The ocean is a dynamic place, conditions change all the time and as sailors we have to use our brains and our brawn to get the most out of our boats, for hours, days or weeks on end

For me, managing a 60ft IMOCA alone demands my full attention so there is little time for distraction. However, even then it can be difficult to maintain really long-term focus.

On long passages, particularly those with few course or sail changes, it can be hard to keep your concentration up. Here are a few ways I help myself focus over long periods:

Clear objectives

It may seem obvious, but ensure you are clear about your objectives for any given leg. Should you be sailing best VMG upwind, going for straight speed on a reach, or trying to work as much distance downwind as possible in every surf? It’s important to state these objectives at the start and keep reviewing your performance at regular intervals, particularly on long legs.

It’s easy for a helmsman to lose concentration and get sucked into a fast mode that might be tactically wrong – especially when trying to make downwind VMG.

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Set your instruments to reflect the information you most need to achieve your objective. Try to minimise the data available so you only have a couple of numbers to focus on: I’d suggest speed and wind angle, or speed and course. Before settling onto the helm note your optimal targets and keep referring back to them.

It’s a good idea to have a chart with target VMG angles on display in sight of the helm, or try writing your target course or angle on the coachroof in chinagraph pencil. Keep referring back to your targets.

Get comfortable

To truly stay in the zone you need to be physically comfortable. The helming position should allow you to maintain good posture and have a line of sight that allows you to see sails, instruments and waves. Take being comfortable seriously, especially when offshore or ocean sailing.

If your boat is not comfortable to steer then move things around to make it so. Trying to focus for extended periods if any part of your body is in pain or uncomfortable is distracting; even if you don’t realise it in the moment.

If sitting, choose a flat surface, avoid draping your legs over cleats or ropes as these will dig in and cut blood flow off; adjustable footrests are valuable. On tiller steered boats I like to sit on a low foam cushion, this is a softer seat and keeps me up off the deck and so drier. Foam backrests on the guardrails are also great additions for those with smaller cockpits. If you regularly stand to helm then think about adding extra foot chocks or a pop-up platform to steer from.

Being comfortable is equally important if you’re having to trim the spinnaker or mainsail over long periods, especially if you need to look up constantly. Avoid jackets with big or bulky collars if trimming for a long leg.

Our cognitive ability can also be hugely impaired by what we eat and drink. Staying hydrated and well-nourished is key. Before coming on watch ensure you have enough water within easy reach and make sure you drink it all. Snacking well is important for maintaining focus but can be challenging on an ocean crossing.

Avoid high sugar and salty snacks as these can lead to spikes in energy, dehydration and wavering concentration levels. Instead opt for food rich in protein like plain nuts, fruit bars, or even a nut butter sandwich. Use caffeine with caution, it can provide a short term pick up and increased focus, but it may also mess up your sleeping patterns, affecting concentration levels adversely over time. Personally I avoid coffee when sailing, sticking to weak tea or herbal teas.

Take regular breaks

The brain will function better if given regular breaks. The optimum time to maintain focus will vary between humans, but for most people it ranges from 30-90 minutes. Be honest about your own ability to concentrate, understand that everyone is different so play to your strengths.

Schedule in regular breaks, allow your eyes to adjust to a different focus, stand up, walk around, stretch and relax, knowing that when you pick up the wheel or sheet again you’ll be more efficient.

Staying focussed under autopilot

Some of the most challenging times to remain focussed are at night, when the boat is sailing itself under autopilot and your role is simply as ‘guardian’. It’s tempting during these times to switch off, doze, look at a tablet or read a book. However, the human crew still has a role to play in these scenarios and can actively make the boat go faster.

To stay alert and keep busy I make a list of all of the things that could be negatively or positively affecting the boat’s performance and regularly run through that list at intervals during the watch. For example:

  • Sail trim – check every 30 minutes, look at tell tales, leech profiles, shine a torch on the sails at night time. Try trimming sails to see if it impacts boat speed. Never assume you are going as fast as you can.
  • Angle of heel/power – watch the autopilot to see how far it is moving the helm, if the amplitude of each correction is large then think about easing sheets or putting in a reef. Check the level of water relative to the toe rail, are you at the optimum angle of heel?
  • Course keeping – is the pilot managing to steer a clean course? If not do you need to adjust the gain, or to change the mode, or change the sail plan?
  • Traffic – scan the horizon, check AIS or radar.
  • Weather – in the tropics check for squall action at night.

First published in the October 2020 issue of Yachting World.