Saturday, January 24, 2009

Stuart Walker; Unified Theory on Fleet Dynamics

I attended a lecture by Stuart Walker over at the Annapolis Maritime Museum on Thursday. The latest issue to attract this icon of sailboat racing analysis is not a new wrinkle in racing tactics, or how to suss out the wind, or how to factor in current on a race course but the psychology of group dynamics in sailboat racing fleets. Stuart Walker has developed an unified theory on the rise and fall of sailboat classes at club level. At the foundation of his theory, Stuart has categorized sailboat racers into three categories;

  • Top competitors - In a local fleet, the one or two competitors where winning is the most important thing. They hate to lose ! and they usually don't.
  • Semi competitors - They are competent racers but are out there more for fun. However semi competitors are very cognizant of where they should finish within a fleet. If they usually finish fourth and beat Ray ..... they are comfortable with this result. If Ray beats them and they finish sixth, it is not a good day. A semi competitor is out there to enjoy the competition but finishing where they assume they should finish is also very important. Pecking order matters. A semi competitor also needs to gauge his finish against a top competitor.
  • Non competitors - Tailenders. They like to belong to the group. They just enjoy being out there and they can be very regular attendees.
Stuart's unified theory maintains that a thriving fleet needs all three competitor types to be successful. An ideal fleet size is 12-20 because if a fleet gets too big, a greater degree of randomness upsets the pecking order. If a fleet gets too small, say around five, .... finishing position becomes too rigid. Stuart maintains one of the attractions of competition is the romance, the unknown when one competes. As someone in the audience pointed out, part of what brings racers back is what he termed, intermittent reinforcement .......... or to put it in a real world scenario, if today it is blowing under 5 knots and I am very good in light airs, then maybe today I can beat Ray.

Certainly I can apply Stuart's theories to my own sailing. When I realized the International Canoe class had moved beyond where I could compete physically or wanted to compete technologically (both in cost and time)........ when I realized I was not going to get results at my previous level, I moved on.

What Stuart's unified theory doesn't explain is how someone picks a fleet and why fleet loyalty is so important. If at Severn Sailing Association I want to race a doublehander class, I can pick either a Snipe, Comet, Jet 14, Daysailor, Vanguard 15 or Johnson 18. Usually once a sailor chooses his class, there is little crossover. When the Comet fleet declined relative to the Snipe fleet, there was not one Comet sailor that switched classes.

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