Saturday, March 31, 2012

Basic Needs

Guy on day 86 of his full return South Pole Expedition 2011/2012.

He's quite hungry and about to pick up his last cache which he left on the way in.

As a part of his motivational plan he has on purpose not made notes on what goodies he has left behind in the cache and on this last one, he didn't expect very much...

Woo hoo! Cheez Doodles®!

Don't forget the ®.

Seahawk Burning

When I was first asked to review Seahawk Burning by Randall Peffer, I was somewhat skeptical about whether I would enjoy it. I have never been a fan of nautical historical novels with all that talk of topgallants and spirketting and spankers. Hey, I'm a Laser sailor. Why should I be interested in spirketting spankers, for Pete's sake?

I needn't have worried. Seahawk Burning is, at its core, a story about naval warfare during the American Civil War but it is (to my great relief) sparing in its treatment of reeves and roaches and rostrums and things of that ilk. It focuses much more on the personal feelings of the novel's principal characters and the political intrigues surrounding the war. Actually I do like political novels about real-life events, and so I found Seahawk Burning immensely entertaining.

Seahwak Burning is the final novel in a trilogy by Randal Peffer about the Confederate Captain Raphael Semmes. The action follows Semmes and his ship the CSS Alabama as he seizes and burns scores of Yankee merchant ships while dodging Federal Navy ships trying to catch him. I had always thought that the naval action in the Civil War was principally along the eastern seaboard of North America, but the Alabama was, in fact, waging her war of terror all the way across the South Atlantic, around the Cape of Good Hope and into the Indian Ocean and South China Sea.

Captain Raphael Semmes standing by CSS Alabama's 110-pounder rifled gun during her visit to Capetown in August 1863.
U.S. Naval Historical Center photograph, original photograph by an unknown photographer.

The novel follows three other narrative threads related to Semmes' campaign: the political scene in Washington as President Lincoln and his Secretary of the Navy, Gideon Welles, discuss how to put an end to the Alabama's destruction of the nation's shipping, while simultaneously struggling with various other political forces hampering their efforts; the activities of US Navy Captain John Winslow and his ship the USS Kearsarge as he prepares to trap and destroy the Alabama; and the travels of Semme's mistress, Maude Galway, as she seeks to evade capture by both Federal and Rebel agents.

Allan Pinkerton and Harriet Tubman play a part in the story and there is the occasional mention of a minor character somehow involved on the fringes of the plots against Lincoln - John Wilkes Booth. This gives the novel a strong sense of impending doom which mirrors the forebodings of Semmes and Winslow as the story leads to what the reader feels all along will be the inevitable final scene of an epic naval battle between the Alabama and the Kearsarge.

Edouard Manet. The Battle of the Kearsarge and the Alabama. 1864.
The John G. Johnson Art Collection, Philadelphia, PA, USA

The switching of the narrative between the four main threads of action gives the book a fast pace and I found it totally gripping. I couldn't wait to find out what was going to happen next to each of the principal characters and could hardly bear to put the book down. I also particularly enjoyed Peffer's accounts of some of the technical problems that naval captains of the day grappled with on sailing ships that also had the new-fangled coal-fired steam engines for extra speed.

I think this book may even have converted me to being a fan of historic naval fiction. About two thirds of the way through it I realized I was actually getting a kick out of all the talk of stunsails and royals and starboard whisker stays and the like, even if I still have no real idea what they are.

I give Seahawk Burning two thumbs up.

Oh, and for my two readers who think that you can't have a sailing blog or a sailing story without some knitting... there is some knitting in Seahawk Burning. Really!

Friday, March 30, 2012

Top Two Tips for Laser Sailors

I have a question.

If you have been reading this blog for any time you will know that I am an aging, unfit, clumsy, uncoordinated, erratic, usually bottom half of the fleet, passionate Laser sailor. What two things do you think I should do this year to improve my racing performance?

It might be particular skills to work on. It might be an approach to training, or physical fitness, or mental fitness. It might be recommendations on how to spend most of my time. Anything you like. If you don't have a handle on what aspects of my sailing I need to improve, then have a browse through my posts about competing in Regattas in the last couple of years.

