Wednesday, September 21, 2011

21st Century Chalk Talks in High School Sailing

When there is no longer enough time in the sailing day to teach sailing in the preferred format, what is the best alternative? Can you take a little time from each part of the universally accepted “best practices” structure – direct instruction (chalk talks), rigging, sailing, de-rigging, and debriefing – and make it work? Call me skeptical, but after years of trying, I don’t think I can make kids rig or de-rig noticeably faster. I also don’t think I can take much time from my 5 – 10 minute debrief. If I could explain any of the things I cover in chalk talks any quicker, I would have done it by now. That leaves shortening the sailing time…. Really? To shorten the sailing time significantly seems tantamount to giving up on the idea of a quality program.

How did I get into this mess? A little background……..

I have been coaching high school sailing for a number of years now and have always enjoyed the freedom to structure our schedule of practices and events in whatever way seems to work best. There has always been a need to strike a balance between how much time (and fun) we are allowed to have sailing and the academic and other demands of students’ schedules. Until now, the coaches, students and parents have been able to work out a schedule that works well for the overwhelming majority of those involved. No more.

Now, the principal has imposed limits on the amount of time devoted to sports. Two years ago, he and a certain faction of the school community succeeded in changing the schedule of the school day, pushing the start and finish times almost an hour later. The idea is that the late schedule may be more in sync with natural teenage circadian rhythms (sleep cycles), thus getting them more sleep. Dinner time has not changed in most households, so after school time has been the part of the day that has been truncated. While those involved in sports could see the writing on the wall and voiced their concerns, the late start faction promised cooperation in making things work. Turns out, year one worked well enough for sports programs shortened by 0 - 20 minutes but other after school/before sports activities were hit harder. In year two, the pendulum (axe) is swinging the other way and time for sports is getting cut even more, with the same mandatory time constraints being imposed across the board for all sports. Doesn’t matter what happens to the sports programs. Doesn’t matter how the kids feel about it.

Why does modern life so often come down to choices between the lesser of evils?

After thinking carefully about the specifics of our program and our collection of kids, my approach is to eliminate the standard chalk talk from our standard sailing day. That should allow the other parts of the day to remain intact. But I can’t really live without the content covered in the talks, so I have to provide it in a variety of other ways.

The first thing I have done is explain the schedule restrictions, and my adjustments to them, to the team, and ask for their cooperation in reducing the usual chaos that comes from dealing with a group of 30 teenagers. In lieu of daily verbal explanations to the group, boat assignments and the day’s activities are posted before practice begins. Three minutes after report time, boat and crew assignments are adjusted for any unexpected absentees. There is no more waiting for late comers, and those who are tardy may lose their boat or crew or both.

Sailors are expected to handle rigging and getting out on the water on their own. Boats are assigned to the same skipper every day and hardware issues are dealt with after the previous day’s practice, not during rigging time. Freeing myself from the boat mechanic role allows me to communicate with individual sailors about the drills or other special concerns. We do this as we rig.

We are lucky that we have a good balance between skippers who were on the team last year and new freshman (most with some sailing experience) who can crew for them. Experienced skippers give me confidence that each boat can be handled with enough skill to ensure safety in all but the most severe conditions. The experienced skippers can also serve as teachers and mentors for their freshmen crews. Another advantage of veteran skippers is that they have done most of our drills before and therefore require little or no explanation.

For teaching new skills, I have two options. On days with no wind or too much wind and there is little or no sailing time, I will do a long chalk talk. Hopefully kids can connect that talk to the sailing despite the separation in time and space. The other option is to communicate electronically with whatever material I can produce or find. So far I have used Youtube videos, US Sailing videos, documents scanned from books and other paper handouts, sailing websites, original text, original Powerpoints, and photos. I would love to use some of the CD ROM and DVD material I personally use in a classroom setting, but I think there are copyright laws to discourage this. I also haven’t quite mastered the technology required to do it. I feel like I’m teaching at Phoenix University.

