Apr 2, 2012, 4:03 PM
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Bruce Kirby: Future of Sailing
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Future of Sailing
April 2, 2012
By Bruce Kirby
Prediction is very difficult, especially if it’s about the future.
When discussing the Future of Yachting the question immediately arises “The future for whom?"
More than ever before the sport is a strange mixture of dissimilar parts. We have the pure professionals tearing around the world in the Volvo 70s with square-topped mainsails, bowsprits, double rudders and twin dagger boards - sailing boats that are structurally so close to the point of disintegration that five of the six that started have already had to pause for repairs.
There’s the really high priced help in the America’s Cup; and don’t forget the pros who stand behind their owners and instruct them on every move - I think they’re called tacticians.
Then there are the much less stressed PHRF groups in their 25-year-old comfortable fiberglass 30 to 50 footers. And there are any number of measurement rules and we know they will change any minute now - and we have a thousand one-designs, and sailors who don’t race at all but have just as much fun as the rest of us. You pays your money and you takes your choice.
There is obviously a significant age factor here as well as the ever-present leisure time problem which we share with a hundred different pastimes
I began serious racing in International 14s in my teens during World War II, and kept at it until moving from Canada to the U.S. in my mid 30s. (eh?) The 14 was the hottest class back then, and because it is a development class it has remained at or near the top of the extra high performance classes. In the 40s and 50s we had no trapeze and set small symmetrical spinnakers. In about 1965, one trapeze was allowed - and then a few years later a second trapeze. And then bowsprits and masthead asymmetrical spinnakers. The non-trapeze 14s with only hiking straps to aid the crews, could be - and were - raced by crews as old as 65 or 70.
It would be the rare senior dude who could steer a present day 14 in any kind of breeze - hooking on and off his trapeze, jibing the huge asymmetrical spinnaker, and crossing the boat with his 6-foot long tiller extension.
I use the 14 as an example because it is a development class and has gone from what was extreme in the 1930s to what is definitely extreme today – moving in small increments over a period of 70 years. When new hot one designs are introduced, the 14 is already at about the same technology level.
These little thoroughbreds do not sell in big numbers because they are virtually custom designed and built so the price of a top of the line 14 today is about $65,000 and it might well be out-designed next year. The class will remain relevant into the future because it continues to keep abreast of everything new, whereas a true one-design is fixed in time, and unless it is an extraordinary boat it will soon be left behind – very few of them will remain relevant into their second decade.
At the COST BE DAMNED level in either large or small boats advances will result from improvements in materials and structures - as it always has. Is there a material over the horizon that is lighter and stronger than carbon fiber? --- almost certainly. Is there a sail material ahead that will make a better sail than we see today on high-end racing machines like the Volvo boats?
The Volvo 70s and the smaller versions of them with their light, flat hulls, carbon masts and swing keels, will literally plane like a Sydney Harbor 18 when reaching and running in a good breeze. But they challenge the best dentists and gastroenterologists when struggling and slamming to windward in a seaway - launching off waves and crashing mercilessly into the troughs. Their crews get little sleep and have difficulty eating and moving about on deck or below. Injuries are common. This kind of vessel will continue to be refined and made even faster (and more difficult to sail well.).
Then we think of the other end of the scale with boats like CARINA or BOLERO and smaller sisters - that give their crews a soft ride, a good sleep, and the ability to keep their plates in their laps until they can get through the meal.
Again - you take your choice.
You can go to Bermuda fast, wet and uncomfortable in a surprisingly short time, or you can mosey on down in a narrow, heavy smooth sailing vessel in relative comfort and in twice the time. Given the same overall length the boats of the 50s and 60s would cost new today about half what a carbon sled would cost. I can’t see this trend changing in the next 10 years. There are enough smart people in the sport to make it impossible for any one type of vessel suit all. Again, you can see an age influence here.
Some of the best small boat racing is in older classes like the Star, Etchells, Lightning, Laser - but we cannot slow down the quest for ever higher performance. The 49er and 29er from Australia, the Viper and others from Europe have brought us to a different level, and there’s no reason to believe this trend will not continue. The Star was designed in 1911 and the class is very strong 101 years later. But there must have been several other day-racers designed near the turn of that other century that no one alive today ever heard of.
Frankly, I cannot see, right now, how anyone is going to make a 16 –footer that’s faster than the 49er around the course. Maybe a bit faster downwind; or maybe upwind, but not overall. But it will happen and that will be one hell of a boat.
It’s anybody’s guess which of today’s one – designs, if any, will still be around 25 years from now, let alone 100 years.
And yet the time will come when a boat will be designed that has superb performance, and can be sailed by crews who are not Olympic gymnasts. And that class will last for 50 years. As I said earlier these advances - if we want to call them that - are nearly always the result of new materials becoming available.
Invention follows the opportunity to make it happen.
