Friday, December 11, 2009

Sailors Live by Higher Standards

This past week I have received an incessant barrage of emails from frostbite sailors deliberating on and working through the legal, ethical, and moral issues of a simple mark rounding. The thread began with the subject line “I love this sport and the people in it,” and went on to admire a sailor whose boom almost imperceptibly grazed a mark, and who, without a single word from a competitor, penalized himself with the appropriate turn. In a second incident, a boat taking a penalty turn was hit by another, out of control boat rounding the mark. Both sailors took a penalty. The ensuing discussion considered all the rules that might be involved and tried to sort out fault. As the subject line suggests, the people and the sport imbued with the ethical standards of the Corinthian Spirit deserve high praise and admiration. Those who can really live up to the standards to which they aspire and profess surely deserved to be honored.

Contrast this with yesterday’s Noble Peace Prize ceremony. President Obama was in the very uncomfortable position of having to defend war while receiving the world’s highest award for peace. Even being the avowed product of the ethos of Dr. Martin Luther King did not stand in the way of explaining the inexplicable and oxymoronic use of war to promote peace. He eloquently elevated doublespeak to its highest pinnacle in defending the actions of a country which almost always chooses war over peace as a methodology to achieve world stability. He may be a worthy president of the world’s latest empire, and in the end, his strategy may prove to be correct (though I am highly skeptical), but he is clearly not a man of peace. He is no Dalai Lama or Nelson Mandela, or even George Marshall.

All of this is an ironic twist on the “audacity of hope.” The Nobel Committee bestowed the prize on the sole basis of hope, and Obama truly has inspired hope on a global scale. But promoting hope over actual deeds is certainly audacity on the part of the Committee. And it may have taken even greater audacity to accept an admittedly undeserved award for peace after escalating a war.

If measured only by deeds, there is no man, woman or child on the planet who has committed more human and material resources to war in the last year than President Obama. This includes the most evil of the evil (who may have more hateful intentions, but far less power). I would have to regrettably declare that he is actually the least deserving person on earth to be awarded a peace prize this year. Such are the ironies of history and such are the impossibly difficult choices of the most powerful head of state in today’s world, that what I believe to be a fundamentally decent, peace loving man, feels compelled to make such an unpeaceful choice.

This begs the question (at least in the nearly random cross connections of my mind): If Obama had been a sailor, would he have made different choices in terms of accepting the Peace Prize. If, in addition to admiring Dr. Martin Luther King, he had experienced fellow sailors, high school and college sailing coaches, club racers, sailing judges, and high level competitors all preaching the Corinthian spirit (and for the most part living it), would he not have the good conscience to call a penalty on himself and withdraw from consideration. Even the best sailors make mistakes, but they accept a penalty and move on. I would like to think that a fellow sailor would have found a way to do the honorable thing.

Is it too late to save the Nobel Peace Prize from cynicism and meaninglessness? I say no! There is still time to RE-GIFT the award. Is there a worthy recipient in this war torn world? Did the Nobel committee have a runner-up, like the alternate chosen to do the duties of Miss America Vanessa Williams when she was deemed unworthy? Can we pick someone who worked for peace in a previous year? Can we honor someone posthumously? So who is the best person to never have won the Nobel Peace prize? Or who deserves to get it twice? Submit your nominations here.

I nominate Mahatma Gandhi. A true man of peace. And at least once, according to the poster shamelessly stolen from, he was a sailor. Give the award to him, and give the money to the starving people of India. Then at least the award could maintain its integrity.

Mahatma Gandhi Indian Nationalist and Spiritual Leader Sailing from Boulogne to Folkestone

Monday, November 16, 2009

Youth Sailing and Architecture?

By way of some very random thinking, my last post brings me back to a former conversation about Saving Sailing and youth sailing.

It seems to me that our interests and passions can be very non-linear in time and space.
What was I doing writing about architecture in a sailing blog? I abandoned the professional architecture track in the middle of college. I thought there were very good reasons for this at the time. I viewed its educational process as a belittling of very talented students (not necessarily me), and perceived the profession to be one that devoured its young. (I was too immature to see that many professions work this way.) After being completely removed from it for nine years, I decided to start a business designing and building custom houses. And so I was back in for twenty years until the increasing aggravation graph line crossed the diminishing creativity line. Out for nine years again (is there a nine year itch?), I find myself writing about architecture in an unrelated context. And in my own non-linear and discontinuous way, I associate this with the way people become sailors.

In the Saving Sailing discussions and reviews – the book itself, Tillerman’s review with many comments, and my review – the topic of youth sailing programs has been often raised, much maligned, and not sufficiently defended.

Nick Hayes, the author of Saving Sailing, characterizes junior sailing programs as themed babysitting services where kids are dumped off and picked up by taxi driver parents. James, one of Tillerman’s commenters, bemoans the negative effects of over competitiveness. And Tillerman has increased his notoriety with his campaign against competition and coaching gone mad in the use of Mommy Boats.

All of these things are issues to be sure, but all of them seem like natural outgrowths of a sick consumer culture. We consume what Hayes calls “time charters” when we spend our time in activities scripted by others. Worshiping celebrity, we accept that a guy making 40K will spend $200 to take his kids to a ball game to watch players making $10 million plus. Is it any wonder that talented sailors hire private coaches and when not seeing Olympic prospects for themselves, go off to chase some other holy grail? The culture will impose itself on sailing, like everything else, despite our best efforts.

Sailing does pretty well in holding off the onslaught of a culture whose values are largely antithetical to those of our sport. We have hundreds of thousands of unpaid competitive sailors enjoying healthy, friendly competition with a Corinthian spirit. We have as many or more non-competitors enjoying the poetic, perhaps Zen-like experience of wind, water, and boat in harmony. We even have a few hardy souls challenging the oceans to become man vs. nature heroes like Hemmingway’s Santiago. We are not yet an endangered species.

It all starts with the first sailing lessons, frequently in youth sailing. I’m not completely pleased with our local junior sailing programs, and I tend toward the competitive as a high school coach, but in spite of flaws, we who are involved in youth sailing are planting the seeds that grow into future sailors. While Nick Hayes is certainly right about mentoring being the best way to accomplish this goal, we are limited to being Johnny Appleseeds. We plant the seeds, but we can’t be the farmers who nurture the orchard.

Despite our obvious limitations, thousands, nay tens or hundreds of thousands, of these seeds somehow develop into sailors. I like to think, “if you plant them, they will grow.” Can you imagine those little kids taught by Tillerman not becoming sailors? I know I have planted some seeds that may lay dormant for periods of time, but they will eventually sprout and blossom. The seeds will grow, not as well or consistently nurtured as Nick Hayes and many of us would like, but they will grow.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Between the Coasts

Warning: another sailing blog post with virtually no sailing content.

I’ve lived in New England long enough now to have a full fledged case of East Coast snobbery. That was seriously called into question last weekend when I visited Chicago for the first time. Maybe it was because the trip was juxtaposed against an absolutely miserable evening of local sailing politics, but it seemed to me Chicago is a pretty cool place.

We only went there because we were obliged to attend a family wedding. Given the November timing and our gloomy long range weather forecast, we planned for as little time there as possible. What a mistake! Chicago is beautiful with plenty of things to do. The restaurants are excellent, the public transportation is clean and efficient, and the people are friendly – so much so that a New Englander is taken aback with every friendly encounter. And the weather – sunny and 65 degrees.

We stayed in the least swanky hotel (but very nice and surprisingly inexpensive) on the edge of the swankiest part of town, the “Magnificent Mile.” The high end shopping district in Chicago, it is a wide boulevard lined by sidewalks with areas of flowers, shrubs, and trees, as well oversized versions of all the best stores in the country.

Unlike Eastern cities, there is enough open space to afford views of the intriguing variety of creative urban architecture. The high rise buildings all seem to feature unique designs instead of the tall boxes with a few decorations at the top that characterize new Boston buildings. The older architecture features the work of world famous architects Daniel Burnham, Louis Sullivan, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Mies Van Der Rohe. It’s all interesting enough to support several architectural tour businesses. Chicago also boasts the most green buildings in the country. That seems to beat what we have here in the Hub of the Universe.

