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Book review: Knowledge 2.0 - Staying Afloat in the Information Age by Mark Chisnell

by Magnus Smith 6 Feb 17:00 GMT 6 February 2024
Knowledge 2.0 - Staying Afloat in the Information Age by Mark Chisnell © Mark Chisnell

You will be aware that and publish a vast number of race reports, all within a week or two of the action happening; but there's nowhere to find a detailed look at lessons learned, from the viewpoint of several years after a race. Author Mark Chisnell has put in a lot of work to decide which sailing stories from the 1970s onwards, really have something fundamental to teach us.

And not just something to teach us about sailing! Unpicking what really happened, and why - alongside a consideration of whether that was the best decision to make - can teach us about the good and bad points of our minds. Mark's work would not be out of place on a shelf of self-help books, since it teaches us how to notice misunderstandings in the way we think, and considers how we can improve our skills (and thus, our happiness).

It attempts to teach you the deeper lessons that can be learned from these particular racing successes and disasters, so that you can understand your life a little better.

On a less serious note, I really enjoyed learning more about famous tales, such as Ben Ainslie's fourth gold medal (which you can read part of in the extract below), or what the REAL truth was about Harold Cudmore's extreme race in the Fastnet.

There are footnotes, appendices and a bibliography for anyone wishing to delve a little deeper into any of the topics raised. Mark Chisnell (no mean sailor himself) has performed some serious and detailed research, but is presented in a palatable fashion.

There is plenty to learn, but even if you're not so bothered about that side of things, the detailed tales of sailing races will still be interesting, as so much of this sort of thing can only be perceived years later, and doesn't appear in the online race reports published immediately after an event!

You can purchase the book from: Amazon / Barnes and Noble / Apple Books / Kobo

In this extract from the book, Ben Ainslie, Jonas Høgh-Christensen and Pieter-Jan 'PJ' Postma contest the Olympic gold medal in the final Finn race of the 2012 Olympic Games

One fundamental skill in sailboat racing is spotting where the better wind conditions are on the racecourse, and what the next change is going to be. No-one can see the wind - no-one can see the air move, but there are clues where it touches down on the land - making one flag fly more strongly than another, for instance. Or where it touches down on the water, leaving darker patches, or bigger waves. The racer who can read these clues most effectively can gain a massive advantage, if they are prepared to gamble on what they see. What they are gambling is leverage, the distance between the boats across the race course.

And on that sunny August morning under the gaze of thousands of spectators and millions watching on screens around the world, the leverage between Ben Ainslie and Jonas Høgh-Christensen was growing. The gold medal could be settled right there, right off the start line - but for those watching, ignorance was largely bliss. There were very few who knew the intricacies of the racecourse. Of those that did, the ones supporting Ainslie had their hearts in their mouths. Offshore is normally faster, it normally pays, and he's going inshore...

The gap grew and grew. Stomachs tightened. Throats constricted. Chests refused to impart a full breath. Finally, Ainslie headed back towards the middle of the racecourse, and Høgh-Christensen did the same. Both men glanced anxiously across the water at their opponent as the gap closed back up. It took a little time, but... Ainslie was going to come out clear ahead. The commentators knew it. The spectators on the grass with a grandstand view knew it. And soon it became clear that Høgh-Christensen knew it too. He changed direction to parallel Ainslie, to maintain the last of the leverage, hoping for a better moment, another change in conditions that would allow him to close out his position with a smaller loss.

And that's the thing about leverage; for much of the time, either boat can choose to maintain it, and while the leverage is stable no-one is winning or losing. It's only when the leverage gets closed out - like selling a stock-market position - that the gains and losses solidify and become permanent. Unfortunately for Høgh-Christensen, no-one can maintain the leverage for ever. Eventually the boats must come back together at the turning marks at the end of each leg. When they got to the first mark, Ainslie had a narrow lead of about 5 metres over Postma, who was perhaps 20 metres ahead of Høgh-Christensen.

The fleet turned back the way they had come, and now had the wind blowing from behind them. On to the second leg: this was a part of the race that Ainslie had always excelled in. Yes, the laser-like ability to focus was important. Yes, the ability to never blink in a confrontation was important. But we should never forget that none of this would matter without an extraordinary ability to make a sailboat go fast through the water.

By the end of the second leg, Ainslie had blown past everyone except - and only by a couple of metres - Jonathan Lobert of France. Behind Ainslie, Postma was fourth with Høgh-Christensen sixth. It was an unbelievable display of athleticism and technique, cheered all the way by the huge crowd; as the racers turned around for the second lap, it must have seemed to the cheering thousands like the job was done. They were wrong.

