February 28, 2010

Breakthrough For Dinghy Sailors


Those of us with keelboats often forget just how difficult it can be to eat while sailing one of those fussy little dinghies.

Take your hand off the tiller or sheet for a second and - kerplunk - you're swimming faster than a crazy swim dad. Until now, there weren't many options. Chow down before sailing, or spend a long, hungry day on the water.

But check out this very practical alternative. Originally developed for shoreside use, a new version is now avaiable in waterproof neoprene, with adjustable velcro straps, for a snug seal. It's safe even in a capsize.

Apparently, the ILCA is about to release its ruling on whether these may be used in officially sanctioned Laser races and regattas.

February 25, 2010

A Post About Sailing


In a comment on my last post, the Lord God spake unto me and commandeth that I write about sailing.

I guess there is a chance it wasn't actually the Lord God who left the comment, but if you were me, would you risk it? Not me, I'm writing about sailing.

Which is just as well, because I've had one of those epiphanic moments after reading a number of seemingly unrelated blog posts over the past few weeks (I didn't think epiphanic was a word, either, but it is - I checked).

I'm going to play James Burke here and try to find a common thread in those posts. The only problem with James Burke, though, is that he takes forever to make his point. And that may be the only thing I have in common with him. To help make this easier, there's an intermission half-way through.

Here are the disparate posts:

- Tillerman reviews a book about the possibility of gas eventually costing $20/gallon

-  Some guy named Larry spends more money than anyone else in history just to win a sailboat race in a boat that is now useless to anyone (various posts).

- Frogma shows us something that looks like a bunch of popsicle sticks but was actually used by some very smart guys to navigate the Pacific Ocean hundreds of years ago.

- JP visits the British National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, England and makes this wistful comment:

"...Maybe the day will come when sail will return, when using nothing and polluting nothing ... will once again be worth something..."

- and finally, Doryman has been posting for a while now about a wonderful wooden boat under construction at an avant garde furniture works in Italy. An ecology activist plans to sail (and row) the completed boat 3000 miles through Europe's rivers to draw attention to the potential for sustainable, non-polluting means of long-distance travel.

Okay, here's my little James Burke experiment.

We've all just witnessed the, um, 'spectacle' of possibly the most bizarre America's Cup in history. While most of us were blown away by the sight of these impossibly huge boats going impossibly fast, there was also something a little too weird about it all.

Yes, there was the unease about the bitterness of the legal wrangling. There was the distaste about Ellison sidestepping all other potential contenders. There was the fretting about whether the 'image' of the cup had been hopelessly tarnished. But I think there was something more disturbing than all of that.

Somehow, Larry and Ernesto had just gone too far. The boats were too big and too expensive - to me, they were more than a little grotesque. Besides being possibly the worst boats ever built for the normally delicate pas de deux of match racing, they were also impossibly extravagant for our times. While there may have been a majesty to the huge J-Boats of the 1930's that only the wealthiest yachtsmen of that era could afford, these boats seemed caricatures of those. Today, it's getting harder and harder to cheer on such gross examples of conspicuous over-consumption.

As a planet, we're starting to run out. To run dry. The very earth itself is showing the strains of our excesses in ways we can no longer ignore. Shouldn't the wealthiest among us be leading the charge for conserving resources and leaving a small footprint?

I'm much more impressed with what Giacomo De Stefano and his team of artisan shipwrights are doing than with anything Larry Ellison's done lately. Somewhat reminiscent of those Polynesian navigators in Frogma's post, Giacomo is providing a modern example of how simple, non-polluting materials can provide durable long-distance transportation - something that will become a lot more important to us as the cost of fossil fuels continues to go through the roof. He also suggests that waterways, which were our principle arteries of commerce for thousands of years, may be an important key to solving the huge problems looming on our highways and airways.

So where am I going with all of this? Maybe, we should have some popcorn first.

//////////   I N T E R M I S S I O N   \\\\\\\\\\\\\\

We all know about what's happening to the price of gas and how that must eventually affect the kinds of cars we will be driving, or lead many of us to use trains and bicycles a lot more than before.