In the little free time we had, we spent a summer-like afternoon in Oak Park, 12 miles west of downtown, visiting Frank Lloyd Wright’s house and studio. It is a work from the very beginning of his career, and the neighborhood contains numerous examples of his early works as well as lovely “painted lady” Victorian houses. Mrs. Yarg was mostly humoring me in this little adventure, but afterward confessed to a visceral positive reaction to the house. The wide streets in Oak Park have sidewalks set far enough back to be lined with mature trees, giving them a welcoming and friendly feel.

It’s difficult to have anything more than a first impression of the people, but we encountered several unsolicited acts of kindness. When we asked the concierge where to buy a tie because I had forgotten to bring one, he offered me his. A stranger struck up a conversation on the subway, introduced himself and wished us well on our return trip. When walking with luggage toward the subway, another stranger asked if we were heading for the airport and offered us directions before we showed any signs of confusion. I wonder why we don’t treat each other more like this in the East.

And I hear they have a big lake with sailing! Ever heard of a sailing bachelorette party?

When we say in jest that there isn’t much between the coasts, the joke may be on us for thinking we are so smart and so cool. I would suspect that some of those Midwesterners laugh at us for being pompous asses, but they are probably too damn nice!

Monday, October 26, 2009

Windward Gates

Maybe I get bored easily. I know that high school students get bored easily. We’ve done the drills. We need to keep doing the drills and keep building the skills, but after two months, enough is enough. So after eight weeks of sailing four days a week, what can I do to make the last few days of the season interesting? The last week should be about fun.

The day planned for “Poag Ball,” a version of Ultimate Frisbee played on the water with a soccer ball, had absolutely no wind and was a complete bust. The other days had too much wind for a game where collisions were likely, but they were ideal for racing – racing that was some how different than it had been all fall.

At the end of every season, we have an intramural regatta with formal scorekeeping and a perpetual trophy for the winning pair (double handed boats). In all honesty, the competitiveness of this event is limited. There is usually a fairly clear pecking order of sailors, so the regatta is more of a jostling to swap positions with the guy just ahead of you than it is a wide open contest. Two may challenge one, but six won’t. Similarly, the new freshman will not seriously challenge seniors who are still in the middle of the pecking order. The final results for a day with many races are usually fairly predictable.

This year, my goal for the event was to make each race as competitive as possible within this framework of highly varied skill levels. My solution was to borrow an idea I have seen only once before. At last year’s 25 boat state championship regatta, Fran Charles, the sailing master at MIT, set windward leeward courses with gates at both ends, leeward and windward.

Leeward gates are becoming commonplace. I suppose they are intended to prevent massive pileups and reduce fouling and protests. They also change the dynamics of the race. A single leeward mark rounding rewards the winner of the contest for inside room by increasing his lead as the other boats round wide or fall a boat length or more behind each other to stay close to the mark. It also allows boats ahead to use boat on boat tactics going upwind to maintain the lead. But by having a gate, a boat that is essentially tied can remain that way by choosing the other mark. Perhaps even more important is that the two boats are now heading different directions, sailing in different wind. Boat to boat tactics are eliminated here. Each boat is sailing against the course more than against the other boat. Choosing the favored gate may be more important than getting inside room, if one has to choose. Gates give the boats behind far more opportunity to challenge the boats ahead.

A windward gate has the same characteristics, but occurs much earlier in the race. This keeps those behind much closer to the leaders as they go down wind. It also makes each sailor think about where she should be on the course to maximize wind shifts and puffs. Overall, the use of gates tends to make racing more about playing the wind, and less about tactics and raw boat speed.

I actually tried this out twice. The first was our intramural regatta, where there was a gate at the windward end only. I reasoned that the fleet would spread out so much by the leeward end of the course that a gate was unnecessary – wrong! The course was successful enough that we built on the idea the next day in a “mixed doubles” regatta. This teamed crews who had not sailed together (or not much) this fall, and put freshmen with seniors, sophomores with juniors, and girls with boys. This time we used a leeward gate as well and a closed start finish line in the middle. The first time we finished with the expected pecking order, but 8 of 11 boats has at least one top three finish for the day. The second time two edged out one, four advanced to three, a freshman (with one of the best crews) vaulted from eight to four, and 9 of 12 boats had a top three finish.

I really like that so many kids had that one good race. I love it when the newbies beat the cocky seniors once in a while. It builds confidence and motivation. If they can do it once, they can do it again! I like finding a way to emphasize the importance of reading the shifts and puffs, even in short course racing. I like mixing things up a little in a way that the kids had lots of fun. And I like that coaches and sailors alike found the windward gate made for competitive, interesting and entertaining racing.

It looks like I’m saying that I like windward gates!

Friday, October 16, 2009

RAD Sails

Thanks to the support of my Athletic Director and the town Recreation Director, my sailing team has a great new toy to play with - Intensity’s new RAD (reduced area design) 420 mainsails. In combination with a standard jib, these are a cross between storm sails and full size sails, with most of the virtues of both.

These sails are a solution to a host of problems from both the coach’s and the sailors’ perspectives.

For the sailors, there is always a upper wind limit beyond which their performance diminishes rapidly. For newer and lighter weight sailors, this limit is reached pretty quickly. For experienced sailors, the limit is higher, but there are still several days each season that excessive wind causes us to sail badly or not at all.

From the coach’s perspective, repeated capsizes by the less experienced sailors undermine or prevent other organized group activities. Leaving some sailors on the shore makes running a practice or a meet manageable, but denies opportunities for the land-bound to expand their skills in the very conditions where they can move up to the next level.

RAD sails give us an opportunity to deal with all of this. We have now used them on several occasions, and I love them! They give us just the opportunities I was hoping for. The freshman can use RAD sails while the other sailors use full sails, making many of those questionable days very productive. We had one day with a weather forecast of gusts to 40 (they were actually never above the high 20’s) in which everyone used RAD sails. We only had one capsize, and the team got some much needed time in heavy and very gusty conditions. We now choose our sails to match the wind conditions and don’t miss any sailing time.

Intensity spent some time developing these sails and seems to have gotten it just right. They are small enough to keep more boats upright but don’t just function as a survival sail. The main is still large enough to use with a standard jib without throwing the boat out of balance. They are naturally a little slower than full sails, especially downwind, but they are not dogs. All of the same sail trim techniques used for the full sails apply when using RAD sails, but they are simply easier to handle and more forgiving. I think they will be very useful in the teaching process. Kids can develop skills of ease-hike-trim, feathering, and heavy air gybing with a little more margin for error, but they are also rewarded for successful sail handling. We have found that the sails are plenty powerful enough to get the boat on a plane.

The whole team is excited that we now have so few limitations on when we can sail, and the kids love that they can have the fun of sailing in the big breeze with fewer negative consequences. The coaches love that we have the flexibility to maximize sailing opportunities for everyone, while maintaining safety and managing the potential chaos. I think Intensity did a great job of developing a product that opens up sailing opportunities to newer, lighter sailors and to all sailors in heavy conditions. RAD sails are a terrific asset to our sailing program!RAD Sails

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Resume *’s

On the way to a high school regatta this weekend, my best sailor was beginning to write a resume he wanted to submit to college sailing coaches. He was reviewing his personal accomplishments and those of the team over the last couple of years. As we recalled our final standings, he kept asking the same question – “Can I explain that I would have finished ….. if it weren’t for…………?” I explained to him that there are no footnotes in resume writing – just the facts, usually simplified.

Upon reflection, I wondered what a resume would look like with a bunch of asterisks explaining the details of the basic facts. It would surely be silly. The writer would appear to be an excuse maker, amplifying his shortcomings and revealing his less than perfect accomplishments as failures.

But for a coach, the series of asterisks could serve a positive purpose. If each asterisk represented a lesson learned, the resume would become a list of really important things discovered about how to improve sailing performance. If from each of our mistakes, we found out how to avoid repeating the mistake, we would be very successful indeed. To a college coach, what is high school sailing but a place to make a few mistakes and learn as much as one can?

Here’s what the asterisk part of my sailor’s resume for last year might have looked like:

* At state championship, would have finished second in division instead of fifth if I had not protested another boat who claimed inside room at a mark and then been DSQed myself. Apparently, you have to give him room and protest, not hit him and protest. Team would have finished third instead of fifth.

