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.