Monday, April 27, 2009

A New Measure Of The American Educational System

Tillerman’s recent blog “Only in America” (where does he find these treasures?) questions the quality of the American educational system.
I think he is really on to something here. This is the era of testing, testing, and high stakes testing, but by many measures, the system does not seem to be improving. We may be measuring the wrong things. We need another test, a better real world measure of education, an “authentic” measure, to use a current educational buzzword.

I suggest we rate the educational system of each state according to the quality of signs, posters, and other pithy outpourings of sports fans and protestors in each state. Despite all the smoke and mirrors of educators and testing services, sports fans and protestors reveal the real decline of a once great system.

For years, I have been very concerned with our local Boston Red Sox witticism, “Yankees suck.” We are an area of 37 colleges and universities, at least two of them world class, and several others among the best in the US. We are an area of high tech, biotech, and other brainy endeavors. We think of ourselves as an area of the best and brightest. And the best we can do is “Yankees suck”? Back in the day (another classy phrase demonstrating the decline of proper English), Boston showed its brilliance with “Berry the Bears” and “Squish the Fish.” Alliteration, rhyme, a homonym – we really had something then!

Okay, in all honesty, it wasn’t such a high standard. As with all standardized tests, the standards aren’t really that high – just some average, respectable norm.

But on the whole, we are no longer living up to the standard. Our only consolation here in Boston is that comparative testing clearly reveals that our students are still awesomely bettah than the “morans” in St. Louis.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Do Europeans Float Better than Americans?

Now that I have found a personal flotation device I really love, I have to consider that it is not a PFD, as in a proper name with capital letters, but a Buoyancy Aid, a somewhat distant and estranged cousin of the “real” thing. It seems that the US Coast Guard now owns the phrase “personal flotation device” and it only applies to objects that meet their specific criteria. So is there something suspicious about “Buoyancy Aids,” or are they merely life jackets produced outside the US and sanctioned by a different authority? Do manufacturers just avoid the bureaucracy of the Coast Guard approval, or do they make a lesser product? If the products are inferior, why do I see them being sold by every sailing gear supplier I look at?

The Zhik Buoyancy Aid I have, and many other brands I have seen for sale, are CE approved. This is a European seal of approval similar to a UL product approval in the US. It is a required safety approval for all products sold in the European Common Market. Apparently it is coveted around the world, even in far away New Zealand where Zhik is located. A CE approval is respected globally, so what is the Coast Guard approval vs. CE approval all about?

A brief internet search reveals that the two approvals have clearly different flotation standards. Coast Guard type II, III, and V PFD’s are required to have 15.5 pounds of flotation, while CE approved Buoyancy Aids are required to have only 50 newtons (11 pounds) of flotation. More flotation is probably better (don’t Americans usually think more is better?), but is 11 pounds enough? has an explanation for quantifying the amount of needed flotation. According to them, our bodies are typically composed of 80% water, having neutral buoyancy, and 15% fat, which floats, leaving only 5% of our body weight that needs to be held up by the life jacket. A 200 pound person therefore needs 10 pounds of buoyancy. At 170 pounds, I require only 8.5 pounds.

Working with this simplified physics, it seems that Europeans define the “standard” as a person weighing 220 pounds or less, while the US Coast Guard feels it necessary to float a 310 pound person (a truly awesome sight in a laser or a sailing dinghy). By the estimation of the local sanctioning authorities, it seems that Europeans are considerably smaller and more buoyant than Americans.

So is it un-American for a European sized, more buoyant person to sail with a CE approved Buoyancy Aid? If a Buoyancy Aid makes a capsize less likely and a capsize recovery far easier, isn’t it safer and therefore a better choice? Is it treasonous and defiant to the US Coast Guard to supplant Coast Guard approval with CE approval? Can’t we be accepting of globalization and be citizens of the world so long as we safely obey the law of physics?

I’ll keep my Coast Guard approved type III in my gear bag, just in case. And I’m still on the lookout for a life jacket with the slimmer profile and better fit of a buoyancy aid combined with the Coast Guard approved flotation of a PFD.

Monday, April 20, 2009

The Quest for the Perfect PFD

One of the new challenges in switching from sailing a relatively stable sloop rigged dinghy to sailing a Laser is finding a PFD that really works well. In the sloop, virtually any comfortable PFD will do. It never catches on things or interferes with sailing. It may not even be used on warm, easy sailing days and rarely gets wet. But in a Laser, the PFD becomes an integral part of your sailing clothing, perhaps even an integral part of your physical body.

When I started sailing a laser, I naively thought it would be just fine to use my old comfy, front zip, type III PFD with nice front pockets. It worked fine for a while – until I learned how important it was to crank on the vang when it gets windy and how low the boom becomes when you do that. It must have been funny to watch me tack as the mainsheet caught on the back of the life jacket, the boom was prevented from moving to the new leeward side, the sail loaded up and took the boat over, and I got dunked while struggling to get free. This performance, though hilarious to watch, was painful for me to experience when frostbiting in 40 degree water.

