Living with Uncertainty: A Sailing Analogy

If life is a sailboat race, what’s life with the Coronavirus? For me, it’s as if a steady summer seabreeze started pulsing straight down out of the sky, a constant and exhausting buffering from what sailors call helicopter puffs. Throw all those forecasts and assumptions overboard, because almost all the expertise we’ve accrued no longer applies.

Windshifts are critical weapons in winning sailboat races, so being able to predict the next one is a superpower. Several years ago, I tried to capture in sailors’ language what causes various types of shifts and how to put them to use. Helicopter Puffs, I wrote, “are usually fairly random in their location and frequency. As escapees from a different breeze aloft, helicopter puffs will spread out as they hit the surface as if they were actually spun off a rotor. This instability means two things: 1) the puff won’t travel very far down the course, and 2) the breeze angles will change drastically within the puff.” 

Helicopter puffs are the hardest shifts to predict, because from sea level they seem completely random. But zoom up to 10,000 feet and look down on our race course, and it’s obvious they appear wherever clouds aren’t. Just like a virus, they follow the least-obstructed path.

In such unstable conditions, the only constant is uncertainty. Will that puff that just doubled our competitor’s speed ever get to us? If so, will it affect our wind the same way? Will it last long enough that we should make a headsail change, or should we just try to hang on and ride it out? 

The best race strategy with helicopter puffs is to race along their edges, where you are most likely to find the best pressure—and often a lift. It’s easy to see that the virus equivalent of a “lift” is staying healthy (both mentally and physically), but I have no suggestions for a virus-equivalent to “race along the edges.” Unless it’s the directive we’re all so tired of heeding, to stay home—which seems so counterintuitive, considering that strategy’s complete lack of adrenaline-spiking excitement.

l do know that we need to remain ready for yet another shifty puff to hit us. And that living in a constant state of uncertainty provides endless opportunity. And that it’s exhausting. All we can do is not get too locked into any plan, or hit a particular side of the race course too hard. Each of us has to find our own course “center” and do our best to adjust our sail trim, even as yet another puff rolls down the course from a totally different direction.

I prefer competition that takes place within the strict guidelines of a race course, with an agreed-upon time frame and visible finish line. But for now, the only way to “beat” this virus is to work together for as long as it takes, to acknowledge that our personal health and well-being depends on the health and well-being of everyone else on this planet. Cooperative competitiveness (the idea that we all improve more quickly by sharing our best practices) isn’t just the way forward for one design sailors; it has to be our new normal.

The virus didn’t read the 2020 forecast, so we won’t know until it’s all over how long this enormous life-shift is going to last. All I know is that we’re all in this together. And if life is a sailboat race, I can’t wait to find our collective way around the next mark.

Learn more about helicopter puffs (and other predictable wind shifts) in Reading the Shape of the Wind.

How are you dealing with all this uncertainty, especially as summer’s temptations arrive? Let me know in the comments below, or send me an email (if you have the energy). Thanks for reading!

2 Replies to “Living with Uncertainty: A Sailing Analogy”

  1. Thanks Paul! Hoping we get back to some sort of seabreeze sailing soon… but I’m thinking we need to get used to this.

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