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A push of the button, and the cat’s out of the bag

2009 September 1
I can remember with exceptional clarity the first time I used an electric anchor windlass. I'd just taken delivery of a 35-foot cruising boat that had this magical device and I stood on the foredeck looking at it warily, as I'd heard tales of how it had an appetite for stray fingers and foul weather jacket sleeves. The anchor chain was off to one side and, when I tapped my foot on the black button on the deck, the windlass drum growled and spun. When I touched the other deck button, it grrrrr'd the other way.

I gingerly fitted the chain into the windlass cogs and freed the anchor from the bow roller. One toe on the button and the anchor slid over the bow with the rode clattering after it. I hit the other button and the anchor returned to its nest.

OK, I admit it. This up-down-up-down went on for more than a few minutes. I just couldn't resist, but you have to understand from whence I had come.

As a youngster, anchor rodes were rough nylon, with a couple dozen feet of chain at the end. Either way, they were hauled up with muscle power, usually leaving a muddy pile on the foredeck at the exact moment when you needed to be staying clear of other boats.

Not long after that, I graduated to a windlass powered by a big ratchet lever. It was great because it delivered the all-chain rode directly into the locker, but it took about 8,000 strokes on the lever to hoist anchor. It was at that time that I understood why Popeye had those immense arms: he had a muscle-powered windlass, too.

A few minutes on this demon windlass was enough to turn my arms to pasta, unable to lift a beer as a reward, so you can understand my fascination with a powered windlass.

The same thing happened when I first sailed a big Wally yacht. It was a 90-footer and I went out with just the captain for a daysail. Standing behind the big wheel, he identified the array of black buttons on the dashboard. "Theez one een," he said pointing to the mainsail. "Theez one out," with a nod to the genoa. We went through half a dozen buttons and he nodded curtly, said he was taking a nap, and disappeared below.

I was left with about a gazillion square feet of sail already set and pulling like several locomotives. As I had long ago with that electric anchor windlass, I gingerly touched a genoa-out button. With an almost silent whir but with the usual "whaang" of a bar-taut sheet being eased, the drum turned and, from a captive reel somewhere, the sheet slid out a few inches.

It wasn't long before I was like the characters in the film "Big," who danced lightly on the oversized piano keys in New York's FAO Schwarz toy store. My fingers also danced lightly on the buttons … traveller up a few inches, mainsheet out, vang down, genoa back in. Like the anchor windlass years before, it was mesmerizing to have so much control with so little effort. The fact that leaning on one button too long would rip the 100-foot mast right out wasn't lost on me, but the ability to tack or jibe at the touch of a button or two was, well, quite magical.

That said, I'm now faced with a crisis of belief: Should powered assistance be allowed on racing sailboats? In the racing rules of sailing, Rule 52 clearly states that "A boat's standing rigging, running rigging, spars and movable hull appendages shall be adjusted and operated only by manual power." Simple enough.

But the question is being debated over two recent events.

In the Transpacific Yacht Race from Los Angeles to Honolulu, the race organizers offered an "unlimited" class, primarily for Neville Crichton's 100-foot Alfa Romeo, which has a 250-horsepower engine to power the hydraulic systems to run the deck winches and the canting keel. Not surprisingly, Alfa Romeo promptly knocked more than a day off the previous Transpac record.

Almost simultaneously, the Swiss America's Cup defender, Alinghi, debuted its new 90-foot catamaran and journalists were shocked to see that it has an engine, not for propulsion but to power the winches and trim the sails.

Alinghi claims that, as defender, it has the right to change the racing rules to allow this, although it's the first time the defender has seen fit to share these "new rules." Whether Alinghi is a bunch of conniving scoundrels who will fudge the rules to win, well, that's for you to decide. Alinghi seems to be like Dean Wormer in Animal House: it has a set of "double-secret rules" only it knows.

I have a problem with electric winches in sailboat races. First, I like the physical side of sailing. I think the ability to trim the sails with muscle power is as much a part of our sport as muscles are to the Olympics. The idea of running an engine to power your winches just seems wrong. I mean, it's only a short step from there to connecting a propeller to that engine, and then you don't even need sails.

Alinghi uses the argument that the loads are so great, they would be dangerous for men to handle without powered assistance. But look at some of the early America's Cup contenders, where dozens of crewmembers (the so-called Norwegian steam) trimmed the sails. If you created loads too large to handle, well, too badda you. I love watching the grinders in the America's Cup … I'll be bored stupid watching button-pushers.

Besides, one of the ways that youngsters get involved in sailing larger boats is to provide that very muscle power so us older guys don't have to crank winches. It's been a time-honored route to sailing on big boats but, without the need for winch-crankers, you won't need crew. Just think how much you'll save by not having to provide lunch and soft drinks. And how much less fun you'll have when you're the only one aboard.

That was how I felt sailing that big Wally all by myself: sort of lonely. I might as well have had a radio-controlled model on a pond. And maybe that's the next step: get rid of the skippers, too, and just race from the sidelines.

As they say, it's a lot easier letting the cat out of the bag than stuffing it back in, and I think this is going to be a tough battle, with big bucks owners on one side and traditionalists on the other.

So … what do you think?