Thursday, February 28, 2013


One day a farmer's donkey fell down into a well. The animal cried piteously for hours as the farmer tried to figure out what to do. Finally, he decided the animal was old; he might just as well bury the donkey in the well.

He invited all his neighbors to come over and help him. They all grabbed a shovel and began to shovel dirt into the well. At first, the donkey realized what was happening and cried horribly. Then, to everyone's amazement he quieted down.

A few shovel loads later, the farmer finally looked down the well. He was astonished at what he saw. With each shovel of dirt that hit his back, the donkey was doing something amazing. He would shake it off and take a step up.

As the farmer's neighbors continued to shovel dirt on top of the animal, he would shake it off and take a step up. Pretty soon, everyone was amazed as the donkey stepped up over the edge of the well and happily trotted off!


Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Natural Navigation Quiz

How many points are there on the earth where you could travel one mile south, then one mile east, then one mile north and end up in the same spot you started?

Learning from a Gold Medalist

A couple of weeks ago I participated in another Laser sailing webinar, very similar in some ways to the one I wrote about at Web Orgy.

Coach Rulo from the Laser Sailing Centre at Cabarete was once again hosting it. This time the subject was Laser Downwind Speed (which god knows I need to improve) and Rulo was joined by guest expert Anna Tunnicliffe who, as all my readers surely know, won the gold medal in the Laser Radial event at the 2008 Olympics.

Once again Rulo did a fine job of covering the subject in depth with a well-structured presentation using bullet point slides and video footage dealing separately with the techniques needed in light, medium and strong winds, with a separate section of what to do in "survival" conditions (which I do seem to encounter more often as I get older. How can that be?)

Rulo also did a good job of bringing Anna into the discussion at key points in the presentation where she was able to offer her own accounts of how she approached downwind sailing. And then, at the end, we were able to ask our own questions.

One issue with any webinar or coaching or books or words of wisdom for me these days is the one I raised in Are Words a Wisdom a Waste of Time? I have been sailing a Laser for so many years and trying to soak up knowledge about Laser sailing for so many years that I have heard before a lot of the collected wisdom about how to sail a Laser fast.

Not that I necessarily I have the skills to execute well all that I have heard. That's another issue.

But I didn't expect to hear any new magic go-faster tips from Anna that would suddenly turn me from a below-average downwind sailor into the guy who can pass 20 other boats on every downwind leg. That wasn't going to happen.

And yet...

When you have the opportunity to listen to someone of Anna's caliber, and question them, you do discover little things and subtleties about their technique that you didn't know before. Or at least I did.

Such as...

A difference between how to sheet in on up-turns and sheet out on down-turns.

A trick to gain extra speed in 0-4 knots.

When to sail with a tighter vang.

Where to tie the stopper knot.

When knees-down is OK.

And so on.



So, if you want to improve your Laser sailing skills, and you can't get to Cabarete in the immediate future,  I definitely recommend you attend one of Rulo's webinars.

February is the Longest Month

It's about this time of year that folk around here in Rhode Island start talking about how damn long the winter has been. It seems like we have been enduring too many months of freezing weather and snow storms and blizzards and power cuts and icy rain and fog and other shit and gale force winds and days I didn't go sailing on account of the cauldron of death and destruction, and didn't we even have at least one hurricane too?

"Enough!" we cry. "Isn't February over yet?  When will it be Spring?"

It sure does feel like February is the longest month.

It's about this time of year that a short break away to somewhere warmer to do some sailing in sunshine and warm water would be really really appreciated.

For example, just for the sake of argument, just in case any of my friends feel the same as me, here is what the weather forecast for Clearwater Beach, Florida looks like next week...

Hmmm. I think I could put up with that.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Fire Burn and Cauldron Bubble

It has been a very strange February in Rhode Island, weather-wise.

It has been oscillating between mild days in the 40s and some extremely severe snow storms and blizzards.

And it has seemed that the worst weather has come through on the weekends.

There was a bit of snow forecast for the first weekend of the month but it turned out to be only a few flurries and I had one of my most surprisingly successful days of frostbite racing ever: Not In Out Stars, But In Ourselves.

The second weekend of the month was planned for a big Tillerfamily celebration at the Tillercottage. One of my sons, his wife and my wife all have birthdays around that time of the month. But Storm Nemo had other ideas. We told our sons not to even contemplate trying to travel here on that weekend. The fleet captains cancelled frostbiting too - huge snow drifts, no access to the boats, nowhere to park. Stayed home to dig... and dig... and dig.

The third weekend didn't bring so much snow but with gale warnings and single-digit wind chills, sailing was cancelled again.

Last weekend wasn't totally impossible for sailing. It was only raining hard and gusting nearly 30 knots.

15 sailors showed up but only 8 completed all the races. Apparently the wind was so strong that they had to sail right up in the harbor on account of our usual sailing area being a "cauldron of death and destruction courtesy of the massive fetch in that wind direction."

Apparently, even the winner for the day spent the whole time "whinging that it was too windy and we should go in."

I wimped out. I'm too old for that kind of shit in the winter.

Today, Tuesday, it was about 45 degrees with a gentle breeze of about 5-10 knots from the S and SE, so in the afternoon I went over to Bristol Harbor and got some light wind practice in. It felt good to be out on the water again after over three weeks with no sailing. Surprisingly, in spite of it being Tuesday and everyone knows Tuesday afternoon is for sailing in Bristol, I was the only Laser sailor out there. Where the hell is everyone?

In 2012 I congratulated myself for sailing on my own in Rhode Island as early as March in How to Beat Winter Hibernation. This year I started my solo practice in February. I guess that's some sort of achievement.