This time all three boats headed inshore. Ainslie's strategy was clear - he had to make sure that Høgh-Christensen was behind him. He kept his foot on the Dane's throat, covering his every move, and Høgh-Christensen took them inshore. Postma had to get past both of them though, and he was not going to do it by following them. He took a calculated risk and changed direction to go offshore - remember that this was the route that was normally advantaged.

Conditions had shifted, the streak of extra wind that had made the inshore side so profitable on the first lap had gone. Now the percentages started to reassert themselves, and the offshore side began to pay. By the next mark Postma had thrown a double six and gone past them both. And they had all dropped back - Ainslie and Høgh-Christensen were now at the back of the fleet, with Postma just in front in sixth. Luck was on the side of the Dutchman.

The situation didn't change much on the next leg, and by the end of the second lap Postma was still just ahead of Ainslie, who was just ahead of Høgh-Christensen. The gold medal was still headed for Britain and into the record books. Postma headed back towards the newly favoured offshore side. Høgh-Christensen headed inshore. Once again, Ainslie was a passenger - he had to stay with Høgh-Christensen. A bell was now ringing like a text alert in the head of PJ Postma and the message was... opportunity.

If Postma was going to win gold, he needed Ainslie and Høgh-Christensen back deeper than seventh place - and now they were. He just had to win the race, but that wasn't going to happen unless he created the leverage, took the risk necessary to try to make a big gain. So Postma bet the house on red and sailed all the way into the offshore corner of the course.

Two things now happened. Høgh-Christensen found a little extra speed and started to gain distance on Ainslie, who was forced to split away to find better conditions before the Dane simply sailed past him. Halfway up the fifth leg, Postma was all the way offshore, Høgh-Christensen all the way inshore, and Ainslie was in the middle. If you were neutral it was spectacularly exciting: they could not have got more spread out on the racecourse if they had been following instructions in a coaching exercise. If you were backing one or other of the three men, the tension was intolerable.

When they came back together at the mark it was Postma who was the big winner. This time offshore had paid out on red, and the Dutchman was now rich, very rich. He rounded the top mark in third place. Ainslie had retained control of Høgh-Christensen, but the pair were now last by a distance. If Ainslie finished ninth, and Høgh-Christensen tenth, then Postma needed to pass just one more boat to go up into gold. And the man in front of PJ was Dan Slater.

Slater and Ainslie went way back, their first serious contest coming at the 1994 Youth World Championships when the Kiwi had beaten Ainslie for the title by a single point on a tie-break. At the time, Ainslie was calm and polite despite the disappointment, and the two men began a long friendship. Now, almost twenty years later, Ainslie had done the maths, he could see the danger, but if there was one thing he was sure of after twenty years of sailing against him, it was that Dan Slater wasn't going to give that place up to Postma without a fight.

Postma had the bit between his teeth, he could smell gold now, and he closed Slater down fast. There was one final turning mark, and then a very short, straight leg to the finish line. The gap got smaller and smaller, and as they approached the final mark, Postma pushed and finally got up alongside Slater and into a passing position.

Others might have just waved the gold-medal contender by, figuring that it wasn't their fight. And a calmer, smarter, or less driven man than Postma might have settled for bronze or silver. But Slater wasn't about to wave anyone by - particularly not in front of a British home crowd - and Postma was charging with his blood on fire.

They had just 50 metres to the finish after the final mark, and Postma had a medal in his hands - but he threw everything on a chance of gold. He went for an inside pass of Dan Slater at the final mark. Slater's reaction was immediate - he had the rules on his side, and he was going to use them to defend his position. He reckoned Postma had got level too late to legally take the shorter, inside track around the mark and make the pass. Dan Slater defended his position with all the force the rules gave him, and Postma's boat (the rig to be precise) touched the back of Slater's boat. It was a clear foul, the umpires pounced and while Postma was taking his penalty his medal hopes evaporated in the Weymouth sun.

All that was left for Ainslie was to sail to the finish; close out ninth place and the gold medal was his. He certainly wasn't going to screw that up. Ainslie crossed the line in ninth, with Høgh-Christensen behind him. He pumped his fist a half dozen times in celebration, but mostly he was feeling relief and as photographers, cameramen and interviewers crowded round he just wanted to hold his composure and not lose it in front of a few million people.

"Dan did the right thing and protected his position, but it would have been very easy for him, as someone out of contention for a medal, to let PJ past and turn the result. Life has a funny way of coming full circle and I guess it was also a good example of taking the time to build relationships. It is true that when times are tough you really do find out who your mates are," he said much later. It was a desperately close-run thing, but Ainslie had his fourth gold medal; he had made Olympic history. Stick a fork in it: that dream was done.

© Mark Chisnell

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