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The key to judging new ideas in sailing lies in young eyes

2014 April 1

For the first time in over a decade, I've ordered a new sail that won't be built with high-tech materials. I'm calling this the "back to Dacron" experiment.

Many factors influenced the decision, not the least, one kid in college and another about to go. Molded, load-pathed, taped, laminated, filamented technical marvels built of aramids, carbon or Dyneema are out of reach for a while.

Beyond price, I'm excited to see what we can do with a somewhat heavier, stretchier, less smooth mainsail than we are used to, or, for that matter, than most of our competitors will be using.

We're planning to tackle five questions:

1. Will we sacrifice boat speed?

2. If so, can we make it up elsewhere?

3. Will we get more life from Dacron than we've had from sails that inevitably commit delamination suicide on cue?

4. Were we spending wisely on technology in the last decade, or just keeping up with the Joneses?

5. Most importantly, will we have less fun?

I can guess how most sailmakers will answer these questions. Even so, I want to learn from experience, gather my own data, be my own judge. Our crew could crash and burn. We may not.

This has me pondering a deeper question: how do we judge change on its merits when we're in the thick of the transition? How can we know if a development is progressive or regressive when it is happening? Change in sailing is constant and opinions about it always differ wildly.

Continuous adaptation fuels energetic debate after every rule change, every new safety recommendation, ratings adjustment, curriculum shift, and every time a new technology makes its way aboard our boats.

Remember when we faced navigational Armageddon as the GPS plotter replaced paper charts? Or when keelboats became light enough to plane and broke displacement speed barriers? IACC boats replaced 12-Meters? Fiberglass replaced wood? Rope replaced wire halyards? Fin keels replaced full keels? Windward-leewards race courses replaced triangles? The blooper came and went? Sprits replaced spinnaker poles? Gore-Tex replaced rubber that replaced waxed-cotton clothing? Carbon replaced aluminum rigs and steel rigging?

"That's not how we did it back in the day."

"Folks are going to get hurt!"


Last year's cause célèbre was whether foiling will be good or bad for sailing. Some declared it isn't sailing at all. Others claimed that it reveals vast new horizons for the sport. We also debated hard wings in lieu of soft sails, and whether they might ever become practical for recreational sailors. It'll be a while before the dust settles and we can see with the benefit of hindsight.

Sailing isn't alone among cultural interests in its inability to predict what future participants will find interesting and valuable, and what they won't. Nor can we know which ideas will catch on as trends, and which won't. All of culture-sport and art-is rich with backward-looking pundits who draw weak conclusions on short time horizons, but accurate futurists are a rare breed.

For example, in 1913, the art world was rocked when the work of American Realist painters was displayed in New York City's Amory Show among thousands of never-seen-in-the-West Fauvist, Cubist and Modernist paintings by Europeans like Duchamp, Picasso and Cézanne. The juxtaposition of high-brow portraits of new world aristocrats against classless, borderless creative experimentation was too much for critics to bear. The European work was bashed in the media. Foreign artists were called anarchists. Patrons of Realism said that these strange, angular, pieces seemed intent on sowing unrest among the boorish underclass. Past President Theodore Roosevelt thought it scurrilous (and risky) enough to declare "That's not art!"

The traveling exhibition was closed prematurely. Myopia had seemingly won.

Thirty years later, Realism was all but forgotten, buried in an avalanche of acclaimed American Modern art by masters like Georgia O'Keefe, Arthur Dove and Stuart Davis, who became global celebrities for their groundbreaking work. New York rose to Parisian status as an International art hub.

Stodgier critics-those who can't see beyond their own experiences-are often dead wrong.

We can't know, for example, what it means that keelboats likely won't sail in the next Olympics. Progress or regress? All we have now is opinion, and it comes with biases and baggage.

The older we get, the harder it is to avoid the trap of declaring that our familiar way is the better way. Why? If most of our life has already happened, we tend to think that we have seen it all and that we have earned the right to judge. We always favor the things we know from experience. We are skeptical of things that seem different or beyond our reach. Let me suggest that in sailing, we have a built-in fresh source when judging new ideas.

Ask the kids.

I depend on a battery of talented young sailing crewmates to shape my own opinions about what is progress and what is not. Their youthfulness keeps me looking forward, not back. Their open attitudes keep me from getting worked up about nothing. Their eagerness drives me to try new things, even, hopefully, foiling beneath a hard wing one day. And their judgement is usually crystal clear.

We're going back to Dacron. I'm pleased to report that the kids have declared that the sailing will be fun regardless of the sailcloth we use.