I sailed back to the beach. I derigged the boat. I changed into street clothes. I sat in the car. I remembered that I had finished the whisky bottle the other night. I got out my iPhone.

"Siri, where is the nearest liquor store?"

Life is good.

Best Cruising Blog on the Planet

As I have mentioned before, I have never been attracted to the cruising lifestyle, but I do occasionally read some cruising blogs. My big favorite cruising blog at the moment is Windtraveler. It definitely has my nomination for best cruising blog on the planet.

Not only does Windtraveler cover the obligatory "boat maintenance in exotic locations" subject with fascinating posts on installing a watermaker, something to do with a mini-stay which I don't begin to understand, and the always-fun, what to do when the shitter's full.

Not only does Windtraveler report on their adventures ashore in fascinating locations such as Grenada and Trinidad, and playing with water toys in the Bahamas.

But Windtraveler has an extra ingredient that makes it special for me.

It is not the story of a young couple cruising on their own before they have kids (if they ever get around to having kids.) It is not the story of a retired couple cruising on their own and leaving their kids and grandkids behind on land for months or even years.

It is the story of a family cruising together. Just three of them so far. Scott, Brittany and baby Isla. And it is the joy that the parents show in cruising with their child, and the happiness of their beautiful little girl on the boat that shines out in their blog, and makes it special.

The posts I like best on Windtraveler are ones like when Isla helps her Daddy with his work on the boat, or this one with pictures of Isla on the Bahama crossing, or this one about their first night aboard with Isla.

Everyone's different, I know. And good luck to all those couples cruising by themselves. But if you have followed my blog for any time you will know that my kids and my grandkids are a huge part of my life and I couldn't even imagine going off an extended cruise around the world and leaving them behind.

Here is a photo of Isla with Brittany. Is she having fun, or what?

Monday, February 25, 2013

Start Near the Favored End

SailX, the online interactive regatta racing game and virtual trainer, is currently running a weekly series of training videos by one of the best sailors on SailX, a fellow who goes by the name of "flow". It turns out that flow is, in real life, Steve Hunt, a well known American professional sailor and coach. Among other achievements he is a seven-year member of the US Olympic Team in the 470 Class, two-time Etchell World Champion, and Congressional Cup Winner.

Flow certainly knows his stuff when it comes to teaching mere mortal midfleet mediocrities like me how to sail smarter and faster, and SailX is an excellent visual tool to support his teaching. So I thought I would write a few posts linking to his lessons, and supplementing them with my own ill-informed and insane ramblings just to confuse my readers.

The first lesson in the series is about starting near the favored end of the start line...

In the first race, the pin is only favored by about 5 degrees and flow mentions that there appears to be more wind on the right hand side of the course. (The darker shaded areas mean more wind.) The questions I asked myself were (a) would I even be able to spot a 5 degree bias on the line? and (b) would it really be worth going for the pin in that situation?

Flow doesn't make a very well-timed start at the pin (he was distracted talking to us) and it certainly looked to me as if two other boats ESP-500 and notainslie got better starts near the middle and right half of the line and were more or less even with flow up the beat. Flow was also lucky in that no other boat seriously contested the pin with him. It's not always as easy as he makes it look here to win the pin and then tack and cross the fleet!

So let's do the math...

It looks to me as if the start line is about 25 boat lengths long. If we assume these are 15 foot dinghies that means the start line is about 375 feet long. If I remember my high school trigonometry correctly that means the the pin end of the line is about 33 feet to windward of the boat end, or just over two boat lengths. Which means that you are only one boat length further to windward than the boats in the middle of the line.  Is that a big enough advantage to be able to tack and cross them, assuming you all get equally good starts?


In the second race example (clip starts at about 3:35) the pin is 8 degrees favored, and flow goes for the pin again. This time he has a group of boats just to windward of him on the line but he still manages to tack at the pin and cross them. Based on my math that shouldn't have been possible but I think he pulled it off because he was going faster at the start and was closer to the line at the start than they were. The tack (in a Laser) didn't cost him much and he just managed to cross the whole group. Not sure I would have had the balls to attempt that move in a real race!

The wind is clocking right and there is more wind on the right, but because of his tack at the start, flow is sailing into the stronger wind with the other leaders and is looking in good shape again.

He makes it look easy.

In real life (and in SailX sometimes) going for the pin like that can be a high risk/ high reward gamble. Sometimes several other boats have exactly the same idea and there can be a huge pile-up at the pin with perhaps only one or two boats coming out of the mess cleanly. In such situations it can be safer to start a little farther up the line.

Part of the skill in deciding what to do depends on "reading" the intentions of the rest of the fleet. Is a whole bunch of boats going to fight for the pin or are they all hanging out near the boat (as in the first example)? That's one thing I currently find hard to do. If I commit to a place on the line too early it sometimes turns out to be a bad choice because that's where the crowd chooses too. If I watch what the fleet is planning to do too long, I can leave it too late and there are no holes left.

I guess I need to practice on SailX more.

So what do you think?

How would you have handled those starts?

Do you think SailX is a useful training tool?

You can find all the videos in the Steve Hunt coaching series in this SailX article.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

The Good Old Days

From the days when Sports Illustrated covered real sports and not just babes in swimsuits and men playing with their balls.

Why Words of Wisdom Aren't Crap

Last Monday I wrote a typically rambling and incoherent post in which I questioned why the "words of wisdom" we often hear from winners of regattas are often simply well-known basic principles about boat-handling or tactics or strategy, "wisdom" that has even been published in sailing books before. They are not the super-secret magic go-faster tricks that many of us are hoping to hear. I speculated on various reasons why this may be so.

