Thursday, December 6, 2012

How Oily Are Your Sails?

I have been buying Laser sails for years – about one per year.  I never gave a thought about where they were made.  There was no significant difference in geography between North sails made in Sri Lanka and Intensity sails made in China.  They were both a continent and an ocean away.  There is a big difference in price, but transportation is not a cause of any of that.  What difference does transportation and burning oil make in this “attention Walmart shoppers” price-is-everything culture?
As I have been shopping for new sails for our high school 420 fleet, more options have become available.  I have gotten quotes from several big name sail companies, who shall remain nameless, and it seems they all make their sails overseas.  I learned that one doesn’t even have their corporate headquarters in this country or even on this continent.  One local/national/international company makes some sails in the Caribbean, while the others use the same counties as above with the addition of Thailand.  But I have also been in touch with one independent sailmaker who still runs a small shop and actually makes sails. He has found a niche in small, one design boats and appears to be doing quite well.  He is the premier “go to” sailmaker for at least one class.  He is not the cheapest option, but not the most expensive either.
While buying sails is a matter of service and value, maybe it is about some other things as well.  I will leave the matter of big corporation versus small independent business for another time.  But having this choice has gotten me thinking about the many miles of transportation and barrels of oil that go into our sails in particular and the globalized world in general. It seems crazy that shipping things around the world in the pursuit of cheap labor makes economic sense, but the evidence is clear.  We sailors choose globalization.

So what if we burn a little bit of oil shipping things from Asia?   It must be a small amount given that, from what I can glean from rates for shipping containers, it seems to cost only $3 - $5 to get a set of sails across the Pacific when they are shipped in volume.  A bargain at double the price.  Not much of a financial incentive to buy local.

But we are a little deeper into oil than that.  First, our Dacron sails are made from oil.  I don’t know how much oil, but every thread is synthetic, oil derived material.

Second, the manufacturing process involves more than a one way trip.  Wondering just how long that trip was, I decided to trace the travel of the Dacron for just one of the corporate sailmakers quoting our sails.  They proudly proclaim that they use only Challenge Dacron sailcloth manufactured in Vernon, Connecticut.  Challenge proudly proclaims that they use IW70 Dacron thread made by Performance Fibers in North Carolina.

So let’s trace the journey - from making the thread in North Carolina to hoisting a sail in Boston.  (I’m ignoring the travels of the oil from God knows where, to a refinery, to North Carolina.)

North Carolina to Connecticut – 650 miles
Connecticut to LA for shipping overseas – 2900 miles
LA to China – 7900 miles
Travel inside China - ?????
China to LA – 7900 miles
LA to Boston – 3000 miles

Total – 22,350 miles  (just shy of a lap around the equator)

Am I crazy to think this is excessive?

Should we think about how much oil goes into our plastic boats?  At least the plastic boats I have been using are made in nearby Rhode Island.  It could be worse.  There is a company that makes 420 hulls in China.  Right now, Laser Performance is shipping Lasers from England while the Rhode Island factory is busy making Sunfish and 420s.

It seems likely that there is more oil involved in each of our sailboats than there is in the gasoline powered chase boat I use.  I wonder how much gas has to be burned before it evens out.

So much for our romantic ideas about our environmentally friendly sport.  Those days involved wooden boats and cotton sails, and very few of us want to go back there.

Monday, August 13, 2012

The Self-Imposed Agony of Defeat

Remember the old TV sports show, Wide World of Sports?  Its introductory catch-phrase was “the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.”   What I remember most is the concurrence of the phrase “agony of defeat” and the video of a skier crashing through a fence on a missed landing from an enormous ski jump.  I was convinced the guy broke several bones and/or suffered a debilitating head injury.

At this year’s Olympics, “the agony of defeat” took on a whole new meaning.  Instead of describing a horrible failure in the execution of a sports skill, it better described the silver medalists’ reaction to the scoring and the podium presentations.  The silver medalists accomplished amazing things and had spectacular performances, but one person in a world of 6,790,000,000 had a very slightly better performance.  It was absolutely crushing.


For most of us, especially us very competitive folks, it is easy to understand the disappointment of getting so close to victory and then finishing second because of one small imperfection.  For Chinese athletes, the emotions extend to letting down the entire country of 600,000,000 people and whole communist/capitalist system of government.  (Are we still doing national medal counts because we are trying to prove that democracy is better than communism, or the other way around, or is it just nationalism?)

