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 mélange 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.

No comments:

Post a Comment