Today I was accused of asking "whether words of wisdom are just crap."

No. I don't think words of wisdom are just crap.

Having pondered the matter over a few glasses of good Scotch whisky in the intervening week, I think I have finally seen the truth.

The reason why all sailing regattas are won time and time again by the same few sailors, less than 5% of the total number of competitors, is that the rest of us non-winners simply fail to apply and execute those basic racing principles as consistently and well as the winners do.

Sure the winners may have excellent boatspeed, may even know the odd go-faster secret, but when they regurgitate the same old well-known principles such as how to get a good start, how to sail a beat in shifty, puffy conditions, or how to sail fast in waves downwind... they are really doing us non-winners a huge favor. They are telling us what we need to hear. "Get the basics right and you too will have the chance to be a winner."

Yes, it may also be true that we non-winners aren't as fit as the winners, and that we may not have practiced as much as the winners; but the fundamental reason we don't win is that we don't have the right habits, the habits of applying those basic principles every time in every race.

So how do you change habits? How do you develop good habits? Read any book on the subject or just do the 21st century thing and google it. You will get the same answers. All the experts will talk about the same things...

Write it down

Positive self-talk




In other words, the more you write about and think about and imagine what you want to do, the more likely it is that you will actually do it.

So no, I don't think words of wisdom are just crap.

Actually I think I need to read and study and write about and blog about those words of wisdom even more. Because then I might actually remind myself to apply those basic principles of how to win sailboat races, and convince myself I can really do those things well.

So I'm going to start blogging even more about words of wisdom, about all the well-known advice on how to race well, about how to win.

It might do me some good. It might even do some of my readers some good.

Watch this space...

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Saturday Spam-a-palooza

As you may have noticed I have been moderating comments on this blog for the last few weeks because too many spam comments seem to be have been getting past Google's spam filters. I must admit it has been an eye opener. Some of the spam is actually quite creative!

Here are few of my favorite spam comments from the last couple of weeks. It goes without saying that none of the spam comments had any connection to the topic of the post, and they all included links to websites which were nothing to do with the theme of this blog. Enjoy...

It's a shame you don't have a donate button! I'd without a doubt donate to this brilliant blog!

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Try to change positions frequently, as remaining in one position may irritate or make hemorrhoids worsen.

Who writes this stuff?

Are robots really this funny?

Which is your favorite?

Friday, February 22, 2013

Where am I?

1. Where am I?

2. What was this place famous for on the weekend of 9/10 February this year?

3. Where is the nearest college sailing team and what is their ranking in the latest Sailing World rankings?

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Mommy Boats - What Real People Say

In polite society it's called "regatta coaching."

Most ordinary sailors refer to the phenomenon as "Mommy Boats."

Whatever you call it, there is no doubt that at major regattas in certain classes, especially Lasers, it has become commonplace for some sailors to have people driving around in powerboats in order to provide those sailors with such services as carrying their snacks and drinks and spare clothes, towing them to and from the course, and even providing them with advice on how to sail better in the regatta. Not only is this grossly unfair to the sailors who don't have Mommy Boats, the drivers of the Mommy Boats often behave very badly, getting in the way of the other sailors and interfering with the racing.

I've been ranting on about the evils of Mommy Boats on this blog for almost six years now.

But more recently it's not just this crazy old geezer Laser sailor who has been drawing attention to the problems caused by Mommy Boats and arguing that they need to be better controlled or banned altogether. Real people who are actually respected in the sailing world, real people who actually have some authority are also speaking out.

At the Miami Olympic Classes Regatta in 2011, Gary Jobson (at that time President of US Sailing) took to the air in a helicopter and observed Mommy Boat drivers behaving badly.

A group of Mommy Boat drivers (Jobson diplomatically calls them coaches) would take off to one side of the course and create waves that would "dramatically affect" the boats on that side of the course. Gary was bothered seeing how the waves from the bad Mommy Boats would cause the racing sailboats to lose distance and speed as they pitched through the waves.

A few days later Terry Bischoff wrote an excellent piece on this topic on Scuttlebutt. (See second item headed PUSSES AND WUSSES.) In the article Terry describes his philosophy of banning parents and coaches from the course in junior regattas, and explains the reasons for his thinking. He also added...

"If you need a coach to help you at your Championship, I don't think you're ready to sail in it! One more layer of cost to a struggling program. What's happened to self initiative?"

At Sail Melbourne in 2012, the inconsiderate and dangerous behavior of Mommy Boat drivers came to the attention of the International Jury who reported...

"When starting in the afternoon on Charlie Course the Laser Standard class and their coach boats caused problems by going through 2 course areas whilst earlier fleets were still racing. The jury were requested by the Charlie Race Officer to assist in clearing the boats, especially near the inner loop gate.  
This was done but numerous competitors were intransigent and the jury were moving close to one Laser when a fast moving coach boat came towards the jury boat and Laser. The driver had to make an immediate fast turn to port to avoid a collision which would have ended in damage. In doing so, the other judge who was sitting on the sponson talking to the competitor ended up in the water under the hull. The driver responded very quickly in turning off the engine preventing serious injury."

And in Scuttlebutt today, professional sailor and sailmaker Dave Ullman reveals his feeling about professional coaching during regattas...

 "When a regatta gets inundated with coaches and support boats, the result is a divisive environment of haves and have nots. For all types of racing short of the grand prix level, the emphasis should be on fostering a community atmosphere. I am not even sure there is enough value in event coaching to outweigh the expense."

You see?

It's not just me.

Real people who know something about sailing, real leaders in our sport, people who are respected see the problems that Mommy Boats cause.

So when are we going to do something about it?

