Sunday, April 29, 2012

Head Gear

This is a photo of Jean-Luc Nélias, the navigator on Groupama. I have no idea what that thing is on his forehead, but he looks happy and it is obviously important to Volvo Ocean Race navigators - although I have not seen photos of any of the others wearing such a device - maybe the other MCMs are more sensitive to the public image of their navigators and keep a tight lid on this sort of public dissemination.

Does anyone know what the thing is?

Is it related to his binoculars? His glasses? Is it legal?

Where can I get one?

Does it conform to Laser Class Rules?

TTKKKK - the Essential

Being part of an expat community, our sailing club has a relatively high turnover of people leaving and arriving.  This weekend was typical – a Brit leaving and a Kiwi arriving.  The Brit is an excellent sailor and great supporter of the club and always ready to offer advice. He had told me before his 6 essential points for any race and they are as good as any, so I offer them here – as a tribute to him and in the hope I can remember them. 

In order of priority, you should 

1. Trim the boat – flat and stable
2. Trim the sails
3. Know the course – get it right before hand, think about the next leg, visualize
4. Know what the tide is doing and how it will change
5. Know what the wind is doing and how it will change
6. Know the rules

Hard to argue with any of that. Of course, each point is a big subject in itself, but I think he has it right in putting the priorities as he has.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

The Wine-dark Sea

I am not one of the usual suspects, but I am throwing my hat in to the ring or water or wherever Tillerman is collecting posts about the Top Sailing Destination on the Planet.

So, I just asked myself what I really like most about sailing and then followed that to wherever it leads.

First, the pure essence, the joy of being on the water, feeling the boat, the curve of the sails, the rippling wind, the burbles – all that can happen just about anywhere (not sure about Titan, but since it is a moon and not a planet, it should not count).

The scenery and shorebased things to explore – that’s easy – the Mediterranean (including the bits of it like the Adriatic, Ionian, Aegean, Tyrrhenian, etc.).   All sorts of fascinating cultures, cuisines, people, history – and no pesky tides (although the meltemi and mistral can be quite pesky).   Great wines, retsina, olive oil, citrus fruits, seafood – bouillabaisse, monkfish, squid.

Fellow sailors and racers – absolutely essential and, like Knitting Sailor, I will go with the club I have known and which has made all the difference -  for me, it is the Abu Dhabi Sailing Club where I first encountered - a became hooked on - dinghy sailing at age 63.  The photo above is from our annual Laser Regatta which attracts sailors from around the region.  We are an all volunteer club of many nationalities and we sail every weekend year round ( We have great weather and a very dependable sea breeze, although the summer months can be a bit warm - when visitors arrived from the UK last August, they asked why we hosed off our Lasers immediately after taking the covers off - the answer was simple - so we can touch the spars. But, wetsuits and frostbite series are unknown.  Finally, whether it is heat or cold rain that a club contends with, it is the comradeship during and after a race or a working party that keeps me coming back.  Sailors are special people – and it goes beyond just having a common interest.  We all share something special and if our significant others do not always share it in the same way, they do recognize how important it is to us.  Hard to explain it but impossible to deny it.

So, although there are many places I want to try (and dream about) my choice today would be to somehow explore the Mediterranean with my local club. If I have to be more specific about where in the Med, I would single out the following simply because I have sailed there and would definitely go back - the Dodecanese islands, the northern part of the Croatian coast and Turkey around Gocek. Corsica and Sardinia would be next on my list.


Yesterday was another lovely day on the water and a race in which I did a couple of things right and a few wrong, but it was over post race beers that I understood something.  An enthusiastic couple was explaining how they had spent the week reading Laser books and watching Laser DVDs and were all psyched up for the race. They finished in last place and took it all in good grace, but were a bit mystified how all their research could have had no effect. They told me they had seen my racing skills improve over the last year and asked if I had any reading material to recommend. I said that in my experience I did not make any improvement until I really understood what the books and DVDs were talking about and that only happens for me on the water and bit by bit.  Having the ideas and concepts in mind when I'm on the water is the starting point, but they don’t really blossom until sometimes on purpose and sometimes by accident I try something and it works – an “Aha” moment in which I say to myself “so, that is what they were talking about in one (or all) of the books I have read”. Of course, the point I have understood is usually a blatantly obvious and fundamental one, but the fact it has been experienced on the water makes all the difference. One such moment from yesterday was remembering the importance of boat speed – which is about as fundamental as a point can be.  Beating up to a mark near the shore where wind and tide frequently catch people I saw a boat ahead of me running into trouble and I determined to concentrate only on boat speed. I kept the boat as flat as possible, the telltales flowing and didn't worry about how high I was pointing. And of course, it worked.  