I have several first impressions of this methodology. I am very impressed that the kids have embraced the demand for more personal responsibility. Tardiness has all but vanished and they have been very good at advance notification of absences. (It seems that telling them they absolutely cannot practice before a certain time causes them to show up early and start rigging.) Kids are doing a better job of taking care of their boats and fixing things before they break. I have relinquished the job of crowd controller and cat herder and focus far more on giving individual attention to those who follow all the instructions and work at developing the skills. The vast majority of the kids are taking advantage of this.

On the other hand, I still worry that the freshmen are not getting enough basic instruction. This methodology would never work with a preponderance of new sailors. I worry that many people do not absorb the material as well when presented this way. I worry that questions aren’t being asked. I worry that some may simply ignore the electronic presentations and therefore, that I have little sense of what they know and don’t know. And lastly, I worry that the “go go, hurry up” version of sailing reduces the social connections between sailors.

Much of the time we used to “waste” was spent making friends, and that, after all, is what keeps most of us sailing.


Friday, July 1, 2011

Sailing as a Spectator Sport

Like many avid sailors, I would love to see sailing become a more popular (probably too strong a word) spectator sport.

As a high school coach, I get to watch a lot of races from the water, but that is an opportunity limited to a few, and very limited by your position near or on the course and freedom to move around. I was on a spectator boat at the America’s Cup (back in the 80’s when it was in Newport, RI) and saw very little of the race. I was on a mark boat at the Laser Olympic trials and saw lots of windward mark roundings and nothing else. In coaching team racing, I am usually on the start boat or the finish boat, and from either perspective, I miss some of the action. It seems that short of having access to a helicopter, competitive sailing is usually just too hard to see to get a real sense of the overall sport.

Non-sailors compare watching sailing to watching paint dry…

(This is actually gel coat, which might be more interesting than standard paint. Is it going to cover? Will the sprayer spit all over the work or coat it evenly? Did I put in enough catalyst to make it dry or will it stay sticky forever? Fascinating, once you get into it! Sort of like sailing?)
The Extreme 40 racing series is trying to change all that. They have come to Boston this the Fourth of July weekend for Act IV of their series, and in my view, they are making it work. How?
  • Fast boats – 40 foot catamarans that can really fly – at least one pontoon at a time.
  • Large boats – visible from a considerable distance away.
  • Differentiation between boats – unique and colorful graphics on the sails.
  • Possibility of crashes – who doesn’t like a good NASCAR wreck?
  • Expert sailors – much scrambling around and perfect spinnaker sets every time.
  • Short races and many of them – about 20 minutes apiece – 43 races in five days at their last stop.
  • Knowledgable and entertaining play by play commentary over a loudspeaker – identifying the players, explaining the courses and sailing tactics, and generating crowd enthusiasm.
  • And the really critical factor, stadium viewing – the race is as close to shore as possible and bleacher seating is available. You can finally see the whole race, not just a couple of boats for a small part of the course!
Yesterday at Fan Pier, the wind was up and down and very shifty. (Being close to shore probably ensures this some degree even if the wind isn’t shifty in general.) For catamarans that can go from zero to full speed in about five boat lengths but can find themselves practically in irons during an almost perfect tack, being in the wind is everything. Consequently, the racing is very exciting with surprising and dramatic changes in position. Even with world class sailors in shifty conditions, it is nearly impossible to be consistently in the front. In consecutive races, there was a lot of movement from first to nearly last and vice versa.

I’ve seen a couple other instances and venues where it all works as a spectator sport. The world team race championship held on the shores of Newport a few years ago was similarly great viewing and exciting racing. Events held at MIT are close to shore on the Charles River and the roof deck of the boat house provides just enough height to see the entire race. Although I’ve never been there, the Hinman team race event in England reportedly provides stadium sailing better than anywhere else and draws crowds that pack the grandstands year in and year out.
Newport Team Racing Championship

Charles River Regatta

For me, all of these examples make sailing more viewer friendly than the highly touted America’s Cup which is progressively becoming more about politics, technical feats, and money than sailing. Maybe the new graphics with NFL style yellow lines on the field will help next time around. Like most other sailors, I will be watching the televised drama, but in comparison to attending the Extreme 40 racing, the viewing portion of the spectacle will be like watching gel coat dry.