It was there that the search began.

Next in the line of test products was one of those Lotus Designs (now Patagonia) pull over life vests that high school and college sailors wear. I was very hopeful, but this yielded similar results with a slightly longer interval between dunkings. Careful analysis revealed that the high back was the source of the problem and lead to the conclusion that the lower the back, the better it would work.

Then came a Kokatat kayaking PFD with all the flotation very low in both the back and the front. Problem solved!!!!! No more catching on the mainsheet; no more tacking capsizes.

But wait! Although this PFD did not cause capsizes, when I capsized for other reasons, its low but bulky front did an excellent job of catching on the lip of the gunnels and impeding the intrepid dunkee from getting back into the boat. After the embarrassment of capsizing, it seemed excessively humiliating to attempt a flop back into the boat only to be hung up half way by a protruding PFD belly.

There must be a better solution. Should I build a custom hybrid with a low back and a smooth front? No one but me would think that a PFD could be a do-it-yourself project, and even I admitted the notion was wacky.

According to some new products hype from various suppliers of sailing gear, the latest great new thing is the Zhik racer’s buoyancy vest. It is not Coast Guard approved, but hey, it’s from New Zealand. What do they care about the Coast Guard? It is CE approved so it is good enough for Europeans. I treated my self. It was a snug fit, but felt like it would not ride up in the back. The front was smooth and thin and appeared to solve the problem of getting back in.

The first use was not really intended to be a product testing day, but apparently I had forgotten how to gybe in moderate to heavy air, and the new PFD was swiftly put to the test. Although I was embarrassed by my sailing inabilities, my latest and greatest equipment proved to be first rate; the flop back into the boat was as graceful as could be. Another day shortly thereafter, I went out for a relaxing sail with the wind appearing to be about 9, just as forecast. Once on the water, the wind built to about 12 with gusts to 15. I had not learned anything more about gybing since the last outing and gave the product a rather thorough testing, easily slipping back into the boat several times.

It appears that all the practical problems have been solved!!! Good gear is a wonderful thing, a source of real satisfaction.

But what about those silly approvals? Do they really matter? Is there anything substantive there? Stay tuned…………………..

A Wife’s View: The High School Sailing Coach’s Life

The first thing he checks online each day is not his email, not the news, but the weather… specifically, the wind. In fact, the chart that NOAA produces that shows, by hour, the wind speed (with direction and gusts), the temperature (with wind chill and dew point), the humidity (with potential for precipitation and sky cover), and thunder and rain predictions is constantly on display or minimized on his computer screen. Once this information covering the next several days has been closely inspected, he can attend to other things.

The second order of business is checking his email inbox for communications from other sailors, coaches, his sailing students, or yacht club members that may need a response. He then generates his own email, invariably related to sailing. After that, he reads his favorite sailing blogs and perhaps checks out the news on MSN.

After breakfast, if he doesn’t have any boat repairs or maintenance to deal with, he may type out a post to his own sailing blog or work on coaching plans for an after school practice session or meet for his high school sailing team. There are regatta invitations and van reservations to be made, trophies to be ordered and picked up, students, parents, athletic directors and other coaches to inform, attendance and medical forms to be tracked, and rainy day lessons, student pairings, meet schedules, and practice drills to be planned. Everything must be coordinated with his co-coach, and schedules and meet results must be recorded on the high school sailing website and communicated to the league director. Fortunately, the co-coach handles all the news articles about the team that must be written.

About four afternoons a week and one day most weekends in the spring, his time is dedicated to the business of coaching the team through a practice session or a competition. Many meets are held at other schools and often the kids must travel in vans 30 minutes to an hour each way for an away event. The sailing coaches, unlike the coaches of some other sports, drive the vans themselves. (Because they get qualified to drive the vans, they are frequently asked to drive other sports teams to meets in their vast leisure time.) If they are out at an away meet past 6:30 pm, the team sometimes stops for pizza on the way back to town. It is typical for the weary coach to arrive home between 6:30 and 7:30 pm.

When he isn’t actively involved in coaching, he is sailing in a local yacht club race, he is taking a course on sailing or boating safety, he is sailing in some other yacht club’s sponsored races, he is reading sailing magazines or books by experts on sailing tactics, he is sailing in a regional regatta, he is working on one of his many small sailboats, or he is sailing by himself on the lake across the street.

Golf widows have nothing on me.

