Wednesday, August 31, 2005

The F Word

Friendly. That's the word that's been getting under my skin this week. What did you think I meant?

Let me explain.

There is a long-standing member of our sailing club who has a small sailmaking business. Actually I think it's more of a retirement hobby but he makes a few sails for some classes locally.

He phoned my home last week when I was out and followed up with an urgent email. Apparently he was planning to make some "practice" Laser sails and wanted some measurements of various aspects of a Laser sail from me. And he asked a few other questions that revealed he knew very little about Laser sails.

Now the Laser is a strict one-design class and the only sails that are legal for racing are those sold by a Laser manufacturer - Vanguard in the USA who provide Laser sails made by North in Sri Lanka. There's the occasional bitching in the class about how a monopoly like this keeps the price of sails too high. But, all in all, it's a good system because it keeps all the sails as identical as possible. And it avoids an "arms race" where sailors compete by trying to find the best sailmaker.

If someone wants to use cheap knockoff sails for practice it does not infringe class rules or racing rules. But I suspect that there may be some issues of trademark infringement that Vanguard and Bruce Kirby, the designer of the Laser, might be unhappy about. In any case, I was too busy to respond to the sailmaker's request for information. And I didn't feel inclined to put myself out to help someone to cheat the system.

I thought no more of it until I discovered this weekend that the so-called "practice" sails were actually intended for two members of our Laser fleet to use for club racing. One of our new members has two kids who also sail Lasers so they have three Lasers in total. They bought old boats with old sails. They already upgraded one boat with a new, legal North sail. The other two knockoff sails were intended to upgrade their other two Lasers.

After he had delivered the sails, the sailmaker wandered across to me while I was rigging my Laser. He looked at my sail and went white. Turns out he had made the batten pockets on the knockoff sails all wrong. Clearly the guy has no idea of what he is doing.

But then we were faced with a tricky issue. Our sneaky sailmaker had conned a fellow member into spending several hundred bucks on sails that he cannot use for the purpose for which he bought them - sailing in club races. We talked to the club commodore. We checked the club sailing instructions. There's no doubt - boats racing at the club must meet class requirements. I expected nothing else.

And then our sailmaker friend - a past commodore of the club no less - dropped the F bomb. "Oh - it's quite normal to use knockoff sails for local, friendly fleet racing."

That put me back on my heels. Does that mean that if I insist that we all play by the same rules that I am being unfriendly? Is it really friendly to allow someone to use illegal equipment that could give him an unfair advantage? What am I supposed to do as fleet captain - turn a blind eye to a departure from the whole spirit of the strict one-design nature of Laser racing in the name of friendliness?

So that F-word has had me seething for the past two days. The claim that it's OK to break the rules in "friendly fleets" is nothing less than moral blackmail.

I still have to sort out this mess. My friend who was tricked into buying the sails is in a quandary. I'd like to help him. But I'm not sure how.

Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Sailing Parent

The problems caused by over-enthusiastic parents of kids playing sports are well known. Dads beating up hockey coaches or cursing at little league umpires. Or the more subtle and unseen pressures that parents put on kids to perform. Sailing is not immune to the disease but, thankfully, it does not seem to be as out of control as in some other sports.

I hope I wasn't one of those awful parents. Both of my kids learned to sail in Optis when they were 7 years old and competed in various junior events as they grew up. Of course I took pride in their achievements but I did try to teach them to keep their rare successes (and their more frequent lack of success) in perspective.

I was reminded of my years as an Opti parent when my son and his wife came to visit us the other weekend. Our first grandchild was with them but he or she is not scheduled to be launched until some time in November. While the mum-to-be and her mother-in-law went off to shop at a baby store, C. borrowed my Sunfish and raced in the fleet that meets on our local lake.

As I sat on the dock and watched him race it took me back to the days of watching him race in Opti regattas. Of course, he's a bit bigger now; actually a lot bigger. He won't tell me how much he weighs but it's clearly a lot more than me and I'm 185. He normally crews on a Star and looks like the stereotypical Star crew fat boy. Way too heavy to be competitive in a Sunfish sailing in light airs on a lake, you would think.

Much to my amazement he aced the first race beating the local Sunfish hotshot and all the locals. Swelling with fatherly pride I called him over to the dock after the race, congratulated him and asked him how he did it.

"Well, before the race I sailed up past that point on the East shore where you would normally expect to get a lift and found that instead the winds were all light and squirrely around the point so I went up the other side of the lake on the first beat."

