Notes on sailing, redux

Fri, 11/18/2016 - 11:30am

There’s a saying that goes, “when two boats are moving in the same direction, they’re racing.” There is some truth to this, which probably has its roots based on man’s desire to be number one, to be the winner, and get all the swag: dinners, trophies, and sponsors — people like to be near power. We are competing with each other from an early age: grades, sports, affection. We compete at work and at play — it’s non-negotiable; to compete is to be human. Regarding sailboats’ racing each other, we enter a very primitive environment of wind and water. Some folks take racing boats very seriously. Moreover, they give no quarter to their opponents. It can be a dicey and dangerous environment, yet some folks thrive on this adrenaline-soaked, old brain, modus operandi, in order to win at all costs.     

Larry Ellison, the founder of Oracle, has been called the most competitive man in the world. He is the “Samurai Warrior of Silicon Valley” a full-on, type A, driven-to-distraction-if-he-loses — anything — kind of guy. “The more you win, the more you want to win,” he has said. Computers, sailboats, tennis and whatever else gets this guy’s blood up, is where you’ll find him. Competition is his comfort zone. In 2004 at the UBS competition in Newport Harbor, I witnessed just how competitive he is, when I saw him sailing his America’s Cup boat, Oracle, against the Swiss boat Alinghi. I was sailing close to the course just south of the Pell Bridge, and saw the Oracle come very close to the stern of Alinghi — it appeared that the boats touched. They indeed did touch. Ellison’s boat rode right over the stern of Alinghi, and sliced off a prodigious amount of fiberglass — a Samurai thing. Alinghi had won the America’s Cup in 2003, and the UBS Trophy was an attempt to bring back America’s Cup-style racing back to Newport.

Having learned to sail in 1966, Ellison started with a 30-foot sloop, then moved up to racing his Maxi, Sayonara. He was on a competitive mission to win back the America’s Cup, and he succeeded; he would spend 400 million dollars — to win. Gone are the days of mono-hull America’s Cup contenders. High speed catamarans — AC45s — which can sail at dangerously high speeds, are what now determine the game. It makes perfect sense that Ellison could compete in this type of one design racing. He has the brightest math people from MIT, Stanford and Harvard working for him at Oracle. I can picture some of his engineers noodling around with the math and trying to get another knot of boat speed from these high tech sleds. Because you know, the boss wants to win! This type of sailboat racing came about as a result of a need to make the sport accessible to a television audience. Given that we live in a go-fast, high-speed, get-there-quick age, this was very smart marketing. Just sayin’.

Sailboat owners make notes on the performance of their boats. Tom Lee was sailing his Gunboat catamaran, Jammy, down south from his Block Island home. As of this writing (Oct. 28), he’d left Annapolis in 25 to 30 knots of northwest — it was the same at the ferry dock this day. While he was “steering and playing in waves, I was not watching the numbers,” he said. Later he noted, Jammy had hit 27.9 knots — a serious speed. Tom said of the number, “it was a bit faster than a prior 25 knots.” He was impressed. Sailors have an intrinsic feeling for their boats; sometimes they hold a surprise.

A boat on the racing scene these days is called Comanche. She was built for a guy named Jim Clark — he founded Netscape. Like Larry Ellison, he is a competitive guy. His boat is 100 feet long, and 25 feet wide at the stern. She is built of carbon fiber and while she is very light, her design can tolerate tremendous loads on her rig. Comanche is skippered by Rhode Island’s Ken Read. This boat has won too many races to list here, but most notably, she broke the transatlantic record. In 2003, Mari Cha lV sailed across the Atlantic in six days, 17 hours, 52 minutes and 39 seconds. This past July, Comanche shattered this record by making the crossing in five days, 14 hours, 21 minutes, and 25 seconds. Furthermore, she also had a record breaking run of the 70th Storm Trysail Club’s Block Island Race. Here again, we see a very competitive guy who is pushing boundaries of design and materials. Clark built a boat to break records. Without question, he or someone else will go after all the records he is breaking. It’s the "Number 1" thing.

We don’t need to have deep pockets to want to win a sailboat race. We can work with what we have. I taught sailing at the high school where I taught in Narragansett. At Point Judith Yacht Club, we taught kids to sail an International 420. These fast and nimble boats are sailed two-handed, and are a great learning platform. Moreover, they are fun to sail. After a short chalk talk, we’d get the kids pumping halyards and sailing off the dock in Salt Pond. Then we’d teach them to sail around some buoys, and before you knew it, they were racing and hooting. As stated earlier, it’s “primitive.”

Last summer I was sailing my Ericson back from Prudence Island. While sailing just north of the Pell Bridge, I saw another Ericson from Newport about 100 yards off my port bow. She had eight more feet of waterline than me. And she, like me, was flying only her 135 headsail. The Ericson tacked, and shortly after so did I. Race on! I pointed Reverie as high as possible in order to dodge the west foundation of the bridge. The other boat didn’t know we were racing. But I did, and although he had more waterline and the same wind angle, we were two boats going in the same direction.

And, I won!