“The best vaccine against anger is to watch others in its throes.”
― Marcel Proust

Have you ever raced against someone who gets completely twisted up emotionally and seems incapable of moderating his or her anger and anxiety on the race course?  Even to seasoned racers, this kind of behavior can be off-putting, to say the least.  If left unchecked, it can damage the morale of the fleet, and can discourage newer sailors from participating.  And, all too sadly for them, these anxious, angry skippers can have a very hard time keeping crew, and don’t seem to understand why they find themselves having to recruit new victims every week.

In the majority of cases, I believe that this bad behavior happens because the skipper in question is simply unable to deal effectively with all that adrenaline energy coursing through his or her system.  Take a moment and think of how it feels when jockeying for position at a really competitive start, or at a crowded and confusing mark rounding, with all those boats sailing close aboard, vying for the one perfect spot. It’s certainly not for the faint-of-heart! Unfortunately, one all-too-common way of offloading some of that energy surge is to yell and swear, or, as a good friend likes to poke fun at the sheer ridiculousness of it: “When in danger or in doubt, run in circles, scream, and shout!”  But there is another way to mitigate that stress, which is to learn how to harness it to work for you, rather than against you, as I wrote in a recent post: Harness Your Energy to Win Races.

As your racing fleet is evolving and growing, with new personalities and boats joining the mix, you need to be sure to find ways to help the group deal with these kinds of situations.  At a recent Rules seminar given by Dave Perry this past March, the talk turned to sportsmanship; because it’s the necessary foundation for our self-policing sport, Sportsmanship and the Rules is listed at the very beginning of the Racing Rules of Sailing, as one of the two basic principles governing our racing. One of the most important things I took away from Dave’s comments that day was the idea of empowering the fleet as a whole to recognize poor sportsmanship on the race course, and to give individual sailors “permission” to follow through by doing something about it.  It’s kind of like “road rage,” where, behind the windshield of a car, flipping the bird and yelling horrible things is the kind of behavior we have come to expect from certain drivers.  Should we call its sailing equivalent “tiller rage?” All too often, once a certain skipper gets such a reputation, the behavior is unhappily tolerated by the fleet, and, until an awful situation arises, it lies simmering just below the surface.  This is difficult, especially in small racing communities, as the person afflicted with tiller rage is often a friend, and is usually a really nice person off the race course.

So what are some things we can do to address this prickly problem?  Here are some strategies that can help:

  • Make intolerance of tiller rage an integral part of your fleet’s culture by making it business as usual — that way, it’s less likely to get personal, as everyone understands the expectations from the get-go.
  • Provide educational opportunities (i.e. a seminar on sportsmanship, and what it means).
  • If you’re fleet captain, you should be racing with the fleet.  If you see the beginnings of tiller rage, talk about it with the offending skipper, before it gets out of hand, and try to help him or her identify the underlying challenges that may be causing it.
  • Set a good example with your own sportsmanship on the course.

It’s not easy to change a fleet’s way of dealing with this kind of demoralizing behavior, but I bet you’ll find that the majority of people will be more than happy to help.  In fact, they may be relieved to know that there is an expectation that everyone will be coming together to make sure it doesn’t take hold.  In our Club’s spring newsletter, sportsmanship is the topic of the racing season’s welcome letter from the Commodore, and it very much sets the tone for all of our racing fleets.  I think we sailors have a grand and honorable tradition to uphold: without referees or umpires on the course, it’s up to each one of us to perpetuate our sport’s Corinthian spirit of good sportsmanship and fair racing.

Deborah Bennett Elfers
I was practically born on a boat, though on a working lobster boat rather than a sailboat. In my early days, I sailed quite a lot on a Sunfish, but not very elegantly, as in our little neighborhood “fleet,” the boat was primarily used as a weapon in a wildly popular game of “kill the other guy!” Who could have imagined way back then, that one day I’d become so passionate about all things sailing?
Deborah Bennett Elfers
Deborah Bennett Elfers

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