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Get off the foils and bring back sailing before it’s lost forever

2024 June 1

Years ago, I was very much into landsailing as well as sailboat racing. Born and raised in California, I was surrounded by dry lakes so hard you could rollerskate on them (people did). On a weekend, you would find motorcyclists screaming flat out, airplanes practicing touch-and-goes, and a flurry of brightly colored landsailers (the boats, not the people).

I had one, tube-framed with a tiny sail that might be laughed at size-wise in dinghy racing circles. But on the “dirt,” it was quick and nimble, and races were great fun. Zipping around marks at highway speeds and leaving long dust trails on two wheels was a giggle. I would return to my mini-Winnebago, step into the hot shower, and the water would run brown. Then I’d go out by the campfire, grill a steak, guzzle some cheap plonk, and tell lies about our exploits.

As a car junkie at the same time, I was talking to a car magazine editor about my landsailing and he commented, “You oughta go to the Bonneville Salt Flats during Speed Week.” And thus came my foray onto “the salt,” as the old-timers say. 

I had my landsailer carefully checked for legality by the bemused Bonneville officials. Nascar racing quick-release seatbelt and harness, check. Fire extinguisher, check. (I don’t know why, my sail wasn’t going to catch fire!), legal helmet, check. Roll bar (my metal mast counted), check. Fireproof suit, check.

Ours was a symbiotic relationship. For the car and motorcycle racers, the slightest crosswind on that long, long black stripe across the salt could push a streamliner going 400 mph out of control. So, we would watch them during the calm mornings, and they would watch us when a breeze came up in the afternoon. Luckily, the wind was across the course, giving me a perfect screaming reach through the various measured segments: kilometer, mile, etc. 

The only reason I bring this up is that as a serious car junkie and car racer (Porsche, Shelby), my landsailer was not a “car” to be run at Bonneville. We were a sideshow. We were amusing. We didn’t even use gas.

That’s exactly how I feel about the new world of sailing. It’s bad enough that the America’s Cup is now contested in skittery waterbugs on spindly legs that have nothing at all to do with the world of sailing that you and I enjoy. Nothing. At. All.

Now it appears that the next Olympics will feature 10 sailing events. And that’s cool, with both men’s and women’s competitions in both singlehanders and doublehanders.

But, of the 10 sailboat classes, five (count ‘em, five) are not really sailboats. 

In the Real Sailboat category, there are men’s and women’s classes in singlehanded Lasers (whoops, now called the ILCA), mixed doublehanded in 470s just like college kids race, and men’s and women’s in the 49er dinghy. Those are the sailboats you and I see at our sailing clubs.

But the other five are as out-of-place in the Olympics as my landsailer and I were at Bonneville. An amusing sideshow that had nothing to do with cars or speed. 

In the Olympic classes, you’ll recognize the Windsurfer (men’s and women’s) immediately and I know you’re saying to yourself, “Caswell is way off course on this one—my mother sails a Windsurfer.”

Ah, but these are foiled windsurfers, teetering precariously on a thin blade just like those  waterbugs in the America’s Cup. And the Formula Kite is another Olympic can of worms. These are a surfboard atop a hydrofoil, powered by a parachute-like kite that is trimmed via long-lines from the standing skipper. Yet another foil! And it has no sheets or halyards, just “bridles.”

I have two possible solutions to the problem. 

Door No. 1: No class will be allowed to race in the Olympics unless you can take your mother or a date for a pleasant afternoon sail. At one time, I sailed the Finn, a one-time Olympic 15-footer, and I regularly took hot dates (including the future She Who Must Be Obeyed) sailing on the bay. I impressed the heck out of them. The 470 is well-mannered enough to take your mother out (and many college sailors do), although it’s unlikely many moms will fancy the trapeze. But then, when I was racing a Flying Dutchman, my mother actually went out on the wire a few times, but that’s a story to be told over several very strong adult beverages.

Door No. 2 leaves Mom and She Who Must Be Obeyed out of it. This is strictly an equipment issue, and it should apply to the America’s Cup, too. It’s quite simple. Every piece of hardware, line, block, whatever, must be readily available at your marine hardware store. You must be able to walk into West Marine or any of the other “big box” marine hardware stores and leave with any part on that particular Olympic (or America’s Cup) boat. It’s the parts version of box rules for sailboat racing (where the boat has to fit within a box of set size). There would be no high-tech winches made of unaffordium. Everything is off the shelf.

I’m sorry it’s come to this, when “sailboat” racing has become all about taking eyeballs away from soccer or golf or pickleball or whatever lights a sponsor’s fire this week. 

We need to retrieve our sport, or we’ll lose it forever.