CNN’s Shirley Robertson takes a look at women “at the sharp end of the sport.” (Don’t you love how the Brits use their language?) She’s a double Olympic medalist, so well qualified. In this 22 minute video that’s getting a lot of play interenationally, she interviews Ellen MacArthur, Sam Davies, Dawn Riley and others. I love it when she talks to Ken Read about why he hadn’t recruited more women, and he admits “shame on me.”
It’s pretty clear that there isn’t gender equality at that sharp end, especially when it comes to the America’s Cup. The argument that it’s difficult for women revolves around size and strength.
I’ve always thought that the Northwest had a relatively (to other areas) high percentage of women skippers and crews. Almost all the crews I’ve been a part of have had a mix. And Ellen MacArthur and Sam Davies reinforce what I’ve always felt, that the best way into the sport for women is to just ignore the few bone-heads out there that think that women don’t belong, and just sail the boat. I can’t speak for the sharp end of the sport.
Check out the video below. I’d love to open up the conversation about Northwest women racers. Are there more bone-heads out there than I think? Is the racing climate conducive or prohibitive to women? Start it up in the comments below and if there’s interest I can open up a forum.
I have a big problem with most sailing books and movies. There’s almost always a huge disconnect with how great sailing is and how its portrayal always falls woefully short. It seems the authors and directors feel the need to make sailing something other than it is to keep it interesting. Blasphemes!
So I wasn’t expecting much from Before the Wind (Alfred A. Knopf, 2016) by Jim Lynch. But hey, he was coming to speak at CYC-Seattle and I’d get a chance to meet the author and maybe get some inspiration for my own writing. Furthermore, he was a real Northwest sailor. So, I started to read the book and was about halfway through, enough to know the book was a really good read, by the time of the CYC engagement.
After having the great pleasure of chatting with Lynch, and finishing the book a couple weeks later, my faith in sailing as the best story setting, and my eagerness to tackle fiction, were restored. For any sailor in the Pacific Northwest, it’s a must read. For sailors elsewhere, it’s highly recommended. Hey, even the New York Times had nice things to say about it.
The story revolves around a Seattle boat designing and building family, one which could be mistaken for the Buchans, particularly if the reader is not paying close attention. It is definitely not the Buchans, though it’s safe to say that there are some Buchan elements to the story. (An almost superhuman ability to find wind, for example) At a reading a few months ago, Lynch saw Bill Buchan in the audience, and thought “Uh oh,” but Bill came up after and told Lynch he remembered selling Lynch’s father a boat back in the day.
This Johannssen family lures you into their world. Our hero Josh is a multi-skilled boatyard rat who’s more interested in helping out the characters at the local cheap marina than in making money or participating in the family business, which, incidentally, is headed for Davy Jones’ Locker. He’s got a brother who really wants to separate from the family, a dad who can’t quite grasp where life went wrong (or is going) and a mother who’s too smart for her own good and a sister who is special in many ways (that wind finding thing, for one) I wasn’t that thrilled with all the characters until the Swiftsure race.
Here’s where Lynch does a neat little course change. Where you would expect it to be all about the race, there come some serious family dynamics. I won’t say more, you’ll just have to read it for yourself. And in another twist, it doesn’t end with the end of the race.
As a racer I of course kept finding problems with the sailing part of things (they only sailed with 6 family members (one an old man) on a competitive 39-footer?), but as a writer I get it (any non-family members on board would have simply ruined it.) I would have liked to hear more about how they prepped the boat and crew for the race. And then there’s a handicap rating issue that never gets resolved, at least to my satisfaction. What rating issue ever does?
Lynch does a really good job of introducing the sport to his today’s non-sailing readers. In decades and centuries past, writers like Patrick O’Brien could get away with really detailed, esoteric descriptions of what goes on on a sailing ship. Lynch thankfully doesn’t go there, but he does make the non-sailor reach a little bit.