Related Posts
Mommy Boats
Ban Mommy Boats NOW
One Hundred Mommy Boats

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

GPS Tracking for Sailors

I haven't yet got round to buying one of those GPS devices for recording my track when sailing. I know some people like them. But I suspect that a track of a typical day's practice would probably look like this track from Owen's Li'll Slice of the Web.


Not sure what exactly I would learn from that.

But don't get me wrong. I know that GPS tracking can be a valuable analytical and teaching tool for sailors. The last few times I have been to Minorca Sailing there has been one afternoon each week when the instructors have given each boat in the fleet a GPS device for the afternoon racing. And then in the evening they have replayed the races on a video screen in a way where you can follow the track of each boat in real time (well, actually speeded up real time) including seeing a display of the instantaneous speed of each boat. This is an excellent way of seeing all sorts of things that affected the race - which side of the course was fastest, who lost the lead by missing a wind shift, how well different boats accelerated out of tacks etc. etc. As Yogi Berra said, "You can observe a lot by watching."

But what use would a GPS be during practice by myself?

I wasn't sure.

Then I came across WallyGPX.

The author of WallyGPX is a cyclist from Baltimore who uses his GPS to track his bicycle rides in order to create what he calls "massive virtual geogylphic imagery." In other words he uses the GPS track like a giant Etch-a-Sketch to draw large scale pictures on the earth.

Here are a few examples of what he does....

Isn't that cool? Check out many more of his drawings and read all about how he does it at WallyGPX.

So I was thinking, how hard would it be to make similar tracks while sailing a Laser on a summer afternoon on the bay?

Well, a bit harder for sure.

First of all, a cyclist can plan his route on a street map first and then follow exactly that route to make his GPS geogylph. A sailor would have to invent some other ways to define his route.

And secondly, of course, all lines directly upwind would have to be zig-zags. So a sailor would have to think of creative ways to include such zig-zag lines in his image. Some steps? A saw? A monster's teeth?

What do you think?

Am I crazy?

Has this winter been too long already?

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Restaurants and Bridges - Logic Test

I live on the mainland.

Nearby is an island with three towns on it.

There is a wide range of restaurants on both the mainland and the island.

The island is connected to the mainland with a bridge.

There is a proposal to introduce a toll for cars crossing the bridge. It is assumed (based on a nearby similar bridge) that the toll might be $4 each way, but less than $1 for local residents using the EZ-pass automatic toll system.

Owners of restaurants on the island say the tolls will destroy their businesses.

Owners of restaurants on the mainland say the tolls will destroy their businesses.

My question is: Is it logical to believe that both the previous statements could be correct?

Here is the way I see it....

If I live on the mainland and I want to go out to dinner, I might drive to restaurants on the island less frequently. Instead I will visit restaurants on the mainland.

If I lived on the island and I wanted to go out to dinner, I might drive to restaurants on the mainland less frequently. Instead I would dine more at restaurants on the island.

I am not going to eat out less because of a toll on a bridge. At most I am going to choose to eat at different restaurants. So the total amount of money spent at all the restaurants on the island and the mainland is likely to remain about the same.

But if more people currently choose to drive from the mainland to the island to dine than vice versa, and the tolls inhibit people from crossing the bridge, then business at the island restaurants will go down and business at the mainland restaurants will go up.

Conversely, if more people currently choose to drive from the island to the mainland to dine than vice versa, and the tolls inhibit people from crossing the bridge, then business at the mainland restaurants will go down and business at the island restaurants will go up.

Assuming that people eat out as much as they currently do, how can the proposed tolls kill businesses on both sides of the bridge?

(The real life situation is a little more complicated than I have described it because the island is actually connected to the mainland by three bridges, one of which already has a toll. But I think the same basic logic applies.)

Am I missing something?

Could the solution be to do what these clever people in Moscow have done which is to hang a restaurant from a bridge?

Monday, February 18, 2013

Are Words of Wisdom a Waste of Time?

We racing sailors like "words of wisdom."

"Words of Wisdom" are what they call those reports by winners after a regatta or an afternoon of club racing.

Everyone who wasn't a winner wants to read them so they can pick up tips on how to be winners.

I'm as guilty as the rest of the non-winners.

But I have bad news for you other non-winners.

I think that words of wisdom might be a waste of time.

Why would I say that?

Well, a few weeks back I thought I would start posting some words of wisdom from various race winners and regatta winners on this blog. I thought that if I extracted the key points from some words of wisdom and rewrote them in my own words on my blog, then I might remember them, and then I would apply the words of wisdom in actual races.

The reaction from my readers surprised me at first...

I wrote some words of wisdom from Bill Brangiforte on sailing upwind in a large fleet and got a couple of comments that they were "pretty much right out of Stuart Walker's books."

I summarized some video interviews on the Improper Course blog which had words of wisdom from winners at the Florida Laser Masters Week. A commenter on the original post, remarked, "Well, nothing new here, but it's all about getting those basics right isn't it?"

What? These words of wisdom from top sailors who had won major regattas were "basics" and right out of some books?

Well, yes. I guess they were.

So what is going on? If regatta winners do so well by simply applying well-known principles about how to start, or what strategies to use in different wind conditions, or how to go fast downwind... then why aren't we all doing these things and winning regattas too?

I thought about it for a while, and came up with these seven possible reasons why words of wisdom might be a waste of time.

1. Perhaps these top sailors are not spilling the real secrets of how they won the races? Maybe they are just explaining how they won by repeating well-known "basics" or stuff from Stuart Walker's books? This is true as far as it goes, but really they also know some super secret go-faster techniques that they are never going to reveal to everyone on the Interwebs. This theory does appeal to the paranoid side of my personality, not to mention stoking my negative self-esteem and fueling my feeling that I will always be a crap sailor. But I do find it hard to believe that the top guys could be so mean.