* At post-season team race regatta, beat the team that won, but finished third because our team sailed the first two races before really waking up. In one of these races, all three of our boats gave away the start to a very good team, and in another, we failed to capitalize on opportunities we routinely take advantage of, and then we sailed poorly to lose boats we were trying to cover.

* At post-season team race regatta, I held onto the 1 in a 1,4,5, as conventional wisdom suggests, only to watch the other team hook a teammate on the downwind leg and take him to 6; thus we lost instead of won. Repeated this losing strategy in next race. Lost regatta by virtue of these two races.

* At fleet race regatta, my team finished first on the water, but third after protests when a teammate was DSQed for tacking too close to the one sailor we had seen protest everything possible over the course of the season. (The team that was second on the water ended up fourth after a protest with the same protest everything team.)

* At fleet race regatta, finished second, both individually and as a team, after blowing away the field because I grazed the committee boat, and the RC said nothing at the time, but protested later. RC’s don’t have to notify competitors of their intention to protest. If I had taken my penalty spin, I could have finished last in that race and still won the regatta, but in high school a DSQ is everyone plus 4.

Writing this kind of resume is a good way to reaffirm lessons learned the hard way. I hope it served that purpose for my sailor.

If I were a college coach, I would love to have a kid who could sail fast, team race well, and never make the above mistakes again!

Monday, October 12, 2009

Less is More Abuse

Here we go on another Tillerman inspired tangent in which the author fails to follow the instructions of the assignment, but instead changes the subject more or less entirely and heads off into realms hinted at, but not anticipated in the original beseechment for sailing related wisdom and foolishness. The author may here and there take issue with the minimalist sophistry embedded in the phrase, “less is more,” which is the inspiration for the assignment to which this is a response, but which strikes the author as a sometime duplicitous representation of one’s work, which falls, in fact, considerably short in achieving the “more” half of the aphorism. That being said, the author in no way endorses the pre-twentieth century industrialization model of unnecessary elaboration and needless decoration typical of practitioners of both the literary and architectural arts in the earlier eras.

Less is more version of the above: Caution – off topic discussion follows.

Maybe that’s just a less is less version.

Ludwig Mies van der Rohe is given credit for coining the phrase “less is more,” but apparently he borrowed it from 19th century British poet Robert Browning. Browning’s poem admires the idea, though Browning himself makes no claim to embody it in his work.

Who strive - you don't know how the others strive
To paint a little thing like that you smeared
Carelessly passing with your robes afloat,-
Yet do much less, so much less, Someone says,
(I know his name, no matter) - so much less!
Well, less is more, Lucrezia.

Mies (anyone who has studied architecture is on a first name, or first surname basis with him), on the other hand, uses the phrase as a philosophical justification for everything he does, whether or not he really achieves it in a given work. My view is that he began with a bang. The Barcelona Pavilion uses simple planes of a few materials to produce suggestions of spaces and relationships between them that are interesting and rich – certainly more complex than the elements that define them. Pretty cool!
His Barcelona chair is a classic. Each side of the chair uses a curved X of a single sized piece of stainless steel to make the legs, back, and seat support. Again, pretty cool!
Mies’ disciples also used his axiom to do some great work. Eero Saarinen did a pretty good job of making less into more in his own “ism,” expressionism.
And again in a really cool little building, the MIT chapel. It is a small cylinder surrounded by a moat. It has little arches down near the moat. Inside the arches is a recessed wall, and there is an invisible horizontal window in between. There is also a circular skylight in the roof. The result is that light dances on interior walls and over the alter. Less is way more here!
(Look, there’s a boat!)
But “less is more” also brought us this Mies so called “masterpiece.”
There is some nice clean detailing here in the Seagram Building, but I don’t see the “more” part.

And then there is this, Crown Hall at IIT in Chicago, supposedly one of Mies’ crowning achievements.

This is an interior view.

Seems like a clear expression of less is less.

Then along came Robert Venturi who wrote a book entitled Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture. It was the beginning of post-modernism. He declared that architecture is inherently complex …and contradictory and coined his own aphorism that so aptly describes the above picture:

“Less is a BORE.”

And so, architecture has gone in a different direction.

I now ask myself, “What is the point of this little digression?” I think Tillerman just hit my anti – Mies nerve – an old architecture school malady. He is one of the three Gods of twentieth century architecture, but I could never worship at his altar. To me, his work (except for the earliest work) is a stronger representation of industrialization, mechanization, standardization, and a bunch of other ………tions than it is of an artistic or Zen-like spirit of minimalism. The industrialized version of “less is more” isn’t working out so well on many fronts, yet Mies usually gets his name mentioned when we want us to consider a much more sublime concept.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Less is More – Molting

I feel like a guy who was a day early to the big regatta with “less is more” blogs. I think that I had three contenders, Is This Zen Racing?, Action though Inaction, and Simplified Race Management Tricks, which in the interest of shameless self promotion I have mentioned here, but I completely misread the calendar and published them some time ago. I guess I have to start over with this very un-profound contribution.

Sometime in late April or early May, a wonderful process of shedding sailing clothes begins. It’s a process of molting for the year round, northern climate sailor. The wool winter hat gets traded for a baseball hat. Full fingered gloves are replaced by three quarter fingered ones, and then no gloves at all. Layers under the dry suit become less in number, then the drysuit is shed for a wetsuit, hikers or neoprene shorts and tops. The double and triple layers of neoprene on the feet goes down to just a sailing boot. Traveling lighter, feeling freer. For coastal sailors the process usually stops here.

But, we lake sailors go further. Less cold water and less wave action allow us to be warmer and dryer. We continue the shedding. Shorts and tee shirts are enough. And sometime around July the process peaks when the shirts and boots come off. No shirt, no shoes, no problema. I know this is not US Sailing approved, but with a padded hiking strap, why not be a rebel without a shoe? This is laser sailing at its best, at its simplest, shorts, no shirt, and no shoes. It doesn’t get any better than this. Less is truly more.

The careful reader is thinking “by this logic, wouldn’t sailing naked really be the best?” Good idea, wrong boat….. Now when I had a Pearson 36 and was significantly younger……… it was a good idea, nay, a great idea!

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Can’t Worry Today

At the request of the author, I reviewed his new book, Saving Sailing, in my last post. I like the book, and overall recommend it, but I have to comment on the supposed decline of sailing.

The book begins with an important statistic: Participation is down more the 40% since 1997 and 70% since 1979. Hmmm……. Maybe you can’t argue with statistics. I suppose according to some methodology these numbers are correct. But do they match your experience? They don’t match mine.

In my humble experience, I did not observe any declines in the 80’s. As the 80’s turned into the 90’s, there was some reshuffling of the fleets at my local club, where one fleet would shrink and another grow. If the 90’s saw a decline, it was very small. I think I see some signs of decline recently, but there are other growth areas countering the declines. It’s hard to keep score overall. All my evidence is personal and anecdotal, but it does not add up to the dire statistics.

Just today, I ran across some more anecdotal evidence. I opened up the latest copy of Sailing World and found several stories suggesting growth or rebirth in sailing. In this single issue, there are stories about the following:
  • The birth of a laser fleet in Utah where there was none. They get 20 boats racing on a Tuesday night!
  • The rebuilding of the Southern Yacht Club after it was obliterated by Hurricane Katrina
  • A “discovery” of a great regatta in Barbados
  • An article on radio controlled sailboat racing
  • An article about the first kiteboard course-racing world championship
  • The never ending new boats reviews
  • A blurb about the president of the Thistle class who promised to style his hair into a purple Mohawk if both the Junior Nationals and Women’s Nationals could attract 15 boats each. Many sailors helped with the haircut and dye job.

I’m sure there are some things to worry about, but I’m too busy today reading Sailing World and coaching my 26 sailor high school sailing team.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Saving Sailing - A Review

As a response to my post Sailing: The Reports of Its Death Are Exaggerated, Nick Hayes asked me to review his new book, Saving Sailing, examining the dilemma I discussed, the apparent decline of the sport and the contrary instances of wild enthusiasm for it. So here goes.