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Siren Song

One of the most famous seafarers (that is how I can blog about this in a sailing blog) was Odysseus or Ulysses and I have just finished reading Homer’s version of the story (my knowledge of ancient Greek being a bit rusty, I read a translation).  It was really great – even though I knew the story and it was occasionally tedious reading, once again, about morning’s child, rosy-fingered dawn.  But that is really part of the charm – some well-worn clichés used to ornament – or maybe anchor – a timeless story.  And the whole concept of the gods intervening in both magical and petty ways is not exactly what we are used to, but once past the initial jolt, it is just another way of explaining the often inexplicable and unexpected things that happen to us all.

Like all mythology, it is on one level archetypical or symbolic, but the humanity of the characters – even though they speak in a very stilted way compared to our modern dialogues and the protagonists are inevitably described in terms of nobility and of good birth – comes through time and time again and I found myself smiling as I pictured the various protagonists being clever, devious or suspicious.  

I was surprised how much I enjoyed it – as a younger man I would have never spent much time with it.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Training Wheels

I was watching the video of the 2011 ISAF Laser world championships ( ) in which Tom Slingsby leads from start to finish in front of a home crowd and I was awestruck at how these guys control their beasts.  Fluid, quick, decisive maneuvers – everything picture perfect – at least I guess it was perfect because what they do has nothing to do with how I go about the process.

Every detail, every gesture was an example of what I read about in the books, but even further.  The part that really struck me was the downwind legs – constantly moving, carving, sheeting to take advantage of every ripple.  As the commentator pointed out, Slingsby has a very dynamic style with a very wide groove, occasionally gybing to get the right course – and he is very, very fit.  I was shaking my head, thinking how different it all is from the downwind legs I sail in which I hopefully get around the windward mark without major disaster, loosen the fittings if I remember, bring up the centerboard and move forward to bring the transom out of the water.  Occasionally changing course a bit if I actually see a wave in time, trying to sail by the lee sometimes, etc. but no working the sheet at all and almost all steering with the rudder.  Our course usually has smaller waves than those in the video, but still I would imagine that Slingsby and the others would be eking out every bit of value from even our little waves.  The whole thing made me think of bicycle training wheels. Compared to those guys, I am sailing a Laser with training wheels which means that from a distance, one might think I am riding a real Laser, but in reality I am not even close to experiencing the real thing.  On a bicycle with training wheels, you don’t risk falling over but you are totally denied the real feel of the experience.   That is true of my level of Laser sailing - but on a Laser the training wheels exist only in my mind.  While I may not attain the level of these guys or the Boat Whisperer (starting Laser sailing at age 63 is not an advantage), at least this video made me understand a bit what all that downwind stuff is about in the books, DVDs etc and I will start trying a bit more experimenting, although the training wheels are still pretty firmly in place.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Room to Keep Clear

Yesterday I forsook my Laser and helmed a Kestrel two-hander - the results were less than spectacular (all right, dead last place coupled with an ocean dip could even be considered as downright awful).  But that is not the subject of the post (does my ego really need to rehash it?), but rather a lesson learned (or more accurately, re-learned).

Sailing is, as pointed out by a colleague over a post-race beer, not a contact sport and the rules reflect this.  Yesterday, during the minutes before the start when I should have been focused on looking for the favored end, timing runs out and back, thinking about the first leg, etc., I was using most of my mental energy on dealing with an unfamiliar boat which, by the way, has an extra sail and person aboard, compared to my Laser, not to mention a spinnaker with all sorts of ropes attached which come out in weird places. As we reached 10 seconds to go, I was coming up from leeward on a starboard tack, subtly suggesting to a couple of windward boats that they should perhaps consider luffing up a bit (the official transcript reads something like " GO UP, UP, UP you $**$@#, get the #$*%^ out of the way"), the result of which the immediately windward boat observed in a somewhat voluble manner, that while Rule 11 did indeed oblige him to do so, his ability to execute the required maneuver was impacted negatively by the presence of another immediately windward boat who for reasons not entirely clear, had not sufficiently luffed up in response to my suggestions.  (Official transcript "Hey, I hear you, but I can't do anything - you can't just keep coming up on me, you [something unintelligible muttered])”.  Immediately thereafter, contact was made among several boats, several observations were exchanged and after disentangling, everyone sailed off.  The gentlemen to my windward did, although there was no individual recall from the RC, chivalrously restart in view of his being luffed (well, physically pushed) over the start line.