Thursday, June 23, 2011

Race Courses - Thinking Outside the Box

Last January, I took over as Chairman of the Race Committee at my local club. I had been vigorously proposing changes in racing (or supporting those proposed by others) for the last four years and had encountered considerable friction among club racers along the way. A few changes were made, but the process felt like dragging blocks of stone up the Pharaoh’s ramps. Imagine my surprise this year when not only was my offer to become chairman accepted, but others greased the wheels for moving new ideas along.

I was told that I was a good candidate to help reinvigorate our increasingly anemic local racing (a problem shared by many, many local clubs these days). I was told I was able “to think outside the box.”

A short digression:

I have always found the overused phrase “thinking outside the box” irritating. Usually is it used to talk about thinking which moves from a small box to another box only slightly larger. Most people seldom go further than that.

Really creative people say, “What box?” For them, thinking and boxes have nothing to do with each other. I wish I were more like them. When it comes to sailboat racing courses however, the best I can do is to take some things from different boxes and put them together in a larger box. Sounds like a job in the shipping department to me. It may seem pretty pedestrian, but where would the world be if we couldn’t move boxes around?

One of our RC tasks was to find a way to make two divergent groups of racers happy when all fleets sail together on Sundays. The sloop rigged boats like our tried and true, traditional format of two 40 minute races in an afternoon. The Laser sailors come from backgrounds of high school / college racing and frostbiting where the pace is quicker, courses are shorter, and five or more races are run in a day. Sunfish sailors also prefer shorter courses and more races.

At our lake, we don’t have a large enough sailing area or enough manpower and power boats to run separate courses simultaneously, but a major goal was to get away from the “separate, but equal” feeling that the fleets were developing. Our challenge was how to run two completely different kinds of racing using the same marks and the same committee boat.

I offered two solutions that passed for “thinking outside the box.” The first was a trapezoid course which I lifted from a box labeled “standard practices for Laser regattas.” My original contribution was merely to suggest a more rectangular trapezoid and a finish line using the same RC boat used for the start line.

The standard trapezoid course works best for two fleets of similar speed having races of more or less equal duration. The first fleet sails the outer loop while the second fleet sails a windward-leeward-windward on the right side (inner loop) before reaching to the marks on the left and then sailing a leeward and reach to the finish. But with a little creative misunderstanding of the standard course, I looked at the diagram and saw a long course by sailing the traditional outer loop and a shorter windward-leeward course using only the marks on the right side of the course. This seems to solve our long course-short course issue, and separates the fleets for much of the time. We have not tried this yet, but I have high hopes.

The second solution was to take the trapezoid and just make it into a box. By putting the marks on the corners and a start-finish line in the middle of the right side, the windward-leeward course on the right could have a more desirable upwind finish. A little more fleet interference was possible, but both fleets get the upwind finish that they seem to prefer. Placing the start and finish lines on opposite sides of the committee boat reduces the interference significantly. (This idea came directly from a couple of other boxes I’ve seen along the way.)

We used this box course a couple of weekends ago, and it was a big hit. The sloop rigged boats were as satisfied as usual with their course, and the separation between fleets was so successful that we Laser sailors felt like we were the only fleet sailing. And, unlike Sundays in previous years, we got in many more than the two standard races.

So, what is working so far is not so much thinking OUTSIDE the box, but thinking OF the box. For multi-fleet racing, placing one windward-leeward box next to another windward-leeward box opens up many possibilities. Similarly, an additional re-labeled starting line box adjacent to and mirror imaged from the first (using the same committee boat) can separate traffic and allow starting fleets with less waiting time. Just rearranging familiar boxes presents many different opportunities. It’s not terribly creative, but sailing isn’t rocket science. It turns out that boxes are very useful in the shipping department!


Saturday, April 23, 2011

Book Review – Into My Father’s Wake by Eric Best

I somehow appear on an email list of book reviewers and was asked to review this book. For those of you who prefer brevity: “Great Book!”

