One of my favorite hobbies is offshore sailboat racing where I’ve had the pleasure of crewing for boat owners willing to take my kids along. During a particularly nasty race in San Diego that had seasoned veterans “tossing their cookies” over the side, I was thrilled to peek below decks and find our oldest daughter excited to be “standing on the walls” when the swells and wind knocked us over sideways. The same iron-stomached daughter participated in many other regattas, where better conditions allowed for instructions in sailing technique. She now knows the difference between sheets, halyards, stays, and guys (no, they’re not ropes!!!), and has an appreciation for the primary points of sail that move a boat forward. There’s one sailing maneuver we didn’t talk about, which I believe is analogous to how some people move forward in life…or not.
In simple terms, sailboats achieve motion through aerodynamic lift that’s generated when air passes across its sails and pressure changes occur between the windward (toward the wind) and leeward (downwind) sides of the sail. Sailors can trim to run downwind, where the wind is directly from behind, or trim close-hauled to about 20-degrees of straight into the wind (depending on the boat and how much money the skipper spent on the sail!). Heading straight into the wind generates no lift at all and, if held there long enough, the boat will stop moving and float backwards. This is referred to as being “in irons”, and is useful for setting anchor, raising sails, or making repairs at sea. Getting out of irons requires re-trimming the sails for increased pressure, turning the helm downwind if there’s water moving over the rudder, or in some cases…the crew must physically push the sail into the wind.
Navigating the course of life requires a similar application of helm control. The phrase “winds of change” has proliferated speeches, song lyrics, and poetry for decades, but aptly describes how events move and evolve forever around us. When life is smooth and steady, it’s like calm water and a gentle breeze. Sometimes it erupts in the wild motion and chaos of twelve foot seas and 35 knots of wind. Embrace the calm times, and know when to alter course and adjust your sails when times get rough. Whatever you do, don’t freak out and put yourself “into irons”.
I used to work for a guy who came to success during a period of strong economic growth, and insisted on doing things the same way when the recession hit. Instead of recognizing the need to build new opportunities and realign the business, he literally drove the helm to keep the company in irons, despite his “crew” struggling to push the sail into a fresh breeze. In a prior post I mentioned situational awareness, the skill of reading and evaluating your environment. Maintaining an awareness of trends in school, your workplace, with family and friends, and measuring your own performance toward goals will allow you to tune your sails for optimum speed and success. One of my skippers would often remind me during a race, “if you’re not pushing, you should be pulling”; constantly be trimming the sail in or out in response to continuous condition changes.
Hey kids, if you’re not pushing you should be pulling, and stay out of irons!