Personally, I quite naturally slip into thinking that there is one winner and everyone else is a loser.  That makes me, and probably many of you, a loser almost all of the time.  I am right at home feeling inadequate and unworthy.  I relate to grumpy silver medal winners losers more than gold medal winners, and even more to devastated fourth place non-podium Olympic Games participants bigger losers …. I attribute my reaction to lack of affection and unconditional approval from my parents, and consider it a character defect – one more inadequacy.  I had no idea that so many suffer from the same malady.

At the highest level of sport, it seems very competitive athletes can turn something they love and excel at into a miserable grind with a painful payoff.  Just once I would like to hear an athlete say “I loved the four years of training” and the competition at the Olympics was “the most exhilarating experience of my life even though I didn’t win gold.”  Instead they talk about all the grueling work and how bad they “want it.”  For all but one, they are some of the world’s best examples of the Buddhist principle that “desire causes suffering.”  Even for the one, there seems to be a lot of agony in victory.

So let’s CUT IT OUT!  Playing sports is fun!  Getting better at something is satisfying.  Playing the game is a fascinating challenge in itself.  Can’t that be enough?  Get some perspective. 

It’s therapeutic to say that, but saying and doing are different things.  A week ago, I spent the afternoon racing my laser in about 17 knots of wind.  I would have been comfortable in my radial, but the wind looked to be only 10 when we went out, so we all sailed full rigs.  Most of us were totally overpowered.   It was a hard day of racing, perhaps even miserable.  Every upwind was a slow, painful, poorly sailed grind.  Speed and positions were determined by sailor weight.  The same guy (not me) was out front every time.  I never even challenged him.  Only grievous errors like terrible tacks and knots in mainsheets changed the finishing order of us lightweights.  After about two-thirds of our usual sailing time, we had all had it. 

Once on shore, I realized that it had never even occurred to me to enjoy all that wind by taking a few minutes to go off on a screaming planing reach just for fun.  It hadn’t occurred to any of us.  Our mindset was that racing and trying to win were everything, even when there was very little competition.  I ended my day feeling like an exhausted, unsatisfied silver medalist. 

Of course racing is fun and challenging and full of goodness.  But some days, maybe sailing should just be this:

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

An Incomplete and Non-scientific Guide to Finding Yourself a Sailing Helmet Part 2- Selecting a Sailing Helmet

In view of the colossal failure in manufacturer marketing of sailing helmets, I thought it might be helpful to those with some interest to share what I have learned about available helmets.

The world of helmets is surprisingly large.  There seems to be a helmet for everything – biking, skiing, skateboarding, surfing, windsurfing, hockey, girls’ soccer, kayaking, whitewater rafting, and on and on.  (By the way, when I was young, all of these things were done without helmets.) 

As I started to look around at this multifaceted world, I was lucky to stumble onto some marketing from a kayak helmet manufacturer telling me that their foam padding is wonderful because it does not absorb water.  Foam in other helmets turns into a sponge when wet, and sponges are neither good padding nor comfortable on the head.  Ah ha!  The helmet world is divided, and watersport helmet land is the place to look.

Every kind of helmet I looked at claimed it was rugged and safe.  There is a standard certification, the CE 1385 international standard for headgear for whitewater sports, which indicates if a helmet is safe enough.  They all seem to have it, but one should actually verify.  Mostly I go by the pictures.  If people wear a particular helmet to kayak over waterfalls or surf 40 foot waves, it is good enough for me.  Also, my point of comparison for ruggedness and safety is the baseball hat I have been wearing – a pretty low standard.

Turns out helmet safety is closely related to how well the thing actually stays on the head during impacts.  Helmets that move around aren’t so safe.  One universal in this snug fit concept is that there needs to be support of the occipital lobe, the back of the head a little below the equator.  There are two approaches to this.  One is an adjustable strap and the other is a helmet that extends down behind the head a couple of inches further down than a baseball hat.  The majority of kayak helmets use the first method.  The bowling ball shaped helmets use the latter.

As a laser sailor, I have a very specific need for a low profile helmet.  In any boat with a low boom, there is a tradeoff between seeking protection from a bump and making one’s head bigger and higher to more likely receive that bump.  Minimal distance between the top of my head and the top of the helmet is imperative.  This criterion eliminates many kayak helmets that otherwise appear to be durable and well designed.  The biggest problem is that only a few models are called “low profile”, and even then, the term is undefined.  You are left guessing from pictures that were never intended to show what you are looking for.