Mrs. Yarg

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

The 10,000 Hour Rule

I recently read a book entitled Outliers in which the author, Malcolm Gladwell, tries to explain why some people, the wunderkinds, are phenomenally more successful than the rest of us. Even though talent or even genius is a component of the success of Olympic athletes, captains of industry like Bill Joy, founder of Sun Microsystems, and Bill Gates, founder of Microsoft, and musical superstars like the Beatles, Gladwell maintains that these and many more examples of world class success have come only after 10,000 hours of work in their field.

10,000 hours! That’s a lot of hours.

And on top of that, those hours have typically been invested by the time our heroes are in their early 20’s.

How does that work for sailing? Our little hero starts at 7 years old and sails about 15 -20 hours a week over a nine week summer vacation season. By the time he reaches high school, he has about 1000 hours. In high school, there may be two 10 weeks school year seasons, spring and fall, in addition to the summer season. At that same 15 – 20 hours a week, he now does 500 hours per year. After high school and college sailing, he is up to about 5000 hours. Then the Olympic campaign starts, and a few years later he could be a real contender.

Now let’s take the case of a hopeless mediocrity like me who starts sailing when he’s 30. The aspiring sailor has a demanding job, he’s raising some kids, and he sails a couple of days a week for a total of maybe 6 hours. Over a long six month season, he accumulates maybe 150 hours. At that rate, it will take 33 years to equal the college graduate avid sailor’s experience. If we double our pace, adding lots of practice, we can cut that to 16 years.

Is it any wonder we can’t keep up with the top of the fleet, particularly in lasers where the top sailors are Olympic hopefuls? The wonder is that we can sail as well as we do with such a meager time commitment.

The 10,000 hour rule shows us clearly that our destiny is limited, but it also shows us that good old fashioned hard work is a prerequisite for excellence and success. Time and focused work is required for everyone to get better. Even the most gifted won’t make it to the top without huge amounts of time invested. Who would think a guy with 8000 hours of experience could still get a little better with another 2000? But if practice pays off at the very top, very flat part of the learning curve, imagine how much good it does down on the steeper parts of the curve where we mediocrities dwell?

So why are you still reading this? Get out there and practice!

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Team Race 2, 3, 5 (or 6) Dilemma

Today we encountered a dilemma which I think is common in team racing, especially in high school team racing. When is it better to chase the front, and when is it better to attack the boats behind to make a stable winning combination?

The specific situation which prompts this posting was a rounding of the windward mark in a 1, 3, 6 and then falling back to a 2, 3, 6 on the first reach of a port triangle course. After failing at an attempt to convert to a 1, 2, the 1, 2, and 3 boats were very close to each other on the entire reach with the opponent eking out an inside overlap on the 2 boat and a boat length lead on the 3 boat.

Conventional rules of thumb say to work on the boats behind once the 1 is lost, but what if there is a wide gap between 2, 3, and the next opponent behind? Should we give up on the 1 when the 1, 2, and 3 positions are tightly contested, and our competitive instincts tell us to fight for the 1, obtain a winning combination, and then have a good chance to convert to the most stable 1, 2 ? Most competitors are going to want to fight for the 1, at least for a while, and I think that is the right move, at least for a while.

At the leeward mark, the positions were the same (we had a 2,3, 6) except that the back of the pack had gotten closer to the front three boats. My team still did not give up chasing the 1; in fact, we chased the 1 all the way to the finish line, forcing the leader to finish before we went back to work on the boats behind. By then, predictably, it was too late, and we just missed converting to a last minute 2, 3, 5. So where were tactical mistakes made? When is it time to attack the boats behind and go for the 2, 3, 4? Shouldn’t we be comfortable enough with our team race skills to forgo our fleet race “go fast” instincts?

So long as there is still time to turn back and convert to the 2, 3, 4, I see no problem with chasing the 1 if her lead is very small. Downwind legs offer a good opportunity for two trailing boats to blanket the leader or execute a high low and decide the race up front. Failing to overtake the leader on the downwind leg, I think a compression trap at the leeward mark should be set to advance the 6. Even if a conversion to a 2,3,4 or a 2,3,5 isn’t accomplished, at least the race will be compressed, bringing the teammate in 6 closer. At the bottom of the final windward leg, the 2 and 3 can then cover, slow, and/or pin 4 and 5 to advance their trailing teammate. They have the entire windward leg to accomplish this.

To my mind, the absolute last point at which the 1 should be contested is half way up the final windward leg. (This is bordering on reckless and should be attempted only when the sailors in 2 and 3 are very confident they can out sail the sailor in the lead). If 2 and 3 insist on trying to catch 1 after rounding the leeward mark, they should split tacks and return to the center of the course no later than half way up. The 1 is likely to cover the 2 who should go to the unfavored side of the course. Hopefully, 3, taking the favored side, will be ahead by the crossing, then slow the opponent and convert to a 1, 2. If not, the strategy should immediately shift to play 2, the 2, 3, 4. It may take some time and distance to set up a cover on the opponents in back, so it is important not to wait too long. If the final windward leg is short, this approach may already be too late.