So, the point of all this was to remind me (once again) that right of way boats have “right of way”, which is not the same as a letter of marque authorizing them to capture and pillage other boats. 

First, even the keep-clear boat has some rights.  Rule 16.1 provides that

“When a right-of-way boat changes course, she shall give the other boat room to keep clear.” 

Room” means “the space a boat needs in the existing conditions while manoeuvring promptly in a seamanlike way.” 

Next, even if a right of way boat is giving the keep-clear boat room but contact is imminent, it must act to avoid contact.

Rule 14 sets it out:

A boat shall avoid contact with another boat if reasonably possible. However a right-of-way boat or one entitled to room or mark-room
(a)   need not act to avoid contact until it is clear that the other boat is not keeping clear or giving room or mark-room, and
(b)  shall not be penalized under this rule unless there is contact that causes damage or injury.

So, I was initially right, but then I was wrong (twice).

I had right of way and could luff windward boats as much as I wanted.  Rule 17 which requires a boat becoming overlapped from clear astern within 2 boat lengths to sail its proper course does not apply – because a boat has no proper course before the start. 

But, as I was luffing up with my right of way, I was changing course and I was required to give the keep-clear boat room. My windward friend could hardly maneuver promptly in a seamanlike way to keep clear and my continuing to luff him only made things worse.

At that point I had already infringed Rule 16.1 with respect to my immediate windward boat and so I don’t think I had right of way more over him, but I did for the next windward boat that had plenty of room to maneuver.  If there had been a protest, it would have been against the second boat.

And, finally, even if I continued to have the right of way and the windward boat had room to keep clear, when it became obvious that the windward boat was not going to avoid contact, I had the obligation to try to avoid contact. The thought crossed my mind to bear off and I glanced to leeward and noticed another boat coming up – oh, let’s be honest, I didn’t make any serious effort to avoid contact. 

At any rate, it was all discussed over a glass of beer afterward and in a friendly, constructive mood - good sportsmanship is alive and well in our club. 

Thursday, April 12, 2012


The oceans have always held a fascination for mankind and given rise to many legends, stories and mysteries -  who has not at least heard of the Bermuda triangle, the Flying Dutchman and Captain Jack Sparrow.

But, amidst all the Titanic hoopla on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of its sinking, I came across a really weird story, apparently true.

According to a written report, a new British-owned cruise ship of around 800 feet long was on a voyage between England and New York in April. It was the largest of its kind and considered to be unsinkable. According to the report, the ship struck an iceberg on the forward starboard side in the North Atlantic 400 miles from Newfoundland at night while traveling at almost its top speed of around 25 knots, and soon afterwards sank. Unfortunately there were far too few lifeboats for all the passengers and many of them perished.

This report describes quite accurately the well-known story of the Titanic, but it concerns a fictional ship with a similar name, the Titan.  But the really strange part is that it could have been read by those who perished on the Titanic because it was written 14 years prior to the disaster.  It is from a book by Morgan Robertson published in 1898 and the title was The Wreck of the Titan.  And, not surprisingly, Robertson claimed that he was a psychic.  

Another piece of Titanic lore involves a British passenger, William Stead, who died on the Titanic and who had written a story in 1892 called “From the Old World to the New” in which a ship hit an iceberg and sank.  In the story, some of the passengers were rescued by another ship, whose captain was named Edward John Smith.  When the Titanic sank, she was commanded by a man named Edward John Smith.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Volvo Ocean Race

The Volvo Ocean Race is an amazing event and I have been lucky in being able to see part of it up close.  Living in Abu Dhabi, which is the home port of Azzam and the site of the second stop over, I was able to access things which I probably could not have done elsewhere.

Even before the race started our local sailing club was able to take part in the planning of the stop over.  We met with the South African company in charge of the event and helped them with some local things. 

I talked with one of their video specialists and told him I had been very disappointed in the video coverage of past sailing events, which seemed to be limited to pictures of bow waves, sunsets and popping champagne corks, with very little to help anyone understand what was happening. (Shirley Robertson’s shows on CNN are an exception and much better).  He said it would be different and explained about the MCMs aboard, some of whom would be video professionals rather than top sailors, and how their sole job (aside from cooking and helping on non-sailing duties) would be media. Nick Dana on Azzam,  Amory Ross on Puma, Diego Fructuoso on Telefonica and Yann Riou on Groupama are all accomplished sailors, but Hamish Hooper on Camper and Andres Soriano on Sanya both have media backgrounds. In any case, he was right – it really is different and it is a treat. 