It is obviously difficult to make generalizations about sailing because it takes so many different forms with so many different relationships between sailors and their sport. Nicholas Hayes takes on this “mission impossible” in order to find some general truths and come up with some specific conclusions. The major virtue of the book is that it explains and advocates ways in which the quality of the sailing experience can be improved for current sailors and transmitted to prospective and future sailors. Hayes’ interesting and insightful analysis and conclusions offer some solutions for protecting the core quality and values of the sport. The implication is that improving and guaranteeing the quality of the sailing experience will translate into more overall participation.

At the very heart of both the lack of participation problem and the solution is a very interesting discussion about the use of time. Hayes makes a distinction between “time choices” and what he calls, “time charters.” A time choice is “a slice of time that we take into our own hands, that we give shape to.” A time charter is “made for us by other people,” a thing we consume, subscribe to, or are entertained by; it is a product and something we buy. Movies and theme parks are example of time charters. They deliver a pre-packaged experience. A time choice requires some personal investment, big or small, and “becomes a source of pride and personal and community growth” when it succeeds and becomes a lesson when it doesn’t meet expectations. In our current culture, time charters are becoming more popular and time choices less so. Hayes suggests that we collectively and personally re-examine our behavior to spend time in more rewarding and valuable ways, and that this leads us to finding meaningful “Life Pastimes.”

Hayes believes that the future and value of sailing depends on personal relationships. Aside from the pleasure sailors take in sharing their experiences with each other, they must share their enthusiasm across generational lines to ensure the future success of the sport. He cites some encouraging statistics showing that 92% of all sailors are willing to facilitate the learning of others in some way. But he also explains a multitude of ways in which it is very difficult to pass on a commitment to a “Life Pastime” to other people and to the next generation. He claims that leaders and teachers, as valuable as they are, are not enough. What is required are mentors.

Hayes has some strong opinions about how kids can be brought into the sailing community in such a way as to develop a “Life Pastime.” He speaks harshly of sailing programs where kids are dumped off and picked up by taxi driver parents who want to expose their kids to a variety of activities, without really being committed to or involved in any of them. Too many of these kids never become sailors. Sailing programs, he says, are not typically very good at developing the mentoring relationships that are required to make a kid into a sailor.

Unfortunately, the mentor / mentee relationship is complicated, and there are not enough mentors. He says mentoring “requires a commitment from the mentor that is usually reserved for one’s own offspring.” From here, his focus turns to families where an older generation family member is a successful mentor to a younger person. Youth programs should find ways to involve parents, and parents should work both with programs, and independently from them, to develop mentoring relationships. This requires the parents to make time choices for their families via “Life Pastimes” which span a time continuum across the generations.

Hayes’ weave of time choices, personal relationships, sailing education, mentoring, and family choices presents an undeniably powerful vision for becoming and developing life long sailors.

But in keeping with the job of independent reviewer, I have a few quibbles with the book. The first is that I find the focus on the family as the primary way the love of sailing is transmitted a bit limiting and hardly a big enough solution for something as grand as saving sailing. I think most, or at least many, of the people I know who I would call real sailors have not gotten their love of the sport through families. Second, that while I totally agree that mentoring is incredibly valuable, I think relatively few sailors have had true mentors, in the strict sense of the word. However, I feel quite certain that they have benefited from a variety of relationships with teachers, coaches, peers, and organizations. I would have liked Hayes to discuss the ways in which this assortment of relationships might add up to mentoring or something very close to it, or even how he thinks they might be inadequate.

I hate to sound like a former English teacher, but I think the problem – solution structure of the book does not really do justice to its virtues, but instead does some undercutting of them. The “problem” is defined in a statistical, quantifiable way as the declining participation in sailing (40% decline since 1997 etc.), but the “solution” focuses almost entirely on improving the quality of the sailing experience. The connection makes intuitive sense, but the book never demonstrates (even anecdotally) the connections between “time choices” and mentoring to the quantitative decline or potential quantitative improvement of sailing. The structure sets up an expectation (perhaps an impossible one) that the “problem” will be solved on the same terms in which it is presented, but I don’t really think that is really the author’s intention.

Nor do I think it is necessary. The insightful things Hayes has to say about more meaningful ways to invest time, the value of mentoring, the potential for better family relationships, and building “Life Pastimes” are important whether or not sailing is in statistical decline. They are really solutions for quality of life problems, and they apply across a broad spectrum of activities. They may help lead us to more satisfying lives, which is, after all, more important than what percentage of the population goes sailing.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Is Discretion Really the Better Part of Valor?

That question was certainly being asked by prospective sailors in New England last Sunday. The New England Laser Masters in Newport saw wind of 17 – 28 with rain all day, and in Jamestown, RI, where I was with a high school regatta, the wind was a steady 18 with rain, until the end, when the wind went to about 25.

In Newport, my good friend Eric stuck it out to sail in wind and waves. We don’t really get waves at home, so these were unfamiliar and extremely challenging conditions. He took his licks, had some capsizes, but finished all races to place 15th in a 49 boat regatta. Pretty damn good for a guy who has been sailing lasers for only three years! Pretty damn good for anybody against this fleet!

Over in Jamestown, I was coaching (euphemism for riding around in a support boat getting soaking wet) in a high school laser regatta. There was a fleet of full rigs and a fleet of radials. Conventional wisdom is that radials are appropriate for people that weigh 140 – 165 and full rigs for people at about 180, with a rig switching range in the middle. Obviously, the more weight, the better in big breeze. There were only a few kids 180 and over, and I would guess most were 130 -150. Almost everyone was severely overpowered.

The race organizers did what race should organizers do – make every boat a potential rescue boat and alert all coaches, race officials, and spectators to be aware of the potential hazards. From a coach’s perspective, large numbers of boats in these conditions is a familiar recipe for trouble, and we prepared for the worst while hoping for the best. From a sailor’s perspective, this is a situation of fear. Almost all sailors expressed or revealed some degree of apprehension, but nevertheless, all 43 went out to face the daunting conditions.

I admired the courage of these kids for just getting off the dock in conditions where most adults would belly up to the bar to watch football for the afternoon (a thought that tempted me more than once). Throughout the day, there were a series of drop outs, but sailors continued until they reached the limit of their skill, endurance, or equipment. At the end of the fourth race, some 3 1/2 hours into the regatta, the PRO suggested that the fifth race be the last. One gung-ho coach suggested we hang out to see if conditions would permit a sixth race and if the sailors were up for it. Conditions did not subside. A sequence was started, the wind built up a little, a boat was capsizing virtually everywhere I looked, the race started, and the wind started gusting to 25. Then, thankfully, there was a unanimous acceptance of discretion, and the courageous, but exhausted sailors were sent in. As we towed in a sailor with an equipment failure, we watched at least a half dozen other capsizes, some within fifty yards of the beach.

I salute all the sailors who on Sunday did not let discretion become the better part of valor, but chose instead to display true bravery.

In spite of the eloquence of the phrase “discretion is the better part of valor,” in its original context in Shakespeare (one of the Henry IV plays), it is the suggestion of a coward. The colorful speaker, Falstaff, is ultimately a foil for the hero, Prince Hal, who ignores Falstaff’s advice, and marches into the battle that transforms him from the profligate prince into King Henry V. Courage is ultimately triumphant, as it was on Sunday.

Enough of the English class! Isn’t Falstaff the name of a beer?

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

A Flash of Brilliance

Last Saturday I went to the Laser New England Masters Regatta for the first time. My previous limited experience in large laser regattas has taught me to have very humble expectations. The guys that go to these things are usually long time laser sailors with lots of experience in sailing open water with waves or chop. The guys from the Newport Laser Fleet did quite well in the recent Masters Worlds, and most of them are really good laser sailors. I, on the other hand, am primarily a flatwater, lake sailor. At best, I am a big fish in a small pond. On their undulating turf, I am strictly a back of the packer, scoring my finish by counting forward from last place, and hoping to avoid the distinction of DFL.