2. On the other hand, perhaps these top sailors have some ways of going faster and winning races that are totally subconscious? They don't even know themselves why they are so fast. They are not deliberately hiding their go-faster secrets from us mere mortal mid-fleet mediocrities because they are not even really conscious of what they are doing themselves. I like this theory even better because it means the winners are not diabolically plotting to keep the rest of us down by deliberately misleading us. I can still think of them as nice guys. But their words of wisdom are still a waste of time.

3. Or perhaps these top sailors have magical powers and super sharp senses? For example, perhaps they can see what the wind is doing way better than those of us with average (or below average) eyesight? It's all very well to know that you should stay in the puffs but if you are not seeing the stronger patches of wind on the water as well as the eagle-eyed top sailors, then no amount of words of wisdom are going to help you. I think this is my favorite theory. The winners are super-heroes with magical powers. It's not so bad getting beaten every week by sailors with extraordinary superhuman powers.

On the other hand perhaps getting the basics right is all there is to winning sailboat races? There are no secrets. Everything worth knowing on the topic has already been written and talked about and published on the Interwebs. But for some reasons, those of us who are perpetual non-winners simply don't execute the basics right. Now why would that be?

4. Perhaps we are just too unfit to get the basics right and win races? This probably does apply to some of the words of wisdom I read about Laser racing. It's all very well to say that you should hike the whole beat with straight legs and your shoulders back, or sail the whole run balanced on the soles of your feet as if you were on a surfboard, but unless you have quads of iron you are not going to be able to do those things as well as the winners do.

5. Perhaps we know the right moves but we haven't practiced them enough to execute them properly? It's all very well to read some expert talking about catching waves and to always be sailing "downhill" on waves on a run, but it's a lot harder to do it right all the time unless you've spent an enormous amount of time sailing downwind in waves.

6. Perhaps we have bad habits and even though we know, for example, what we should be doing to get a great start, when the pressure is on we revert to our old habits designed to guarantee a mediocre start?

7. Or perhaps we don't have the right mental attitude to apply the words of wisdom we have heard or read? After all there are so many things to know. In the heat of the moment on the racecourse we forget all the words of wisdom about strategy and tactics and boatspeed and boat handling and boat tuning etc. etc. and hack around the course watching the winners disappear into the distance just like they always do.

So where does that leave us?

For sure you won't win races by spending every weekend by the fireside reading words of wisdom.

If you have been racing for a few years, you probably already know pretty much everything you need to know about winning sailboat races.

All it takes now is to improve your physical fitness; develop the right mental attitude; break all your bad habits; practice, practice, practice; and then go out and race a lot.

Oh good.

Who knew it could be so easy?

So what do you think?

Am I missing something?

Do you really learn new stuff from words of wisdom?

Does reading words of wisdom make you a better sailor?

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Happy Birthday

Happy Birthday to Proper Course.

Yes, this blog is 8 years old today, born on February 17 2005.

The picture above is pretty much how the blog looked for the first year or two. It's actually a screenshot from the Internet Archive Wayback Machine from May 2006. They don't seem to have an earlier archived copy.

I wonder what else was going on in the world in February 2005? Let's see...

Ellen MacArthur broke the world record for the fastest sailing solo circumnavigation of the globe.

The Pope took ill and was taken to hospital. He died a few weeks later.

The President of the United States made a State of the Union speech in which he discussed his plan to reform Social Security. That died too.

In the US Congress, a brand new senator from Illinois became the only senate member of the Congressional Black Caucus.

And three former PayPal employees created a new video-sharing website on which users could upload, view and share videos. It was called YouTube.

Interesting. I wonder what that young black senator is doing now and what happened to that crazy idea for a video-sharing website?

As for me, in the intervening eight years, I have had four grandchildren, moved house to Rhode Island, won the occasional Laser race, not won many many more Laser races, finished in the top half of my fleet at the Laser Masters Worlds once, sailed my Laser 94 times one year, broken and bent various Laser parts, sprained and chopped and pulled (but not actually broken) various Tillerman parts, made a lot of new friends, travelled to sail in a lot of great places, and written 2535 blog posts.

Thanks to everyone who has read the blog over the years and especially to those of you who have made the extra effort to leave comments here and to participate in our assorted insane ramblings.

You don't have to be crazy to read this blog, but it helps.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

5 Secrets Of How To Win Laser Regattas

Every February, hordes of Laser Masters sailors invade Florida to participate in three regattas at three different locations over a week - the Laser Masters Midwinters East, Midweek Madness and the Florida Laser Masters. This year, the first regatta was won by John MacCausland and the next two by Andy Roy.

Doug of the Improper Course blog was there and did video interviews with the winners to share their "words of wisdom" on how they won each regatta (which were sailed in very different conditions from each other.) Doug's post of the three videos is at 2013 Master Madness.

Here is my summary of the key lessons from those interviews (in bold) - along with my own ill-informed ramblings on each lesson (not in bold.)

Master Midwinters East: flat water, light and shifty - John MacCausland.

1. In light, shifty, puffy conditions, especially on the first beat, "race the wind not the other competitors." Pay attention to the puffs and the shifts rather than the groups of boats.

Great advice. If I look back on my own (very rare) successful races against good competition in light air in recent years, they were achieved by following this advice to an extreme. If I think I can see what the wind is doing and have a good plan for the beat, and then I can go off and execute my plan and not even worry about where the other boats are, I can sometimes surprise myself (and everyone else.)