I particularly like the Livestream coverage of the inport races with the very knowledgeable commentators (Mike Sanderson did some of the commentary in Abu Dhabi since Sanya was out of action) and the animation or whatever you call the system that shows the distances between boats and the marks is fabulous.

And seeing all the behind the scenes efforts in the Volvo Village is amazing. We were able to wander around in the village practically at will and get a sense of the daily rhythm of the shore crew.  At the arrival ceremony where each of the teams goes past – the crowds were very small and I easily had a front row position from which I got to shout encouragement to each skipper. 

During the inport race I was on a boat taking a TV cameraman around the course and we got up close and personal with the boats, seeing the crew work, hearing the groaning of the canting keels and seeing Prince Andrew on Azzam.

I was especially lucky to be at a small dinner before the race that included Ian Walker.  What a job those skippers have – the world-class sailing skills are only the beginning. They have to build a team, deal with the team in a pressure cooker situation for weeks at a time, keep an eye on corporate sponsors, entertain VIPs with diplomacy, etc.   As Mark Twain observed in Innocents Abroad, “a long sea-voyage not only brings out all the mean traits one has, and exaggerates them, but raises up others which he never suspected he possessed, and even creates new ones.”  And he was referring to a voyage on a luxury liner.

I asked Ian at dinner if the life of a professional sailor at his level means he enjoys the sport less than he used to and he admitted that having to pay the mortgage makes a difference and does change things. 

I follow the race daily and am constantly amazed at what those guys go through and the beating both the boats and the crew take.  Good luck to all!

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Sikhs in the City

I missed this one back in November.  Fauja Singh finished the Toronto Marathon a bit behind the winners (as the events crew was dismantling things) with a time of 8 hours, 11 minutes and 6 seconds, which is more than 2 ½ hours slower than he did the same course in 2003.

But, known as the Turbaned Tornado, he won his class – the over 100 year olds - and while he was at it, set world class records for eight distances ranging from 100 meters through 5,000 meters.

He and some younger Sikhs (aged 82, 82 and 83) have formed a London team called Sikhs in the City and he often runs in a sweatshirt emblazoned with their name.

He attributes his long life to a simple Punjabi vegetarian diet – various sources report its elements as tea, toast, vegetables and curry – and above all, to being happy and avoiding stress. As he puts it, who has ever heard of anyone dying from being happy?  He took up running at the age of 89 following the loss of his wife and son.

So, for those Laser and other dinghy sailors who might be feeling a few creaks and groans during a race (I know whereof I speak), suck it up and get on with things. Be Happy !

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Taming the Gybe

Gybing makes a lot of sailors uneasy, especially on small dinghies. I can picture it now, running downwind with a stiff breeze with my body weight centered and trying to keep the Death Roll at bay, the leeward mark fast approaching. Looking around at the nearby boats, trying to judge who will be overlapped in the zone, who will have right of way and which course to take after rounding, the last thing I need to worry about is properly gybing with the specter of a wet failure lurking close by. And, of course the Laser bonus of the main sheet catching the corner of the transom or, as once happened to me, looping a half a clove hitch around the end of the boom (I have no idea how, but the result was that the half a clove hitch, in addition to the helmsman, soon got wet).  I know that hooking the sheet with your finger as you go across can be a non-looping substitute for the jerk, but somehow I prefer the jerk (does that make me one?).

So, how to tame the unruly beast?   I have two specific suggestions, one of which was offered as advice from an Aussie who had several good tips, although on the day I saw him ram his almost new dinghy into a large metal buoy, I did wonder if listened to them.  The other tip I figured out myself, although some experienced sailors might include it in the “Well, duh” category. And I am sure I read it in books and saw it on blogs like Sam Chapin’s February 2009 tips, but I guess I forgot it.

The first tip (which, although coming from an Aussie apparently works equally well in both the Southern and Northern hemisphere, regardless of Bernoulli’s law) is in preparing for the gybe.  Basically, spend the time necessary to get the boat directly downwind and stable. Once it is stable, then gybe and immediately stabilize again.  Perhaps some hotshot sailors will quibble over the time spent in doing this, but at my level the investment of a few seconds is time well spent compared to a capsize. And psychologically it really helps to feel that you are in control and stable just before the gybe, and even more so, after the gybe.