There is a right answer, sort of. Or at least one answer to the question from a very good coach who saw me sailing and racing over five days in January. The occasion was my trip to Cabarete in the Dominican Republic in Janaury for a four day clinic and one day regatta. A group of us, all Laser sailors who had been to Cabarete with me, all of them of similar ability to me, were sitting around in the airport at Puerto Plata awaiting our return flights to the US.

Our heads were spinning with all the things we had learned during the week at Cabarete. We were chatting about our experiences over a beer (or two) and comparing notes on what we thought were the most important learnings to take back home. We all seemed to have different ideas as to what would give the biggest payback in helping us work our way up the fleet.

Then we were joined by the young man who had been the assistant coach for the week. He was an American college sailor who had been working at Cabarete during his winter vacation. We had all been impressed by his insights and feedback during the week, not to mention the way he had jumped into a Laser for the final race of the regatta and whupped the whole fleet.

One of our number asked the coach, "So what is the ONE thing that we should work on if we want to improve?"

The coach didn't seem to have to think long before he gave the answer. Actually he gave us TWO things. One of them was an item that would probably have been on my list of top three priorities anyway. One was a bit of a surprise to all of us, I suspect.

So what do you think the coach's two top tips for Laser sailors (like us) were? Or what are your top two tips for us?

Answers in the comments please.

This post sponsored by Thrum Knitted Sailing Caps from Quality Caps.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

The Knitting Sailor

It's always good to come across a new sailing blogger. Especially when it's someone with an exaggerated sense of their own incompetence who writes about their sailing exploits with a sense of humor.

My latest find is The Knitting Sailor which has to win the prize for the most original name for a sailing blog. As far as I can tell the blog is written by a lady who lives in the north-east of England and who writes about... well knitting and sailing.

You don't have to read the knitting posts... unless you are into knitting too. But her sailing posts are priceless. I think my favorite one so far (it's a relatively new blog) is IN WHICH I AM VERY NEARLY SWEPT AWAY in which our heroine attends a very serious-sounding Instructors Conference - "it may horrify you to find out I am actually an assistant instructor."

The highlight of the day was some sessions on the water which the knitting sailor approached with enthusiasm even though she says, "I have never sailed on the sea, believing it to be a big scary wobbly thing." (She is right. It is.)

It was blowing Force 5-6 and most of the very serious Instructor people chose not to go sailing, but our intrepid knitting sailor and a couple of others went out in Toppers. Needless to say things did not go well, leading to a capsize from which she could not recover. And then things got worse. Eventually she, with four other people, ended up on a patrol boat on which the motor would not start, as it was being swept out to sea.

I think her satellite picture says it all...

I am looking forward to reading more sailing adventures from The Knitting Sailor. Check her out.

Escape to Newport

I went racing with the Newport Frostbite Fleet on Sunday... and reminded myself of one of the main reasons why I have enjoyed Laser sailing so much over the last 30 years.

I have been very lazy (again) this winter about doing much frostbite racing. I signed up at the beginning of the season in November and took my boat down to Fort Adams. It's been sitting there all winter, but I think I've only raced a couple of times before last weekend.

It seems like I've become a total wimp about frostbite racing. Usually around about Thursday each week I determine that "this Sunday I will definitely go racing." I check the weather forecast on Friday and though it might look a bit too windy, a bit too light, a bit too cold, maybe some showers... I still tell myself that I'm really going to go racing on Sunday. I check the weather forecast again on Saturday and by now it looks seriously too windy, too light, too cold, too rainy... with maybe a Small Craft Advisory or thunderstorms or snow promised too. I tell myself (perhaps with a little less conviction now) that if racing is on I will definitely go.

On Sunday morning, I check my email and Facebook, and find that occasionally the fleet captains have announced that racing is cancelled on account of the 35 knot winds or 15 degree temperatures. But usually there is no relief on the Facebook or email... so then something happens in my brain and I suddenly decide that this Sunday would be an excellent day to take Tillerwoman out to lunch, or go for a long run, or visit my grandkids. So I don't go racing.

