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Memories of a sail that lived up to its name in every way

2014 February 1

Achilling specter from the past popped up in a pair of photos in my email inbox. Beneath them were the words: "Safe to say that no one misses the blooper. Click on image to post your blooper story (if you're old enough)."

Old enough? I'm sure I'm older than my chronological age due to the stress of dealing with the misbegotten invention appropriately named the blooper, a word the Oxford Dictionary defines as "an embarrassing error."

The blooper redux came in the Scuttlebutt newsletter. I clicked on one of the photos to see what readers were saying and was shocked to find that among the many tales recounting the aggravations of the blooper were a couple of comments expressing pleasant memories of the sail that set sailing performance back in the waning years of the last century. It goes to show how misguided nostalgia for a bygone time can warp reality.

Some sailors never experienced that reality. Some don't even know what a blooper is. Every now and then I get a query from a reader who bought a used 1980s-vintage sailboat asking about a strange sail that came with it, a bosomy triangular affair that is made of brightly hued spinnaker cloth but doesn't look like a spinnaker.

I explain that it is an artifact called a blooper, technically a sail, but not one you should ever consider using as such. For those averse to adding to landfills any material that will take centuries to degrade, my recommended uses for surviving bloopers are tents, tarps and Halloween costumes. The latter would scare the pants off of anyone who remembers sailing on boats flying bloopers.

It would be wrong to say bloopers were useless. They served a purpose: They generated business for sailmakers. It would be accurate to say that outside of that, bloopers were useless.

Even the sailmakers who made them admitted that bloopers didn't add any speed. But bloopers were an essential part of a racing sail inventory nonetheless because, set to leeward of spinnakers when running, they prevented the racing boats of the day, designed to the International Offshore Rule, from broaching. Or so the theory went.

The trouble was, the theory was bogus per se. It's a scientific fact that there was no sail or other device, no silver bullet, no magic formula, no force on earth that could stop an IOR boat from broaching when conditions dictated that an IOR boat would broach, which could be any time the boat was sailing downwind in a breeze with a spinnaker.

IOR boats were not designed to be fast or stable. They were designed to fit the parameters of the rule as cleverly as possible to get a favorable rating. The results were boats with bulging midsections and fine ends. If a talented designer set out to purposefully create a hull shape that would induce a boat to spin out of control, this would be it. On an IOR boat, broaching was just another point of sail.

The key to success in racing an IOR boat was efficient broach recovery. Some crews actually practiced it. The primary quality owners looked for in recruiting IOR crews was lightning-fast reflexes because broaches happened without warning.

When today's stable, broad-sterned performance boats start to broach, they give ample notice. The helmsman feels the helm loading up, the crew senses the tension in the rig and hull. The ensuing round-up is a slow-motion dance step compared to an IOR broach.

The 40-foot IOR design I once owned could be upright and sailing south in one instant, then on her beam ends pointing north in the next.

The centrifugal force generated by a spinning IOR boat made a desperate grab for a solid handhold the first crew priority, followed by assuming a position not unlike that of airline passengers preparing for a crash, tucked in with heads down to avoid whiplash.

Next came recovery. Sorting things out after a round-up and persuading the boat to right itself was a fairly straightforward process. After a round-down-the dreaded Chinese jibe-not so much.

One explanation of the derivation of the term is that this variety of broach results in the spinnaker pole being submerged, pointing down toward the other side of the globe, approximately at China. Most of the recovery work had to be done with the boat heeled 90 degrees. This could take lifetimes, or so it seemed when watching from the helm with nothing else to do but hang on. Sometimes the best way out of a Chinese jibe was to complete the circle -make it a 360-degree turn (which often involved a second broach) and sail on.

All of this could happen with or without a blooper. The difference was that with a blooper, untangling the mess morphed from a second to a third-degree nightmare.

The pernicious influence of bloopers was not restricted to their failure to quell broaches. To keep bloopers filled, you had to sail as close to straight downwind as possible. Not only was this slow, it exacerbated the tendency to broach.

The biggest blooper irritant to me was the way it distracted the crew. It took the undivided attention of at least five crewmembers to sail with a blooper-one to trim the sheet, one to trim the halyard (yes, the halyard, up and down, without rhyme or reason), another to tell the trimmers when to trim and two more to carry on the never-ending debate over whether the blooper should stay up or come down.

I eventually figured out how to get more boatspeed out of a blooper-by leaving it in the garage.

That's my blooper story.