Volvo Cape Town
Last month I talked about taking sailing to the next level in terms of participation and participation. With this in mind, one simple change will help more than any other: We need to stop waiting onshore whenever there are whitecaps on the course. The most effective way to make our sport look very average is to cancel racing on a beautiful, windy day.
Over the years sailors have become accustomed to sailing being canceled on breezy days. Designers and builders have responded with boats that are increasingly hard to sail in heavy air. And why not, if nobody ever sails on breezy days? This spiral has forced organizers to cancel at ever lower wind limits. Where did this start? Maybe it was the fragile, skinny aluminum masts popular toward the end of the IOR rule. I could pinpoint dozens of “technological advances” that helped this trend along.
This all came to a head as I waited for the 33rd America’s Cup to start in Valencia. I was excited to see if BMW Oracle Racing’s wing would beat Alinghi’s cat. But the wait was excruciating. And I was at home, on my couch. I can’t imagine what it was like for people who traveled to Valencia. Or the sponsors and the TV rights holders. The first cancellation was disappointing, but it appeared warranted. No wind is one thing. But when the racing was canceled on the second scheduled day because of “too much wind,” that’s when I’d had enough.
It’s time for participants and race organizers to re-calibrate what “windy” is and start sailing when the sheep are in the paddock [that’s Kiwi-speak for whitecaps]. This will force sailors to adapt to exciting wind speeds: thicken up the ropes, build sails to take the abuse, engineer boats and gear to take the increased loads, and train to handle heavy air. There’s nothing wrong with throwing in a reef every once and a while. The bar stories will get better, participation will increase, and television may come back to our sport and show it off as it deserves.
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.
For the 2000 and 2003 Louis Vuitton regattas in Auckland, New Zealand, wind limits were again set relatively low. The challengers worried that boats built to survive the meaty springtime breezes on the Hauraki Gulf would struggle to beat a defender purpose-built for the lighter sea breezes expected for the America’s Cup match. In both 2000 and 2003 I helmed Stars & Stripes in the challenger trials. There were many days that racing was canceled because of too much wind, and on the tow back to the base we’d pass an Optimist Dinghy regatta in progress. Talk about embarrassing.
Contrast this to the Volvo Ocean Race, where the boats must be sturdy enough to handle the abuse of the open ocean. The “in-port” racing that is part of each stopover takes place in almost any conditions. The sailors, and their boats, must adapt like chameleons. The in-port race in China in February 2009 was sailed in 6 knots of breeze, requiring big sails and finesse to handle the big shifts and constant lead changes. The in-port race during the 2005 Cape Town stopover started in 20 knots and finished with nearly 40-knot puffs rolling down the course. Racers said it was one of the wildest and most fun races they had ever participated in. The images and video of boats hauling the mail downwind at 30 knots and wiping out trying to jibe in 35 knots of wind made for some of the most exciting sailing footage ever recorded. The public appreciated watching professional sailors putting it all on the line.
Unfortunately, the general trend in sailing has followed the Cup model. Weekend regattas, race weeks, and weeknight beer-can racing have all seen wind limits drop to the point that no one expects to race in heavy air. There are some places where it is “breeze on” most of the time, and races regularly take place in 25 or 30 knots. But those are the exceptions to the rule.
A 25-knot breeze isn’t a viable excuse to cancel racing. It is a reason to go out and test your skills against the elements as well as the competition. Wind is our friend. It’s what makes our sport great.
So, for those organizing the next Cup, please listen up: Before the teams spend millions on design and development for a new generation of Cup boats, tell them that the sailing will go on when it’s windy. Sure they should focus the design on the typical conditions of the venue. But on those days when it blows a little, or even a lot, more than expected, teams will have to take a page out of the chameleon’s book and adapt to whatever Mother Nature throws at them.