Offshore helmsman Gordon Maguire is one of the best in the business. He has a feel for driving a boat that allows him to react to changes in boat speed instantly, long before the instruments tell him the boat has slowed that fraction of a knot.

"There is no substitute for feel, he says. 

Downwind surfing in Volvo Ocean Race
© Team News Corp: Downwind on News Corp in the Volvo Ocean Race

"The information from the instruments is all historical. It takes four to five seconds for the instruments to do the calculations from when the cause of the drop in speed occurred. People who drive on the instruments are always four or five seconds behind.  They are reactive and the boat is slow. The brain is so much faster at processing all the information coming in at once than the onboard computers.

"Reacting early is as important going down wind as up. People tend to get carried away as the boat accelerates down a wave, but you should already be looking at the exit and how you will catch the next wave. I never look at the dials going down wind."

Maguire says that another problem with focussing too much on the dials is that they are more likely to engage the front half of the brain, and the key to driving fast is the subconscious. 

"You have to get the intellect out of the way. We drive for long stretches at a time but doing very precise things over and over. If you consciously concentrated for that long you would go mad in half an hour. I switch my mind off. I am not really concentrating.  Sometimes I don't know what has happened in the last 30 minutes."

It is like driving a car through an intersection that you go through all the time. When you are through it you think, was there a green light?  Did I just drive through a red light? But subconsciously you saw a green light and you did what you usually do without thinking.

Yet while it is all about feeling the boat under you, Maguire doesn't believe that there is any such thing as a natural boat driver.

"Steering a yacht is totally unnatural, just like it is totally unnatural to hit a golf ball.  It is only natural if you practice teeing off thousands of times. After a hundred thousand miles you know a boat is going to slow down when it hits a wave and what to do about it.

"I'm not better than anyone else who steers a boat, just more determined."