The second tip is related to the first since it is the key element in stabilizing after the gybe.  The tip is to steer through the gybe – just enough to feel the sheet go slack and, then giving the little Laser jerk, crossing over and – here is the important part – immediately steering back so that you end up downwind again very quickly – the S curve as some explain it.  In my case, this usually means I steer behind my back for a bit until I feel things settle down and then switch hands. In the past, I used to oversteer, concentrating so much on the boom coming across and jerking the sheet, that steering was a bit of an afterthought and by the time I did think about it, my curve was a capital C instead of an S and I was already on to a broad reach, and, if not capsized, had to scramble to get back downwind, losing momentum, time and dignity.  Today, I practiced a number of gybes and in order to make my concentration even more focused, I gybed around a number of buoys and tried to steer as close to them as possible (missing all of them, I am pleased to say, and maybe I will let my Aussie friend know the benefits of missing them). This was a good exercise, forcing me to concentrate on boat control and I was feeling good at the end of the day, realizing that I could be in control of the boat, even in the midst of a gybe.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Tide Trumps All

Part of our sailing area is in a dredged channel which is considerably deeper than the surrounding water. When the RC includes this area in the course, I have learned to repeat to myself before starting that the tide trumps any other consideration in how to sail the course. Or if I forget to remember this basic truth, the sight of many sterns soon reminds me. Hopefully the RC will have mentioned the tidal flow at the brief, but in any case the first thing I do in going out to the course is look at the channel markers to see which way and how much they are leaning. 

The channel and tidal stream are both parallel to the direction of the prevailing wind and so on the beats and runs it is especially important to get things right. This means simply to avoid the channel and head for shallow water when you go against the tide and stay in the middle when you go with it. That magic carpet has little regard for the wind and it disdains headers and lifts as passing whims.

But the beats and runs are fairly straightforward in terms of tidal strategy and the real fun is around the marks. Obviously you have to compensate for the flow as you aim for the mark, but you must also remember to take the stream into account as you round the mark, since if you tack or gybe there will be some slower movement in the middle with the tide eagerly waiting to pounce. And, if there is congestion at the mark, you can be sure someone has misjudged things and will be trying tack or gybe in a panic.

And finally, the downstream side of any obstacle – particularly larger ones – will have some weird stuff going on as the tidal stream curls around and gets choppy and confused. Probably the toughest area I have encountered in our area is a large buoy that is in the shadow of wind turbulence from a highway bridge that I am convinced has a very nasty troll living under it – which must explain the alternating bands of prevailing wind, dead calm and 90º shifts. When the tide is streaming past that buoy and the troll is playing games, it gets interesting.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Light Winds and Starts

Frustrating, boring, limp, useless – those were my feelings yesterday - sitting, drifting on the race course with no wind. The opposite of sailing, the wind gods taunting, just over the horizon.

We started our race with gentle winds but the race committee was aware they may not last and set a course close to home.  The forecasts were accurate and after about 20 minutes, the wind sputtered, wheezed and died.  After 15 minutes of drifting with the incoming tide the RC called it quits and we limped back home.

What did I learn from yesterday?  First, my start was a disaster because I was timing it based on the wind from about 10 minutes earlier and by the time I was ready to bear off and kick into high gear, the RC boat flags were drooping and my high gear was an embarrassing sputter toward the line.   I should have stayed closer to the line and assumed the worst – it is a lot easier to luff up to slow down than to bear off into non-existent wind.

And I should have known better.  In a regatta a couple of months ago, the winds were very light and the RC had fiendishly put the start line in the midst of a tidal flow heading downwind. So the boats were pointed upwind toward the line but were travelling backward with the current.  But I had one of the best starts.  Not because I did anything right, but because I had (you guessed it) misjudged the wind and was too far away from the line. But from this vantage point I was able to see the other boats' predicament and was able to point much higher going to the line to compensate for the tide. I looked brilliant, but it was just dumb luck. I wish I could say that yesterday I remembered this event and compensated for the light wind, etc. but in fact I repeated the same mistake, and was suitably rewarded by looking foolish instead of brilliant.  

So, the real lesson in all this has less to do with light wind, than with using mistakes to learn and remembering that learning is not automatic. I certainly prefer to forget my stupid mistakes and that makes it even harder to learn from them.  Which is why a journal of mistakes and lessons following each race is a good idea. I can at least feel virtuous in recording the mistakes and hopefully look at them in the future and avoid the same mistake, leaving room for a new one to learn from.

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