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What makes a good sailor?

Do sailors have better spatial ability than landlubbers?

The answer is yes, according to a new study conducted by a Connecticut College professor who compared the spatial test scores of collegiate racing sailors with those of a group of young people selected from the general student body and one made up of crew (rowing team) members.

College sailors performed better on what is called a “mental rotations test,” which requires participants to rotate a two-dimensional shape in their minds in order to match a given pattern.

“Sailing is a very analytical sport,” says Ann Sloan Devlin, Ph.D., the May Buckley Sadowski ’19 Professor of Psychology at Connecticut College in New London, Conn. “It certainly exercises your brain in a way that other sports don’t. You think a lot. It’s not always just ‘feeling’ the boat.”

Sailing rewards spatial prowess, maintains Devlin. Knowing when to tack, for instance, or visualizing the shape of the sail on a new leg are important concepts in the sport — as well as understanding where you are on the course relative to your competitors and the next mark, adjusting to wind shifts and currents and so forth.

What Devlin’s study can’t determine is whether people excel at the sport and continue sailing because they already have strong spatial talents, or whether the act of sailing itself actually enhances those abilities.

“Which comes first, the chicken or the egg?” asks Devlin. “You just don’t know. It’s not cause and effect. I’m not saying sailing makes people better at this. The alternative is saying sailing attracts people who are already good at it. I don’t know which one it is. Like most things in life, it’s probably a little bit of both.”

Traditionally, studies have shown that men have stronger mental rotation ability than women, which may be due to a number of factors, including early toy play, sports involvement and hormonal differences.

And while sailors did better than the non-sailors and crew team members in Devlin’s study, men still scored higher than women on the rotations test across the three study groups, which encompassed 230 students.

“Almost universally, you find men are better than women at this task for many reasons,” Devlin says. “It’s also the case that people who sail are better at this test than people who don’t sail. And women sailors did better than women who don’t sail, although not significantly. I had hoped that women who sailed would close the gap [with men] significantly enough that you wouldn’t see that difference, but that didn’t happen. They were better, but they weren’t enough better to nullify the difference.”

Devlin comes from a sailing family. Her husband has a degree in naval architecture, and designed and built the 24-foot sailboat they race on eastern Long Island Sound. And the Devlins’ daughter, Sloan Devlin, is currently a women’s all-American skipper at Harvard.

Devlin’s work focuses on environmental psychology, with an emphasis on the creation of more humanistic environments in housing for the elderly and psychiatric hospitals. Interestingly, she also specializes in what she refers to as “way-finding,” or how people navigate their world with maps, charts and other tools.

In this study, Devlin also looked at the relationship between sailing and the method one uses to navigate, be it on the water, in a city, or through the woods. Sailing team members as a group reported less spatial anxiety, Devlin says, and were more apt to use an “orientation” strategy rather than a “route” strategy when finding their way than those in the general student body.

A route method relies on following specific turns and landmarks. The orientation method encompasses what Devlin calls the bigger picture — having an idea of where you are in relationship to the larger environment.

Someone using the orientation method, for example, would be more comfortable altering course when weather conditions dictated a change. They also are more apt to navigate using cardinal points and mileage.

Devlin also discovered that men were more likely to be skippers and women crew on co-ed sailing teams. One possible reason is that men, by virtue of their spatial advantage, are more liable to stay with sailing and find success, as their experience reinforces this ability. In other words, people tend to stick with what they do well.

Women also have fewer role models in collegiate sailing, Devlin says, and most coaches are men.

“Sailing is a great sport,” she says. “It involves so many different mental challenges. It’s great for kids and women as well as men. It opens up so many opportunities for women — for travel, for competition. There are lots of good reasons to encourage girls and boys to do this.”

Devlin poses this question: “What is it that makes a good sailor?” While a good many things go into it, the researcher, who jokingly refers to herself as “reluctant” foredeck crew, believes an enhanced spatial ability may be one important ingredient.

Devlin’s study, “Sailing Experience and Sex as Correlates of Spatial Ability,” was published in the journal Perceptual and Motor Skills.