Wooden cold molded and hot molded hulls were light years ahead of the old caravel planked boats. They were lighter, stiffer and far less likely to leak after years of use. In the 50s fiberglass came along, and although it was not as stiff for its weight as a good laminated hull, it had the singular advantage of making possible series production at reasonable cost and resulted in the very large numbers we see in many one designs today. And now we have carbon fiber and foam core laminates that make hulls even lighter, stronger and far more expensive. They are mostly for custom boats, but such layups are also appearing in high end production hulls.
Within 25 years there will be even lighter, stiffer hull materials than these, and a maybe building systems that will make mass production more efficient and practical than we have now.
There are outside forces pulling the sport. At two or three levels yacht racing is under pressure to be audience friendly and especially TV friendly. It’s happening in the Olympics, the America’s Cup and the Volvo Race. You hear that dreadful term “we must grow the sport” and what this usually means is we must let the non-sailing public in on it at the expense of good racing. We must sail close to shore so the folks on the cliffs can watch - never mind that there’s no wind in there, or that it’s as shifty as a north-wester along the Connecticut shore.
Too much attention is being paid to the audience, and not enough to the competitors. The Volvo race this time around has eight stops so that all the sponsors will have their day. Boats are being forced to sail through waters that they would not think of entering if they were not pressured by sponsors to turn up in a particular city.
The attraction of team racing is quickly spreading upward from the colleges to older contestant in less physical vessels, and in major east coast contests there is usually a mixture of ages from mid 20s to mid 60s. Many clubs are having great success with team members in their 50s and 60s.
Looking to the future, I think we should encourage and expand both team and match racing. The success of the New York Yacht Club’s Swan 42 match race series can attest to the validity of big boat match racing.
On the other hand I have friends who are afraid that too much team racing will seriously cut into fleet racing. I doubt that very much. The same people do both, and there are a lot of good sailors who cannot tolerate the vocal decibels of team racing and will stick to trying to finish first in a fleet instead of turning around to molest the guys behind.
Team racing also contributes to the social scene and you can sail at a high level without having to own a boat.
This time around America’s Cup crews will be sailing with crash helmets, onboard cameras and microphones. I hate to say it right out loud, but I think there’s a strong chance we will have serious injuries or worse out there on San Francisco Bay. These 72-foot catamarans will be capable of 35 knots, which gives a closing speed of 70 knots if they aim at each other. A helmsman will not have to make a huge miscalculation to cause a catastrophic collision.
As recently as 10 years ago none of us could have imagined the AC being held in these boats. But the event in San Francisco next year is bound to be very exciting. And if the winner decides to keep the event in the new class, I can see slow and methodical development - but nothing spectacular - in the next 10 or 15 years. It could be another 12-Meter era, but with boats at three times the speed and 10 times the cost.
Technology continues to rise with its higher price tag, while recreational dollars are fading for many of us. If we want the sport to be inclusive, accessible, and relatively simple we have to find the right compromise between the dollars we’re willing to spend and the technology that’s becoming available. We are approaching a situation where technology is outrunning our ability or desire to keep up with it - except of course at the extreme high end where sponsorship and very big bucks get involved.
In 1967 I bought a state of the art Star boat from Skip Etchells for $5,200. Today a competitive new Star is about $70,000. The class is healthy but very few new boats are being sold. The same can be said of the Etchells class. If the economy stays slow for few years it could precipitate the disappearance of these fine one-designs.
Sails and masts continue to be major factors in performance improvement and climbing prices. Spar makers and sail makers work together to improve the boat’s engine. Technology just coming on line with North Sails gives them the capability to make sails thinner, stronger and longer lasting. The system and material are expensive, but it is hoped that the cost will be more than made up with longevity. These sails are formed over a male mold in the same way North has been doing their 3DL sails for years. The new technology is called TPT for Thin Ply Technology. All but one of the Volvo boats is using the new laminate, which includes carbon and dyneema, and they’re reporting surprising durability and shape-retaining properties.
In concert with North Sails, their mast maker, Southern Spars, is using similar technology to manufacture masts which can be made stiffer, or stronger at the same stiffness- take your choice. In a TP 52 they can make a mast 8 % lighter at the same stiffness. This is a considerable weight saving and should result in a noticeable reduction in pitching. On the other hand they can make a mast at the old weight, but a lot stiffer.
I have seen what seem to be giant strides in the past 75 years or so, but in fact the changes come slowly. Looking 10 years ahead, today’s young kids will not see a lot of change. Development classes and offshore racers and cruisers might be a little bit lighter and/or stiffer – changes you can’t see from dockside. Hull graphics are getting pretty zany, and there’ll be a lot of that - for better or worse.
In many areas there are programs to help underprivileged youngsters get into sailing. In the Connecticut cities of Norwalk and Stamford and Southport, yacht clubs and waterfront organizations encourage and sponsor programs to get kids out of their dead end lives and broaden their horizons than to get them out on the water and let them feel the wind and spray .