A helmet for sailing ought to be comfortable.  It ought to be unobtrusive, lightweight, and not cause overheating or sweating.  Many helmets have holes for ventilation.  For those of us replacing a baseball hat with a helmet, the helmet should have a visor to keep sun out of the eyes.  The internet can show us some of this but determining if a particular helmet is too hot or otherwise uncomfortable requires trying it on and testing it out.

And maybe it matters what the helmet looks like and how it affects our image.  Let’s face it, sailors don’t want to appear dorky.  Since sailing pros are definitely not dorky, I wanted to know what they are wearing.    Part 1 of this blog post covers some of this. So, having determined some of the things a sailing helmet ought to be, I tried a few out.

Shred Ready “Sesh”.  I bought this helmet for kids on my sailing team after a few concussions and weeks of missed sailing time.   It’s a kayak helmet with applicable foam and safety certification.  It is sold in sizes with an adjustable occipital strap to make it secure.  It has no shims, so the fit is not quite perfect, but it is good enough.  It’s lightweight and has a low profile.  The protective foam is covered with a fabric that eliminates the clingy, somewhat sticky feeling of foam.  There are small gaps in the lining that promote air/water flow through the 11 ventilation holes. It’s comfortable and unobtrusive to wear.  In terms of image, it is a skateboard helmet (very round and no visor) adapted to watersports.  Maybe that is a good look for kids.  The price is great, $39, the least expensive helmet I considered.
Predator “Lee”.  This kayak helmet looks like a baseball hat which is apparently a cool look in the adventure kayak world.  Unfortunately, this helmet does not work at all for me.  It is too narrow for my head and even with ample shims, it does not fit right.  Although it was billed as a low profile design, it has a higher profile than any others I tried.  It also feels a bit heavy compared to others.  I had to send this one back.  Price $129.
ProTec “Ace”.  I tried this one on in a local REI store.  They had a grand total of 1 in stock.  Not a big seller.  It is a spherical type with a tight fit all around.  It is sold in several sizes and allows minor adjustments for sizing.  The one I tried was a good fit.  It is low profile and lightweight.  It has 16 ventilation holes and seems like it would do the job.  It does not have a visor of any kind, so it is not right for me, but it is the choice of Emeritus Team New Zealand.  Price $45.  A model with adjustable occipital strap is $65.
Gath “Gedi.”  This is my current favorite, and I wear mine quite often.  Gath helmets are spherical and come from the world of surfing. They seem to be the helmet of choice for surfing, windsurfing, and kiteboarding.  They have the usual foam and safety certification.  They come in several sizes, and the fit is quite snug with three interchangeable wrap around head band pieces to get a good fit.  The “Gedi” weighs less than a pound and its cousin, the “Surf”, weighs even less.  Gath prides itself on being low profile, and they are.  I bought the “Gedi” model because it comes with a removable visor.  It has vent holes at the top, but they are much smaller than those on the “Ace” or the “Sesh”.  I was afraid the snug fitting foam headband and smaller vents would make it too hot, but it was surprisingly comfortable when I wore it in 90 degree weather.  However, when the wind dropped below 5 MPH, it was hot – but isn’t every hat?  I have since tried a sweat resistant headband under the helmet and this feels cooler. The “Gedi” also comes with plugs for the vents when used in cooler months and insertable ear protectors.  Apparently surfers can burst eardrums in a fall, but I currently can’t get my laser to go fast enough to worry about that. In terms of image, I am aware that I am wearing the helmet of AC 45 sailors, but I’m not sure others realize how cool this makes me.
Shred Ready “Supper Scrappy.”  Eric is trying out this model and seems to like it.  It is a baseball hat style, but with a much smaller visor.  In addition to the standard safety certification, Shred Ready uses a different foam that is even better at impact resistance.  I was surprised to discover that it has as low a profile as any I have seen.  It has an occipital strap and shims to get a good fit.  Its baseball hat styling may be less jarring to those not used to seeing sailing helmets.  It looks like another good choice.

Okay.  I have done my best to market helmets that work for sailing, but I’m sure there are more helmets well suited to this purpose.  If there are any manufacturers out there who want an honest opinion and perhaps my invaluable endorsement of their product, you are most welcome to send me a helmet to test drive.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

"Respect" the line?