For those of you with a little more time for detail, here goes:

Into My Father’s Wake, by Eric Best, is the story of a 5000 mile solo journey from San Francisco to Hawaii, round trip, aboard a 47’ ketch. But it is no simple sailing adventure. If it were, the reader might agree with Best’s father’s devastating response to the idea of writing it, “Why would anyone want to read a book about sailing alone to Hawaii and back. Lots of people sail to Hawaii.” Instead, Best follows the advice from an ironically non-literary and non-sailing source, a Hawaiian business man: “Give a chronological story of your fears. Ask yourself the most personal questions and try to answer them. People will listen to that.”

So Into My Father’s Wake is also a personal story. It is about the anxieties of an insufficiently experienced sailor who struggles with a lonely and sometimes overwhelming sea voyage. As the title suggests, it is also about the author’s hate/love relationship with his abusive father. It depicts a loving relationship with a young daughter, and it describes Best’s attempts to understand himself through psychotherapy. It bemoans writing aspirations that have been undermined by Best’s father. It touches on failed marriages. It reviews the effects of alcoholism on human behavior. It deals with solitude. And in the end, it reveals how coming to terms with the vast, indifferent, and all powerful ocean helps Best begin to come to terms with his father and most everything else.

Although it is a rich and complex book, the basic organization is quite straightforward. The chronological story of the sailing trip is the backbone that supports everything else. Episodes from his personal life are revealed in non-linear bits and pieces as they are remembered, pondered, and re-experienced by a solo sailor. The reader puts together enough details to understand the plot of the personal stories while more importantly sharing the author’s emotional experience of them. The approach is at times confusing or challenging to the reader, but upon reflection, it is a remarkably insightful and truthful depiction of how events are processed and reprocessed, particularly when we have a good amount of time to be alone with our thoughts.

The sound narrative structure that successfully integrates the broad range of subject matter in this book is evidence of a sophisticated and skilled writer. My false first impression from the title (and the fact that I was asked to review this book on a sailing blog) was that it would be a mixture of adventure and pop psychology told by a non-professional author wannabe. Boy, was that wrong! Only a few pages in, I was blown away by a literary and linguistic sophistication that I don’t seem to find lately. (Turns out Best went to Stanford Writer’s school and was a career journalist.) I don’t know if the rich, descriptive, and often poetic language in this book works for all readers nowadays, but it certainly works for me. A sample:

Nothing had ever seemed more vast and irrevocable to me than to be in the ocean at night, alone with her sounds and concealed intentions. Some ancient balance of flesh and water and electricity, deep legacies of evolution, would absorb signals unknown to science. To sail across vast ocean reaches would be to rearrange myself from the inside and realign to the universe.

Another of the book’s outstanding qualities aside from the richness of language, is the way it depicts a relentless undercurrent of uncertainty. I think this feeling is more universal than we care to admit and represents a part of us that is not comfortable to examine. Though he is ultimately a successful solo sailor, Best honestly and eloquently reveals his fear of massive freighters in the night, potentially unmanageable weather, irreparable boat breakdowns, and inadequate navigational skills that leave him frequently not knowing where he is. Similarly, he grapples with perceived personal inadequacies, his search for understanding through psychotherapy, the lasting impact of his father on his character, and most importantly, his own contradictory feelings toward his father.

As a story of the effects of an abusive parent, this is a powerful one. The gradual resurfacing of fragmented remembrances is a model for the way the dysfunctional relationship infuses the personality of Best and weaves its way into many aspects of his life. Despite a long pattern of evening alcoholic rages and regular beatings with a rubber hose, Best maintains an unbreakable bond with the man who taught him to sail and love sailing. But it is a severely damaged relationship with conflicts that seemingly cannot be resolved. Without time alone in the ocean, Best says he could not have come to this realization:

A child cannot reconcile violence at the hands of one who is supposed to love him, and whom he loves without condition….It cannot make sense to the child unless he is deserving of the violence and the pain an the anger behind it. How could that be?

Understanding the contradictions does not resolve them. Only a process of forgiveness and a Zen-like acceptance of things as they are, begun in the middle of the Pacific, help Best acknowledge his father as a flawed man driven by his own demons to commit despicable acts.

