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Review - Three Books on Sailboat Racing

Sailing Up To Speed

By John Andrews
Speed is what we who race sailboats fervently desire. It is seldom discussed openly; instead, it hovers ominously about like a family secret—privy only to a special few. All of us are duly addicted, though, and the object of our craving is to sprint gloriously, drunkenly, to the finish with wings on our heels. The truth about speed—sailing fast— is that it is as inscrutable as it is intoxicating. No account seems wholly credible, no source reliable, no explanation satisfactory. Books on “how to win” tend to treat the topic either as tinkering with the controls—known as “tuning” the boat—or as the ultimate, ecstatic, underlying, sole purpose in life. “Every sailor can improve his boat-speed,” declare Fred Imhoff and Lex Pranger in This is Boat Tuning for Speed (1985) for small-boat racers. “The sailors at the head of the fleet have had to learn, from the beginning, the elements which make for maximum speed and a perfectly set-up boat... Most of what we say concerns trim (of hull or sails), fitting out, or boat layout.” Tuning the boat for speed—the hull, foils, spars, sails, and rigging—means adjusting the entire craft as if it were an instrument. This involves not quite the delicate touch of a piano tuner, suggest Imhoff and Pranger, but the experienced hand of a coach or a personal trainer, as in their dire emphasis on “finding faults” with one’s sails (Chapter Three). Improvement is not always possible, moreover, as the reader is admonished repeatedly for “Faults that cannot be corrected.” “Fitting out” is more hopeful. It consists of choosing the right fitting (e.g., shackle, block, cleat) for each job and—along with the related task of “boat layout”—putting it in the right spot. “Fitting out is a question of concentrated reflection and practical thinking,” intone the authors, who also favor use of a “logsheet” to assess the performance of the boat relative to the settings and conditions of each race. “Tuning the boat is then a logical result of analyzing data from the logsheets....” Imhoff and Pranger are fond of lists and checklists, including one in the book’s concluding chapter (“The Trapeze”) titled “Final Checklist.” It lists exactly 17 items, including the usual tasks of adjusting the cunningham, shrouds, traveler, and so forth, but then: Do we need lifejackets or sailing gloves? (#10) Check the direction of the first mark. (#13) Check that the centerboard and rudder are clear of weed. (#16) Clearly, by this point (on the very last page of the book), the authors are weary—dazed and frustrated by the seemingly endless details of race preparation, and perhaps fearful that we wayward readers have become, as have they, hopelessly awash in a multitude of imperatives. Boat tuning, regrettably, does not disappear once the sailing craft is under way. Rather, it takes on a new and more robust existence as boat trim, which term has a deceptively unpretentious and even delicate air, heightened by ambiguity. (Imhoff and Pranger allude to trim—but wisely decline from taking it up directly—midway through “Tuning for Speed” in the chapter “Tuning Afloat,” where they discuss jib fairlead and mainsail controls.) Proper trim, argue its proponents, is not just essential to sailing fast, it is fundamental and paramount. “It is sail trim that determines boat speed,” proclaims Stuart H. Walker in A Manual of Sail Trim (1985). “Anytime you hear differently, wonder whether the speaker is gullible, naive, or trying to set you up. Smooth bottoms, weight, windage, etc., are of little significance—except to believers.” Walker, interestingly, is only a latter-day convert to speed, calling it “the most important determinant of outcome in sailboat racing.” He now believes speed underlies even tactics and strategy (“psychology”), since “Nothing makes a helmsman look (and feel) better than a fast boat!” “With speed,” Walker argues, “one’s psyche is at ease,” resulting in “the relaxed, confident attitude that generates success.” My own assumption is that racing sailors are possessed of a psyche that, by nature, is ill at ease and possibly unstable, and one that is simply obsessed with speed—going fast, and winning—regardless of any rational thought or redeeming emotion. Dr. Walker may wish to rationalize this disorder, of course, which is excusable, but he can’t be forgiven for composing his Manual of Sail Trim in outline form (rather than prose), rendering it utterly impossible to read or comprehend. Fortunately, I have recently come across a remarkable book in the literature of sailboat racing. It is all about speed, and it covers such vital topics as trim with the bravura of an adventure story, which, in fact, it is. The volume is High Performance Sailing (2003/2008) by Frank Bethwaite, an experimental boat designer from Australia who, in easy autobiographical fashion, has ventured to write a book to explain how sailboats sail. The first third or so of Bethwaite’s 414-page tome deals with wind, which he began to investigate only after realizing that “There is no such thing as a steady wind.” An unlikely revelation, we might suppose, but to the inveterate scientist it is cause for celebration. “One of the more valuable spin-offs from my initial search for a steady wind was that I began to look at the real wind’s structure,” he explains, which “developed into Part I of this book, and nobody suggests that there is not a great deal more yet to be learned.” Bethwaite’s avocation is figuring out how things work, and it seems to surprise him how poorly we understand natural phenomena such as wind and waves, and also the man-made craft that navigate in them. He discovers, for example, that the raised sail of a traditional gaff rig has an almost elliptical shape (“optimum...for a wing or sail”) and that its swept-back leading edge (head) offers the same aerodynamic benefit as the upper luffs of today’s speedy asymmetric spinnakers—not to mention the delta-winged Concorde on landing. In 1959, Bethwaite and “a small group of Sydney men and women” took up the problem of sail trim and began experimenting with ways to deliberately and readily adjust a sail’s fullness (camber) from full to flat, including the crucial “twist” of its outer edge (leech). Among their discoveries were “bendy” masts with angular sails, rig “springiness” (pre-set tension), and telltales, on which we who sail modern-day dinghies like to think we reliably depend. The final, small matter of knowing what shape the sails should take, and when—that is, how to sail the boat—comprises the final Part IV, “Handling,” of High Performance Sailing. It is illuminating, entertaining, and tough going—depending, of course, on who is doing the learning. About my sailing fast, nobody suggests that there is not a great deal more yet to be learned.

John Andrews, a retired editor, lives in Bridgton, Maine, and is active in the Lake Region Sailing Club on Long Lake.

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