Why can’t sailing instructions just say what they mean and mean what they say?  If the sailors know what the race committee means to say, but they haven’t said what they mean, then what are the rules?  What the RC means?  Or what the Sailing Instructions say?  Of course, it has to be what the Regatta’s SI’s  say.  But when the RC can’t say what they mean, it frequently follows that is the SI’s are confusing, incomplete, self-contradictory, or just nonsensical.

Case in point:

The Sailing Instructions at a recent regatta I attended describe the start and the finish lines and then add this sentence in bold typeface:  “Before and After starting, Yachts shall respect the starting and finishing lines except when in the process of starting of finishing.”  (Capitalizations are theirs.)

One of the course diagrams is the following:

I think this is all an attempt to say that the start/finish line is closed. “Closed”  is a commonly used expression meaning that boats racing cannot cross it when heading from one mark of the course to the next mark of the course. Closed lines are used for two reasons.  One is to make things easier for the scorer; when a boat crosses the line, write down the number; the boat is finished.  (Of course when that boat crosses the line again, someone has to sort it all out.)  The other is to minimize the interference of boats sailing in different fleets or on different legs of the same course.

Given that this instruction was written for a situation where up to 4 fleets would be on the same course, I think it is safe to say that there was an appropriate concern for interference between fleets.  My opinion is that careful spacing of the starts and the use of courses that separate fleets are far more effective tools to accomplish the goal, but many also use a closed line as a tool.  Even a closed line does not guarantee boats will not interfere with each other, but it should reduce it.  (For the regatta in question, the RC very successfully spaced the starts so there was never anything remotely like interference in the vicinity of the start/finish line.)

Although the goal of minimal interference is noble, and the closed line is a tool for accomplishing the goal, the Sailing Instructions still need to say exactly what is intended and prevent any unforeseen consequences.  Dick Rose does a great job of explaining all the possible unintended consequences and proposing sailing instruction wording to avoid them. Just for fun, let’s look carefully at what these particular Sailing Instructions say and the problems they could cause:

                                         *                     *                           *

First, there are the problems with closed lines that Dick Rose points out. 
e.g. A boat who believes she is OCS, but is not, and returns to the line has broken the rule.  The line actually becomes an obstruction for sailors except at a start or finish.  However, because safety is not involved, a boat cannot hail for room to tack at this obstruction, somewhat changing the RRS and possible racing tactics.

Then, “Before and after starting” means at all times except at the exact instant of starting.  This includes sailing in the prestart, sailing the course after the start, and all the time before racing, after racing and in between races – virtually the entire day.  Let’s just replace the phrase with “at all times.”  By making this provision in force at all times, any boat that crosses the line while sailing around in between races should be disqualified.  But in which race does the DSQ apply, the prior one or the next one?  This prohibition could apply even if no races are currently in progress.  Do they really mean this?  Could I have protested every boat that did this?  (I could have been the only boat left!)  A boat protested for this would have no way to exonerate herself, because it is not a Part 2 rule. 

Next, the word “respect” seems very peculiar, and I can’t recall seeing it used in a sailing context before.  “Respect” is certainly not a term defined in the RRS, so standard dictionary definitions apply.  The first definition in my Oxford dictionary (verb) is “regard with deference, esteem or honor.”  Should we salute the line?  The second and closer definition is “avoiding interfering with, harming, degrading, insulting, injuring or interrupting.”  Okay, it looks like non-interference is the point.  But must we respect the line, not the boats?  Is it supposed to mean “don’t cross the line” or “don’t interfere with starters and finishers?” If the intent is the first, why not just use the word ”cross”, instead of respect, like everyone else does?  If the intent is the latter, the rules become very problematic.  Would avoiding a starter or finisher override the RRS?  Imagine a starboard boat having to keep clear of a port boat.  Do they really mean this?

And the pièce de résistance is the combination of this peculiar wording with the course diagram above.  The diagram shows the second windward leg passing through the starting line in direct contradiction to what I think was intended.  This could have mattered in our regatta.  In one race, the first place boat informed the second place boat that the line was closed.  Both went around the line.  I was in third, didn’t hear and went right through the line.  Had I been disqualified, which I wasn’t, could I claim that I sailed the course as diagrammed and the other boats failed to do so, resulting in their disqualification and my reinstatement?

                                         *                     *                           *

In the regatta having these SI’s, I sailed over the start line …… I was not disqualified.  Why?  Was it because I saluted the line as I went through it or because I didn’t interfere with any starter or finishers?  Perhaps the use of the word “respect” was a clever way to leave the line open except when there could be interference with starters or finishers.  Probably it was because the RC was not keeping a close eye out for enforcing the rule at times when a closed line was completely unnecessary.   Why would the RC even think about it with boats spread out all over the course and no one interfering with anyone else?  Seems to me that selective enforcement, which creates a fundamental problem with any rule, could be a frequent result.