2. A rolled sail (no creases) looks faster than a folded sail (with all those ugly creases) in very light air. Maybe it isn't, but it sure looks better.

Most Laser sailors buy folded sails. They come with creases that look like they've been ironed in. Those creases can last for years. In anything but the lightest winds it probably doesn't matter much. Depending on whether you go with North or Hyde sails and where you buy them, you can buy a rolled sail with no creases for about $50-$65 more than a folded sail (i.e. about 10% more.)

Common sense would suggest that a smoother sail must be faster. Those ugly creases in a folded sail must disturb the airflow over the sail mustn't they? But common sense isn't always right. Is it worth it? I have no idea.

Midweek Madness: flat water, medium, patchy - Andy Roy.

3. Getting off the start line well is so important. Stay away from the ends unless they are really favored. Go for middle of line or third of the way from the favored end. Get a conservative line sight off transom of committee boat. Use that transit and the mid-line sag to sheet in a little earlier than the boats around you and punch out ahead of them.

Hmmm. Pretty conventional advice and exactly what Bill Brangiforte was saying in the words of wisdom from him that I posted a couple of weeks ago. So why don't I do it? Why don't most sailors do it? How is that the guys like Andy and Bill can make this work for them, when it sounds so simple that everyone could be doing it?

4. Downwind speed in flat water. Puffs were random, sometimes from the left of the course, sometimes from the right. So start off in the middle on the run, keep an eye out for the puffs, and when you see one, get on over to that side. Use the puff to work back down. Then start looking to see where the next puff is.

More great advice. I can remember the occasional day of lake sailing where I have been able to do this well and get a good result occasionally. It's too easy (and lazy) to assume that just because one side of the run seemed faster in the first race, then that pattern will apply all day. You need to keep looking behind you to see where the puffs are coming from. One coach told me that that is one reason you should always sit sideways in the boat on the run, so you can keep looking upwind more easily.

Florida Masters: windy, waves, like being in a big washing machine - Andy Roy.

5. Downwind speed in waves when there was no steady pattern to the waves. Get up some speed by sailing by the lee or on a broad reach and then pick a wave to go back on. Think like a surfer. Where is the best ride? Keep the boat going downhill. Think downhill. Down, down, down.

I did sail the Florida Masters at West Palm Beach a few years ago and I remember how big and crazy the waves were. It's one of the few locations on the east coast of the US where they actually sail Laser regattas out on the Atlantic Ocean as opposed to a more sheltered bay.

"Washing machine" waves are not my forte. I still have nightmares about Hayling Island in 2010! Andy's advice is easy to say, harder to execute. Last night I participated in a webinar on Laser Downwind Speed run by Coach Rulo from the Laser Centre at Cabarete, along with guest speaker Anna Tunnicliffe. Anna was giving very similar advice to what Andy was saying here, although in 90 minutes of webinar Rulo and Anna did manage to go into a lot more detail about downwind technique.

Hmmm. I feel another "words of wisdom" post coming on...

In the meantime, do check out Doug's original video interviews at 2013 Master Madness. John and Andy explain this stuff much better than I can.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Don't Spill The Beans

Two Laser sailors were having a chat after a light air regatta and one asked the other (who had won the regatta) about a piece of equipment the winner had been using.

The winner's reply was, "I like it...I don't know if it really honestly makes any big difference, but it's pleasing to my eye."

His friend agreed, "It sure looks good."

What do you think they were talking about?

PS If you know for sure the answer to this question (perhaps because you were one of the sailors having this conversation or heard their discussion) then please don't spill the beans just yet. It's more fun to read some wild guesses before revealing the truth.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013


"SIMPLE. SOCIAL. SIXTY." is  a snappy slogan.

What kind of service or product do you think it would make a good advertising slogan for?

Update: 10:54 PM. Somebody guessed the right answer - the Sunfish!

Monday, February 11, 2013


Well, what a surprise!

Apparently the good folk in San Francisco have just woken up to the fact that the America's Cup could cost San Francisco millions. Apparently some believed the hype that there would be twelve teams competing for the Cup and that tens of millions of dollars of sponsorship money would just come rolling in to the city by the bay.

Reality sucks.

They should have listened to O Docker.

They should have listened to me and let Larry Ellison bring AC34 to Newport.

Oh well!

That's all water under the Golden Gate Bridge now.

San Francisco taxpayers are going to have to pay to host the Cup while the rich get richer. You all know who I mean.

What a sting!


Did I say Sting?

About the only bright news in this whole mess is that a new, 9,000-seat waterfront concert venue is planned for San Francisco's home for the America's Cup, on Piers 27-29, and that Sting will perform there in June.

I never knew that Sting (aka Gordon Sumner) was a sailor. Perhaps he's not.

I wonder what Sting will perform at his concert.

How about I Saw Three Ships Come Sailing By? According to some accounts AC34 is down to three "ships" now, not twelve as originally promised.

Or perhaps The Wind Cries Mary? I don't know who Mary was, but a lot of people in San Francisco do seem to be crying in their sassafras root beer floats about how much AC34 is costing them.

No. I think the best song for him to sing at this concert will be Can't Stand Losing You.

Larry Ellison will appreciate that.

He hates losing.

3 Killer Moves to Improve Your Starts

One of the things that I really need to do is to find a way of improving my starts in Laser races. But until a few days ago I hadn't really worked out what I was doing wrong or how best to practice to improve.

Then I came across an article and video by Vaughan Harrison on the International Sailing Academy website. If you haven't heard of ISA before it's a training center in Mexico for Laser, Laser Radial and Optimist sailors. I'm hoping to spend a week there soon but the dates didn't work out for me this season.