I don't know what's the matter with me. It's not so many years since I won the Ironman trophy at my old frostbite fleet in Connecticut for sailing more races than anybody else in the fleet. I must be getting old.

Anyway, last Sunday, I couldn't think of any excuse not to go racing. So I did.

It wasn't too cold or too windy.

I had fun.

I think we sailed six races and I did reasonably well by my standards in a couple of them. My starts weren't absolutely awful and I didn't hit any marks or other boats or capsize or get shouted at for breaking any rules or run aground or tie too many knots in my sheet with my feet. So that was all good.

In the first few races I was thinking about that post I wrote last week about Where to Look While Sailing Upwind and my head was jerking around all over the place looking at boats to the left, boats to the right, the windward mark, whether I was headed or lifted, the water and wind ahead, etc. etc. etc. It certainly felt different from my usual mode of staring at the telltales 96.5% of the time. At least I could see why all the other boats were getting in front of me.

In the last few races I was thinking, "I can always go in early if I get tired," and, "Maybe I will get through the whole afternoon without being DFL." I didn't and I did.

As I was driving home afterwards feeling all warm and cozy from the car's heater and feeling all smug and self-satisfied about actually having gone racing this Sunday, I suddenly realized that during the racing I hadn't thought once about the usual annoying stuff that's always buzzing around in my head. Thoughts about chores that need doing around the house and the garden. How much longer I can delay before starting work on my taxes. What to do about replacing my wife's car. What the hell am I going to write about on the blog this week?

Of course, when I was working for a living, the annoying reminders buzzing around my head about stuff that needed doing and the decisions that needed to be made were about somewhat more serious things. Stuff that if I didn't do, or didn't do well enough, then it would probably get me fired, or transferred to Poland, or at the very least shouted at in public by one of the various eccentric megalomaniacs who occupied the senior executive ranks of my employer's business.

And then I remembered one of the main reasons why I had stuck with this crazy game of Laser racing. For a few hours every weekend I could forget all that crap buzzing around in my head every other day of the week, and concentrate on the important stuff... like where the next shift is coming from. That ability to forget about work was probably essential to my mental health for many years.

Laser racing was - and still is - an escape from reality for me. And what's wrong with that, I'd like to know?

Monday, March 26, 2012

First Step

"The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step." - Lao Tzu

Lao Tzu was a pretty wise old dude. Sometimes we can get so hung up on how far we want to go or set such ambitious goals for ourselves that we forget that what we need to do right now is take that first step.

If you have never run in your life before and you want to run a marathon, then go outside and jog for a few minutes and then walk a few more minutes. That's the first step. Later this week, jog a bit further.

If you have never sailed in your life before but you have a wild ambition to sail single-handed around the world, then you had better take a sailing lesson. That's the first step. Later this summer, you can sail to the other side of the bay.

If I want to qualify to be a Half Fanatic by racing in some ridiculous number of half-marathons in some insanely short period, I had better actually run that half-marathon in a couple of weeks time that I registered for in a (probably drunken) moment of enthusiasm way back in the winter. That would be a good first step.

If I am ever going to sail my Laser 100 days in a year, then I had better start sailing more in the colder months of the year, and going out on my own one day this week would be a good first step.

My one-year-old grandson Owen knows this. He is a wise little chap.

One of his favorite words for a while has been "steps." He stands at the bottom of the stairs and looks up them, and you can see that he is just imagining how one day soon he is going to surprise us all by climbing up the stairs  (or horrify us if he does it in a rare moment when no adult is watching him.) But, so far, I haven't seem him negotiate unaided any step that's higher than half an inch.

We took him to a playground last week. His older siblings went off to play on monkey bars and the biggest slides they could find. Owen looked at these metal steps. He put his foot on the first step.

He looked up to the top of the steps.

Then he pulled himself up and put both feet on the first step and gave us a big grin.

He took the first step. He's on his way to the top.