In general, I hate the whole idea of a closed line.  As we see here and in the Dick Rose article, it is difficult to write the SI’s to say what needs to be said.  It is too easy to create a rules disaster that may have no good resolution, and so it is too easy to cause selective enforcement.

I don’t like the idea of adding an obstruction in the middle of the race course.  Usually it forces an early commitment to picking one side or the other, not allowing the sailors to play shifts and puffs for a certain period of the race. 

And I think it is unnecessary.  It is the least effective of the available tools in preventing fleet interference.  Timing the starts correctly works very well.  If the RC makes a mistake, it can always abandon a starting sequence and start a new one when traffic clears.  Using courses that separate fleets also works extremely well.   Trapezoid courses and box shaped courses have separate windward- leeward legs so fleets do not run into each other.  My yacht club is using these course with great success; never any interference.

But if you insist on a closed line, for heaven’s sake, please write the Sailing Instructions properly and communicate clearly with the sailors.


Sunday, July 29, 2012

Regatta Scoring and Tiebreakers

Last weekend I sailed in a small local regatta with two of my regular sailing buddies, Judy (the Center of Effort blogger) and Eric (Apparent Wind author).  We are all about the same skill level and usually take turns beating the other.  We all went to Cabarete last January for some coaching, and we all hoped to somehow make a quantum leap in our performance this year.  Until last weekend, there were no leaps.

Then on Saturday, Judy leapt.  Her speed downwind was blowing me away, and she was clearly the fastest sailor in the regatta off the wind.  Center of Effort has recently featured interviews and advice on downwind sailing from two of the country’s top laser sailors, Clay Johnson and Ben Richardson.  I read the blogs, but so far, no leaping on my part.  Judy must be a better reader than I, because she has figured out how to transform words into boat speed. 

She beat me by one or two places five out of seven times on the weekend.  The last race on Saturday was out of character with all the others.  I was lucky enough to win the start, get to the first mark with a lead, and hang on downwind, beating a “clearly better sailor” who won all of the other races.  Judy, who had finished second in all of the previous four races, worked the boat a little too hard downwind, capsized, and finished 6th.

With a 5 point spread in one race our scores suddenly became close.  Judy wasn’t worried because she thought she could throw out the bad race.  I clung to hope by recalling that the sailing instructions had said that all races would be counted.  None of us could find our copy of the sailing instructions, but we were all clear that Judy had beaten us on the day by either scoring system.  The only question was by how much.  The next morning we checked the interim results, and sure enough, there was a throw-out.  I didn’t know whether to doubt my reading skills or doubt the race committee who demonstrated problems with their scoring in previous years.

In my competitive spirit, I told myself all I needed to do the second day was beat her every time and hope there were a lot of races.  It turned out there were only two races on Sunday.  I beat her in the first race by two places and she beat me in the second by what seemed like ¼ mile, but only one place. I congratulated Judy on her second place finish in the regatta.  (The “clearly better sailor” had first place locked up.) I was both happy for her and envious in terms of her substantial improvement in sailing skills.

I didn’t stay for the awards.  Last year, it was a two hour wait.  Judy didn’t stay either and apparently, there were no awards.  Judy watched the internet for final results and on Friday, they were finally published.  There in black and white, the results declared that Judy finished third and I finished second.  Say what??????  How could that be?  For five days (and to this day), we all agreed Judy had sailed a great regatta and had beaten all except the superstar who won 6 of 7 races.

It was as if the Russian figure skating judge had given me an obviously biased perfect score that vaulted me to an undeserved silver medal.  I’m sure we all looked for some giant mistake in recording one of the races, but they were all correct.  But, unlike the interim results, all races were counted in the final scoring – no throw-outs.  The results for second were a tie between me and Judy, and according to the RRS tiebreaking system, I won the tie.

This was disconcerting in two ways.  The first was that, with the exclusion of throw-outs, the rules of the game seemed to change after the fact, and the second was that it is unusual and perhaps unfair that one sailor can beat another 5 of 7 times and lose.

For a race committee to say one thing, do another, and then go back to the first option is unusual (fortunately for me) and gives the appearance that they make up the rules as they go along.  Also, in this case, the scoring system seems arbitrary.  We sail the races, and then someone makes up scores.

