Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Discretion is the Better Part of Valor

Last Sunday the forecast was for 17 MPH winds all afternoon. The direction was Southwest, our most stable and dependable direction. Perfect conditions for Laser sailors who are manly men, who conquer challenging conditions, and who wrestle the boat into performing at peak performance.

Sadly, that is not really me. I’m not in the shape I should be for serious or even semi-serious Laser sailing. I always mean to do something about that, but for a number of reasons, it doesn’t happen (Another list? Damn you and your lists, Tillerman!). I’m too short to get enough leverage to hike as successfully as others at my weight. I’m a little light for a full rig in a big breeze and a little too heavy for a radial. Examined positively, I’m an inbetween-er; examined less charitably, I’m an old, out of shape, chicken shit.

For a while now, I have been wondering at what point (wind velocity, not physical deterioration) I should switch to a radial. World Champion Great Grand Master, Peter Seidenburg’s advice to me was about 20 MPH, where he is as fast with a radial as the quality sailors with full rigs. I don’t play in his league, so I look at it as the point at which I sail faster with a radial than I sail with a full rig, and the point at which I have more have fun with the wind as opposed to getting beat up by it.

Sunday was another experiment with that quandary. After 20 minutes of wind evaluation (or really just indecision), the wind tended toward big, and I tended toward small, and picked the radial.

Two full rig guys dropped out before the first race. I got a great start against four full rig guys (and the Sunfish guy), but tried to tack in a big header, wrapped the mainsheet around my foot, over rotated the tack, and capsized. Less sail area doesn’t cure stupid or clumsy. Watching the race from behind on the downwind leg, I had a great view as a big gust death rolled one boat and then proceed down the course to capsize the leader just as he hardened up around the leeward mark. Back in the race, I just had an easier time keeping flatter, watching the squirrelly puffs and shifts, and generally keeping my head out of the boat than if I had been constantly fighting the wind. By the end of the second windward leg, I had passed the remaining hardy souls valiantly fighting the brave fight of full rig vs. big breeze. It ended up with only two lasers and the Sunfish guy left at the finish. My little radial won by a full leg of the course, and the Sunfish was only edged out at the finish by the laser who had capsized at the leeward mark. I love it when the little sail beats the big ones – when David beats Goliath.

That day, I made the right call. It seems that “old age and treachery” won out – “discretion was the better part of valor.” It just makes sense that as the boat approaches maximum hull speed, more sail area is no help. In Lasers, the flatter the boat up wind, the faster it goes. When it’s all I can do to keep flat with a radial, more sail would be a liability. Off the wind is another story. On a reach, the radial just can’t keep up. But most courses these days are windward leeward, and it seems that straight down wind the small sail isn’t much of a liability. For me it’s a question of keeping my head out of the boat. If a full rig produces enough boat handling difficulties to prevent looking back for the puffs or the waves, then it won’t be faster. Sailing the wind and the waves works much better for me than more power.

One of the really great features of the Laser is the ability to change sail area; we should take advantage of it more often. Every big boat sailor matches sail area to the conditions as standard operating procedure. Laser sailors, except for the big guys, have that option and should use it more… at least according to this old, out of shape, chicken shit.


  1. I've been thinking about it for a while. And you've almost convinced me. Yes, this may be the year I buy a Radial rig. We all have our limits when the wind reaches a point where "a tad less boatspeed but actually in control" is somewhat faster around the course than "spending a lot of time admiring the shiny finish on my upturned hull".

  2. How does your club react to someone who changes sail area to suit the wind. The VWDTP in Groningen, where I sail, doesn't worry for club race series and most competitors are ok with it too. Though some of the heavier guys moan a bit when Martien, at 55 kilos, gets her standard sail out and whips the lot of us on the light days.

  3. No one complains. I think we're all just curious about what works for any given conditions and our particular weight.