Just my thoughts. What do you other team racers think? Anyone with lots of experience want to help me out? Are the solutions different at higher levels of team racing?

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Action Through Inaction

Some days of sailing you learn more than others. In my case, many of those days are the ones when I’m not sailing the boat, repeating my own mix of a smidgen of good technique with a heap of bad habits. Sometimes the simplicity of simply watching, without the complication of ferreting out my own particular m√©lange of foibles and inadequacies, yields enlightening results. My day on the mark / rescue boat at Cottage Park was such a day.

There are two frostbite fleets at Cottage Park, Interclubs and Lasers. While sailing a Laser, I never really get to watch the IC’s, so this was really my first chance to watch them in action. Aside from an overall admiration of the skill and competitiveness of the fleet, I was most struck by the effect of the sailors’ body motions on the speed of their boats. While sitting near the leeward mark, I got a good look at their downwind and mark rounding techniques. Especially evident in the lead boat was the calm, almost stoic stability of this little bathtub of a boat. The crew remained motionless and the boat perfectly steady on the downwind run. Puffs of wind and bumps from the one foot waves never moved the mast from its rock solid fifteen degree windward heal. The approach to the mark was a full two boat lengths wide of the mark, allowing for a smooth turn tight to the mark. The turn was graceful and smooth, with even trimming of the sail doing most of the work of turning. There was a steady acceleration as the boat turned from a run to close hauled. It was utter simplicity and a thing of beauty.

By contrast, the back of the fleet looked somewhat different. With each puff came a slight roll to windward, countered by a crew weight adjustment and a steering adjustment which slightly overcompensated for the initial roll, and then finally a re-stabilization to the original position. The mark rounding had similar wobbles. The turn started closer to the mark with a tighter turning radius. The tight turn produced some rolling to leeward followed by an overcompensating roll back to windward. It was clear from the sluggish boatspeed that this was not a successful pump. With heavy congestion at the back of the pack, several boats tacked immediately after rounding, most slightly over rotating the quick turn and rolling back and forth before settling down to the new close hauled course.

The difference in boatspeed was remarkable. While the leader cruised effortlessly, the side to side motion of the boats and crews in the rear of the fleet did nothing but drag their pace to a slow motion version of the leaders’. This was a clear case of less is more. The inaction of the sailors in the lead produced more action in the speed of their boats, and all the actions of the other crews produced inaction in their forward progress.

This seems completely antithetical to the instincts of many Laser sailors. We tend to be enamored with the power of kinetics, frequently using our body motion to eek out a little more speed in the boat. We all love the feel of the acceleration of a well executed roll tack. We have all watched the big wind, big wave videos and admired the active physical styles of expert sailors in those conditions. But what about all the motions that don’t really have a specific purpose? Are they helping or hurting? Are wobbly runs really fast, or are they fast only when the flattening is perfectly combined with a little turning and a slight sail pump…something few of us can regularly achieve? There are clearly a lot of mysteries in Laser sailing for me (just watch me sail), and I’m beginning to suspect that the rocking and rolling does me more harm than good. Every time I do it, the water flow across the hull and blades is disturbed. That has to be bad. If I don’t get a compensating pump, it seems like a net loss to me. I guess it’s no surprise that what works for the Olympians just might not work for me, given the not so subtle differences in skill and physical abilities.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Strange Connections

Maybe it’s just me, but sometimes the most unlikely of things get connected in ways that are totally unexpected and totally delightful. Totally.

Such an instance happened for me concerning a US Sailing seminar about race management of all things. I expected an eight hour day about rules and procedures, and then about some subtleties in the rules and the procedures, and then a test on the rules and procedures. But what I took away from this the most was a lesson in humility.

The primary instructor seemingly had every credential there is in race management, judging, and umpiring, both from the national organization and the international one (ISAF). As impressive as his expertise and advice were, even more impressive were his admissions of times he did not know something, the times things went wrong, and the mistakes he’d made.

He discussed race management as an art as well as a science. The ever changing array of variables that the sailors deal with applies to the race organizers as well. The flow and fluctuations of wind, waves, current, and the actions of a multitude of independent sailors can make race management a matter of artful estimations and adjustments, just like sailing. Sometimes you just can’t know. You guess, you feel, and you readjust. You have to get comfortable with not knowing, and then you can draw on intuition, experience, and experimentation to make the best of a fluid situation.

I am reminded of a verse from the Tao Te Ching:

To know and yet think we do not know is the highest attainment;
Not to know and yet think we do know is a disease.

In the contemporary world with so many self-proclaimed experts it is totally refreshing to meet a REAL expert who spends much of his time proclaiming his lack of expertise. Totally.