The rules in one sense ARE arbitrary.  I coach high school sailing and have some familiarity with college sailing, and each of these have somewhat different methods of keeping score and different methods of breaking ties.

The first difference is the inclusion or exclusion of throw-outs.  RRS has them, high school and college sailing don’t.  (RRS also allows for no throw-outs if stated in the sailing instructions.) More often than not, throw-outs do not alter the regatta finishes, but sometimes they do.

The next difference is the varying tiebreaker hierarchies.
RRS tiebreakers
1.       Number of firsts, number of seconds, etc.
2.       Score of last race

College tiebreakers
1.       Head to head
2.       Number of firsts, number of seconds, etc.
3.       Score of last race

High School tiebreakers
1.       Head to head
2.       Number of firsts, number of seconds, etc.
3.       For first place, there must be a sail-off.  For all other places, the tie remains.

Thankfully, most of the finishing places in a regatta are determined on the water and remain the same regardless of the scoring system used.  Beyond that, it would be nice if we could all agree how to score close racing, but we can’t.  Different rules will declare different winners.

RRS has no place at all for head to head results, but they are the first tiebreaker for high school and college.  With no throw outs, head to head seems like a just, clear and decisive way to pick a winner, but when there are throw-outs, there are fewer head to head races and perhaps it is not so clear. 

It was very clear in our regatta last weekend.  The outcome of the battle between Judy and me was determined by rules more than better sailing.

RRS with throw-out – Judy wins by 2 points
College Rules – Judy wins head to head 5-2
High School rules – Judy wins head to head 5-2
RRS with no throw-out – I win it in a tiebreaker with one first and one second to her four seconds

This doesn’t feel like winning.

I can’t even think about high point scoring (AC 45 fleet racing), the high point percentage system, the Cox Sprague scoring system, and the low point bonus point system.

Then there is the Olympic scoring system which shortens the last race (medal race) and counts it double.  The result of the last race is also the tiebreaker.  In a ten boat medal race, the winner would get two points and the last place finisher would get 20 and not be able to throw it out.  Consider an18 point swing when Anna Tunnicliff won gold with a regatta total of  only 37 points.  A gold medal winner could conceivably lose more races head to head, have fewer first place finishes, and win the gold medal based mostly on this one race.  The gold medal winner will be famous, and his/her life will change forever.  The silver medal winner will likely think about scoring systems.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

An Incomplete and Non-Scientific Guide to Finding Yourself a Sailing Helmet

Part 1- Where is the Marketing?

Isn’t one of the cornerstones of America culture a rampant commercialism-  the need to sell stuff to people, all kinds of stuff, whether they need it or not, whether they have the money to buy it or not?  Why then, when I truly feel I need something, is no one trying to sell it to me?  Someone is dropping the ball here.

I have been yearning to buy sailing helmet.  Tillerman says helmets are cool.  They make a superior sailing hat.  Volvo ocean racers wear them.  AC 45 crews all have to wear them.  Kids, at the insistence of their parents, wear them to minimize concussions from forceful, unintended contact with a rapidly moving boat part.  There are lots of good reasons.

It’s about time someone started marketing sailing helmets.  I’m not asking that anyone actually give a lot of thought to designing, or redesigning, a helmet just for sailing.  That’s a lot to ask.  Caveat Emptor for the consumers.  But can’t someone just rebrand the helmets they already have and sell them to sailors?  Sailors are curious, if not eager, for information about helmets as they see helmeted sailors in the Volvo Ocean Race and the AC 45’s series.  I’m no expert in marketing, but it seems to me that helmet manufacturers have an unprecedented opportunity to promote themselves as “the” sailing helmet. They need to point out why a sailing helmet is the most urgently needed piece of gear we don’t already own and suggest that their product will best fill that particular void in our sailing experience, making us feel warm and fuzzy all over.  And they need to convince us that helmets are cool.

At first blush, it might seem difficult to advocate the need for a helmet without suggesting that sailing is a dangerous sport, but any good marketer should be able to spin “dangerous” into “exciting and adventurous.”  Any exciting and adventurous sport requires gear, and who wouldn’t want all the great gear that goes with it?