Even though Before the Wind’s story arc is structured around Swiftsure, I wouldn’t call it a book about racing. In fact, the racing seemed almost incidental much of the time and there was enough of the rest of the waterfront, especially the boatyard, to draw in cruisers as well.
Lynch’s fondness for that sailing world comes through. The Johannssens are just a family who love sailing, but stuck dealing with the vicissitudes of rich people and vagaries of the sport and even the winds that drive it. The story isn’t driven by ambition or money, it’s a people tale.
A really wonderful thread was the mother’s fascination with Albert Einstein’s sailing. For me it was refreshing to hear that Einstein found our little sport confounding at times. I never realized how much Einstein enjoyed sailing, but it makes sense.
As a reader you’ll probably pick one of the sailing characters to identify with and track. Within this family there are diverse enough personalities there are several to choose from. I went with the obvious choice; the narrator and central character Josh who spends a little too much time worrying about others and not enough helping himself. His quest for a soul mate in the modern online dating world is precious.
If you’re looking for a simple, raucous sailing tale, this is not it. It’s mostly about feelings and family, growing up and growing old.
And as a Salish Sea sailor, you’ll feel warm and cozy in the setting. Lynch doesn’t spend a lot of time in description, but for those of use here with moss behind our ears, it’s enough. There are also some very familiar places, even if they come with different names. A yard on the Ship Canal comes to mind, and West Bay Marina is unmistakable.
No spoiler alerts necessary. I won’t write about the ending of the story other than to say it’s satisfying. I know where my buddy Josh is headed. Moreover, Lynch showed me once again what an effective setting sailing is for people stories. But now I’ll have to track down his other books at the library and give them a read.
Chances are Lynch will come up with another sailing book at some point. During the Q and A at CYC he indicated his interests are elsewhere now. But if he’s anything like his characters, once that saltwater enters the bloodstream it’s really hard to get rid of.
Ever since the RS Aero first appeared, everyone seems focused on the question “Which is the better boat, the Aero or the Laser?” As the Melges 14 gains steam, the question will be which is best of the three. That’s not the important question. At all. Both the new boats are surely better than the Laser. They’re 40 years newer and have the advantage of current materials and construction techniques. If they’re not better, RS and Melges have really screwed up. Which they have not. Both companies are clearly committed to making a great product.
No, the real question is, what’s the future of the Laser class? Most of the 210,000 boats built are still around. There are active fleets worldwide and an extremely well-established class association. And you know what? It’s still a great sailing boat. Thanks Bruce, Bruce and Hans.
My LTR with the Laser and Fleet Demise
For me personally, it’s painful. I pined for the boat when it was new and I was too small. I fussed over my first used lime green Laser to no end as a teenager. Since then I’ve sailed a succession of Lasers, dragged them all over the Midwest and Northwest to regattas I would never win. I’ve been beaten up by the boat more often than I can remember. Many times my extremities have required hours to get back proper circulation and my muscles days to relieve soreness. I’ve been sunburned and bruised to the extreme.
Yet, I love her so.
The Seattle Laser Fleet (SLF) is giving all appearances of dying. As ground zero for the RS Aero movement in North America, the new boat has lured away most SLF stalwarts. And through attrition and lack of promotion recently, the fleet has dwindled. To make things interesting in our weekly racing, we (~5 Lasers) start on the (~7) Aero’s preparatory signal (one minute ahead on a three minute sequence) and try to hold them off to the finish. It’s not as satisfying as, say, 12 boats of the same kind.
Admittedly, I’m an SLF evangelist. I’m also currently the District 22 secretary. Many of my strongest friendships can trace their source to Laser sailing.
So, yes, it’s painful to watch the dwindling fleets. And I’ve gotten a bit grumpy about it.
But sailors have voted with their booties and have either quit sailing or made the move to the younger, sexier Aero.
Maybe it’s even time for the Laser and SLF to die.
The more I think about it, the more I realize that it’s not time for the Laser or my dear SLF to die, but to adapt.