Smart kid, I thought. Takes after me, of course. "Oh, so that expensive college education at MIT wasn't wasted," I joked. C. sailed on the MIT sailing team for 4 years. I sometimes thought he was majoring in sailing instead of engineering.

Later on we were clearing out some of his old papers and came across an essay he had written in middle school. It started, "What happened in the summer of 1989 at Lavallette Yacht Club on Barnegat Bay is without doubt the highest point in my life so far." The essay went on to relate how he had won an Optimist regatta (his first and only such win). The kid was only 11 at the time but even then he attributed his win to being heavier than the other kids. He wrote about his joy in winning but ended it on a modest note by telling how he had only come in fifth in the same regatta the following year.

Winning a regatta was clearly a major thrill for him, "The highest point in my life so far." Better than getting a baby brother? I guess so. Better than moving to America? Apparently. Better than going to Disneyworld? So it seems.

Over dinner the conversation turned to baby names. They don't know and don't want to know the sex of the baby but seem to spend most of the time discussing potential girl names. Claire is the current favorite. Perhaps in the summer of 2013 we will introduce Claire to the Opti. And around 2017 we could be standing on a dock cheering her on in a regatta.

Let's hope we can be good sports parents and grandparents. After all we might find she prefers ballet.

Friday, August 19, 2005


My sailing club has an active Force 5 fleet. The Force 5 is basically a Laser clone that was launched shortly after the Laser in the early 70s. It has never achieved the world-wide success of the Laser but has its small band of enthusiastic owners.

I have never understood why anyone would choose to sail a Force 5 rather than a Laser. It is slightly slower, less prone to plane and not as exciting downwind. There are many fewer regattas to attend and those regattas have much lower attendances.

Whenever I ask Force 5 owners why they prefer the Force 5 to the Laser they almost always say it is more "comfortable".

Comfortable? I can think of many reasons for selecting a board boat but comfortable is not one of my top 100 criteria. I'd choose a boat because it is exciting or challenging or even because it looks cool. But comfortable? What's comfortable about sitting on a 14 foot of fiberglass a few inches off the water for hours at a time?

When I press the point with a Force 5 owner he sprawls across his boat, feet over one side, head over the other as if he is relaxing in a hot tub. "Try doing that in a Laser," he says. Hmmm. Excuse me but why would anyone want to race in that position? You can't see where you're going, you can't adjust the position of your body to balance the boat in response to changes in wind strength and if you need to tack it will take you an extra few seconds to react. And in any case, if you did try sailing a Laser like that it's not especially uncomfortable. But no self-respecting Laser sailor would attempt such an unseamanlike feat.

But for the dwindling band of old guys who sail Force 5's, I guess that "comfortable" is some kind of rationale for their illogical choice. It reminds me of one of the claims made for the ill-fated Ford Edsel. It was said that you could change gears with a toothpick. (Apparently it had buttons in the steering wheel to control the transmission.) Wow! Even if it's true and even if you are one of those folk who always keep a pack of toothpicks in the car for the express purpose of changing gears...... what on earth were you thinking when you bought such a piece of junk?

Thursday, August 18, 2005


It was the last day of sailing classes today for the younger beginners class. These are kids mainly 7 or 8 years old who are learning to sail in Optimists. We started them off with two kids in the boat but by the end of the summer they were all sailing solo.

Kids of that age are so cute and vulnerable, so full of personality and individual quirks. I think that as they get older they become socialized to behave in more of a standard way that their peers, parents and teachers expect of them. But at that age they seem to have little self consciousness and act in an uninhibited and natural way that is entirely charming.

As it was the last lesson I asked them what they thought of sailing. I said that sailing to me was so many things -- exciting, challenging, rewarding, sometimes scary, sometimes wet and cold, but if I had to choose one word I would say, "Sailing is Fun." So I asked them to tell me what word they would use to finish the sentence, "Sailing is......"

One of my little chaps, let's call him Mac has a broad accent that is sometimes difficult to understand. It sounds a bit Irish but neither his brother or mother has that accent. He also pronounces his R's as W's so he often asks me to help him remove his "wudder". He has an unruly mop of blonde hair and is losing some of his baby teeth. Too cute for words. He tries hard, gets on well with the other kids, and is just a joy to be around.