Good marketing associates gear with professionals and their accomplishments.  With the latest wave of prominent sailors wearing helmets, how hard would it be to sell us the same headgear our heroes use?  If the pros use helmets, then I want a helmet too!  One would think the manufacturers would at least utilize pictures of these sailing elites sporting their products.  Gath is the only one I have seen do this.  They have a video of Oracle wearing their hats. (Unfortunately, Oracle has since switched to using a Red Bull advertisement on a Bern helmet.)

The Volvo Ocean Race and the America’s Cup 45 races provide lots of marketing images for manufacturers to use.  Let me help some of the companies who are not helping themselves.  Gath and ProTec seem to be the most popular, but many manufactures are represented.  My apologies for any mistakes in my attempt to play Name that Helmet.

Volvo Ocean Racer wearing  a Gath Retractable Full Visor Helmet

Emeritus Team New Zealand with 3 Protec "Ace" helmets and one Predator "Lee" helmet

Oracle with 5 Gath "Surf" helmets and one ProTec "Ace" helmet

Nathan Otteridge of Team Korea with  a Gath "Surf Convertible" helmet

 Lune Rosa skipper with a Sweet Strutter helmet

Close up of a ProTec "Ace" sometimes used by Oracle

 Oracle's new Red Bull helmets by Bern

 Artemis AC Team wearing hard to find POC "Receptor Bug" helmets

So, where is the marketing?  Isn’t anyone proud that the best sailors in the world use their helmets?
If the professional racer/ helmet connection is not enough, what about the beautiful bodies connection?   If scantily dressed supermodels wore helmets while sailing off exotic beaches, wouldn’t you be more inclined to use one?


Monday, June 4, 2012

Hard Hats

Is sailing crawling along the path of becoming a helmet sport?

Many of us have an immediate, perhaps visceral, negative reaction to the idea that sailing has risks significant enough to warrant the wearing of helmets.  We who have been sailing helmetless for thirty years have a natural suspicion about the idea.  Have we been living on the edge of danger for all these years, and have we been oblivious to the inherent risks of our sport?  Or, are we just close minded about new ways of thinking?

“Concuss”, to injure by concussion, is now a common word in the vocabulary of high school sailors on my team.  When I was a kid in a bike accident that I can’t recall and that accounted for a whole week I don’t remember, I “got” a concussion.  Nothing concussed me, and I did not concuss myself.  There were no verbs.  No connection between an action and a result.

Now, probably as a result of new findings about America’s favorite gladiator-like sport, football, everyone knows a lot about concussions and the acts of “concussing”.  As a coach, I’m annually required to earn a certificate from CDCI showing that I am knowledgeable about concussions and their treatments. I must file a report of every clonk on the head received by one of my students.

On my team, we had one sailor concuss himself in the fall and two skippers concuss their crews in the spring.  Two years ago, we had a full “call the paramedics and go to the hospital” concussion.  In all cases, kids were out of school for a while and out of sailing for weeks.  The first concussed student returned wearing a snowboarding helmet.  It turns out that people are more susceptible to long term injury with each successive concussion and especially susceptible to injury if a new concussion occurs before the first is totally healed.  Concerns over this are now so significant that I bought a helmet for returning concussed sailors to wear for at least a week after they resume sailing.  And over the last few years, I have seen a few kids in high level events sporting helmets.  They were all kinds of helmets - snowboarding helmets, bicycle helmets, hockey helmets, and skateboard helmets.  I bought a kayak helmet, figuring that a watersport helmet would be a better idea.

I have no idea what type it is, but I think this red one is the coolest.

I remained suspicious that pilot error accounted for our team’s injuries, and that proficient sailors have miniscule risk of injury. Then there was the day at Cabarete when the wind completely died but the waves remained at 4 to 6 feet.  I repeatedly failed to duck as I bobbed in the waves and my boom jumped to and fro. I took several shots to the side of the head.  I was shocked that I experienced concussion symptoms the next morning and had to skip a day of sailing.  Pilot error again, but this time I was the pilot.

And then there is the Lynn Shore incident.  Her very serious clonk may have been pilot error, but not hers, and it may have just been a result of a congested racing situation where all the sailors involved were very competent.

Combining the availability of a helmet and substantial anecdotal evidence that helmets might be helpful, I thought I would try one out.  My initial assumptions were that the helmet would be too hot, generally uncomfortable, make it harder to get under the boom while tacking, and look silly.  (My wife says I look silly in all hats, so not much to lose there.)  The first try was a solo session in wind of 7 – 12 MPH.  The helmet was quite comfy in all respects.  Because of the chin strap and good fit, it stayed in place – a nice change from the baseball hat that I fidget with and sometimes have to rescue after a blow off.  Surprisingly, although the helmet had no bill, it protruded just enough to close the gap above my sunglasses and keep out glare.  And my tacks were no worse or concussive than usual.