Reading the article and watching the video, I came to the conclusion that I have been doing starts all wrong.

Assuming that I actually manage to secure a place in the front row on the start line, my current approach is basically to sit there with the sail luffing and to try and stay level with the other boats before it's time to pull the trigger and go. If I find myself drifting too far to leeward I shoot up a bit. And if I feel that I'm pointing too high and am actually in irons and have lost steerage, I will scull down a bit closer to a close-hauled course. Apart from that I am fairly quiet and passive in the boat.

But the article and video from ISA recommend a much more active approach using three maneuvers....

1. Sculling down to close-hauled and then shooting up. Apparently if you do this right you can open up a larger gap to leeward. I had never thought before of linking these two into one move to gain height.

2. Sailing backwards. A good way to escape if you are too close to the boat to leeward or have fallen back from bow even with the boats around you. Once you have escaped from the line of boats you can decide whether to go and search for another hole, or to sail back into the same hole. Again, I have never (deliberately) sailed backwards at the start line before.

3. Double tack. If done right (by pushing the boom away from you immediately after shooting into the wind) you can gain distance to windward without accelerating forwards. I did learn how to do this in Menorca last year, but have never tried it in a real race yet.

And, of course, you can practice all three maneuvers on your own. Definitely something I plan to do once it's warm enough for some solo practice on the bay. Then when I have got the hang of doing these properly... watch out!

Here's the video...

And do go and check out the full ISA article. Vaughan explains it much better than I can...

Downspeed Maneuvers: The Key to a Better Start

Sunday, February 10, 2013


What I wish I had been doing today.

What I was actually doing today.

Yes, we had a bit of snow from Storm Nemo. But today was a beautifully sunny day with a light breeze of maybe up to 10 knots forecast. Would have been a good day for Laser frostbiting in Newport.

There were only two problems..

1. The giant snowdrift outside my garage door which would have to be moved before I could get my car and my Laser (on its trailer) out of the garage. We had dug and carried away most of it by the time this photo was taken.

2. Sailing was canceled anyway. Apparently there were huge snowdrifts down at Sail Newport too which meant that it was impossible to access the boats (most fleet members leave their Lasers there) and, in any case, there was nowhere to park. The fleet captain advised us that we should stay away today so the state could plow the roads at Fort Adams and that instead we should, "Dig, Dig, Dig!"

I took his advice. I dug, dug, dug. So did Tillerwoman.

The good news is that I can now get my car and boat out of the garage.

Anyone for sailing this week?

Thursday, February 07, 2013

Kayaker Wins Election as President of USA

The news that a kayaker, Sally Jewell, has been nominated by President Obama to be the next Secretary of the Interior seems to have generated a lot of interest. I guess you don't often see a picture of a future cabinet secretary in a kayak.

But perhaps we shouldn't be all that surprised about the choice of Ms Jewell.

After all, the President is a kayaker himself. Check out this picture of President Obama kayaking off Edgartown on Martha's Vineyard in the summer of 2010.

Wednesday, February 06, 2013

Kayaker for Interior Secretary

President Obama today nominated the CEO of outdoor retailer REI, Sally Jewell, to be Interior Secretary. Sally lists kayaking and mountaineering among her interests.

This is a good thing.

Followers of this blog all know that people who go on the water in little boats develop a broad range of extraordinary skills and strengths.

What next?

A Laser sailor for Secretary of Energy? Any suggestions?

A windsurfer for Secretary of State? No, that would be way too crazy...

The Apprentice

Once upon a time, many decades ago, someone came up with the idea of special prizes and special regattas for old guy Laser sailors, and they called the old guys Laser Masters. They decided that the definition of an old guy was anyone aged 35 or over. It was true back then. There weren't many people over 35 sailing Lasers.

Then they decided that it would be fun to have the old guys broken down by age (and sex) so they thought up names for each 10 year age group. They called the old guys aged 35-44 "Apprentice Masters."

I don't think they even had a special group for old guys over 65 at first. What a crazy idea! Nobody over 65 would ever sail a Laser! Now they call the old guys over 65 "Great Grandmasters" and there are a whole bunch of them and many of them are faster than me.

But I digress.

I started Laser sailing in my early 30s. I sailed my first few Laser Masters Regattas as an Apprentice Master. I raced in the UK Masters in Swanage and the US Masters in Lavallette, NJ and some others I can't remember. There were quite a lot of Apprentice Masters at those regattas back then.

But times have changed. All of us baby boomers got older and became Masters (45-54) and then Grandmasters (55-64).  Later this year I will become a proud Great Grandmaster.

John Deutsch has been doing some analysis of the numbers of Masters sailors in the various age groups sailing Masters Regattas. His conclusions (along with some very smart looking charts) are posted on his blog at Demographic Shift of Laser Masters Sailors. The most significant trend seems to be that the percentage of Apprentice Masters at these regattas is going down as the attendance by sailors in the older ager groups is increasing.

What's going on? What has happened to all the Apprentices?

We have known for some time that there is a dip in sailing participation generally in the young adult category. I see it in my own family. I was too busy with career and getting married and starting a family to even think of taking up sailing until I was almost 35. My sons sailed a lot as kids, but they haven't sailed much in their 20s and early 30s. Same reason as it was for me. Too much other stuff going on in their lives.

But why aren't the people who sailed Lasers as teenagers getting back into the sport in their mid-30s and showing up at Masters Regattas?

Maybe some of them are just too good to want to sail with us old geezers. Ben Ainslie and Robert Scheidt, for example, are over 35 now but I haven't seen them at any Laser Masters Regattas recently.