A Quick Word about the Quick Aero
The Aero is certainly a very good boat. I’ve only sailed one for about 30 seconds, but I’ve watched them sail past me and better sailors than I think they’re great. Its rigging is far superior to a Laser’s. It’s a planing machine and has a beautiful carbon rig. Oh yeah, and it’s way lighter, which makes a managing on shore a lot easier. With the “9” rig it’s just plain fast in light air. There have been some teething problems, but not many and RS is very responsive.
Best of all, the RS Aero appears to be drawing sailors who, for one reason or another, aren’t interested in sailing a Laser. A couple weeks ago, champion sailor Libby McKee and my mini transat friend Craig, came out in loaner RS Aeros and both are thinking about jumping back into the singlehanded dinghy world. With the Aero’s “9” rigs, sailing in light air, they ended up first and second and appeared to enjoy themselves enormously.
When the RS Aero first came out, I recognized it as a viable Laser replacement, giving the local Aero (and Laser!) dealer George Yioulos (West Coast Sailing) a forum for promoting the boat in the post Laser Killer? way back in June 2014. I’ve referred plenty of people to the Aero fleet here.
I don’t know much about the Melges, but I know the family and they’ll make a great boat and provide superlative support to fleet building.
The future of high-end, simple singlehanded sailing is probably in good hands with either the Aero or the Melges. May the best boat win.
The Laser has always had its problems. So, for all you haters out there, here’s my list of top Laser “issues,” to which I’m sure you can add.
LaserPerformance continues to do its best to kill the class. When Dave Reed of Sailing World points out that a potential advertiser is screwing up so badly, then it’s common knowledge.
So, here goes with the bad:
Crappy builder support, including parts availability
Poor construction currently (including spars)
Stupidly silly high cost for new models of such an ancient boat
Painful to sail
Difficult to sail well – with the result of widely spread fleets
Limited competitive life of the equipment (hulls get soft and spars break)
Questions in play about future of brand due to the Kirby lawsuit
Top 10 Laser Strengths
One of my Laser sailing friends, who’s been near the top of the Laser fleet nationally for several years, asked rhetorically, “If it’s not an Olympic boat, why would you sail a Laser?” He’s about done with the boat, and after the thousands of hours he’s put into it, I can’t blame him.
But I do see plenty of reasons to sail a Laser even if you’re not dreaming of the Olympics:
The great feel
Can sail in virtually any wind
Great competition, especially internationally
It develops fitness and toughness
They’re ubiquitous (arguably the best regatta in the world is Laser Masters Worlds)
They’re near indestructible for casual sailing/racing
Cheap for used boats, good for kids coming up
Best teaching boat ever
The full, Radial and 4.7 rigs make the Laser a very flexible and effective platform for wide variety of sailors
They’re just flat out good looking.
So Where Should the Laser Point?
Many classes have been “out-designed” and live happily on. The Star, Opti, 505, Thistle, Snipe, Daysailer, and Shields are some that come to mind. Several of these have a development aspect that keeps sailors engaged. Others are so ubiquitous and accessible that they just keep going. When the pressure of super-competitors has moved to other classes, some have even thrived more.
I hope that as some wealthier and more “serious” singlehanders move to the Melges or Aeros, and the Laser starts to get supplanted as “the” boat, profits will go down and LaserPerformance will sell the product line into more committed hands. And hopefully the class will lose its Olympic status. Everybody talks about Olympic status as a great thing. I’m not sure it is. I was sailing Lasers long before it was an Olympic class and it was just as fun and popular, if not more.
It is an experience to sail with those Olympic guys, maybe even round the first weather mark alongside them (if I go the right way and they go the wrong way). But otherwise, their presence doesn’t really mean much to my sailing. I’m more interested in beating my friends (you Scott and you Joe and you Carlos), who, like me, can’t keep up with the pros.
