Multitasking While Sailing

You think you are great at multitasking? Try sailing and see if it really is true

Multitasking seems like a great way to get a lot done at once. But research has shown that our brains are not nearly as good at handling multiple tasks as we like to think they are. Multitasking has three different definitions:

  • Performing two or more tasks simultaneously
  • Switching back and forth from one thing to another
  • Performing several tasks in rapid succession

Take a moment and think about all of the things you are doing right now. You are reading this article, but chances are good that you are also doing several things at once. Perhaps you’re also listening to music, texting a friend, checking your email in another browser tab, or playing a computer game. If you are doing several different things at once, then you may be what researchers refer to as a “heavy multitasker.” And you probably think that you are fairly good at this balancing act. According to different studies, however, you are probably not as effective as you think you are.

Executive control process

Research has demonstrated that switching from one task to the next takes a serious toll on productivity. Multitaskers have more trouble tuning out distractions than people who focus on one task at a time. Also, doing so many different things at once can impair cognitive ability. In the brain, multitasking is managed by executive functions. These control and manage cognitive processes and determine how, when, and in what order certain tasks are performed. There are two stages to the executive control process:

  1. Goal shifting: Deciding to do one thing instead of another
  2. Role activation: Changing from the rules for the previous task to rules for the new task

Moving through these may only add a few tenths of a second, but it can start to add up when people switch back and forth repeatedly. This might not be a big deal when you are folding laundry and watching television at the same time. However, if you are in a situation where safety or productivity is important, such as when you are driving in heavy traffic, even small amounts of time can prove critical.

At any given moment you might be texting a friend, switching between multiple windows on your computer, listening to the blare of the television, and talking on the phone all at once! When you do get a quiet moment where nothing is demanding our attention, you might find yourself unable to avoid the distraction of your favorite apps or social media sites.

Make multitasking easier

You can make multitasking easier for you with a few helpful hints.

Make a to-do list. Whether this is in the form of a checklist or a calendar, know exactly the things you need to accomplish and record them. More importantly, once you create that list, keep revisiting it throughout your days and update it frequently. You may want to divide this list into categories, such as ‘personal’, ‘study’ and ‘work’ so you don’t lose sight of all your responsibilities. Your to-do list may be long but don’t be overwhelmed! 

Next, prioritize the most important needs within each category and, when possible, try to group related items. In listing your tasks and making your to-do list, it is critical to recognize and note what items require full attention. When you are preparing for an important exam or presentation, for example, it is not the time to try to juggle several things. Because people are most productive when they do one thing at a time, those who are masterful at multitasking understand when multitasking is not a good option. Whether it’s an inbox overflowing with old emails, a desktop cluttered with random downloads, or a desk piled high with paperwork, clutter will derail your attempts to multitask. If you get distracted every time you open your laptop or sit down at your desk, make a list of the simple organizational things you need to accomplish and add them to your to-do list as non-priority items. When you have downtime – like when you’re waiting for a ride or phone call – you can use those spare moments to multitask and cross these items off your list. Like a great computer, the human brain has an amazing capacity. But, like any computer, if you ask it to do too much at once, it will begin to falter. The reason why you have to keep in check the number of programs you have running on your laptop and give it a restart is the same reason why you have to give yourself time away from your tasks and to-do lists. Those who multitask effectively recommend:

  • Exercise. Just a short walk, run or workout can improve focus and creativity.
  • Unplugging from your to-do list (along with your phone, texts, social profiles, and email) for lunch or a social gathering. 
  • Relaxing
  • Taking time to do things you enjoy. Whether it is sailing or gaming, let yourself unwind by doing your favorite things. 

Multitasking while sailing

But even when sailing you have to do a lot of things almost at once. One of the last remaining individual freedoms left in the world today is the privilege of taking a pleasure yacht to sea without meeting cumbersome legal requirements to prove your yachting ability and the vessel’s seaworthiness. This privilege grants us the true freedom to sail the seas but it is the moral responsibility of the owner and skipper of every yacht that puts to sea to ensure that the crew and passengers are not exposed to avoidable danger or risks and that no unnecessary demands are made on the local rescue services—That’s if there are any! This means that yacht skippers must become competent to deal with any weather condition and situations that they may encounter on a passage. The crew should also possess the ability to be equally competent by assisting the skipper in running the yacht efficiently. Any person who goes on the water takes on the responsible role of safety in their actions from the time they embark and whilst they are freely maneuvering their chosen waterborne craft around whatever its type, size or value. Similar to the responsibilities an engineer has in keeping a motor running, the person in charge of any vessel is responsible for the vessel’s safe passage. Even if operating single-handedly and especially in dangerous circumstances around crowded waterways or beaches.

