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Observed on a 50-year watch: This is no sport for luddites

2016 July 1

The view through my office window this morning tantalizes with a cerulean sky and green maple tree leaves aflutter in a fresh northwest breeze. The urge to escape to the red sailboat docked a block away is as compelling as the urge to wax nostalgic in this column I am writing for SAILING’s 50th anniversary issue. Alas, I’m going to resist both.

Eschewing nostalgia is the easier of the two. The good old days of sailing, when the first issue of this magazine appeared in 1966 and in the decades that followed, were good enough, but not as good as the 2016 days of sailing. Sailing has never been better.

The tools of sailing—our boats, sails, rope, hardware and electronics—are better by long technological leaps. The opportunities for sailing are better by even bigger leaps and so accessible that anyone who wants to can be a sailor. Besides choosing from an eclectic array of boats to own, we can sail yachts that might have been out of financial reach in the past by chartering, renting or investing in shared ownership. We can sail at modest cost in fleets owned by community sailing centers. We can learn to sail in a coast-to-coast network of sailing schools.

In the half century of SAILING’s existence, sailing has evolved with amazing alacrity for an ancient form of transportation. Yet at its core it has barely changed at all. It still demands the skills and disciplines that sailors have needed from time immemorial. In return, as it always has, it gifts sailors with the reward of the ability to move about on this planet with power provided by nature on waters that are some of its most glorious manifestations.

And consider this: In that half century the world has become more crowded with a population that has doubled to 7.4 billion people, yet sailors can still find absolute solitude and perfect privacy by simply sailing far enough offshore, there to experience pristine expanses of water and sky with the comfort of knowing we have left nothing more to disturb them than a disappearing wake.  

SAILING, the magazine, has evolved along with its subject matter, from a newsprint tabloid printed in black ink in a small-town newspaper print shop to a glossy, color-drenched publication and, unimagined even by the magazine’s visionary founder, electronic versions reproduced not on paper but in computer devices.

As in sailing, some things about the magazine haven’t changed. SAILING clings to the expensive luxury of giving readers the biggest page size of any American sailing magazine and proudly preserves on its cover the motto coined in its early days, “The Beauty of Sail.” Both are nods to the uniquely graphic character of a sport defined by images of craft that are objects of beauty at home in places of beauty.

Perceptions of sailboat aesthetics have changed, of course. When SAILING first astonished readers with full-page photographs by such masters as Morris and Stanley Rosenfeld and Peter Barlow, the boats were symphonies of elegant curves, dipping sheerlines, bows arching high above the water, shapely counter sterns. Some of those boats were made of wood, others of fiberglass, but their looks were similar, limited by the shapes wood could be made to take. When designers fully understood that any shape is possible with fiberglass, sailboat design morphed through a progression of iterations to today’s sharp-angled forms with plumb bows, hard chines and wide, straight sterns.

Tradition is honored in sailing, as it should be, and many sailors revere the old wood-boat look, which explains the success of the market niche that features designs replicating the graceful lines of daysailers and coastal cruisers of yore paired with state-of-the-art composite construction and modern underwater shapes.

I admire those boats, but there is beauty too in the stark, functional lines of contemporary high-performance designs, not least because images of them sailing at speed often dazzle with visual drama. 

From an aesthetic standpoint, the catamarans that are surging in popularity are more challenging. But they look better when you factor in a generous credit for functionality. If you do that, the two-hulled contraptions that now race for the America’s Cup in a thrilling spectacle of speed and risk are gorgeous.

Sailors should not be luddites. If you doubt that, recall the foolish words of L. Francis Herreshoff: “If God had meant for us to have fiberglass boats, he would have planted fiberglass trees.” That naive comment must have sent his father Nathanael, the wizard who invented fin keels, bulb keels and aluminum masts among other high-tech innovations, spinning in his grave.

I forgive L. Francis because he gave sailing one of its most noble yachts, a magnificent clipper-bowed ketch that in photographs was a soul-stirring study in power and grace. That was the mighty Ticonderoga, which broke the Transpac speed record in the year SAILING was born. It was a significant feat for the 108,000-pound boat at the time, but let me put it in perspective: In the 2015 Transpac, boats 20 feet shorter than Herreshoff’s 72-foot design sailed the Los Angeles to Honolulu course faster by just under 24 hours. 

That’s a pretty good measure of the progress of sailing during SAILINGs watch. This magazine has progressed apace, while keeping some fundamentals securely anchored. In a publishing world in which almost all magazines are cogs in the machines of media conglomerates, SAILING remains independent, owned and edited by sailor-journalists descended from its founder.

And for certain, it is still dedicated to The Beauty of Sail.