Lucky for me, the wind on Saturday was mostly 7 – 10, so there was no wave issue. In the first two races, I was starting to look more like a middle of the pack guy, and I was feeling pretty good about myself. But then the third race became the miracle race. I got a good start, held my lane nicely, went faster than people on both sides of me, and spent a lot of time in clear air. When I tacked to go right, I crossed everyone who had not yet tacked off. I looked a little in the distance and to leeward and there was Scott Ferguson, Masters Full Rig World Champion. I looked to windward and there was Peter Seidenberg, perpetual Great Grand Masters World Champion. Wow! I’ve never been this close to these guys! And next to Peter Seidenberg is my best sailing buddy and sparing partner, Eric. Ferguson approached on starboard and forced me to tack. Wow! Even with Scott Ferguson in the middle of the first beat! What am I doing here? I don’t deserve to be on the same racecourse with these guys! I more or less followed him and/or Peter Seidenberg to the windward mark. As we approached the mark, it looked like it was going to be Seidenberg easily in first, Eric in second, an unknown boat in third and me in fourth.

Where was Ferguson? Downwind I got to the left of the third boat which put me slightly ahead of him, but another boat came from behind and got to the left and ahead of me. I was looking for an opportunity to work up to the left to blanket him, but he moved to the left to blanket Eric. It wasn’t until a few boat lengths from the leeward mark that I realized that this interloper was Scott Ferguson, poised to take his rightful place in front of back of the packers like us. Eric did a great job of holding him off and rounding in second. I remained in fourth.

Up the beat, everyone seemed to be holding their positions while working more or less the same center right part of the course. On a couple of occasions, I thought I got within 2 – 3 boat lengths of Ferguson, but then he would gain several boat lengths on me. Within fifty yards of the finish, Eric crossed 3 boat lengths ahead of Ferguson, who was heading to the right. I stayed in fourth, hoping not to do something stupid to spoil this Cinderella race. Moments earlier, I had almost capsized while doing a tack that my head and tiller arm had decided to do without informing the rest of my body. At the last minute, Ferguson got a slight shift to the right and edged out Eric to finish second. I held onto fourth.

Eric and I looked at each other wondering what had just happened. How had we been sailing with world champions? We did not belong here! We both knew that we could sail a lot of regattas, practice diligently, get good coaching, and never get to the level where we would be sailing with these guys. Even at the best we will ever become, we might never again see a 3rd and 4th finish in a 49 boat fleet of this caliber. It was a fantastic moment and even more fantastic because I shared it with the good friend with whom I sail with week in and week out, summer and winter. Wow!

The fourth race saw a reversion back to our truer selves in the back of the pack, but there is no need to discuss that. How about that third race! Did I tell you we sailed next to world champions? …….. Cue “Glory Days” by Bruce Springsteen.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Practice Failure

After coaching another practice where my skill drills were a colossal failure, I have been thinking about the value of failure. It always aggravates me when time gets wasted and it seems nothing is accomplished, at least in terms of the skills we were trying to learn. But the appropriate question in the face of every failure is: “What have we learned here?”

I was trying to do an exercise I called “simultaneous tacking pairs”. The goal was for the boats involved to try to remain in synch with each other while executing efficient, offsetting tacks. Two boats start on opposite tacks at opposite ends of a starting line converging towards the middle. They should be tied when they meet and both should tack away. After sailing divergent courses for a while, they simultaneously tack back toward the middle. They should try to meet in the center, still tied, and they should tack away again. The drill repeats heading upwind. It makes a pretty diagram.

I was mainly trying to reinforce basic tacking skills to quantify the gains that could be made by better tacking. Only one pair had any success in duplicating the diagram. Most others had a clear leader at the first crossing and proceeded to tack up the windward leg practicing Stuart Walker’s axiom, “cross em when you can.” instead of meeting each other in the middle and tacking away. We clearly didn’t learn much about the value of good tacking, but did we learn anything?

First, the teacher learned that he had done some things wrong. I did not explain the drill clearly enough – especially the purpose of it. I over complicated the day by describing for the kids such a long series of things we’d be doing during the afternoon that they forgot most of the details of the first drill when we began it. I set up the course wrong, or more accurately the shifty lake winds changed the course from square to silly. And ultimately, I missed the biggest potential virtue of the drill.

This exercise failed so completely that we couldn’t even conduct the post mortem in the end of practice de-briefing. The kids learned nothing that day from this drill.

We started the next day with a discussion of our failure. I began with a confession of my shortcomings, but then we tried to understand why they couldn’t at least set up the first starboard port encounter correctly. “So and so was not on the starting line on time.” “Okay, slow down and wait.” “The line wasn’t square.” “Okay, the boat at the favored end needs to slow down and wait.” “The boat on the right always got more wind.” “Okay, the boat on the right needs to slow down and wait.”

In the refrain, we began to see the light. (How’s that for a mixed metaphor?) Slowing down is the key. Hey this is balancing – a concept key to successful team racing, our favorite kind of racing. The boat ahead has to “balance back” to stay on the same ladder rung as his teammate. This takes skill in both slowing the boat and perceiving the correct relationships between the boats and the ladder rungs. And with every wind shift the ladder rungs change. That causes the relationship between the boats to change. But the goal in this aspect of team racing is to keep the relationship of the boats the same. The speed of one of the boats has to change to keep the system in balance.

So, our drill broke down because the skill that we were working on, tacking, was not the one most required in the shifty conditions. What we should have been focusing on was balancing, perceiving the relationship between boats, and maybe communicating with each other so we could stay in balance. If that were the stated purpose of the drill, maybe it would have worked better, is spite of the very high degree of difficulty of these skills.

Working through this process (or stumbling through it), there is a much bigger, more abstract lesson to learn. Success in this drill required thinking about things in a different way. The whole scenario is a system of relationships between the course, the boats, and the wind. Any change in the wind affects the relationship of the other parts of the system and throws it out of balance. The sailors need to understand it as a system in order to take the correct actions to re-balance it. Both I and the sailors failed to think about the system and a key element in it – the shifting wind. D’oh!!

Thinking about things as a system of complex interrelationships is getting into more heady realms of system theory and ecological thinking. This is the kind of thinking that can understand and solve problems in the complex and interconnected real world. It is the kind of thinking that will be required to solve climate change and environmental problems. It is the kind of thinking that will be required to solve all the big problems.

Maybe it’s a stretch (Ya think? Sailing practice to saving the world.), but I like to think of sailing as being a valuable part of education (not just physical education) and in this respect, it is. Thinking about the world as a web of interconnected relationships rarely happens in school, where the world is sliced and diced into disciplines, and problem solving is conceived in terms of higher test scores. As an English teacher, I thought schools vastly undervalued, if not ignored, holistic thinking embodied in the English Romantics, the American Transcendentalists, and Eastern Philosophy. Now ironically, as a sailing coach, it is easier to offer a little bit about seeing the world in a different way.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Sailing: Reports of Its Death Are Exaggerated

During the month of August, I was involved in several doom and gloom conversations about the decline of dinghy sailing in the summer circles that I inhabit and travel. Apparently, some club racing, and even some regatta racing, is slipping or completely falling apart. In spite of national events having been very well attended, the evidence of some local decline is at least anecdotally convincing.

But wait! My time this summer has been spent almost exclusively in local sailing, with embarrassingly little travel to major regattas, and I’m not sailing in a world of doom and gloom. My local laser fleet has been growing steadily, with the participants having fun and improving their sailing. No complaints there.
And now, with the high school sailing season started, I am in the middle of an explosion of youth interest in sailing. For the first time in our team history, we have to turn kids away because we just can’t accommodate 37 sailors with only 12 double handed boats. Unlike previous years, every freshman who makes the team will have had previous sailing experience. I registered our team for a fall regatta two hours after the NOR went out by email, and I was the eleventh team. All of the fall regattas will be oversubscribed and will have waiting lists.

So what’s going on? Certainly, my experience is too narrow to make broad generalizations. My internet research (browsing is a more accurate term) found plenty of people who make variably documented proclamations of doom, and some offer some remedies to stem the tide. A new book is coming out in October, Saving Sailing by Nicholas D. Hayes. According to the marketers, “The book is educational and inspiring in many ways; the reader is not only drawn into the stories but learns how they might rethink their own priorities and short time on earth with a simple but rich philosophy for living.” Seems he is after folks who let their lives get in the way of their sailing. I hope this helps some people find their way into or back into sailing.