At the same time, the Laser Class will have to take a good hard look at itself and decide whether it wants to improve the boat or protect the fleet. IMHO, now that there is finally a new sail, the mast is the area of greatest need. A carbon top section (or entire set of spars) has been discussed ad infinitum. Creating a lighter, safer and more importantly, longer-lasting set of spars would make the boat so much better. If the Laser is no longer “the” boat, maybe it will be easier to get that done.
There are a lot of us of all ages who just like sailing the boat, and we’re going to be around for a long time to come. I’m guessing that with a shift in builder and Olympic status, Laser sailing could become more energized. While sometimes we take breaks from sailing, a lot of us tend to come back to Lasers. In my experience, we love to help newbies get to know the Laser’s quirks quickly and don’t mind it too much when we’re surpassed. We’ll still enjoy great racing and still have those awesome international events to attend.
The class could then refocus on getting young sailors into the boat. Basically, at the national and local levels we can reach out to high school sailors and others who can’t spend a lot of money on the new RS or Melges, but who would get just as much fun out of sailing a Laser. If it’s not an Olympic class, gone are the coach’s boats and the intimidation factor.
And maybe the broader thinkers among the Aero and Melges proponents will see that it will do them little good to decry the Laser as a has-been to potential sailors. Lasers have started many thousands of sailors down a path that ends up with them buying a lot of different boats.
In other words, don’t kill the Laser, it can still do the sport (and those builders) a lot of good by introducing folks to dinghy sailing. Just as it’s done for decades.
Basically, I see the Laser returning to its humble, non-ultra-competitive roots. I believe it can live happily there coexisting with the new boats while providing a good option for a lot of sailors, especially the crop of great high school sailors coming up.
We human beings think that if we just build a better mousetrap, the problem will be solved. And, not by coincidence, if we’re the individuals to come up with it and market it, we might just make money in the process.
In the last hundred years or so, a lot of people have built better mousetraps than that old spring loaded knuckle-rapper that I grew up with. And a lot of people have come up with great boats.
Even before Garry Hoyt went on a holy mission to make sailing easier, sailboat and equipment manufacturers have been hell-bent on making sailing easier.
If you look at today’s cruisers, cruiser/racers and flat out racers, they’re really really nice and well suited to their purposes. They’re better boats. I’ll use my 1979, 12,500 lb. C&C 36 (which by the way I love more every time I go out) as a kind of baseline. Take your pick of a similarly-sized boats. Hunter, Catalina, Beneteau, Jeanneau, Hanse – to name just a few. Where are actually some things I like better about my plastic classic, but there’s no getting around the fact the new boats are very good indeed. They’re roomy, comfy and sail fast. If you haven’t been to a boat show lately, go. Better yet, ask a salesman to take you for a sail.
With new sail handling systems and modern sailplans, the new boats are easy to handle. No athleticism necessary. There are in-boom furlers, electric winches, autopilots that steer better than we do, electronics that can put us safely into a slip without ever having to actually see the dock with our eyes.
These boats are positively palatial in volume compared to the C&C 36. They’re fuller in the ends (and sometimes even the middle), and all that area is devoted to living space. There are huge double berths, massive heads and galleys with ample space to cook for all the kids that are not going to be there. Interestingly, a lot of the layouts are clearly two-couple layouts. I tried putting my two boys in the vee berth. Let’s just say we called that experiment “There Will Be Blood.” Oh, for a good pilot berth or two.
That’s right, kids may appear in the marketing materials, and sometimes even on boats, but you don’t see enough of them on real live sailboats. I’ll save that discussion for another day, but for now let’s just say there’s a lot of other things we parents are pressured into doing that have nothing to do with sailing. Resistance to those pressures may not be futile, but it’s not easy.
In 1979 my parents and I raced and cruised our C&C 27, sometimes 1000+ miles in a short Midwest season. When I speak to long time sailors about the good old days, almost invariably they reminisce about dubious and dangerous adventures on open boats, or cruising with the entire family (including three kids and a dog) on a 20-something footer for three weeks at a time. Our 27 felt like a cruise ship for my small family. Kinda begs the question why my boys can’t share a vee berth.