But there's less discussion about what this will mean for commercial aviation. Airliners typically burn 1000 - 3000 gallons per hour and there are something like 50,000 scheduled flights worldwide every day, a consumption rate that is only helping to drive the cost of fuel up. Even if these numbers aren't terribly accurate, the point is that sooner or later, commercial flights will get too expensive for ordinary people to afford. Maybe not tomorrow or even in ten years, but eventually, it's inevitable. What then?

How will we get across oceans when our beloved airliners are no longer an option for most of us?

There was some talk a few years back about reviving airships for both hauling freight and passengers over long distances. Laugh if you like, but the numbers were compelling. Modern airships could cover long hauls using a fraction of the fuel of an airliner and at speeds that would get you from New York to London in about a day and a half  - in cabins something like those on a cruise ship. The numbers didn't quite make this a practical alternative ten years ago (when fuel was aboout $2/gallon in the US), but that could very well change when fuel reaches $20/gallon.

Ah, but a day and a half to cross the Atlantic, you say. Who would put up with that? Won't we always demand the fastest transport available?

Apparently, not.

Does anyone remember the Concorde? Forty years ago, our technology was advanced enough to build a workable airliner that was two hours quicker to London than a 747. But the numbers just didn't add up. As fuel got more expensive, not enough could afford the faster alternative to keep it flying. Was the Concorde the handwriting on the wall of our future?

If airliners will be too expensive and airships maybe a bit too wonky, can you think of another way passengers might cross an ocean using very little fuel?

How about something like this:

Or this:

Okay, these are expensive luxury cruise ships that probably would cost as much to book as a seat on a 747 burning $20/gallon fuel. But these were the only example photos I could find. Think of them as a proof of concept.

Suppose modern construction techniques were applied to build something more practical, utilitarian, efficient - and faster? Hmmm...

Were Frogma's ancient navigators pointing the way to our future?

Are the wooden boatbuilders in Italy more than just idle dreamers?

Is there prophecy in JP's comment?

And, ironically, was there something useful and practical after all in those preposterous boats at Valencia? Will carbon fiber multihulls and high-tech solid wing sails be the technology we'll need for long-distance travel when the pump finally runs dry?

I can't help but think that, in the long curve of human history, our love affair with petrochemicals will one day be seen as a curious blip. Will we eventually be crossing oceans again the way we did for centuries - in big boats with sails on top?

What do you think?


February 21, 2010

Is God Trying To Tell Me Something?


Is God trying to tell me something?

Is He leaving a mocking message in the comments page of my life?

When I left for work the other day, something was not right. There was some kind of ruckus going on at the neighbors', but I couldn't tell quite what it was at first.

The dogs were barking and there were fluttering sounds from the roof of the neighbors' garage. I looked up and saw this.

And this.

And this.

There were about 25 wild turkeys on the roof of the garage, where usually there are none. And they seemed to be eyeing me. And some of them were definitely laughing.

That's right, turkeys.

Then, I looked around, and there were more turkeys in the yard.

I was surrounded by turkeys, wherever I looked.

What was the message here?

I was at a complete loss for the correct collective name for a group of turkeys, until I explained to my wife that the birds had been wandering around, unsure where to go, until the barking dogs panicked them and they all moved in a rush to the garage roof, where they were trapped without a plan for escape. She then remembered the word.

A committee of turkeys.


February 17, 2010

Scene, In A Different Light


Here's a photo I did a few months back for a post called Morning Light, when I was waxing lyrical about the magical qualities of dawn's rosy fingers (no snickers, please - that's 'dawn' with a small 'd').

Here's the same scene the other morning.

Except it's not really the same scene, is it? The boats and the docks are pretty much where they were before, but the light is different. The fog has transformed it into a different place.

When I don't have to drive, or fly, or navigate through it, I love the fog. It must be my photographer roots. Photographers are always looking for 'magic light' - the early light I found in Morning Light, dusk, approaching thunderstorms. But the most magic light of all is fog.

