Monday, October 27, 2014

I am an Asymmetric Sailor

I am an asymmetric sailor.

No, wait. If you say you are an asymmetric sailor when you are at Minorca Sailing people will assume you are one of those crazy dudes who sails all those boats with asymmetric spinnakers like the RS Vareo and RS100 and RS200 and RS400 and RS500 and RS800 and Musto Skiff.

Actually, some years at Minorca Sailing I did sail some of those boats. But I mean I am an asymmetric sailor in a different sense. My sailing skills are asymmetric. My skills are different on port and starboard tacks.

It shouldn't be so. The Laser is an (almost) perfectly symmetric boat. How you sail it one tack should be an exact mirror image of how you sail it on the other tack. (At least to my simple mind it seems like it should. Or am I missing something?)

But I discovered on our first Monday at Minorca Sailing this year that I am more asymmetric than I thought I was.

The morning session in the Advanced Laser Class was about downwind sailing. One of the drills we did was to tether our tillers and sail the boats without use of tiller at all. We had to bear away from a beam reach to sailing downwind; and then head up and bear away at will; transition from sailing a very broad reach to sailing by the lee and back again; and then gybe the boat.

It was all going perfectly well when I was on starboard tack. I could do everything I was supposed to do using the sheet, the vang and the heel of the boat. Of course, the point of the whole exercise was to teach us to sail downwind without using the rudder to force the boat to turn.

But on port tack I was awful. I couldn't make the boat do what I wanted to do. In the end I ended up doing an ugly death roll and capsize. I am an asymmetric sailor.

I rationalized that when I am racing I spend most of my time downwind on starboard tack unless there's a very good strategic reason to be on port. I think most Laser sailors do. So I have developed the skills of using my body weight to steer the boat on starboard, but my brain is not wired to do the same thing on port because it has hardly any practice at doing so.

This got me thinking. Are any of my other sailing skills asymmetric? I am naturally right-handed so am I better at steering with the tiller on port tack when my right hand is on the tiller? Do I do port to starboard tacks better than starboard to port tacks? Ditto for gybes?

I have no idea, but I do seem to recall some years ago realizing that I was kicking the sheet around the cockpit when tacking one way but not the other way. I had to slow things down and work out what I was doing with my feet differently when tacking opposite ways.

Then I looked at my sailing gloves (which were new at the start of the holiday.)

Do you see what I see? The forefinger of the right hand is starting to wear out faster than the forefinger of the left hand. I must hold the sheet more tightly with the right hand.

Oh geeze. I really am an asymmetric sailor.

Then I started wondering about other sports. Are they inherently asymmetric or do participants in those sports have to be concerned about being asymmetric in their skills when they shouldn't be?

What about rowing? If you are rowing with one oar, in an eight for example, it is essentially asymmetric. Do top rowers end up specialize in always rowing on the same side of the boat? If you row an eight, are you always a bow side or stroke side rower? But what if you have two oars? Don't the handles overlap? Does one hand always go on top? Inquiring minds demand to know. Well one inquiring mind does.

And how about kayakers? From my naive perspective that looks like a sport that should be perfectly symmetric. Or is it? Aren't you twisting the paddle to feather the blade in opposite directions from each side? Do kayakers have a problem in making sure that their strokes in each side are of equal strength? And what about when they start doing all those fancy rolls? Does each kayaker have a preference for doing rolls from left to right or right to left? Or do they train to be ambidextrous?

And then there's ice skating? All that spinning round and round? Are skaters asymmetric? Is each individual better at either clockwise or anti-clockwise spins?

Baseball and cricket of course are inherently asymmetric. In fact a whole part of the management of a baseball team is working out how to use your left-handed and right-handed players to match up best against the other team's left-handed and right-handed players.

Soccer players are usually better kickers with one foot aren't they? Or are they? Do they train to have equal skills with each foot? Does "ambidextrous" apply to feet, or is there some other word for it?

In fact the more I think about it, it's an issue that in some way or other must affect almost every sport. We often naturally have skills that are different on each side of our bodies and, depending on the sport, we have to work to capitalize on that or minimize it.

What about you?

Are you asymmetric?

How does it affect your favorite sporting activity?

Bonus points for anyone who can tell me ways in which the Laser actually isn't perfectly symmetrical!


Tillerman said...

Damn. I forget it again. Baydog will want to know what we had for dinner. I had stuffed aubergines and grilled sardines. Tillerwoman had mussels and sole.

Anonymous pedant said...

What's the difference between "symmetric" and "symmetrical."

/Pam said...

I'm going for the bonus points ...
1. The Cunningham isn't symmetrical if it's rigged same side.
2. You can make the boat asymmetrical and faster on starboard or port by twisting the top of the sail to not be centered.
3. Oh, and I've heard that an LP boat might be asymmetrical out of the box but a PSA never will be.

Tillerman said...

Well done /Pam.

It was #1 I was thinking of. I have played around with rigging the cunningham on one side and on both sides of the boom. Conventional wisdom says do it one one side because then you can crank it down further. But I do find it irritating how it does make the sail set slightly differently on each tack.

I never thought of #2. Is that a trick that top sailors use? I suspect I could find a rule against if if I looked hard enough. Only joking! Anyone who doesn't get this in-joke should read the excruciatingly long comment threads on some of /Pam's recent posts on her blog.

#3 Your bias is showing.

The only other Laser asymmetry I could think of is that the drain plug is not in the center of the transom but I don't think that has any practical effect on the boat's performance.