Hmmm, it might not be too big a stretch to say there’s an inverse relationship between ease/comfort and enjoyment.
I’m not saying we should all go looking for an Ericson 27 or equivalent for a good time. There’s no need for that. But if anyone tells you that you need a fancy boat to enjoy sailing, they’re full of bilge water.
And as far as racing, boats are also far superior to what was. Carbon, with all its lightness and stiffness, is becoming more common. The days of runners/checkstays and an inventory of 16 headsails are long gone.
One person can now three around a bagged genoa where it used to take three. Asymmetrical chutes on sprits mean ordinary humans can do bow without putting their lives or dignity in danger. (Though I confess I rather miss that challenge). Sails have near perfect shapes built in.
All-out racers and racer-cruisers are getting farther apart every days, but both types have improved markedly.
If it were a simply a matter of making a better mousetrap, there’d be no ailing in sailing. The mousetraps out there are very good.
One could make the argument (and I’ll make it here) that the emphasis on making better boats has not enticed more people to sail. The new boat sales numbers certainly bear me out.
The emphasis on making better boats, however, has driven up costs a lot, and those costs are making it prohibitive for many people to pick up sailing as a pastime. Anybody cruising the net or magazines might easily think that they need a $200K, 35-foot “entry level” cruising boat. It might as well be $2 million to a lot of the people in what’s left of the middle class. It just ain’t gonna happen.
Things have changed financially. “Disposable” income is getting disposed of on house payments, Lexus payments and those $500 summer camps their kids have to get into this summer while the parents work and nobody’s going sailing. Oh, that $200K might pay for small part of a four-year college education. But again, this is a topic for another day.
For now, let’s just say the boats per se are not the problem. The price of boats, or lack of “disposable income” depending on how you look at it, certainly is part of the problem.
You know what’s more addictive, infuriating and pointless than talking about the current presidential primary circus? Talking about what’s ailing sailing and racing.
Yet, that’s what I’ll do. Give a guy a blog and keyboard…..
The first question is, IS sailing ailing? After all, the marinas are filled with sailboats. At this time of the year there are races nearly every day somewhere in my home waters of the Pacific Northwest. Cruisers head out to near and far destinations every day. And the high school sailing scene is healthy and growing, the Sail Sand Point community boating center is thriving and the sailing schools around town often sell out. Talk about sailing with someone and 9/10 times their eyes light up and they say they’d love to sail.
Ah, but it IS ailing.
For several years, less than 1% of new boats sold in Washington have been sailboats. Yep, on that score we’re statistically pretty insignificant. I’m not sure what it is in the rest of the country but I’ll be the numbers are similar.
And those boats in the marinas? Take a good look at them. How many look like they’ve been sailed in the last week, month, year, even decade?
The racing fleets? In terms of participation, most of today’s races in the Northwest are mere ghosts of what they were “back in the day.” The “day” being the 1970s-1990s when there were fewer people to draw from, the equipment (including the boats themselves) wasn’t nearly as user friendly or fast, and the clothing wasn’t nearly as warm. Today there are 70 boats when 20 years ago there were 150 and 10 years before that there were 300.
Bless those people who think that sailboat racing is doing OK. It’s simply not.
There are bright spots to talk about, and I certainly will in the future on this blog. And I’m hoping that readers will share information about the bright spots I know nothing about.
My goal isn’t to rail against things (that’d be about as productive as commenting on Trump). I want to figure out why sailing’s ailing and if something can or should be done about it. Bear with me as I piece my thoughts together as they come to me and as time allows.
Here are some of the tacks I’ll take in the coming posts. Working titles, sequence and existence of the following are subject to change and the whims of the author.
Ailing, Not Dead
The Boats are Not The Problem
Culture is the Problem
Why the hell should it cost so much? Or does it?
Any idiot can work on a boat, and many do
Can somebody please kill the America’s Cup and 007?
Kids, They’re Not the Future, they’re the Present
Racing: Yeah, I’ll be talking about handicapping among other things