Or maybe that generation is not returning to sailing or not taking up sailing in their mid-30s for some reason?

Surely it can't possibly be that they are preferring to sail some other boats rather than the Laser? That's just inconceivable.

Anyway I'm doing my bit.

35 years ago today my wife gave birth to our first child, a son. I bought him a wooden Optimist when he was about 7 and he learned to sail at Rutland Sailing Club in England. We moved to America and he raced Optimists for a while and then he graduated to Sunfish and Lasers. He won some junior championships and we sailed quite a lot together at regattas in both Sunfish and Lasers. He sailed in college and crewed on a Star for a while after college, but he hasn't sailed a lot since. However, he still has one of my old Lasers stored under his deck.

Wait. 35 years ago today? That means he is now an Apprentice Master. He can sail in Masters Regattas with me.

And this summer we will have the New England Laser Masters, the North American Laser Masters, and the Atlantic Coast Laser Masters all on Narragansett Bay. One way or another I am going to drag him to at least some of those regattas.

My son is now an Apprentice Master? How did that happen?

I feel old.

Tuesday, February 05, 2013

Not In Our Stars, But In Ourselves?

I have been writing on this blog for almost eight years now about how bad I am at Laser sailing but how, in spite off all the evidence, I still have this delusion that I will find a way to become smarter and faster at Laser sailing.

I have almost convinced myself that it really is a delusion.

And then one day something amazing happens.

And I start to wonder if I might actually have it in me to become a semi-respectable almost good Laser sailor.

Sunday was one of those days...

For most of the week the forecast for Newport was looking crappy with very light breeze and snow. But, as so often happens, the forecast was wrong; the snow was no more than a few flurries overnight, the sun was shining and we had a shifty northwesterly in the 6-9 knot range.

As regular readers of this blog will know, I never have high expectations of doing well at Newport. There are some seriously good sailors in this fleet. I approach frostbiting with the mindset that it is a chance to have a bit of fun and to get some practice in the winter months so that I am not too rusty when Spring comes around.

In that spirit I chose to try out some different starting approaches in the first three races. In the first race I got up in the front row pretty early and did my best to protect my space and get a "bow out" start. That worked OK but I couldn't hold my lane for long and soon had to tack for clear air. In the second race I cruised along behind the line on starboard tack with about a minute to go looking for a suitable gap in the line of boats, and in the third race I tried doing the same thing on port. Neither approach was very successful.

OK. Lesson learned. Set up on the line in plenty of time.

I was around 20th or in the high teens (out of 27 boats) in those three races. Not terrible, but not all that good either.

It seemed that the wind had been dying all afternoon. Before the fourth race I stood up in the boat and looked up the course. Most of the smart sailors had been heading left (towards the Fort Adams shore) all afternoon but it looked to me like the wind was very patchy and light over there now, whereas there seemed to be a consistent stronger breeze on the right side of the course. So I set up to start at the boat. Several other people had the same idea and I ended up following another sailor's transom off the line. But I was right next to the committee boat and I immediately tacked on to port.

I concentrated on going fast for a minute or so, and when I looked around I could see that I was easily leading the boats going right, and that the boats heading left did look to be going more slowly than us. So I kept going.

A bit later I looked over to the left again and it still looked lighter over there, so I kept going.

After a while I got a bit of a header so I tacked. It looked like I might cross everyone on the left so I kept going.

I stayed on starboard until I had crossed everyone on the left side of the course, then tacked for the mark and rounded in first place!

Woo hoo!

How did that happen?

At that moment, if were a praying man I would have probably offered up a prayer to my God along the lines of, "OK. Thanks very much God. But if it be Your plan to wipe me out one day with a massive heart attack while I am sailing my Laser, then can You please just do it now? It's never going to get any better than this."

But I'm not. So I didn't. And She didn't.

Of course it was all downhill from there. The guy who rounded the windward mark in second place caught up with me on the run. He went for the lefthand mark at the leeward gate so I went to the right one. Somehow I didn't do a great job on the final beat. I thought I was in good shape for at least a third place finish but ended up scoring a fifth. Oh well! Not too shabby.

In the fifth race I tried the same trick. Actually won the boat end of the start line and went right again. Didn't work out so well and rounded the windward mark in sixth place, which on any other day I would have been ecstatic about. This time I somehow manage to hold on to sixth around the rest of the course and finish in that position.

In the final race I was starting to get a bit tired and didn't sail so well and could only manage to finish in 12th place, which on any other day I would have been pretty chuffed about (as we say in Real English.) And 12th out of 27 was how I finished overall for the day, listed among company that I don't often share.

So was I lucky in that fourth race?

You bet I was.

I was lucky that I trusted the judgment of my own eyes about what the wind was doing and didn't follow the conventional wisdom of heading for the land when the wind is in this direction. Sometimes a little local knowledge (or even a lot of local knowledge) can be a dangerous thing.

I was lucky that the wind stayed stronger on the right and weaker on the left.

I was lucky that I found a nice juicy header at just the right time to cross the fleet.

I was lucky that nothing on my boat broke. (It's amazing how often something does break just when I'm having an extraordinarily good race.)

I was lucky that I didn't do anything clumsy or stupid like falling out of the boat or knocking myself out on the boom while tacking.

I was lucky that my sheet didn't tie itself just before the windward mark into one of those triple buntline carrick bend double surgeon's clinch knots, which it has a tendency to do at times.

And yet...

I checked out the wind. I formulated a strategy. I executed the strategy. Isn't that what you are supposed to do?

So was it all luck?

Might I actually be not too bad at Laser sailing after all?

"The work goes on, the flaws endure, but the hope still lives and the delusion shall never die."