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Sailboat racing should be a simple game

2019 April 1

really do understand that “it’s-all-about-me” seems to be pre-installed in today’s precious snowflakes at the factory before delivery, and snowflakes are apparently old enough to have their own snowflakes, because now there is a second generation of entitled twits. I’ve had enough of them not bothering to even make a faint attempt at holding a door open as I approach or stepping off the curb with cellphone glued to their face knowing that I’ll stop for them. 

I think these entitled generations have turned fun summer sailing programs at yacht clubs into win-at-any-cost regimens and it’s why 10-year-olds now have $6,000 Optimists and personal sailing coaches. 

This default must-win attitude has turned many classes of sailboats into warzones with wallets drained faster than water through a missing drain plug in the quest for the newest sails or mast or cool blocks. It’s the difference between a pick-up volleyball game on the beach and Olympic volleyball with 120 mph serves.  

Wind and its vagaries has been one of the great equalizers for racing and, until modern electronics gave us a replacement, pieces of yarn taped to the stays, a simple wind indicator at the masthead and a keen eye for puffs on the water were what it took to win. Sometimes you guessed correctly and got the big shift, sometimes you watched as others did. It was sailboat racing. And it was fun, even on the wrong side of the shift because next weekend might be your weekend.

In the baseball movie “Bull Durham” a character says, “This is a very simple game. You throw the ball, you catch the ball, you hit the ball. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, sometimes it rains.”  That is what sailing was, and should be again. A very simple game.

Sure, I know that baseball bats are now carbon fiber and baseball shoes are high-tech, but baseball remains much the same as when Babe Ruth dug in at the plate.  Sailing, on the other hand, is an equipment-intensive sport and, without rules, it has become the front lines for rising costs and, as a result, dwindling participation. Classes that were strong even two decades ago can barely get enough boats together for a start.

I’m not a total Luddite, but I think there comes a time to say, “Whoa!” to this headlong rush to outspend other skippers to win a silver dish you can buy at the Dollar Store.  

Years ago, before a big sailing regatta on San Francisco Bay, a bunch of us Southern Californians trooped over to the Bay Model in Sausalito, where the Army Corps of Engineers had created a reasonably precise model of the bay. We could watch as the tides ebbed and flowed, see where the back swirls and sweet spots were, and (we hoped) even the playing field with locals who had sailed these swirling waters for years. Did it work? Maybe, maybe not, but it made us feel like we were getting an injection of local knowledge.

A company called Buell Software is now producing very sophisticated programs to provide detailed answers to the age-old questions “Which way is the current going?” and “What’s the wind going to do?” Olympic sailors have embraced the technology, as have sailors in competitive classes, with some world championships being credited to this routing system that essentially tells you where to go for each minute of a race.

Would Paul Elvstrom, arguably the greatest Olympic sailor with four gold medals and 11 world championships, have used such software? Paul, who I knew, believed in a “Bull Durham” approach to sailing: train hard, sail as fast as possible and try to outguess the wind. Sometimes you’d get rained out, but it was a part of a sport that included reading the wind as much as polishing the hull.

Just as in auto racing, there is a “trickle-down” effect from race cars to street cars, and I’d guess it won’t be long before weekend skippers will be signing on to software programs to outwit the wind, currents and other skippers. It’s a part of an insane weapons race and someone needs to say, “Enough!” Who has the time to keep track of all that data while racing?  

Can’t we just have an enjoyable race? To paraphrase “Bull Durham,” one where you hoist the sails, trim the sails, and keep an eye on the wind and current?  

I’ve got a ball of yarn ready to tape to the stays.