I can’t figure it all out. Sailing is dying and thriving at the same time. I don’t mean to make light of those who are worried about the health of the sport. I think they should do whatever they can to improve participation, but I’m fortunate that sailing is doing just fine in my world. I like to think that what I’m doing and what those around me are doing are contributing to that health. We try to be enthusiasts for our local fleet and for the class of boats we sail. We try to harness as many resources as we can to provide boats, sails, parts, books and videos for those who express interest. We share what we know about sailing our class of boat and gain knowledge from others who are sailing the boat. We try to create opportunities for newcomers to participate and learn. While we enjoy our competitions, we strive equally hard to keep things interesting and fun. It all seems pretty straightforward.

I find that enthusiasm for sailing is viral, but in a good way. It is spread by person to person contact, and a few carriers go a long way. When enthusiasts spawn other enthusiasts, fleets can grow very quickly, and the world of sailing is just fine, thank you.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Sailing Through Time And A Bit Of The Timeless

The dog days of summer have put sailing in lethargic slow motion, and family stuff has taken me on a sometimes chaotic cruise, whipsawing through time. It has been a little like Billy Pilgrim (protagonist from Slaughterhouse Five, a novel by Kurt Vonnegut) becoming unstuck in time and experiencing his life non-sequentially.

It started in July when my ex-wife was cleaning out her roomy suburban house to downsize into a city apartment. Although I wanted no part of that mess, the occasional artifact was discovered and shared to revive memories of 35 years ago. I took the old trunk bought at a junk store in Montreal and a few of “her books” with the original price tag ($1.95) from the school I attended and she did not. In the most amicable divorce settlement I know of, the only contested items (and a long running joke among the family) were a few books that hard evidence proved I purchased. I took a few that were really hers as compensation, and she never begrudged that.

It continued with my dad’s visit. He has recently been diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer in spite of having absolutely no symptoms. In my head, time flashed forward to endings which I don’t want to think about, the end of the parental generation and of course my own end. I’m betting he outlives the standard prognosis by a factor of two or three. Maybe that’s denial.

The journey was through both time and space when we took my son back to college last week for his final year and his first apartment. He goes to school in Pittsburgh at my ex’s alma mater, down the street from mine. There was a 34 year gap between my leaving Pittsburgh and my son’s returning, and now I have likely made my penultimate return to a place where many of the threads of my life began. The city has reinvented itself since the death of the steel industry and is a real study in the contrast of the old and the new, the temporary and the timeless. The universities have grown and the steel mills have been replaced by upscale shopping districts and civic buildings. Most of the old shabby buildings sit side by side with wonderfully renovated houses and new development. The college bar where we discovered draft beer for a quarter is still there and looks the same.

Being a parent, setting up your son’s first apartment is like walking back and forth through doors 35 years apart. It sure is different for kids now. No more fill two suitcases and get dumped off at college. It’s a pick-up truck and a U-Haul trailer full of stuff to make sure junior is relatively comfortable. No more cinderblocks, beanbag chairs, and kids shopping at Goodwill and St. Vincent DePaul for couches covered with 50 years of dust. Now the whole family goes to Target and Dad puts a large dent in his credit card account. Being dead broke, scrounging, and making things out of castoff junk when having that first apartment is one of the more important experiences in life. And yet, I, like most parents, can’t bring myself to force that onto a child who has spent his whole life living in comfort, playing with toys not even imagined when I was his age. All the while, I’m pretty sure he is the poorer for being so much richer.

On the way out of town, we stopped for a few hours of the timeless. I told my wife that we can’t end our sojourns to Pittsburgh without her seeing Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater, arguably the finest house ever built and the greatest piece of American architecture ever conceived. It’s a building that led me to architecture school just from the pictures and a building that still suggests man can live harmoniously with nature despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. It is a masterpiece of artistic expression and a reminder of the wondrous creative capabilities of human beings at their best. Knowing Wright’s amazing and exceptional other work, it is still difficult to comprehend this leap of imagination, vision and creativity. This is a building completed in 1936 that is still modern today, 73 years later. It was created by a man 67 years old and still in the middle of his career. Linear time makes no sense at Fallingwater and never has.

And finally, today is the first day of a new high school sailing season. It all starts anew with a new crop of freshmen, some of whom have never sailed before. I am challenged to remember what it is like to have never sailed, and strangely, that is one of the time portals most difficult to re-enter.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

A Two Race Regatta? - “It’s not about the sailing.”

My one annual foray back into Flying Scot sailing is an annual regatta in upstate New York. Last weekend I went, again, for about the 20th time, and had a good time. But a two race regatta? In winds of 0 – crazy? Predictable winds of 0 – crazy, I might add. I expected no wind, like the last time I went two years ago, and the time before that, but I went anyway.

It may be a defective memory, but I seem to remember many years when the scheduled five races actually happened. I remember at least three occasions where the wind was 15 – 20+. Has climate change forever altered this regatta? Back in the day, this was a 45 boat regatta with the reputation for being the best Flying Scot regatta in the Northeast. Last year, numbers were way down, and this year, there were 26 boats. Word has gotten out that this is a no wind regatta, and despite the absolutely great hospitality, some sailors seem to want wind and sailing at their regattas.

So why do I go? The obvious reason is that it is a social event, like a class reunion with a sailing class in which I spent twenty years. It’s nice to travel to an event where, like at Cheers, “everybody knows your name.” The real reason for me is that it’s a chance – or maybe just a hope - to sail with my son. He wants to go, so we go. And the reason he wants to go is to meet up with his long time regatta friends who live 300 miles away.

When my kids were quite young, it was standard practice to drag them to regattas where they were frequently grouped together with a common baby sitter while the parents sailed. The sure-fire activity to keep my son entertained was to play with LEGOs. It turned out that LEGOs seemed to have broad appeal, and a group of boys seemed to bond around their LEGOs. Somehow my son seemed to develop stronger friendships with this group than with any of the kids at home. His “sailing” friends became his best friends. Two of the group were local for us, living in the next town, and two lived in western New York. The local kids began to hang out regularly at our local yacht club and have now become best of friends, but all five have remained good friends as they have matured from LEGO kids into beer swilling college students and computer geeks. When they meet up these days, it is as if they can pick up the conversation from wherever it ended the previous year.

So we put up with no wind, and crazy races where we are stalled and those 10 yards away have little zephyrs and are sailing past us, or where the lead boat and last boat can switch places in 180 degree wind shifts. We optimistically hope for wind when we should know better. We spend far more time waiting to sail than sailing. And somehow, we like it.

As my son said, “It’s not about the sailing.”

Saturday, August 1, 2009

A Conversation with O’Brien

Not long ago in my Lasering experience I made a new friend, O’Brien, who is not only a fellow Laser enthusiast, but he works as a dealer in the Laser marketing network. While having a beer after sailing, we had had a conversation about a bizarre dream I had.

“I was at a regatta, but not a Laser regatta,” I told him. It was a regatta for some kind of a larger, less fun boat, like the boat I used to sail before I was converted to Lasers. It was sort of like a Laser regatta, but the boats had different kinds of sails. I mean, they all looked pretty much alike, and they had the same measurements, but they all had different labels on them. There were about five different brands.”

“You mean all the boats were different? Was there some kind handicap scoring?”

“No, the boats were the same – only the sails were different – and maybe the way the spinnaker sheets were routed, but essentially the same. It was a one design class.”

“Couldn’t be, if the sails were different!”

“It was a dream. What can I say? The folks there all thought it was a one design regatta. They were even congratulating themselves that US Sailing had chosen their boat for the Triple handed youth and adult national championships just like they had a couple of years ago.”

“Wow! Imagine a championship where all the boats are different.”

“No, the boats were the same. Only the sails had different makers. And at this regatta, one of the sail makers was giving a seminar about how to trim sails and generally make the boat go faster. He was explaining how they were using this new cloth which would stretch a little less and hold the shape longer. And there was some extra reinforcing in the corners, but I really couldn’t understand why that was important. And this guy seemed to be friends with about half the people at the regatta.”

“Were all the sailors’ stockbrokers lining up to buy the next new and more expensive thing?”

