated about equally, and a clear second to the mental side.

Sailboat racing offers unmatched competitive challenge in this regard. Tactically, under old rules or new, a good-sized fleet race provides more possible moves and counter-moves than a chess match between two world champions. But then if you superimpose the tactical game onto air and water – then immediately you’re crunching some serious strategy scenarios. This can be aided by in-depth observations and a knowledge of hydrodynamics, aerodynamics, oceanography and meteorology. Those same sciences also play into the constant opportunity to improve your boatspeed, if you can remember to think about both things at the same time.

When you add basic sports psychology and the head games sailboat racers play you get an idea of how complex it can be. (For example, your game plan is to go to the left side of the course, you get a bad start, tack away, and then convince yourself that the right side might just be better afterall.) Psychology also applies to crew interaction. How well you communicate, how well you work together, and how well you treat each other is a critical and ever-changing facet of any race.

There is one more, overriding reason why the mental challenge of sailing blows away anything else in terms of complexity. Moment by moment you have to take each different aspect of sailboat racing and prioritize it. You must choose where to focus your mental energies. In one moment, trying to gain a quarter boatlength, all your energy is on sail trim, steering and speed. But in the next, if you can pick up on the slightest windshift, you can quickly gain 100 yards or even half a mile.

Despite the unparalleled brain work offered by racing, many people race less than they’d like. The cost of gear and preparation is a factor for some, but in most cases the number one reason is that people are short on time.

Perhaps a couple of suggestions to get around the time obstacle is firstly to consider looking for races where the time commitment is less – racing short courses instead of long, or competing closer to home than usual. Second, recognize that racing is not only fun but healthy as a change of pace from your busy shoreside life. Sailing can provide that shift for you physically, spiritually and even mentally.

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