Monday, January 16, 2006

Turkeys and Chickens

First a story, then a quiz ...

A few years ago I sailed my Sunfish in the Turkey Trot regatta at Sea Cliff YC. Sea Cliff is on Hempstead Harbor on the north shore of Long Island which for the geographically challenged is a long island - duh - to the east of New York City.

The Turkey Trot is held annually in November just prior to the American Thanksgiving holiday, or as it is known in the rest of the world... Thursday. For those international readers not familiar with the tradition of Thanksgiving it is a time when American families separated for months or years will reunite from the far-flung corners of our land; and shortly afterwards remember why they separated. All joking apart, Thanksgiving is of course a holiday invented by grocers and farmers to allow them to sell huge quantities of disgusting "traditional" foods such as squash and pumpkin that taste like mud and that nobody in their right minds would normally eat. Traditionally, families will celebrate the holiday by setting fire to their deck or a wall of their house under the guise of attempting to deep fry a turkey. The holiday is called Thanksgiving because we all give thanks that we are not turkeys.

Where was I? Oh yes, the regatta at Sea Cliff. When I arrived at the club about 11 am the wind was howling down Hempstead Harbor at about 50 knots. Full disclosure: for those readers shocked about the recent revelations that some things in James Frey's best selling "memoir" A Million Little Pieces are not historically accurate, let me confess that not everything in this blog is 100%, totally, perfectly true. But, as writers say when caught in a barefaced lie, it is the "essential truth". I may not have tested the windspeed with a certified laboratory calibrated anemometer -- for all I know it may only have been blowing 49 knots -- but it was scary windy. As the Aussies say, it was blowing koalas off trees and I can confidently assert that I didn't see a single koala clinging to a tree anywhere on Long Island that day.

I entered the clubhouse to find a small huddle of members, sailors, race committee, homeless people sheltering from the wind and other assorted hangers on debating the merits of actually holding the regatta. After due consideration of wind strength and direction, the potential impact on bar profits of canceling the regatta and how to otherwise dispose of the five frozen turkeys purchased as regatta awards it was decided to proceed with the event.

The sailors unloaded their boats and swathed themselves in several layers of polypropylene, polyester, neoprene, latex and goretex. (Better Living Through Chemistry.) Meanwhile the race committee enjoyed the view from the bar. By this time the wind had moderated to a mere 45 knots (essential truth scale) and the waves weren't actually crashing over the road running past the club any more. Launching through the surf off a lee shore was the first challenge which most of the fleet achieved with the help of volunteers who waited on the shore to grab boats thrown sideways on to the gravel beach by the pounding waves and very kindly throw only slightly damaged boats and more than slightly reluctant sailors back into the foaming brine.

The course was very simple: a triangle with marks rounded to starboard. The start was a line off the end of the pier. The advantage of this starting system was that the race committee could run the whole regatta from a hut on the pier without even needing to smell the sea, never mind get their feet wet. Now I'm not saying it was actually blowing Beaufort Force 12 but the standard description of Force 12 -- air filled with foam, sea completely white with driving spray, visibility greatly reduced -- was a fair summary of the situation unless my memory deceives me. The windward mark was promised to be some indeterminate distance to windward but, due to the air being full of spray and the aforementioned flying koalas, it was actually invisible from the start.

In the prevailing conditions there was only about a 45% chance that a tack could actually be achieved without either capsizing, going into irons or being swamped by a wave. So the technique we all quickly discovered was to start on starboard tack, sail in a rough approximation of a close hauled course until you guessed you were past the layline, say a prayer, tack, continue on a close-(ish) hauled course on port tack and hope to see the windward mark soon. If you had judged it right you would be laying the mark and could round it without any more tacks. If you had misjudged it ... well you really don't want to know.

Then would come the totally uncontrollable reach to the gybe mark with spray flying in all directions and water spouting up the daggerboard trunk, as the desperate helmsman tried to avoid digging the bow into a wave. On arrival at the gybe mark, you would of course gybe. Well, if tacks had a 45% chance of success, then gybes (at least for me) had about a 5% chance of success. After a couple of capsizes I quickly realized that it would be faster to do a "chicken gybe", i.e. sail past the mark, head up, do a tack and bear off on the final reach to the finish line back at the pier.

As the afternoon wore on the fleet got smaller and smaller. Once the fleet was down to five boats the race committee called it a day and awarded the frozen turkeys to the remaining sailors and we all went home. My family ate the turkey for Thanksgiving (not deep-fried) and I mounted the wishbone on a plaque and put it on my trophy shelf.

I have never been back to Sea Cliff YC since that day.

Now to the quiz. I think most sailors are familiar with the "chicken gybe" described above: when the prudent sailor chooses to tack rather than gybe in order to turn the corner between two downwind legs. But can you think of a situation where it would be faster to gybe rather than tack when wishing to change from one tack to another on a beat?

Clue: One answer is in a blog linked from a blog in my blogroll. (Hope you have plenty of spare time if you try to find the answer this way.)

Prize: A certified pre-owned Sunfish or Laser regatta T-shirt size XL or L from my vast collection completely free (plus handling and shipping charges, fuel surcharge, destination fee, one-way charge etc. etc.) OR a post written in this blog on any sailing-related subject of your choice.


Anonymous said...

Location: New Haven Harbor, major port of destination for foreign oil. Boat ramp is upwind.

Boat: Nacra 16 (16' catamaran)

Wind Conditions 2 minutes ago: 20 knots with one man on trapeze.

Current Conditions: 2 knots.

Situation: Sitting in the shipping lane, Oil tanker with really big bow wave less than a mile away.

Solution: Forget tacking a cat in no wind. Maintain boatspeed, bear off, gybe, head up and continue to get the hell out of the way.

T-shirt size: Large

Tillerman said...

Nice one knitoralis - but not exactly the example I was looking for. Any relation to frequent commenter here litoralis I suppose? No - couldn't be.

Do you want the T-shirt that says "the older I get the faster I was" or the one that says "proud to be an American Laser master"?

EVK4 said...

During the summer scirroco winds on SF Bay, the 270 degree gybe is always faster. It's either, plead with the crew to let you do a gybe and try to convince them it's safe for five minutes or just go around the wrong way.

I, of course, don't deserve a t-shirt because I do more chicken gybes than real gybes during the summer.

Carol Anne said...

When you're saling on a lake in the middle of the desert, where the wind is somewhat random both in direction and speed, you sometimes have to jibe just to keep going the same direction. (I once did a 720 whiie staying on a beam reach the whole time.)

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