“Not really. They were pretty regular folks. Most of them were pretty impressed that these new sails were still less expensive than the ones from the big sail makers. Some of the sailors really liked the sail maker, and were very apologetic that their sails were only a year old, and it would be another year before they would buy a new suit.”

O’Brien frowned. “Cheapskates. Any respectable Laser sailor replaces his sail at least once a year. The big time serious guys use a sail for only one or two regattas.”

I was puzzled. “Doesn’t that go against the one design principle of not giving an advantage to the guy who spends the most money?”

“No. It makes all the boats equal. Sails only cost $525. All the good guys have new sails.”

“I don’t,” I said sheepishly. “My friends don’t either. At my club there are a bunch of high school and college kids who nag their parents for a year just to get one of those imitation Laser sails. Then they try to borrow a real sail if they want to go to a big regatta.”

“Well, we have the dealer network any time you need a new sail – or anything else for your Laser. We’re only a click away.”

“Yeah. The service is great. But where do I get $525 every few months just to keep up with the good guys?..........You know, years ago when I was in that other class, I only had to pick up the phone and call the sail maker to order new sails. Most of the time it was my sail maker friend that I talked to. It worked the same way for boat parts – one phone call, next day shipping. I guess they use the internet now.”

“Of course they do. Who wants to actually talk to customers? That’s pretty inefficient, you know.”

“So, is it true the Laser sail we use now is the same as one that is 20 years old? It’s funny that in that time we have the emergence of personal computers, the internet, email, Ipods, Iphones, texting, twittering, and Facebook, but we can still depend on the Laser sail to stay the same.”

O’Brien thought I was being a smart ass. “Yarg, are you getting a bad attitude? You understand that in order to have a one design class, everything must be controlled. Things can’t just change over night.”

“I understand that.”

“And you know that letting just any sail maker supply sails would cause chaos and eventually ruin the class. If the class association and Laser Performance and the sail maker and the dealers didn’t all make money, they wouldn’t be able to serve you.”

“That makes sense.”

“And you know that when the sail eventually gets improved, and that will be soon, it will be because the entire supply chain worked together methodically for as many as five years, on your behalf, to develop the best possible product for the class.”

“I know years of hard work goes into this. ……………….But it worked so differently in that other class. It didn’t seem so hard.”

“That was just a dream, Yarg. You were dreaming that anarchy miraculously produced good products at reasonable prices. Don’t buy into that myth. This is reality. That other class is falling apart. They are not serious. Just because US Sailing picks their boat once in a while, doesn’t mean it is any good. It’s nothing like the Laser class, the best and most competitive class in the world. Laser has the Olympics- the Olympics, where the world’s most talented athletes invest endless amounts of time and money in becoming the best. Isn’t that what sailing is all about? Yarg, it isn’t just about you and your friends fooling around, having fun.”

“I don’t know what I was thinking. Crazy dream. I love the Laser class. Thank you Big Laser for taking care of us.”

Friday, July 31, 2009


Sometimes sailing is a contact sport, so be careful. This is what happened last weekend when I was run over by another Laser.

I was just minding my own business before a start when I was attacked from behind by a run away Laser. The out of control boat leapt right over my transom and was stopped by my arm before it could do any real damage.

Thank God no boats were harmed!!!!

I know the other guy feels worse about this than I do. Maybe we should have both have a beer at the White House.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Congratulations, Intensity Sails

From the full page anti-“counterfeit” sails propaganda in the latest Laser Sailor, it looks like you have become far more than a minor annoyance to the powers of Big Laser. You are now a force to be reckoned with, an “increasing trend,” and an “aggressive internet” marketer. Big Laser is out to get you. I think they are afraid of you.

It’s fine that Big Laser wants to reiterate the case for single source equipment as a means of maintaining lasers’ “one design” quality. But it is unfair propaganda to call alternative sails “counterfeit.” The word counterfeit implies an intention to defraud. Every ad I have seen for these sails clearly states (usually in capital letters) that they are NOT CLASS LEGAL. I have never met anyone using these sails who have been confused about this. There is clearly no fraud here. My I suggest a new logo to make things clearer?

There is a giant disconnect between a professed concern for class legal equipment and the needs of laser sailors to have high quality, reasonably priced sails. As the article concedes, these low cost sails are helpful in putting more boats on the water and growing local fleets. Ironically, at the local level, unofficial sails have been a primary means of meeting the goals of “one design” classes: equal boats and minimal reward for greater spending on better equipment. These sails have been wonderful in promoting better and more competitive sailing at my club. So now Big Laser needs to draw a line in the sand, implore regional regatta organizers to forbid non class legal sails ( don’t they do this already?), and try to scare us all into believing that by saving some money we will undermine the Laser class.

Why don’t other classes have this situation? Did upstart Intensity Sails (and others) cause this problem? I don’t think so.

Big Laser has no one to blame but themselves. They have sown the seeds of the alternative sail industry. They gave it sunlight and nurtured it. For starters, they (the class association, Laser-Performance, North Sails, and the dealers) conspired to create a marketing system where they each get a cut of every sail sold – apparently a big cut. Thus, they have guaranteed high prices. Next, they missed all opportunities to improve the quality of the sail design or the sail cloth as the industry has progressed during the past couple of decades. Lately, they have stonewalled resolving “the well documented failings” of the sails. Haven’t they been implicitly begging for someone to jump into the market with a better or lower cost product?

They argue that the “strict one design” nature of the class is worth a “slight premium.” You bet it is! But that “slight premium” is a matter of a $600 sail (incl. battens and sail bag) versus a $200 sail. Not very slight. If the premium really were “slight,” there would be no appreciable unofficial sail industry.

All this said, I don’t have a problem with requiring single source equipment at big events. Those are the rules. It’s pretty simple. But Big Laser has no business disparaging either the producers or consumers of good stuff cheap. The market place is sending a clear message that the monopolistic practices of Big Laser are not working for substantial numbers of the Laser sailors. It’s about time that the class association and the suppliers began working for the members and the customers.

Friday, July 24, 2009

A Three Race Regatta?!

This past weekend, I was the PRO for the Flying Scot Wife Husband Regatta. It’s one of three annual national Flying Scot regattas, but it’s only three races – on purpose – not due to bad weather. Really- just three races scheduled for a two day regatta.

I might disparage the class for being wimpy, but the other two national regattas, the North American Championships and the Midwinters, have eight and seven races respectively. Maybe Jimmy Buffet has it right with “there’s always a woman to blame,” but I didn’t hear the men complaining or asking for more races. It seemed like the folks who raced really liked the format just the way it was – three races. Except for one guy.

This regatta’s that guy complained vigorously when we called the boats in for lunch without having had a race on Saturday morning. I was concerned with the quality of the races and was waiting for the best wind of the day in which to run Saturday’s two allotted races. He got in my face and informed me that he hadn’t come all this way to sail around all morning and not race. He claimed we could have had several races already. He sounded like the local Laser sailors bitchin’ about all the waiting and the small number of races. It warmed the cockles of my heart. I told him how right he was, but it was after all, only a three race regatta.

I sent him to the regatta chair, who reminded him of how long ago it was published that this was a three race regatta. The regatta chair walked him back to me, and then gathered around some of the class brass for a discussion of the situation. It seemed that some other Flying Scot sailors had felt the same way as that guy, and so they hadn’t come. It was also clear that as many or more of the class wouldn’t come unless there were no more than three races. They did show up. Lot’s of them.

Aside: According to the regatta chair, that guy was not a member of the Flying Scot Sailing Association and didn’t even own a Flying Scot.

The concession to that guy was to have an extra race (that would not count) at the end of the day for all those who wanted more racing. I announced our intention to hold this extra race to each of the 34 participating boats as they crossed the finish line in the second race. After all three fleets had finished, we quickly set up a new course (as the wind had shifted). Boats had scattered so it took a couple of minutes for the boats to reassemble – both of them. That guy was joined by some other guy who was sailing single handed after dropping off his wife at the dock. I delegated taking the finishes to one of the other power boats, but it looked for sure that that guy was finally going score a victory after having come in second to last in the previous race.

