July 18, 2010

Why cruisers should race

(Watch this space every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday for a new Mainly about Boats column by John Vigor.)

THE OTHER DAY I was telling Old Wotsisname how my friend Mike keeps winning sailboat races with a really heavy old boat and well-worn sails. There was a thought in the back of my mind that OW might be persuaded to enter a race or two, and so improve his sailing skills.

But he wasn’t interested. He knows his old concrete barge is slow, but he thinks seaworthiness makes up for it. He has never raced in his life and never intends to.

That’s a great pity because many a die-hard cruising sailor could benefit greatly from racing. Joseph Conrad once said the sailing of yachts is a fine art. And I can add that the racing of yachts is an even finer art.

Whether you’re cruising or racing, you’re deriving power from an invisible source. You can’t see the wind that is interacting with your sails in aerodynamically important ways to move the boat forward. We know some of the theories, admittedly, but we can’t actually see the flow of air, so we have to rely on second-hand information from little flapping tell-tales and the slight lifting of the luff. We sense what is happening to the sails from the way the boat heels in a puff, and the way the tiller pulls.

Racing teaches you to interpret these signs (and to act of them) in a way that cruising rarely does because when you are racing you have other similar boats around you all the time, and you can actually see the immediate result of hardening the mainsail or easing the genoa from the gains or losses you register against your opponents.

But even more importantly, racing teaches you to read the wind the way a good surfer or white-water rafter reads the water. Trimming your sails for the best speed is always a good idea, of course, and knowing whether it’s better to pinch or foot is important, too, but none of this fine-tuning is going to help you recover from a disastrous wind shift. Knowing how to tell if the wind is likely to back or veer in a big way is probably the most important asset a racing skipper can possess. It takes practice and experience with the compass to distinguish between persistent shifts and transient oscillations, but getting on the right side of wind shifts is like finding the crock of gold at the end of the rainbow.

Observation is the key here, and the first skipper to realize that the wind always veers where it hits the deep-water channel after blowing across the sandbanks in a light northeaster is the one who will be adding more silver to his trophy collection at the end of the season.

Racing teaches you to lee-bow a current so that you get squeezed to windward for free. It teaches you to play things safe by not going too far out to the laylines in fluky winds and by always staying between the next mark and your closest competitor.

In other words, racing makes you more keenly aware of your boat’s abilities and your whole environment — and how to take advantage of both. Racing builds up your knowledge and it hones your skills.

When a racing man goes cruising he doesn’t have to react to every wind shift by changing course or sweating in the jib. He doesn’t need to exert himself to squeeze out an extra quarter-knot. But he’s better off for knowing how to do it, if he should suddenly be called upon to do so. Just being more in tune with your boat makes you think, and keeps you alert to the possibilities — which, in turn, makes for safer, more efficient, and more enjoyable cruising.

Today’s Thought
Thou shalt not covet: but tradition
Approves all forms of competition.
— Arthur Hugh Clough, The Latest Decalogue

Boaters’ Rules of Thumb #71
Cored decks. Foam sandwich or balsa-cored decks (and hulls) are thicker than solid fiberglass, but about eight times stiffer for the same amount of fiberglass. The dimensions of a composite sandwich are:
Core: 2.2 times the thickness of an equivalent fiberglass skin.
Inner fiberglass skin: 0.3 times the single-skin thickness.
Outer fiberglass skin: 0.4 times the single-skin thickness.

“Is it true that a man in your bar swallowed a boomerang?”
“Yup, that’s correct. Had to throw him out 12 times.”

1 comment:

AnnieR said...

Two yachts heading in the same direction = a race!

So, I've put my hand up as a racer, rather than a cruiser.

Racing also teaches crew to react quickly to the skipper's instructions and to keep a good look-out.