One of the best things that can be said about a book is that the reader finds meaningful personal connections or insights in it. In that respect, this book is completely successful with this reader. Many of us carry baggage and insecurities similar to Best’s in some way, and his struggles mirror some of our own. Best’s candidness and his insight challenge us to be as honest with our own issues. Many of us also identify with his search for the path that leads to letting go. At the mercy of an endless, almighty ocean, Eric Best begins to find his way.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Nothing 1000 Tacks Can’t Fix

I recently returned from a terrific four day Laser sailing clinic at Sailfit in Clearwater, Florida. I went with four of my regular sailing buddies, and all of us agree that we had a great time and learned a ton about laser sailing. It’s hard to say what the best parts of it were, but here is a list of choices:
• Small class of 6 people
• Entire group at more or less the same skill level
• How-to instruction from a bone fide expert and great teacher, Kurt Taulbee
• Individual, on the water coaching, one skill at a time
• Coaching to match our skill level and needs
• Video tape review of our sailing showing what we do well and what we do poorly
• Instruction on fitness and nutrition from another bona fide expert, Meka Taulbee
• Expert answers to every question we could think of
• Camaraderie with sailing buddies
• Warm water
• Escape from New England weather

Like many adult sailors and racers, I have attended my share of sailing seminars, heard one to two hour talks on the nuances of sailing a specific type of boat, and purchased a bookshelf of books and videos from experts and champions. Also like most adult racers, I have raced regularly, but practiced infrequently. I have sailed in some big regattas, trying to pick up tips and tricks from the experts, but I have not had any real coaching since the first “how to sail” lessons.

It’s amazing how much different getting some real coaching, especially from an expert, is from trying to improve sailing skills in the other ways. It is one thing to watch the champion on a video tape, but quite another to do what he does. Monkey see, monkey do has its limits. How do you know if you are doing what the champion did? Most of us can be pretty sure we’re not doing all of it, but what parts are we doing right and what parts are we doing wrong? What do we have to change? Kurt at Sailfit was great at sorting that out, and he has saved me years in trying to figure those things out myself.

I think he did the same things for all the other members of the group as well. His individualized feedback identified different strengths and weakness for each of us as we went through various skills. We each surprised ourselves a little in some of the things we did well. One of us could stand on the side deck and sail the Laser like an experienced surfer. The rest of us - not so good at that. Two others loved blind tacking. The rest - not so good at that. One could comfortably sail down wind, healed 45 degrees to windward right at the point of capsize. The rest looked more like old geezers. The process also revealed for each of us tendencies toward our own particular set of bad habits. We came away with individual lists of things to work on and Kurt’s voice in our heads telling us what we need to do to complete each skill better.

The last thing I came away with is Kurt’s response to fixing a bad habit or developing a new technique – “It’s nothing 1000 tacks can’t fix.” I don’t know if this line sticks with me because it appeals to a Midwestern hard work ethic or because it appeals to a high school coach who blows whistles through seemingly endless tacking drills. Whatever the reason, I know he’s right. But it begs the question “Are we willing to do the 1000 tacks?” Most sailors never really do them. We tend to read books and watch videos and “understand” it in our heads, but never really train our bodies to automatically execute the skills. We are also smart enough to realize that after the 1000 tacks, there are 1000 gybes, 1000 mark roundings (I suppose that’s really 1000 upwind and 1000 downwind), and 1000 starts (2000 in my case). Who’s got the time? It’s enough to make me really tired. Maybe 500 tacks are enough. Maybe 250. Oh god, I need a beer!

As soon as the weather is warmer and the wind is right and I have the time and……….., I’m going out and start those 1000 tacks. No, really. I’m going to try.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Spring Time in New England

After waiting a week for the ice to thaw, this was the first day on the water for our high school sailing team.  It's been a long snowy winter, but Spring is finally here!

