4 Important Life Lessons from Losing on a Lake

Two decades ago, Paul and I had to return a borrowed Snipe to Mystic Lake, a hill-encircled body of water just west of Boston. The local fleet was racing that day, so—shrugging our shoulders into “why not?”—we decided to join them; might as well break up four hours of driving with a few hours of sailing. Though it wasn’t the open water ocean we both loved, it was still sailboat racing. We’d undoubtedly learn a few things, catch up with a few friends, and then head home.

By the end of that challenging day, the only thing I’d learned for sure was that divorce is NOT a four letter word. 

We are still happily married, of course. But the crazy windshifts on that most mystical of lakes—so unpredictable, so random—left us both feeling battered and bitter and—stupid. Surrounded by high hills, the breeze would fill in or disappear, seemingly at random. Our combined sailing expertise (earned over two lifetimes on open water) no longer applied. 

That same frustration has returned in 2020: something we can’t see or predict is requiring us to learn new habits on the fly. It’s as if life’s summer seabreeze suddenly decayed into a land-confused, puffy, shifty “mystical” wind, and we have no idea how long it will be before we can again trust our senses to figure out what “wins.” 

Lake Sailing’s Life Lessons

Here are a few important lessons that are helping me weather this ongoing life-storm.

  1. “Keep your bow pointing toward the mark.” What really matters? For me it’s family, creativity, and time on the water. (This winter, that may be just paddling.)
  2. “Control what you can, and let go of what you can’t.” We can’t predict what the wind or the virus will do next, but we can take charge of our own reactions. 
  3. “Make your own luck.” Focusing on the positive has helped me identify and pounce on new and totally unexpected opportunities.
  4. “Win the regatta, not the race.” Don’t get caught up in petty squabbles; try to be patient with each other, and take the long view.

Since that memorable day of unpredictable sailing, I’ve gone back to that crazy lake several times (including four days at the 2017 Snipe Nationals with supercrew Hillary Noble, shown in the photo above). I haven’t exactly mastered that type of racing, but lessons learned on that cussed lake are now helping me weather 2020’s daily barrage of unexpected windshifts. And until we can travel and socialize and sail normally again, I wish the same for you and yours.

Got a secret to getting through these strange times? Share it in the comments below, or send me an email. Meanwhile thanks for reading, and stay safe.

17 Replies to “4 Important Life Lessons from Losing on a Lake”

  1. Great sailing lessons this morning, Carol! I have not sailed on Upper Mystic Lake, home of the Tufts University Jumbos, since I was in college in the ’70s, but what I learned on that lake from my first freshman-year regatta on has stuck with me like few other things. Top of the list is “don’t get too far from the starting line between races” – a lesson delivered emphatically that day by coach Joe Duplin (who didn’t wait for anyone as far as I know). As a lesson for the rest of my life, I would equate that to “Eighty percent of success in life is showing up.”

  2. Thanks JB for sharing your “mystical” memories. The best Snipe news of 2020 is that the Cottage Park fleet is reviving, so Boston will offer another (better) alternative next year. Meanwhile, Mystic Lake prepared me well for dealing with this crazy year.

  3. My version of #1 is “Just point the piggy-poo at the mark”! While (surprisingly) I have not sailed on Mystic Lake, I have sailed on many like it in my time in the midwest and in that vein I might also suggest a #5, which is, to quote Lisa Pline, “Don’t be a dick.”

    1. That #5 definitely applies everywhere… as does your version of #1. I remember Kim and Margaret telling me of the Annapolis theory; when the wind goes really light, just point the bow at the mark no matter what the sails seem to be demanding.

  4. Another suggestion that oftentimes works on the lake as well as the pandemic (from 30+ years of calling the lake my sailing home that I love to travel from) is: “Be like a chess master: don’t get tunnel-visioned into the current state – look multiple moves ahead”. Starting at the favored end for the current shift will not necessarily get you where you should be for the subsequent shifts. I have “translated” this to current times as “turn off the hyperbolic news and wait for the facts”.

  5. Gotta love lake sailing – sailed on open water for my youth and learned to love lakes in my 20’s — gotta be patient and play the odds. The item I would add is – “it is all for fun, keep a sense of humor”. Be well.

    1. Steve, you lake sailors do a great job of the serious fun part of the equation. Can’t wait to get back to it with you!

  6. Love the article Carol. We have a similar (although I imagine much much smaller) lake in the UK called Budworth! The day I decided to stop taking racing there too seriously, just be pleased to be on the water (even if that sometimes meant going backwards!) and embrace being so lucky to be sailing, was the day we started to do better! Even during a pandemic I’ve tried hard to not take life too seriously and still enjoy what we are able to do.

    1. Thanks Sue. And this is what I love about the Snipe class: finding commonalities around the world. Cheers!

  7. Having spent 40+ years racing on the Mystic, I have to comment about a Mystic Lake article! So many life lessons… Have a plan and be ready to change it; Importance of risk management and being patient enough for luck to find you; Importance of resiliency and remembering the long game; there is more than one path to success, find yours and own it. These are many of the same themes as above and probably explain why so many sailors are successful in many aspects of their life.

    Just like Joe Duplin, Berta Swanson once started a District Championship race without waiting for me and a few others – I know the feeling.

    Thanks, Carol for the opportunity for some reflection and be safe! Hope to see you soon.

    1. Jim, you are the Mystical Master! Thanks for sharing your tips for success there. I especially love “be patient enough for luck to find you.”

  8. Yes I have absolutely noticed this with ocean sailors coming to the mystic they are so confused because there is little to no current or waves and almost always the wind ate the finish will be at a different point then when you start

  9. I can’t resist a philosophical twist:
    Seneca explained Rule #1 by its opposite:
    “If one does not know to which port one is sailing, no wind is favorable.” — Lucius Annaeus Seneca
    from which we might have learned, ‘if one knows where the mark is and aim there, any wind is favorable.’

    or we could have learned the same from Dave Barry – who must have watched you all at that lake. “How to sail a sailboat” Again, do the opposite of his observation #2:
    “1. Figure out where you want to go.
    2. Whichever way that is, do NOT aim the sailboat in that direction.
    3. Aim the sailboat in some other direction.
    4. Trust me, this is the way sailboaters do it.
    5. They are heavy drinkers. ”

    [Nice to “see” you all online.]

    1. Tom, Only you could fit Seneca and Dave Barry into the same comment! (Nice to “see” you too.)

  10. Having spent many seasons on Lake Winnipesaukee, I can totally agree with both you on #1 and John’s comment. On that lake, the wind often comes down the mountains and you can be just a few feet away from the breeze, but it won’t get to you.

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