Fog simplifies and clarifies. It reduces color to a palette of grays. It forces us all to see in black and white.

It isolates objects against a misty background, helping us to consider some things we might have overlooked. It emphasizes shape and form that may have been previously obscured.

It cloaks the middleground in a shroud and obscures the distant. Scenes are reduced to a few simple planes. The real becomes surreal; the misty, mystical.

Fog shakes up our assumptions about what is real. Things we see every day are now different. It reminds us, if we let it, that anything we know about life is merely perception - and that perception can change with time and with perspective.

Fog can teach us a lot, if we give it a chance.

Here's one guy who was completely oblivious to the mystic quality of the fog all around him and to the great lessons about life and the cosmos that fog can teach us. All he was interested in was breakfast.

I don't know who this guy is, but he's got an awfully long neck for a seagull. He must be a friend of Joe's. He likes fish.


Five Lines For Tillerman's Fifth


Frogma has crafted some cheery lines of rhyme to celebrate Tillerman's fifth year at the blog, and Greg has followed suit, even suggesting this should become an underground, unsanctioned writing project. Not wanting to miss a trend, especially one involving cheesy verse, here's my contribution.

A bloke from Blighty who blogs a lot
Leads us halfway into the fog a lot,
But this Tillerman's light
Guides us all through the night,
Though he may get into the grog a lot.

Certainly, you can do better than this. Can you find it in your heart to compose five lines for Tillerman's fifth - or whatever your muse can afford? Post it on your blog, at Frogma's or Greg's, or, if you're down and out, in the comments here.

Write five lines for Tillerman's fifth. Or, better yet, send him a fifth.


February 15, 2010

The Dementia In Valencia


A few (very) random and disjointed thoughts of a non-pundit ordinary sailor, trying to make some sense out of a week of sailing spectacle.

It's over.

Larry's thingie was bigger - or at least faster.

Never have two $1oo million toys devalued so much in so little time. What do you think the resale value of Alinghi 5 is at the moment? Or even US 17? What exactly do you do with a 90-foot multihull that's dangerous to sail in winds over 20 knots or in a 10-foot swell?

Even if someone wanted to take well-heeled adventurers on daysails on these two curiosities, I wonder what the insurance premiums would be for covering such a venture. Who would be skilled enough to helm such high-strung monsters on a tour of the harbor?

Did this prove that Americans are better sailors than the Swiss? Did 'we' really beat 'them'? How many Americans were on the winning boat, anyway? Uh, did someone say one in a crew of ten? It seems only the wallet that paid the bills was truly American. So, doesn't this mean the Kiwis and Aussies actually won the cup back? I'm so confused.

I guess we're all supposed to reap 'trickle down' benefits from this incredible technology, resulting in improvements to the kind of boats ordinary people sail. But this time, I doubt it. I'm not sure the new Catalinas will be offering winged sails next year, the way they offered winged keels after the Aussies took us to task in Newport. And I don't think even then it was ever established that a winged keel by itself has any advantage at all for the kind of boat most people sail.

The gap between these boats and real boats is miles wider than for the Australian boat that beat Dennis Conner. Am I the only one who thought he was looking at a NASA mission this week, watching BMW Oracle? The boat was as big as the space shuttle, about as maneuverable, nearly as fast, and probably cost as much. Like astronauts, the crew wore white suits with backpack life support 'pods' (OK, instrument pods - small difference). I don't know if they came in peace for all mankind.

Actually, I was thinking half NASA mission and half Mad Max - with the helmsdude at his crazy little steering station, thirty feet off the water, riding up and down through spray blasting by at 25 knots. I think Tina Turner and Mel Gibson would have looked at home there.

One thing's certain. The raw justice system of the Thunderdome was copied exactly in Valencia.

Two boats enter, one boat leaves.


February 9, 2010

Worst Sailing Innovation - The Gybe

This is in response to Mr. Tillerman's call for posts about 'the worst sailing innovation'. How long will we put up with his writing exercises that subject the blog-reading public to abuse such as this?