Sunday, March 13, 2011


I know I have been very, very remiss in writing for this blog, but finally when there is something good to write about, I am scooped by Tillerman! It’s not so much that he said what I have to say, but that he used the photo at the center of my story. The photo is from last week’s Sailfit seminar which I attended. It was posted on the Sailfit facebook page, but incorrectly attributed to Jody …… There is no need to name the actual sailor, but he is one of the group of five friends from New England who attended the seminar.

Aside from the obvious entertainment value, the whole episode has an important lesson to teach about sailing.

The question is how to sail a laser without actually being in it. One possibility is to just fall off and let the boat sail itself. I’m sure that it takes remarkable skill to trim the sails and adjust the steering just right to keep the boat sailing after abandoning ship, but the better it is done, the longer the swim to ever get back together with the boat again.

A second possibility as one departs the boat is holding onto the mainsheet. The primary virtue of this approach is to stay in touch with the boat until it capsizes. (But, maybe there is another possibility. I wonder if it is possible to adjust the amount of body drag to achieve correct sail trim and keep the boat upright and going. Any volunteers to try this out?) Anyway…… this seems to be the preferred method so long as one holds on with the hands and does not wrap the line around arms, legs, or torso, which could cause some serious problems.

The third, but not very desirable method is holding onto the tiller extension. This seems to have been tried many times, and is apparently the best way to break a high performance carbon fiber tiller. Aluminum tillers don’t fare much better, except that they allow the sailor to stay connected to his boat. Holding onto the tiller extension was the method employed in the photo. It had two immediate results. The boat capsized (eventually) and the aluminum tiller looked like this:

Friday, February 4, 2011

This Old Hull – Laser Deck Repair with Air Pressure

Somewhat housebound after yet another New England snowstorm this winter, I’ve had the chance to work on my 23 year-old Laser hull with decks adjacent to the cockpit so soft and sagging that they seemed to be structurally unsound. My good friend and fellow Laser enthusiast, Yarg, told me that the problem might be delamination of the fiberglass-foam sandwich deck structure. Pictured below is a piece of the 1/2” thick deck material which I had cut out for an access port some years ago in order to repair a cracked mast step tube.

Inspecting the underside of the deck, using a mirror, and an existing access port next to the centerboard revealed what appeared to be perfectly intact fiberglass. However, pushing on the deck seemed to suggest an airspace as the upper deck surface made a crunching sound when it touched the rough foam surface below. My findings probing through a 1/16th inch test hole were consistent with the delamination theory as well. Perhaps the deck might be repaired by injecting epoxy into the space between the layers, but without easy access to the inside of the hull, clamping the two sides together would be problematic. Pushing from the top only would leave a seriously sagging deck. The answer appeared to be pressurizing the hull with an electric air mattress pump.

I began the repair by cautiously connecting an electric air mattress pump to the stern drain hole applying just enough pressure to cause the sagging deck to rise. Too much pressure, causing the hull to explode, would be counterproductive. Drilling holes in the tubing reduced the air pressure as necessary. After covering the deck with masking tape, I drilled an array of 1/16th inch holes into the soft areas of the deck using a hexagonal pattern, 2 inch hole to hole spacing, and 3/8th inch depth. The hand drill had a stop using a piece of dowel to prevent drilling too deep. Five 1x2s clamped across the deck prevented the deck from rising above its normal flat position when the air pressure was applied.

West Marine extra slow curing epoxy allowed enough time for me to inject all the holes before it thickened. I injected the epoxy using a West Marine syringe with a tapered nozzle that fit snugly into the 1/16th inch holes. I loaded the syringe by removing the plunger and pouring in the epoxy. It takes way too long to try to suck it into the syringe. I injected one syringe-full (about ½ ounce or 15 ml) into only 1/3 of the holes which worked out to holes with a 4 inch spacing pattern. The other 2/3 of the holes allowed for excess epoxy and air to escape. The average epoxy thickness was about 2.2 mm or 3/32th inch. It was comforting to see the excess epoxy and air bubbles flow out of almost every hole when the air pressure was turned on indicating that the epoxy had spread out well. I injected some extra epoxy into any hole that was not oozing.