Responsible yacht handling involves a little forethought and pre-planning a maneuver than with clear instructions or intentions to conduct the procedure or action safely. Beginners should go for accuracy – not speed until they develop further confidence and experience. Safe seamanship involves the helms-person continually judging the vessel’s responses and approaches to any dangers then conducting any corrections necessary to speed and direction.

Crew and their assignments

Most of all whilst trying to foresee any problems develop some understanding of the behavior of the craft as each yacht has its own and sometimes unique handling characteristics. In the excitement of going on a boating trip, some patience is required in dealing with the pace at which things should happen on the water. On crewed yachts, Yachtmasters will have to learn to organize the crew into performing various roles depending on their ability and develop coordination among these crews when conducting certain drills onboard as you progress. Talking through the task before starting and giving clear and precise directions as the procedure continues and by keeping a sharp eye for any developing problems avoids the panic that is usually shown by inexperienced crew. The basic crew positions and roles on small yachts can be divided up into Mainsail Trimmer, Headsail Trimmer, Tailer, Pit, Mast and Bow. Each of them has a different set of tasks they need to do. 

Mainsail trimmer trims mainsail for the best speed and tactics, communicates constantly with the headsail trimmer and helmsman to keep both sails in the same trim mode, maintains a balanced sail plan, and keeps the boat going on the right heading and speed. 

Headsail trimmer adjusts headsails for the best possible boat speed or tactics, communicates directly with helmsman about speed and height, the pressure in the sail, and the location of nearby marks and other boats. 

Tailer tails new jib sheet during the tacks, trims guy downwind, backs up headsail trimmer and calls approaching breeze upwind. 

Pit adjusts halyards, spinnakers pole settings and some sail settings, calls time to the start. He has to make sure to speak loud and clear. He adjusts settings such as the vang, outhaul, or jib halyard, assists trimmers by helping to keep the cockpit lines clear. He organizes the boat’s interior and retrieves and stows sails. He works directly with bowman, mastman, and trimmers to affect maneuvers, sail changes, and sail trim. 

Mast pulls all halyards at the mast to raise the sails, assists the bowman with headsail changes, spinnaker sets, gybes, and douses, and helps maneuver the spinnaker pole. 

Bow changes headsails, connects, sets, gybes, and douses spinnaker calls starting line, waves, and other boats and climbs rig for tuning and repairs.

But those are just things they need to do while sailing. There is a big to-do list when preparing for sailing. There is more to being a good crew than jumping when screamed at. There is even more than knowing how to get sails up and down, and the boat tacked and jibed. The key to moving beyond the crew as an ‘automaton’ stage, is the recognition of three concepts: the impact of weight and placement on speed, understanding priorities, and developing initiative.

Example of multitasking while sailing

How do you multitask while sailing? This is an example of what a helmsman does. Suppose the helmsman is sailing in open water upwind. The focus might go something like this:

  • Stare at jib telltales for 5 seconds
  •  Glance at waves for 2 seconds
  •  Telltales for 5 sec
  •  Waves for 2 sec
  •  Telltales for 5 seconds
  •  Main leach telltale for 2 sec
  • Telltales for 5 sec
  • Double-check jib trim from spreader for 2 sec
  •  Telltales for 5 sec
  • And so on

The key to making it work is to truly focus most of the time on the jib telltales and only glance away for a few seconds at a time. And remember to focus back on the tales.

One useful trick, when you do this, is to glance and memorize what you see. Then when you are looking back at the highest priority while you process what you just memorized.

For example, to add some detail to the above:

  •   Jib telltales 5 sec
  •  Main leach telltale 2 sec (memorize what you see)
  •  Jib telltales 5 sec (decide main telltale too stalled, ease main a little)
  •  Main leach telltale 2 sec (memorize what you see)
  • Jib telltales 5 sec (decide if you eased the right amount)
  • Waves 2 sec
  •  And so on

Then you hear “starboard tack boat coming in 10 boat lengths, we are close to crossing”. You change your focus:

  •   Look for starboard tacker for 5 sec
  •   Jib telltales 5 sec (while thinking about how you are converging, deciding it is close. It is super important here to keep going fast or you won’t cross for sure)
  •   Look at the boat for 10 sec while you decide if you can make it across
  •   You say to the tactician: “Don’t think we will make it, do you want a tack or duck”
  •  Tactician: “keep going at all costs, so duck”
  •   You say “ease jib and vang” as you duck

The priority changed to the duck, and a whole new set of tasks to multitask for that process. Then you head up to close-hauled again and reprioritize the jib until the next event that trumps speed. Sailing is a task that requires a lot of multitasking because it entails a lot of moving parts. You have to be checking the weather, observing sea conditions, reconfirming speed, checking depth and so on, at the same time attending to the needs of those on board. Having to do all these has tremendous benefits to improving your concentration.

We only have so much mental energy and we need to put it to good use. It turns out that we humans are terrible at multitasking, but the best sailors are less terrible at it. When you feel sharp you are very aware of your surroundings.  


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