Gybing the Laser

The worst innovation in the history of sailing is - without question - the gybe.

For thousands of years, sailors used square sails, mounted athwartship, and were happy and carefree, effortlessly moving the sterns of their boats through the eye of the wind to change tacks, with only a slight adjustment of sail trim.

Then, on April 23, 1642, in the small English harbor of Precarious on Tyne, Sir Wembley Gybe installed a fore-and-aft gaff-mounted sail on his 16-foot duck hunting punt. Less than 10 seconds later, an unsuspecting Sir Wembley was sputtering in the water, not knowing what had hit him, having inadvertently performed the maneuver that would eventually be named for him.

Details of the incident are sketchy, but some accounts report a friend hailing Sir Wembley from the nearby river bank distracted his attention from the helm, just as the wind was shifting astern. The friend called to Sir Wembley,

"Gybe, ho!"

The rest is history.

Ever since, generations of sailors have cursed the gybe. Race organizers have bedeviled competitors by fiendishly incorporating 'gybe marks' in race courses (the ghouls at Valencia are no exception). And an entire industry of Rube Goldberg contraptions has flourished whose only purpose has been to prevent the gybe. Think about it, have you ever seen in any marine catalog a 'tacking preventer' or a 'reach preventer'?

Over the years, the toll of mechanical wreckage and the cost in human life, injury, and suffering caused by the gybe have been incalculable. It is estimated that, in the United States alone, over 7000 cases of divorce are attributed annually to this unfortunate sailing maneuver.

Some boats, such as the small sailing dinghy known as the 'Laser', cannot be gybed at all without the sailor leaving the vessel, jumping in the water, and capsizing, as in the illustration at the top of this post.

Recently, humanitarian organizations like the Red Cross have asked that the gybe be banned from international competition, along with other sailing activities deemed 'inhumane', like frostbite racing.

Some day, perhaps, the voice of reason will prevail, and the madness will be ended.

In deference to the English origins of the gybe, I have retained the English spelling throughout. We Americans should do whatever we can to distance ourselves from this odious maneuver.


February 7, 2010

It's Still Not Too Late...


This began as a comment to Tillerman's recent post about the America's Cup, but, as usual with me, started getting too long for the comments page.

It's still not too late for someone to save the America's Cup. Lawyers for both sides still have another twelve hours to file briefs.

It's rumored the New York Appellate Courts are holding a special window open until midnight Sunday for the filing of papers by procrastinating attorneys.

But if counsel for both Bertarelli and Ellison screw up and blow the deadline, they'll be faced with the perplexing dilemma of having sailors decide the cup's outcome. This is a denouement almost no one was prepared for.

OK, sorry, the past few years may have made me a bit cynical about all of this.

Actually, I'm not as upset as a lot of Sailing Authorities (capital 'S' and 'A') and sail bloggers seem to be. It's been a very long time since I've felt the America's Cup was in the same league as Mom, Apple Pie, and the World Series.

You see, long before I knew anything about sailing, I began to suspect something was fishy with the America's Cup. Howuzit we managed to win at this for 260 years in a row, or whatever it was? Not even the Yankees win that often.

As a kid, I was told it was because Americans are just smarter and work harder than English people. But then, I started reading up on the Cup's history and learned those wiseguys at the New York Yacht Club had been monkeying with the rules to tip the scales in their favor. For 260 years.

Can you imagine? Rich guys were using their money and influence and legal shenanigans to make sure things worked out their way. Wait a minute, was that why they call it The America's Cup?

Well, at least all of their fancy footwork and millions of dollars insured that we got to watch the fastest boats in the world compete. If you don't count Hobie Cats.

Apparently, I haven't been the only one who's noticed these things and started connecting the dots. OK, it's been many years since the NYYC controlled the show, but why are we getting bent out of shape when the current players are playing the same games on a larger scale? Like any farce, doesn't this just show how absurd the game has been all along?