Yesterday, I raced wearing the helmet in wind of 12 – 20MPH.  Comfy again.  I even tested it with an inadvertent, but quite substantial shot from the boom.  (Pilot error remains a problem.)  The clonk hurt a little even with the helmet, but I would have seen stars without it.

I’m still concerned that I can’t look like a cool Laser sailor if I wear a helmet.  I will look like a nervous novice or an old guy afraid to die on his Laser.  My friends won’t think more or less of me one way or the other, but my old, sun faded baseball hat and snappy sailing attire might be fooling some strangers into thinking I look like a decent sailor.

All things considered, I don’t want to decide if sailing is sufficiently dangerous to be a helmet sport.  (Let everyone decide for themselves.)  I just want a good hat – one that is comfortable, stays on my head, keeps out the sun, and sheds some rain.  I’m surprised that helmets seem to be pretty good hats by this definition.  As long as they are good hats in all other respects except appearance, they will become more popular.  We will evolve our definitions of “cool” and helmets will be designed to look more “cool.”  Maybe we will individualize them like skateboarders do.  The sport will gradually become safer even without many of us making a philosophical commitment to safety.

It’s pretty “cool” that the right hat can mitigate the consequences of pilot error, so if I going to wear a hat, it might be a hard one. 

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Connecting the Lulls

I watched my team have some very frustrating races in a fleet racing regatta on Saturday.  The wind built through the day from about 5 knots to 14 knots, but conditions remained shifty and puffy all day.  Everyone had some trouble with the shifts, finding themselves on the wrong side of them way too often, but the best teams seemed to do a good job of finding the puffs.  Sailing in the puffs was routinely 10% faster and occasionally 50% faster than sailing in the lulls.  Although it was difficult to stay in a puff for very long, even downwind, those who connected the puffs the best were consistently ahead of those who didn’t.

As I watched our best skipper and crew have two uncharacteristically bad races, I wondered how they could be in the wrong place at the wrong time so often.  We’ve all had races like that, but twice in a row? – particularly after 4 solid races at the top of the fleet.  Like most bad races, they began with a poor start.  With as little as two feet to as much as a whole boat length off the line at the gun, there was a guarantee of sailing in dirty air for the first minute or two.  With few opportunities to find clear air, our sailors were stuck in disturbed air until those ahead eked out bigger leads or got a puff and took off. 
I always try to be optimistic about eventually getting clear air, but the truth is there is always a lot of work to do after giving the others a head start.  Fortunately, in lake sailing, the shifts and puffs provide opportunities to gain back the distance lost with a poor start.  Unfortunately, those ahead have the best chance to get those shifts and puffs first.  I’m not sure what our sailors were thinking, but they seemed to forget the concept of “connecting the puffs.”  Even the mid-fleet boats were getting some of the puffs while our team seemed to remain in the lighter spots.  At one point, a mid-fleet boat capsized in a big puff, righted the boat, and remained ahead of our team.
I do not always keep my cool in these instances, and in our post-race debriefing, I told the kids they “did a remarkable job of connecting the lulls.”  I added, “With all the puffs out there, it’s hard to believe you avoided so many of them.”  They thought I was mean.  I thought I failed to give the needed encouragement in a difficult situation.  I could have at least offered the cliché, “Keep your head out of the boat,” but all concerned were just too disappointed to think clearly.
How did it all go wrong?  With a little time to reflect, I think connecting the lulls was caused by a combination of impatience and confusing lulls with headers.  When other boats were sailing higher and faster in the puffs, it was hard to accept that their puffs might soon subside or their wind might shift and remember that the best we could do was sail to the next puff within our own reach.  The lull started to feel like a header (a boat going slowly can’t point as high as a boat going faster), so there was an irresistible temptation to tack.  That subsequent tack in the lull was very laborious and after completing it, the sailors found themselves still going low and slow.  Having completely lost sight of finding a puff, they thought, “It must be another header!” and they desperately tacked again.  Instead of sailing through the lull toward more wind, they ended up spending needless time in the lull.  With a little patience and clarity, they might have spotted the next puff and sailed toward it.  Instead, by doing a couple of lengthy tacks in the lull, they insured that the only puff they would get would be one that found them.  The puffs did not find them.