We went round the table and the kids gave me their answers. Sailing is....."easy", "fun", "capsizing" ... and so on. Mac was last. His eyes brightened, he flashed that toothy grin and in his Irish brogue said with an enthusiasm unique to a 7-year-old, "Sailing is Spectacular!"

Hey - I would do this job for nothing just to hear comments like that.


There's been a correspondence rumbling on the Sunfish class email list in an attempt to answer a question posed by a self-confessed newbie, "Should I sail a Sunfish or a Laser?"

There have been lots of good answers with useful advice about the different characteristics of each boat and the demand and rewards of sailing each. Perhaps the best advice has been, "Sail what is most popular where you live." Which is basically why I, a life-long Laser sailor, took up Sunfish sailing when I moved to an area that had several clubs with strong Sunfish fleets and an active regional Sunfish racing series, but hardly any competitive Laser sailing.

But a few responses perpetuated the legend that the Sunfish class is in some way more friendly than the Laser class or that Laser sailors "protest too much." Having sailed Lasers for over 25 years and Sunfish for about 15, in every level of competition from local fleet to World Championships, I have to say I don't know how this nautical myth got started. Most of the sailors in both classes are wonderful people and are always willing to welcome and help new sailors in the class. Most of them enjoy the social aspects as much as the competition, hanging out with like minded enthusiasts, telling long stories of sailing exploits and sharing tips and advice.

Yes, there are a few, very few, assholes in both classes. But when I try to think of examples, I am sorry to say it is Sunfish sailors who spring to mind.....

Such as the former Sunfish North American champion who blatantly fouled me at a major regatta. When I politely pointed out to him the error of his ways and asked him to do his circles his answer was, "Fuck Off." Nice.

Or the Sunfish Sailor in our local Wednesday night series who persistently approaches the windward mark on the port tack layline, tacks within the 2 boatlength zone causing a starboard tacker to luff above close-hauled and who then refuses to accept he has broken a rule. He does this at least once every week. Week after week. I suspect his copy of the rulebook is dated 1976.

Or the junior Sunfish sailor who, when my son was winning a local Sunfish junior regatta, decided to jump off his boat, swim across to my son's boat, board it and then deliberately capsize him. As his coach was watching. I wonder if that coach ever told his class that the Sunfish was a "friendly" class. He clearly missed out the lesson on sportsmanship.

Only 3 examples I know. And probably some Laser sailors somewhere have behaved just as badly.

Or perhaps I am just one of those mean old unfriendly Laser sailors who give the class a bad name because I actually believe that a game is more fun if everyone plays by the same rules.


What a summer! I haven't posted on here for several weeks now. Apologies to my small band of regular readers who have noticed my absence and much appreciation for your kind comments. Normal service will be resumed very soon now.

My only excuses for failing to keep up my regular reports on my sailing activity are old age and exhaustion.

I've been teaching a kids sailing program 4 days a week. The kids are great (well, most of them are) and I end up giving up 110% effort to ensure that they have a good time and to help them to learn our wonderful life-long sport. Doing that through long hot humid summer days is draining enough. After a day at the yacht club I am ready to come home, chill out, enjoy a cold beer and go to sleep watching the Yankees game. Teachers deserve every cent they earn.

On top of that I am well into my marathon training program. Up to 14 miles in one run now. I do some of my runs before going to the yacht club but try to do the longer ones on my off days. Last Saturday was brutally hot so I drove up to one of my favorite trails through the woods in the hills above the town, hoping for some relative cool. Can't say it really helped a lot. As I jogged and sweated and dripped round a lake on the trail I passed an elderly couple sitting by the lake. "It's too hot to run," said the husband. "You are absolutely right," I replied. Am I nuts? Probably.

Then I've been doing my own sailing. Most Sundays I've been racing in the new Laser fleet I started at my sailing club (a different club from where I teach). We are doing well -- achieved the highest turnout of any fleet at the club for 9 years the other weekend. Plus I've been to the occasional regatta. Anyone following the continuing saga of the Laser Grandmaster rerun of the Battle of Trafalgar will be pleased to hear that I swept the series by winning my age group at the Atlantic Coast Masters against a rapidly fading challenge from my Gallic friend.

So I've been just too exhausted to write here. Perhaps as much mental exhaustion as physical tiredness.

But now the summer is winding down. One more week of the kids program. The heat is cooling off. Only in the 80s this week. Feels so much better. And there's been so much bloggable stuff happening over the summer that I have plenty to write about. If only my aging brain can remember it all.

I'm back.