So….The idea of a three race regatta was overwhelmingly popular with 98% of the participants. Go figure. I don’t see it, but, hey, each to his own. If the group agrees on a way to have fun, then that’s the way it should be done. Even though a three race, two day regatta seems completely daffy to me, our participants were a terrific group of friendly, patient, and appreciative sailors. I had a good time working for them and would do it again any time.

As for that guy, I hope he finds sailing happiness. Maybe when I see him again, he will be sailing a Laser with a big smile on his face.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Whitewater Rafting – The Out-of-Raft Experience

Concurrent with Tillerman’s Write a Review group writing project, I planned a little rafting trip as an interesting activity during a visit with my dad in South Carolina. I thought the two would dovetail nicely, and I could write a simple review of the trip and the company who ran it, Wildwater, Ltd.

It should be made clear here that Mrs. Yarg and I are complete neophytes at rafting. She has never been, and I have been only once before. I should also confess that we are not thrill seekers or adrenalin junkies. Planning and surfing in sailboats is enough for me. As a couple, golf and the nature watching version of kayaking are fine with us; skydiving and rock climbing are not.

Anticipating doing the review, I began writing in my head. I found out later that that review had already been written by an Atlanta newspaper and appears on the Wildwater’s website, It contains all the basics:

  • Wildwater Ltd. is widely considered one of the best commercial rafting outfits
  • The trip has laughs, excitement, and splashy outdoor fun
  • The guides are young Bohemians with an encyclopedic knowledge of the river
  • All safety precautions are taken – PFDs, helmets, safety talk about feet first swimming and safety ropes
  • The Chattooga is designated a "wild and scenic" river
  • Rapids have colorful names like Corkscrew, Last Supper, and Deliverance

And everything in that review is correct. But our experience of the trip was more aptly described by our guide’s term – out-of-raft experience.

It all begins with the reservation when they ask which trip you want to go on. The question is: Class III rapids or class IV rapids? Our knowledge of rapid classes is limited to Meryl Streep running a class V in The River Wild. We don’t want that. One of the kids working in the office says, “You want the Class IV. Class III is a little boring.” Class IV it is.

I looked up the definitions later and this is a Class IV (italics are mine):
Class IV/Advanced..... Intense, powerful rapids; turbulent water; may involve long, unavoidable waves, holes or constricted passages demanding fast maneuvers under pressure; may require "must" moves above dangerous hazards; risk of injury to swimmers is moderate to high; group assistance to swimmers requires practiced skills

Other fun facts not fully appreciated at the time of registration:

  • This is the river on which Deliverance was filmed
  • The Chattooga contains the steepest section of river commercially rafted in the Southeast
  • What I used to think of as small waterfalls are more properly classified as Class IV rapids

All through the safety talk, I am thinking these commercial rafters sure take all the precautions and cover all the bases, but overdo it a bit with a “scared straight” tone. Insisting that we wear PFDs and helmets to cushion falls in case we slip while walking on rocks while not rafting seems a bit much.

The first part of the trip on the river meets all expectations. There is excitement, splashing, and good wet fun. The guy next to me, Don, seems to have been rafting many times and wants all the excitement he can get. With a bump on a rock that is far from extraordinary, Don flies out of the boat into the cool water and seems to enjoy the unfettered ride until the burly guide deftly plucks him back into the boat.

Our guide’s path down the river seems a bit less expertly chosen than Meryl Streep’s or even Burt Reynolds’ and Ned Beatty’s, but I try to make some allowances for reality being different than movies. After getting stranded on submerged rocks a couple of times, and having the guide jump out to wrestle the raft free, Don says “I don’t think he’s the best guide.” After some casual questions from Don, the guide reveals that this is only his second year of rafting, but reassures us with a description of the rigorous training program for guides.

We follow rather simple paddling instructions as the guide does all the brain work and steering. “On this next rapid,” he explains, “everyone has to lean as far as they can to the right.” As the raft seems to climb a rock sideways just before a several foot drop off, we all lean hard right to counterbalance the tilt of the raft. The raft then does a 180, making right left, and we find ourselves leaning hard to the low side of the raft causing both Don and the guide to hurtle into the water. Unpinning himself from between the raft and the rocks, the gasping guide struggles to get the raft marginally under control as we do a spin or two while hauling in the swimmers.

Mrs. Yarg and I exchange concerned glances. We are beginning to worry that the brains and skills of the operation may not be as brainy and skilled as these two trusting neophytes had hoped.

I always thought of whitewater sports as an exercise of skill and grace through a turbulent and chaotic situation. I also thought the object of the game was to thread the raft between the rocks without hitting them. Apparently I was wrong. I have a new respect for the ruggedness and abrasion resistance of inflatable rafts.

As we approach what appears to be a rather long but manageable set of rapids, we watch the boat in front of us intentionally doing 360s down the rapids. As we enter the whitewater, the guide asks if we want to do 360s too. Mrs. Yarg succinctly says “no,” at which time the guide starts spinning us. At about 270 degrees, we roll up on a rock, and Mrs. Yarg and I are ejected over backwards into the river. Repeated capsizes in my Laser have taught me to remain calm in these dunking situations, but the ensuing rapid horizontal movement I experience is new and unsettling. I come up grabbing at the first thing I see which happens to be Mrs. Yarg who, fortunately, has succeeded in latching onto the raft. After floating at high speed with feet up to repel sharp objects and a few ricochets off sunken rocks, the subsequent yanking haul in doesn’t seem so bad. I suggest to the guide that perhaps 360s should be limited to a horizontal plane.

Unlike a sailboat capsize, I don’t see any of this coming. One second I’m in the raft, and the next second I’m upside down in the water. The thought that there are real risks involved in this is finally starting to sink in.

Now the guide is starting to preface his instructions for the upcoming rapids with “There is no reason to fall out of the raft, but when you do…” followed by instructions on which side to swim toward (as if one were in control) and where the rescue ropes will be. Rescue ropes? Yikes!

It turns out that the complete out-of-raft experience includes rescue ropes – beautiful thick yellow ropes thrown by skilled, heroic young men. Yep, you guessed it. The next launching at the second of the famed Five Falls is pictured below. My new best friend, Don, can’t resist diving over me as he, Mrs. Yarg, and I share a triple out-of-raft experience.

As I surface, I realize I am running the rapids without the benefit of a raft. I’m happy to see Mrs. Yarg surface nearby, but no blue rafts or rest stops are ahead on this highway. A golden voice comes out of the trees and shouts, “Catch this!” as that wonderful yellow rope drops two feet in front of me. Without needing additional encouragement, Mrs. Yarg and I lunge for the lifeline, me at the end and she, mid rope. I thought sure that she would provide the pivot point and I would be whipped into the jagged boulders at river’s edge, but our knight in shining PFD runs along the rocks to gradually slow us down until we reach a reasonable take out point. I have never seriously practiced throwing a coil of rope even though I know it might be useful in sailing rescues. I now have a new found regard for this awesome skill.

Nursing scrapes and bruises where thigh met rock and snorting the river water out of our noses, Mrs. Yarg and I shakily anticipate our next attempt to survive the fun we’ve signed up for. Standing on the rocks at the shore and looking at the waterfall I am about to go over is stimulating the fear instinct in me. I am not going to give into it, but all trust in our leader is shot, and the remaining two of the Five Falls are approached with some dread. The guide tells us that he will exercise all caution on the next two, and our approaches will be “textbook.” Why the hell didn’t we try textbook before this?

When there is real trouble ahead the guide hollers “Get down!” and we all duck toward the center of the raft. In this last section of the trip, we continue to cower with heads down long after the “get down” period is over. Somehow we survive the rest of the trip without incident. The guide's official final score for our five tourist raft is seven “swimmers“. (He doesn’t count himself, and the tourists’ count is higher.) I can see from his face that this is well above average. In talking to other guides I find out that the swimmer tally is highly variable, but I am left with the firm impression that the swimmer number should not exceed the passenger number.

In the end, it seems there are several versions of Wildwater Ltd. and their rafting excursions. I guess that’s what outdoor adventure trips are all about. I think that before my next trip I will share with my guide the view that the sport is more elegant when the driver avoids the rocks rather than hits them and when he keeps the passengers in the raft rather than out of the raft. I’m sure an occasional “out-of-raft experience” is an integral part of the sport, but surely there must be a more reasonable balance between swimming and boating.