Cumulative Learning

I’ve always liked the expression “it’s like learning to ride a bicycle.” Riding a bike is counter-intuitive (this thing should fall over), but once your body learns that the spinning wheels add inherent stability, then one can find the activity relaxing and exhilarating.

Doug SailingLast Saturday morning when we sailed down Bellingham Bay, we had about 20 mph of wind on the nose and occasional four to five foot swells hitting us. At first, we only had the main sail up, and we were heeling 5-10 degrees and slogging along at around 4 knots of speed. When the big swells hit, we’d almost come to a stop, dropping to 2 knots or less and then slowing gaining speed again. The ride was pretty uncomfortable as the boat was doing some radical hobby horsing. All of us were in the cockpit, knowing we’d get sick (me included) if we went below. We had about three miles of this to plow through.

At that point, we really didn’t want to upset our daughter, who was handling the swell relatively well but didn’t want to go faster. But then we remembered a story from Steve Dashew, a sailing expert, who noted that additional speed and sail could actually calm down the negative motion of a boat in rough conditions. Counter-intuitive, since “reefing” and reducing sail is the first thing one does in gusty conditions, but in our case the swell was the problem.

So, with lots of assurances, we ran out half of our headsail. The boat speed picked up to six and then even over seven knots, but the boat was surfing over the swells instead of plowing into them. The heel increased to 10 to 15 degrees, but we were doing a sustained 6-7 knots and were over with the 3 miles of rough stuff in less than half of the time. Even my daughter agreeed the boat motion was better, even if the heel was more.

I’d like to make a list of “counter intuitive” learning experiences, and think about if their value is cumulative. For example, the rougher conditions we face on a sailboat, the more confident we become the next times we go out. What used to raise our stress levels becomes exhilarating and rewarding. It’s as if the voices in our heads that say “you can’t do that” are proven wrong, and suddenly we find ourselves on new horizons doing things that only the experienced can enjoy.

I don’t think we’re expert learners in sailing, since there are many things about it that are real mysteries to us yet and other challenges that don’t come easily, but we’re on the cumulative step process and that’s very rewarding. Our kids are with us as well, and I wonder how they’ll reflect on this in the future.

Now that we’re back, I’ll post a photo gallery from the week of sailing later this weekend.

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