After leaving the air pressure on for 24 hours (praying the pump wouldn’t conk out before the epoxy hardened) the deck appeared to be quite solid. A few of the holes were leaking air, so the pressure was turned off, and the leaking holes were sealed by injecting a little more epoxy. By the way, pressurizing the hull is a good way to find other leaks as well. Running my hand under the joint between the deck and the hull revealed a previously unknown large leak near the bow with air blowing out. I’ll do a search for smaller leaks at some point. The final step for the deck project was to apply some Gel Coat repair material to the 1/16th inch holes.

The soft, sagging deck is now flat and solid, but will it be good for another 23 years (or even 23 minutes of sailing in rough conditions)? Time will tell.


Monday, January 24, 2011

It’s Time to Ban Single Use Plastic Water Bottles

College sailing has banned single use water bottles from its events. Real rules against it! Sailors must drink from re-useable bottles and hosts must provide a source of water to refill those bottles.

The New England Scholastic Sailing Association (high school sailing) has approved the same policy on a voluntary basis.

Host schools and coaches are tired of finding bottles in their sailing waters, tired of picking up the empties after an event, and tired of disposing of the mountain of trash. The bottles are frequently discarded without recycling the plastic.

My first reaction to this information was totally selfish. How will addressing this inconvenience me? I take along bottled water when I sail and buy cases of it for high school regattas. My sailing facility does not have a readily available source of clean drinking water to provide to regatta participants. Is it really a big enough problem to warrant new efforts from me?

Upon looking into it, it IS a big enough problem. In fact, it’s big enough that I’m ashamed I haven’t changed my ways before now.

Some bottled water facts:

• 60,000,000 plastic water bottles are discarded EVERY DAY in America.

• Only 23% (highest estimate I’ve found) of plastic water bottles are recycled. The rest end up in landfills or worse, where they can leach chemicals into the ground water.

• It takes ½ cup of oil to manufacture and transport each bottle.

• It requires 3 times as much water to make the bottle as it does to fill it.

• In producing each bottle, the CO2 released into the atmosphere would fill 12 balloons.

• Bottled water costs between 200 to 10,000 times as much as tap water.

• Virtually every independent study on bottled water shows some contamination from bacteria and/or synthetic chemicals.

• Many of the leading brands are not mountain spring water, but merely tap water that has been run through filters.

A simple alternative is tap water in reusable plastic, aluminum, or stainless steel bottles. Reusable metal bottles can be bought for as little as $4 each when purchased in bulk. Plastic bottles are even cheaper.

If water quality is the issue, it should be comforting to know that the safety of tap water is more regulated than the safety of bottled water. Other quality issues depend on a comparison of specific bottled products to specific tap water sources. When necessary, filters are available to upgrade the chemical and mineral purity, odor, and taste of tap water. We can almost always find a suitable tap water source.

When you think about it, you have to admit that re-usable bottles and tap water, especially when filtered, would work in almost every situation where we commonly drink bottled water. It’s hard to rationalize the need for wasteful production and distribution processes and the harmful environmental consequences of single use water bottles.

We have two fundamental choices. As the saying goes, we become part of the solution or we are part of the problem.

Every time we refill a bottle, we reduce the number of new bottles by one, and we take a step in the right direction. 59,999,999 bottles on the heap. Our reuse might encourage a friend to do the same. 59,999,998 bottles on the heap. College sailors are doing their part, and now, so are many high school sailors. 59, 998,000 bottles on the heap.

Here’s a visual representation of the rate at which plastic bottles are discarded.

The internet offers lots of information of the subject. Here are some sites and videos that make the point in 13 minutes or less. website with a 9 minute video reviewing the problems with bottled water - water/ - offers an entertaining 10 minute video explaining the life cycle of single use bottles with an anti-bottled water industry tone.

