As most of you know, for the past two years I’ve been out conducting a grand experiment of learning, living, and working from my sailboat most of the time, as I explore and experience this phenomenal planet of ours from the vantage point of the sea. I am currently anchored at the small village of Rikitea on the Island of Mangareva, which is in the Iles Gambiers (cut and paste the lat/long pair 23 06.939S 134 58.098W into Google Earth if you’d like to see where this is).
One of my primary drivers for heading off on this new direction in life, was to turn myself into a truly fulltime learner and dive into the deep end of the ignorance pool. I wanted to see if I could figure out how to swim and have fun doing it. It has been working extremely well too. Every single day is almost a nonstop set of learning experiences on just about every level you can imagine: personally, professionally, of other people and cultures, of geography, geology and archaeology, of all things mechanical, of the stars and solar system, of maps, of me and of the worlds above, below, and on top of the water.
I’m finding that there is an incredible amount of very deep lessons to be learned, as well as some extraordinarily helpful concepts and models that apply themselves to so much more than “just” sailing and a life aquatic. One of these in particular, is a term unique to sailing called VMG which is the acronym for “velocity made good”. This one has really struck me as an enormously helpful conceptual model and it has stayed with me throughout my adventure. Now I’d like to share it with you here, get your comments on it and offer it as a model that I believe you too would find very valuable, both professionally and personally. Bear with me for just a bit while I quickly walk you through what VMG is all about in the context of sailing, and then I think you’ll quickly see how well this can be applied to most other things in life.
VMG or “velocity made good” is the measurement of the speed at which you are progressing toward your intended destination. VMG is vector-based in that it requires TWO values—speed and direction—in order to determine what the VMG value is.
Now, to get from point A to point B in a power boat, you’d simply follow the common principal that a straight line is the shortest distance between any two points, and you’d steer the motorboat directly towards point B. There would be no need for this special term of VMG because you’d simply measure your speed over the ground or through the water and that would be how quickly you were progressing toward your destination.
In a sailboat, however, you are dependent upon the wind for your motive power, and it is not always possible to follow the straight line to your destination. For example, if the wind is coming FROM the point B you are trying to get to, then you have a problem. In fact, until relatively recently in the history of sailing, it was only possible to sail in about whatever direction the wind was blowing; that is, downwind. This is why, for example, all the historical sailing routes of the world went in similar directions and to similar destinations. You were essentially at the mercy of Mother Nature and you literally went whichever way the wind was blowing.
To this day, many people assume that a sailboat is “pushed” by the wind and therefore, can only go downwind. But in fact, modern sailboats are not dependent upon being pushed, they can also and most often, be “pulled” by the same principle that enables airplanes to fly—lift. The sails are carefully shaped and angled such that they act as a wing and create lift, which combined with the similar lift being generated by the keel under the water, enables the sailboat to move forward. While it is not possible to sail directly into the wind, it is possible to sail within as little as 30 degrees off the wind, and therefore you can now move towards, although not directly at, your destination, even if the wind is coming straight from this point. The technique is known as “tacking” and if you were to observe it from above, the path of the boat would be a zigzag pattern, since the boat is steered first to one angle (say, off to the starboard or right side) and then back to the other angle (to the port or left side). By maintaining this angle to the wind, the sails and keel generate lift and move the boat forward, and you are able to tack or zigzag your way to point B.
Because you are never advancing directly towards your destination, you’re always moving away from it to some extent; your actual speed on the water is of little importance. What you want to know is how much progress you are making towards point B and THAT is what VMG tells you. Unless you are moving in a straight line directly towards your destination, your VMG is always going to be less than your actual speed over the ground. But how much less? In approximate terms, if you are traveling at an angle of 90 degrees to your destination, then your VMG would be zero; that is, you’d never get there. Greater than 90 degrees and your VMG would be negative. So angles less than 90 degrees have some amount of positive VMG; therefore, you’d be making positive or forward progress towards your destination. How much would be a vector or combination of your actual speed and the angle. This is how VMG is calculated.
Fortunately, on modern sailboats such as mine, there is a digital readout that tells me exactly what my VMG is at any moment and this reading is what you learn to pay the most attention to because it is the “bottom line” of how well you are sailing towards your next waypoint or destination. Figuring out when I’m going to arrive at this next point then is not based on how fast the boat is moving through the water, but what the VMG speed is. You therefore adjust your sails and angle of your heading not to get the maximum speed but to get the maximum VMG.
What I’ve been finding even more fascinating though, is that if you remove the context of sailing and treat VMG as a general conceptual model, it becomes extremely useful in many other situations. Destination can now be any form we like, such as a personal goal or an organizational objective. As in the case of sailing, you are often faced with opposing forces that work against you and keep you from being able to move directly towards your point B. Some would simply “go with the flow” and let themselves be controlled and pushed by these forces, and therefore go in similar directions and to similar destinations that were all “downwind”. But if you really want to get to the point B that you have set your sites on, then it is possible to develop strategies that allow you to head “upwind”, without taking the opposing forces on directly, but very cleverly using those same forces to provide the metaphorical equivalent of “lift” to you and your team, thus enabling you to make forward progress, and ultimately arrive at your destination.
Does this sound familiar? Do you recall times when you have purposefully decided to take an indirect path, meandering in different directions that move you closer but not directly towards your goal? If done with purpose, it can be extremely smart and enable you to go against the flow, to succeed in spite of opposing forces, and to get where YOU want to go.
You can see how well this all fits into my long time focus and the namesake of this site—the strategy of being “off course” and yet very much “on target”. Yet for me the real lesson of VMG is in the value of having an accurate measurement of what my VMG is. This is where I think we can also gain the most advantage in using the concept of VMG in other applications. What we need is a VMG meter for all of our other pursuits in life!
In many ways, I think it can be relatively straight forward to create a VMG meter for any application. First, of course, we need to have a clear and accurate sense of where point B is. What is the end state we are trying to achieve? What are the coordinates of point B? Then we need to know our current location, where we are now. And finally, we need to know what is our actual speed AND at what angle away from our determined destination are we moving? Put all these together and you get a very simple, but profound, guiding metric of your true progress.
Think how well this would let you make adjustments to your strategies and implementations, and how quickly you could find out what effect this has on your VMG. For example, moving faster often seems to be a good thing: “We must be doing well, look how fast we are going!” But how often has it turned out that you were making LESS progress towards your goal, even though you were “going faster”? When would it be smart to choose to go slower at a different angle to reach maximum VMG?
As with many of my “off course, on target” stories, including the original Apollo mission example that got me started with this whole line of thinking, it is all about getting good at constant course correction, which requires that you know where you are headed and how far off course you are at any given point in time.
So give this VMG idea a try in YOUR context. How well have you quantified the specifics of your “point B” destination? How would you measure the “angle” away from the direct line towards your point B? How do you measure the speed that you or your project are moving at? If you can measure these, then you can put them together and create your very own VMG gauge, which will let you make constant course corrections and successfully reach that elusive point B destination before everyone else.
Would you rather join the rest of the crowd, go wherever the prevailing winds blow you, and let the external forces determine your future? Or would you like to chart your own course? Do the impossible and sail upwind. Fashion your own version of a VMG gauge, and you can purposefully put yourself very much off course, but equally much on target!