Oh, and of course the cunningham and outhaul cleats are on either side of the center line, and I suppose some people prefer one way round over the other.

Oh, another one. The sail numbers are in different positions on each side of the sail.

But all in all it's a very symmetrical boat. More so than this sailor is.

/Pam said...

#2 - that's a trick the top asymmetric sailors use ... Doug is most definitely asymmetric. I've now become his personal trainer tasked with adding 15 pounds before the next Worlds. Holy cow, I've got my work cut out for me.

Michael O'Brien said...

When heeled, the hull is asymmetrical in the water -- hence the ability to turn without using the tiller and the legality plate is not symmetrically placed.

George A said...

I can weigh in on figure skating. Basically every skater has a weak and a strong direction. Most people are right hand and leg dominant and thus move more naturally going to the left. Ice rinks tend to re-enforce this with a counter clockwise traffic flow during public sessions. This plays out in simple elements such as basic turns like 3-turns and Mohawks. Most skaters do better with turns in the CCW direction.

I'm better at turning towards the right (CW) than turning in the CCW direction. To compensate, I must deliberately work and practice more on elements in my weak direction. As a grade schooler I was in that last generation of kids taking penmanship class where in if you picked up the pencil with your left hand you got your knuckles whacked. So, I'm a repressed leftie.

Having said all that, I jump and spin in the CCW direction. Even though my natural tendency would have been to go the other way, 60+ years after primary school, I've become (sort of) right leg dominant (an easy test is to have someone roll a soccer ball towards you, unexpectedly, and see which leg/foot you automatically and without thinking choose to kick). To a degree this holds me back as a jumper and spinner since going in that direction is "learned" rather than my natural inclination. At this stage of the game I think it would be very hard to "unlearn" this affliction rained down upon me by my old grade school teacher. My one morsel of satisfaction is that years later I learned that the woman drank herself to death at some point after our class had passed through her hands.

Other sports and occupations such as tennis, golf, carpentry (swinging a hammer all day using the dominant hand), etc. also over time cause physical asymmetry by repetitive use of one side of the body. It amazes me that we're not all like fiddler crabs with grossly developed arms and legs on one side of the body at the expense of the lesser used side. Interestingly, when I broke my right arm a couple years ago, I quickly got back some of my left handedness and soon was shaving with the razor in my left hand (think about looking at the mirror image your face while holding a sharp tool in your "untrained" hand and then having at it!) I didn't nick myself. Not once. Say, maybe I need to break my right leg in order to get back on track!

Tillerman said...

Thanks George. I hoped you would give us some perspective on the asymmetry of figure skating. Fascinating stuff. I seem to remember reading something related to this topic on your skating blog before. I never thought before about why public sessions at skating rinks are CCW and how that might affect people's skating skills.

Come to think of it most of the courses we race as Laser sailors are counter-clockwise (with marks left to port.) I think that's because with starboard having right of way over port tack, a windward mark rounding with mark to port is way more orderly than the alternative. But all this racing on CCW course does introduce some asymmetry in our skills. We hardly ever round a gybe mark or a windward mark leaving it to starboard (except on some of the more unusual courses we use in the Newport fleet with windward gates at the committee boat and other perversions.)

Leeward gates are more common these days when the fleets are large so we do get practice at rounding leeward marks both ways. But I expect most of us are still better at port roundings.

And of course most of the time we start races on starboard tack so our start accelerations get way more practice on starboard than on port tack.

And, come to think of it, Rule 10 (port-starboard) introduces some other asymmetries. Most of the time when we duck another boat on a beat we are on port tack. And I know I spend a lot more time looking out for boats on the opposite tack when I am on port.

It would be an interesting exercise one day to do a race where Rule 10 was reversed and all marks were to be left to starboard.

George A said...

Just like NASCAR, baby--put your foot down hard and keep turnin' left...

Bruce Taylor said...

Pam hit the nail on the head. All Lasers are hand built and there is a certain amount of asymmetry in every boat. The board can vary in two planes so that it "gybes" slightly on one tack compared to the other, ie. it has a steering effect. In addition the board and the rudder may not be in the same vertical plane. Mast tubes and indeed the mast itself may also not be vertical. Then the hull itself may not be perfectly symmetrical either and will steer itself in one direction or another. Yup, Lasers are prone to asymmetry, just as we are!

Tillerman said...

Probably true Bruce, but personally I have never noticed any asymmetry in the 4 Lasers I have owned. Maybe I have been lucky or maybe I'me not a good enough sailor to notice any such effects.

But thanks for pointing it out. It's always good to have another excuse for my poor results next time I need one.

R1 said...

Our brains are asymmetrical in their operation - maybe this has an effect.

I tack differently from one side to the other but I only notice this when either trying to roll tack (I can do it easily in direction but not the other) or trying to tack in heavy weather with the kicker on hard (I get stuck under the boom and capsize only in one direction).

My Laser has
- the Laser sail class sticker on one side of the sail.
- its serial number on one side of the transom.
- the centreboard elastic running to the starboard bow, under the front of the deck and back up the port bow before attaching to the bow fairlead.Supposedly to keep it clear of the kicker but.....
- the toe-strap adjuster is on the starboard side of the toe-strap.
- me sitting only on one side at a time.

Any of those count for bonus points?

Tillerman said...

Give R1 50,00 bonus points. And thanks for admitting that you too have some asymmetry in your Laser skills.

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