If those two waterborne spaceships do get to duke it out this week, I will be glued to my screen like most other sailing junkies and drooling along with everyone else. I'll almost expect to hear announcers promoting the spectacle like they do drag races, monster truck shows, and the Wonky Wrestling Extravaganza (or whatever WWE stands for):



But do I grieve for the passing of The America's Cup As We Knew It?


If we want to watch truly fast boats racing, crewed by the best teams and smartest skippers, and in much more challenging conditions than recent AC venues have offered, there are now plenty of opportunities for that.

Let the fat cats build their spaceships and play, as Tillerman has put it, 'my thingie is longer than your thingie', or my lawyer is smarter than your lawyer.

But if we're going to put a segment of our sport on a pedestal and bow down before it, why not let it be one where sailors have worked their butts off to excel over all others on a level playing field?

That would be a cup worthy of having 'America' in its name.


February 3, 2010

I Go Where No Man Has Gone Before


This past weekend, manly men of San Francisco were out flexing their testosterone on the Bay in one of our premier events of sailing derring-do - the Three Bridge Fiasco - a day-long test of man, machine, machismo, and meatball sandwiches.

But off in a quiet corner of the Bay, on a 22-foot training boat, I was going where no man had ever gone before - or at least had ever admitted to going. I was making giant strides for our gender, pushing back walls of intolerance and hateful traditions of prejudice.

I was the lone man in an all-woman sailing class.

Uh, let me explain.

For about 20 years, I've been trying to gradually lure my wife into going sailing with me. I may have mentioned this once or twice or two dozen times before. On balance, things are going pretty well.

We are still married and I don't have to sleep in the garage or on "that damned boat of yours". My wife tells me she actually likes sailing and, a few months ago, we reached another major milestone, or waypoint I guess, on our lifelong voyage towards lasting bliss afloat.

Out of the blue - and I swear I'm not making this up - my wife told me she finally wanted to sign up for one of those sailing classes I've been trying to get her to take for, lo, these 20 years.

We long ago went through the classic husband-wife ars poetica of, "You're just making up all of this halyard and mainsheet and bowline bullsh..." - uh, I'm editing on the fly here - "because you're a typical male and have to always control things and make me do it your way just to satisfy your fu..". - uh, editing again - "ego."

In short, I learned long ago that there was no way I or anyone else of my gender was going to teach my wife how to sail. The litany of luff, line, and leeward would be coming from lips more lovely than mine, or from none at all.

Things had stood at this gender impasse for years with about as much hope for a thaw as there is at Panmunjom. My wife has always helped with sailing the boat and is pretty good on the helm or on the winches, but has always shied from learning enough to skipper. Points of sail have always been a mystery to her and the closer we draw to the dock, the farther she retreats from the helm.

What finally changed her mind is probably best left to another post, but, at any rate, there we were last weekend finishing up a woman's sailing class.

We? What the halyard was I doing there? Wasn't she trying to get as far away as possible from my smug, male face while grappling with the mysteries of tiller and sheet?

Yes, she was, until the only other student bailed after the first day (please, no snide comments about the weak and fickle gender here - I'm on thin enough ice already). So, the instructor suggested that I fill in, in the role of perpetual crew. It seems they break eveything into roles of helmsperson and crew, so needed a minimum of two on the boat, besides the instructor.

Could I be persuaded to spend two days on San Francisco Bay on a sailboat for free in the interest of making my wife a better and more enthusiastic sailor? How could I not?

I shall break the tale here, understanding that anyone who's still reading this is either hungry, thirsty, or needs to relieve themselves by now.

Suffice it to say, that it was one small step for man, but two great daysails for mankind.

I learned some things about my wife (she never fails to amaze me).

I learned some things about how people learn some things.

I learned how what may seem like a dream job of teaching sailing is actually a lot of hard work.

I learned I had forgotten how much fun sailing a small boat can be.

I learned that even experienced sailors can learn new tricks in a beginners class, if they pay attention.

And I learned the real evil, sneaky reason the instructor wanted a third person on the boat.

To be continued...