Penn and Teller have a 13 minute entertaining video debunking the perceived quality of bottled water -

A short tap water vs. bottled water discussion -

Monday, January 17, 2011

The Path to FAIRNESS

The recent talk on Tillerman’s blog and discussion on the Laser Forum mark another milestone down a new road for laser sailing and perhaps a new understanding of the term “one design.” The old laser map to FAIRNESS directed us down one of two over priced toll roads (New Jersey Turnpike and Garden State Parkway), but the sailors’ free market, global positioning systems have recalculated and shown us another road. The new road is getting a lot of traffic, perhaps most of it, but there seems to be a question about whether both the old and the new are headed to the same FAIRNESS. One FAIRNESS is in the state of supplier to customer relationships, and the other is in the state of competitor to competitor relationships. I believe that they are sister cities, Minneapolis and St. Paul, Boston and Cambridge.
I contend that both roads will lead you to fairness among competitors. Despite the highway confusion, I think laser sailing is as fair and equal as any sailing, except for the influence of those damn #@*&^% mommy boats. I also think that the free market is more effective than the class rules in keeping it that way.

I don’t mean to promote a free market like some damn #@*&^% Republican politician with tunnel vision. Instead, I mean to encourage equity in the context of a little guy vs. big guy, David vs. Goliath story.

When it comes to sails, Big Laser has used its monopolistic position to exploit its customers for a long time now. They sell a lousy product (mediocre, at best) for a ridiculously high price, a combination of planned obsolescence and authoritarian pricing that would make any damn #@*&^% super-capitalist proud. To the customers, it seems like extortion. To Big Laser, it may just be making a living and keeping the wheels of business turning. After all, they are sailors and boat builders, not damn #@*&^% Wall Street bankers. I like to think that they did not anticipate that the requirement to use overly-expensive sails would come to undermine the universally acclaimed goal of fairness. BUT IT HAS. Many sailors can not or will not spend what it takes to keep up with those who have unlimited budgets. Do the class rules help even the playing field? Not so far.

Thankfully, the free market has allowed a young upstart like Jim Meyers at Intensity sails to jump in, make a living for himself, and fulfill a need in the marketplace. (Cue America the Beautiful in a medley with the Chinese national anthem – that’s where the sails are actually made.) From my talks with Jim, I understand his business to be mostly a response to overpriced products he finds in the market, most notably the class legal Laser sail. By giving us more bang for our buck, he is leading us to FAIRNESS in the state of supplier to customer relationships. He is giving us the same product for one third the price, complete with prompt and friendly service.

But is it really the same product? It sure seems to be. Jim says it is as close to the North sail as possible. (The North cloth is proprietary, so he uses the closest product he can find, which seems to be slightly more durable.) Sailors don’t seem to be finding any competitive differences. Although Intensity makes no claims about this, it seems to me that with its sails, we maintain FAIRNESS in the state of competitor to competitor relationships.

For several years now, more and more Intensity sails have been used for local club racing - to the chagrin of Big Laser (as I discussed last year). Tillerman reports that Cedar Point has altered their sailing instructions to include them. I did the same for our local regatta three years ago. In the two places I sail most frequently, there are far more Intensity sails on the water than North sails. I suspect that in the fleet as a whole in our local club there are at least five Intensity sails for each North sail. I wonder what percentage of North sail owners also have an Intensity sail or two.

The market is shouting its approval of equal or better products at lower prices. And the shout is increasing in intensity. (Pun intended.) Intensity sails will be seen more and more at bigger regattas. Is anyone going to complain that those of us in the middle (I wish) to the back of the pack are using them? Will we be asked to leave? (So far, I have been non-confrontational and have used my North sail at Regattas, even though I might do better with a newer Intensity.) Does anyone really think that the $180 sail has an advantage over the $563 sail? I think the only advantage is a new sail versus an old sail. If we could buy sails for $180, everyone would be more likely to have a new sail, and therefore a more level playing field. The rules say buying a $180 sail instead of a $563 sail is cheating, but common sense and the marketplace know that FAIRNESS is not the operative concept here.

The consternation over all this will continue to go on for a number of years, but the market forces will eventually win out in some way. The Intensity Laser class will thrive at the local and regional level, and we’ll all have fun and FAIR sailing. Big Laser will have to decide if it wants a separate class for world class and Olympic sailors or whether it should make some compromises to keep it all together. Assuming that those who make the rules and set the prices want to keep it all together, why are taking so long to do something about it?