July 22, 2014

Follow Knight, you'll be right

AFTER E. F. KNIGHT wrote his classic Sailing in 1889 it was regarded for many years as the sailor’s bible. In Old Testament fashion, Knight laid down the laws of design and performance, and he was regarded with holy awe by the burgeoning class of neophyte amateur sailors.

He was rarely moderate in his views, and this suited his audience just fine. There was no need to debate the pros and cons of anything. Just follow Knight, and you’ll be right.

One of the things he insisted upon was sufficient weight in a sailboat. He equated weight with power. This is what he had to say about the matter:

“The general requirements in a yacht are speed, accommodation, sail-carrying power, and weight. This latter property means, in other words, the ability to drive through a sea that, from its wall-sidedness, makes it an impractical barrier to get over. When a vessel has not the weight or power to meet such a wave, as a rule, it spells disaster, or, to say the least, very disagreeable consequences.”

Well, far be it from me to argue with the Old Testament, but I can’t help thinking there’s room for other views here. After World War II there was a lot of activity in ocean racing with very small, lightweight yachts. They were particularly fast off the wind and many could plane in the right conditions — something their heavy-displacement sisters could never do.

But what happened when the lighties came face to face with a wall-sided wave? They rose above it, of course. They skimmed over it in a fashion that would no doubt have surprised Mr. Knight. At least, they rose over the moderate-sized waves, and even though they had much of the way knocked off them, their light weight enabled them to get moving again much faster than their heavier competitors who had slowed down even more by having to plow right through the wave.

But, as usual, what is good for one design isn’t necessarily good for another. Slight differences in hull design cause boats to behave quite differently, and it became obvious after years of experience that compromise was called for, and what E. F. Knight said about heavy weight didn’t necessarily apply in all cases.

There was a famous British sailor called Adlard Coles who won just about every offshore racing trophy you could name. “I used to be a light-displacement fan,” he recalled, “but I have been converted to heavier displacement by Cohoe III, which I have found to be  a better sea boat. On the same length, she has far more room, but the principal difference is the immeasurably improved windward performance in really heavy weather.”

This sounds as if Coles is supporting Mr. Knight’s argument, but in fact Coles found the extra weight a disadvantage when racing in light or moderate winds. So, in the end he opted for compromise:

“My own preference, if building again, would be towards moderate displacement and a well-proportioned hull with no extreme features.”

It’s the old story. All boats are the result of compromise, and all too often you have to take the advice of “experts” with a pinch or two of salt.

Today’s Thought
All government—indeed, every human benefit and enjoyment, every virtue and every prudent act—is founded on compromise and barter.
—Edmund Burke

“Doc, I need help.”
“What’s up?”
“I’m 88 and still chasing women.”
“What’s wrong with that?”
“I can’t remember why.”

(Drop by every Monday, Wednesday, Friday for a new Mainly about Boats column.)


Unknown said...


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John Vigor said...

Hi Lizzie:
Yes, many of us who keep tabs on the ocean racing circuit know about the race from Cape Town to Jamestown, St. Helena Island. I spent three months on the island a few years back, and previously called there on my own 30-footer.
I suggest you simply Google "Sailing blog sites" but you might also want to contact www.cruisersforum.com and a couple of U.S. sailing rags such as www.48north.com, www.cruisingworld.com and www.latitude38.com
Incidentally, if you know of any publisher that wants an absolutely top-notch, completely splendid book about St. Helena and Napoleon, let me know. I've written one, but none of the idiot publishers I've contacted so far wants to buy it.


John V.