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The gift my boat can’t get enough of

2019 May 1

In our family, every gift-giving opportunity—birthdays, Christmas and Hanukkah, Mother’s Day and Father’s Day—are less about thoughtful and creative generosity, and more about collecting what you need for the next sailing season. How’s your PFD? Are your foul weather gear pants still waterproof? How badly do your sailing gloves smell? How many winch handles went overboard last year?

Purposeful gift-giving is one of the many benefits of family sailing. For example, last year I bought my wonderful, talented and presumably appreciative wife a new Technora main halyard with a solid gold cover. It looks fabulous on her; the boat, that is. My wife thinks so too.

In fact, our boat receives as many holiday gifts as the people who sail her. Annoyingly, she seems to ask for and receive the same gift, over and over, every year.

She wants a Windex. To replace the one she broke. She eats this simple but crucial piece of equipment like an open box of Girl Scouts Caramel Delights. She’s lost them to spiders, birds, bats, lightning, other masts attached to other boats, errant whipping halyards (don’t ask), climbing crewmembers, lifting cranes, transport and storage box lids. It’s a pricey habit, yet, nothing else will do.

Stung by the annual outlay, I’ve tried a few creative (cheapskate) fixes. A few years ago I repaired a broken Windex with a popsicle stick, marine epoxy and some hair ties, but for some reason, we couldn’t point on port tack for the rest of the season. One summer I strapped on scuba gear and searched the marina’s bottom for a sunken Windex to salvage and found three, although all had been sent to the bottom by lightning, so their reference tabs had been artfully melted into complex shapes, making them more useful as garden ornaments than apparent wind indicators.

A few years ago I had the distinct pleasure of meeting Jim Acquistapace, CEO of Davis Instruments, the company that distributes the Windex in the United States. Jim is charming and happens to be the father-in-law of a close friend and great former crewmate. He graduated from Stanford in 1969 and since then, has built a formidable weather instruments and marine products business through smart investment and keen marketing. Jim and his wife, daughter and son-in-law welcomed my wife and me into their home as friends and we shared stories over hors d’oeuvres.

I told Jim about my Windex jury-rigging efforts. He laughed. Seeing an opening, I needled him about the Windex. How does one corral such a monopoly? Is the Windex the profitable seasonal annuity that I suspect I’ve been funding all these years?

Jim gracefully sidestepped my intrusion. He shifted the conversation to wine, water, family and sailing and today we remain cordial. Thank you for that Jim.

However, I’ve since answered my own questions.

Every winter I teach two sail-trim classes at our local sailing center. The first class is designed to explore sail shape and trim for upwind sailing and the second turns to downwind sail shape and trim. Both are focused on first- and second-year sailing students who train on a shared fleet of keelboats. Budgets are tight, so only a few boats in the rag-tag fleet can afford to sport a Windex.

In both lessons, we describe and explore the visual and physical cues available to a trimmer to know that a sail is delivering the most lift with the least drag in a given sailing moment and at all angles. So we diagram and discuss speed stripes, heel angle, weather helm, true and apparent wind direction and angle, the telltales and, of course, the Windex. 

Through these classes, it becomes clear that this little instrument stands alone: doing nearly perfect work every time, with little calibration or attention. As long as it stands undisturbed atop the mast, it will point precisely to the apparent wind angle, which, to all sailors, is vital information. Combined with other cues, it is how helmsmen steer and trimmers trim and boats go fast. No other technology—yarn telltales or complex sensors, electronics and algorithms—work as well in this duty.

That is how a product corners a market and becomes its name. I do hope, however, that discounts are available to school fleets, because every boat needs one. Every season. Happy Mother’s Day, darling.