Time to Limit Wind Limits
Time to Limit Wind Limits
Why do race committees send sailors to safe harbor as soon as the breeze gets a little fresh? The wind is our friend, we must embrace it. "Gaining Bearing" from our April 2010 issue
The America’s Cup has been leading the way toward lower wind limits for more than two decades. The ’87 Cup off Fremantle, Australia, proved that wind is crucial to making our sport look exciting. The local sea breeze came in each morning like clockwork, producing wind speeds from the low 20s to the upper 30s. In the United States, sailing fans—and people who’d never seen a sailboat race—stayed up all night watching as the Americans swept the Australians to bring the Cup back home. The sailors on that boat—Adam Ostenfeld, Billy Trenkle, Henry Childers, John Barnitt, Scotty Vogel, and Jimmy Kavle, just to name a few—became instant legends as they battled the breeze and pushed the 12-pounder around the track with a little assistance from skipper Dennis Conner, tactician Tom Whidden, and navigator Peter Isler. It was man against man, and man against nature. The sport was officially going places.
For the 1992 America’s Cup a new class was created. San Diego is known for moderate winds, so the new rule was designed to produce light-air rockets that could hopefully duplicate the excitement of the 1987 Cup in less wind. It was a valiant attempt. The new class was a showcase of modern technology. The boats were big, fast (for their time), and hard to sail.
A side effect of this emphasis on light-air performance was that it was assumed or decided that light-air hull designs couldn’t sail in heavy air. Where is it written that a boat designed for light-air performance needn’t be engineered so it can survive in breeze?
Go back to 1987 for a moment. Conner’s USA 55 was a breakthrough boat, untouchable in the usually windy conditions on the Gage Roads. But, if the wind had only blown 8 knots on a race day for the 26th America’s Cup, the regatta organizers wouldn’t have called off racing because Stars & Stripes wasn’t going to be competitive. Conner and his crew would’ve been forced to adapt.
So why do we allow the opposite to happen; for light-air boats to be given a day off when the breeze picks up to a level where the average sports fan would actually consider tuning in?
It’s not just unfair. It’s also dangerous. On an overcast, lumpy 20-knot day in the 1995 Louis Vuitton Cup off San Diego, OneAustralia snapped in half and sank. The absence of wind limits for that event would’ve forced the engineers, designers, and sailors to beef up the boat to take the punishment on the rare day that the breeze was pumping. Instead, the wind limits allowed the team to skimp, hoping the boat would never be tested in rough seas and big breeze.