Home . Articles . Columns & Blogs . On the Wind . A return to sailing by the seat of your pants

A return to sailing by the seat of your pants

2020 April 1

Iwent sailing with an old friend recently on his 38-foot racer-cruiser that shall remain nameless because what I’m about to say has nothing to do with the boat, which was quite fun to sail. 

But it was laden with electronics. The salesperson who sold him this fiberglass production boat had tap-danced lightly over and through his wallet until he had enough black boxes and gauges for a space shuttle.

My friend has no ambitions to sail around the world, and probably won’t sail much farther than across the Gulf Stream from Florida to the Bahamas, plus a couple of adventures to the Keys. He’s perfectly content to daysail with friends, feel the sun and the breeze and empty a few cans of brew. For his night cruises, a GPS and a chartplotter do the job nicely for navigation, although (like me) he’s a belt-and-suspenders kind of sailor who still carries paper charts.

Having raced dinghies years ago, he still likes to club race a few times a year, so he has simple sails—a genoa on a furler and he opted for an asymmetrical spinnaker because, as he said, “I’ve seen enough spinnaker poles to last a lifetime.”

But his electronic spaghetti factory offers so much data that it takes the feel out of sailing. I’m fine with wind speed, wind direction and boatspeed. But that’s just where my friend’s black boxes started. They would tell him if he was being lifted or headed, figure out the favored end of the starting line, calculate the shortest course to the weather mark and, downwind, tell him when to jibe.

These are all things once called the “skills of the sailor” and books have been written about them. Before the start, we would run the line to check the compass heading or go head to wind on the starting line, guesstimating the favored end. We learned to feel when we were being lifted, just by having an awareness of objects on the horizon or even shadows on the deck. 

I mention this because my friend and I spent so much of our sailing day trying to figure out what was going on that we missed out on the essence of sailing: sun, wind, water. We did put a dent in the beer supply, because the manuals for the black boxes required considerable lubrication to understand.

Let me offer another alternative for those who don’t have a world championship in their future.

“We’re going to be in the Hudson,” were the famous words of Capt. Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger when he announced that U.S. Airways Flight 1549 was landing in the river in what became known as the “Miracle on the Hudson,” a ditching with no fatalities even amidst bridges and boats on icy waters. All the electronics systems were gone, every monitor was black and the pilots only resource was the view through the windshield. Landing  a jetliner with neither engines nor electronics called for a special talent. It’s called TLAR, and pronounced “tee-lar.” What it means tells you everything you need to know about both sailing and deadstick landings: That Looks About Right.

Sullenberger was a glider pilot, comfortable with using his eyes to calculate speed, height and distance. And TLAR is what pilots used to set up the plane for their successful landing.

Back in the day, the only Ray on board was a little Ray Jefferson radio direction finder and sail trim information came from 8-inch pieces of yarn. I am not a Luddite and I appreciate everything from roller furling to bow thrusters and most certainly chartplotters. But boats don’t need to be complicated or expensive.

Every sailor already uses TLAR when gauging speed and distance when docking. With TLAR, good skippers can bring a boat to a stop right next to a mooring buoy. A skilled skipper, when trimming the sails to balance nicely on a certain course in a certain wind, may even speak it aloud, “Yep, that looks about right!” I’ve always been in awe when sailing with friends such as Dennis Conner and Paul Cayard, because each of them has a finely tuned sense of TLAR that precludes their need for electronics.

My concern is that all the electronic bells and whistles are eroding our TLAR senses. Relying on a black box to tell us when we have the slightest windshift degrades our abilities to sail by the seat of our pants.

Stop looking at those little numbers painted on a gauge and go back to sailing by TLAR.

That Looks About Right.