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Like the 33 rpm vinyl record, sailing is here to stay

2018 March 1

popular one-design dinghy class association recently announced that its rules committee had approved new class-legal digital compasses. I was curious to learn more about the breakthrough, wondering if the committee had finally given in to data. Cruisers and handicap racers find that data can simplify sailing: inexpensive computers tie routing to actual weather, a start can be precisely timed with clocks that account for speed and distance, and tactics can be determined based on actual fleet and global positioning. Instead, I learned that the committee had barely budged: Finally allowing its sailors to pick from two 20-year-old digital compass designs, in addition to the analog kind, but only “provided that the devices do not have the capacity for information other than heading.” 

At first I thought it closed-minded. Since sailors seem to want more information, why not let them have it? But now, I’m thinking it might be a slippery slope.

In his book, The Revenge of Analog, author David Sax writes about a dramatic resurgence of analog things and ideas, even as computers are seemingly taking over all aspects of our lives. He describes the newfound popularity of vinyl record albums, paper journals, printed magazines like this one and teaching done by teachers instead of screens. To a nostalgic old-timer, this might seem a welcome referendum in favor of the simplicity of times past. However, Sax explains that the people powering this analog re-revolution are not nostalgic, but, instead, naive yet aspirational young folks ages 18 to 28, experiencing analog for the first time and finding authenticity in it.

What is analog and how is it different from digital? Analog is physical and edgy and digital is, well, digits. Analog harnesses nature. Digital sits on silicon wafers.

In the case of analog music, vibrations felt from sound pressure are pressed into grooves on a record, so that a tiny diamond needle will vibrate analogously as it tracks around the platter. When we hear drums, we’re a scant one degree of separation from the mallet hitting the drumhead. Sound quality is a physical balancing act: mass, weight and friction determine whether the sound is muffled or brilliant. In sailing, the making of movement—sometimes at jaw-dropping speeds—happens when humans trick wind energy to compete with water’s mass using foils and flotation. The capacity to move the boat and its crew is also a physical balancing act, determined by natural things like atmospheric energy, waves, the weight, size and strength of the craft and sails, drag and turbulence, and the instincts and interactions of the sailors. You see analog in the telltale, that lowly yarn that tells the trimmer about pressure, flow, attachment and lift and that ease is needed. The trimmer experiences analog by seeing, feeling and responding to nature via the tales told by a piece of yarn.

Digital things, on the other hand, are representative numbers; metaphors for analog truths. They are shallow, cheap, solitary and easy to forget. You don’t feel digital. Download a sailing simulator app for your iPad and be bored. Go sailing, and be inspired. Buy a piece of yarn.

Having had screens since birth, and therefore, feeling detached from natural and social connections, Millennials crave something deeper. Sax observes that a first taste of analog brings joy, and after that, they gobble it up. One young person is quoted as saying, “We are the loneliest generation.” Analog provides the path to social meaning and fulfillment, through connection, observation, experience, friendship and conversation.

So the one-design rules committee was on the right track: More data is not necessarily a good thing. Class sailors might do their part to sustain the fleet by sticking with the magnetic compass, despite the digital option.

More importantly, this analog resurgence is a massive gift to sailing; a chance to retool our passion to improve lives. Millennials crave authentic experience and community. These are precisely the things that sailing offers. You can show them. Consider giving this printed magazine to someone between 18 and 28, tell them to read and keep it, then invite them to go sailing. And don’t forget to point out the telltales.