Book Review: Plotting the Course by Rick Arneson

Life’s lessons can be teased from the numerous anecdotes that are told from many fields of endeavor. Plotting the Course: Life Lessons from the Sport of Sailing by Rick Arneson gives us a peek into the complex arena of competitive sailing. Drawing on this ancient activity that has born so many axioms, he lays out some very insightful observations that can be used in our lives.


A friend once told me that life is more like sailing than it is rowing. In rowing, your destination is a in a straight line of sight and you paddle directly towards your goal despite all other conditions. As Mr Arneson so eloquently articulates, sailing is a complex understanding of your boat, the water and wind conditions as well as the actions of your competitors. “You don’t have to be always aimed directly at your objectives to get there successfully,” says Mr Arneson. To win in sailing, your actions must maximize the use of each element. It is constant analysis, decision and action.

It is therefore very appropriate to use the specifics of sailing as a way to understand the generalities of life. Plotting the Course brings us through three stages for success; Planning, Performing, and Learning. Throughout the book, I noted some useful insights – gems that lend the book to be more than just a compilation of sailing analogies.

Successful competitive sailing is taking advantage of the conditions to make them work in your favor – taking opportunities when they arise. Like many decisions in life, success is based on anticipation of probable outcomes from a smart considerations of risk. Mr Arneson points out that the most successful sailors are the ones who are conservative risk managers. “Winning a race doesn’t always depend on who went faster so much as it reflects who slowed down the least,” is a great statement on risk management.

So often in competitive sports one sees aggressive behavior. Here assertive vs aggressive behavior is outlined as a winning strategy. Being assertive is acting in a strong, decisive way, while aggression is more focused on dominating the other party. In sailing, being assertive keeps you attentive and resolute on your goal in face of opposition. Aggression means going on the offensive in a one-on-one contest that may result in both losing the race.

In yoga we often talk of being mindful. It is essential according to Mr Arneson to be in the moment. ” Without the ability to live in the moment and to concentrate fully on the task at hand, a sailor is severely handicapped before the race begins. … Whether afloat or ashore, one of the most difficult, yet most important challenges to those under stress from distracting outside factors is to quiet the mind by a constant return to thoughts of what is good and right in our world, rather than what is wrong.”

I enjoyed the stories in this book and being able to learn in more depth the art and science of sailing. Certainly, Plotting the Course underscored how you weigh risk, and experience uncertainty in life and how you get can through it.


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