What "first step" are you going to to take on your "thousand mile journey"?

Friday, March 23, 2012


I used to enjoy watching Aaron Brown when he anchored the 10 0'clock nightly news show on CNN. His style was often described as "cerebral" and "news for grown-ups." He was born the same year as me so I guess it's no coincidence that his particular approach to news-anchor-ship appealed to me and others of my generation.

He would close each broadcast by telling us the "weather word" that was on the front page of the next day's Chicago Sun-Times. This was always a decidedly un-weather-like word or phrase such as "sassy" or "creamy" or "pitcher perfect" (the latter phrase when the White Sox were in the World Series.) I looked forward every day to hearing the weather word from Aaron before I went to bed.

But after a few years, the bosses at CNN, presumably deciding that they needed to appeal to a younger demographic, pushed Aaron aside to make way for that kid who is Gloria Vandebilt's son, the one who is always running off to war zones to strut around in a child-size white T-shirt on camera. His name escapes me right now.

Where was I? Where am I? Oh yes, this is supposed to be a sailing blog.

Yesterday I went off to Newport for another afternoon of solo practice. I was thinking of Aaron Brown because I wanted to choose one word to describe the wind yesterday...


It was around 10-15 knots gusting to 20, I guess, but it was blowing from the south, off the shore of Brenton Cove, so it was all chopped-up and gusty and shifty. It seemed that you couldn't sail for more than a few seconds upwind, before the wind dramatically changed its direction or speed or both. Chunky!

I'm not very good at dealing with such conditions. I try and anticipate the gusts but I guess my reactions are too slow and I always seem to get messed up with every change in the wind before I can ease or sheet in or hike or unhike or head up or bear off or several of the above. But I guess that's why you practice? No point in practicing what you already do well. Need to practice what you have difficulty with. Right?

Offwind was a totally different story. I enjoyed wild planing reaches, zig-zagging across the width of the harbor, gybing around a convenient mooring buoy at the end of each reach - and I didn't capsize even once. The spray was flying in my face which is quite salty and refreshing when the water temperature is still in the 40s.

So I practiced some of the stuff I have blogged about in the past few days. I tried to sail on my feet downwind like Kurt explained to us in Clearwater, and to look around when sailing upwind like Julio, and to tack like Andrew... but I'm sure I didn't look at all like Andrew in that photo... and to go fast on the reaches... well like Tillerman on the second day in Clearwater. Hey, it's good to enjoy doing something well too, once in a while.

It felt good to be out on the water in March.

But I still miss Aaron Brown.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Myth Busted

The myth is busted.

The Flying Dutchman story (that I wrote about yesterday) was an elaborate hoax.

He fooled me. Who would think that someone would write a blog for so long that was actually totally fictional?

No, wait. Don't answer that.

Hint: If you don't understand Dutch, click the CC button in the bar at the bottom of the video for Closed Captions in English.

High School Sailing

What a great picture of the Sharon High School Sailing Team training on their home waters of Lake Massapoag on a typically chilly Massachusetts March day when the temperature barely reached 80 degrees. I tell you, those kids from Sharon are tough. Rumor has it that at least one swanky private school sailing team in their area goes off to Florida in March to train. What wimps!


Who are those two kids in the foreground of the picture? They look vaguely familiar. Yes. I know them. They are my two eldest grandchildren Aidan (3) and  Emily (6). What is their mother thinking, letting them play in the water in March? Doesn't she read Bonnie's blog? Doesn't she know how dangerously cold the water is in March?

OK. I know it's really not a very good picture of the Sharon High School Sailing Team.
Here is a better one...

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Flying Dutchman

This is truly amazing! A Dutch engineer named Jarno Smeets has achieved birdlike flight. An article on Wired Science explained...

According to Smeets’ calculations, he needed approximately 2,000 Watts of continuous power to support his roughly 180-pound frame and 40-pound wing pack. His arms could only really provide 5 percent of that, so the rest would have to come from motors. His arms and pecs would basically serve to guide the device and to flap the wings.

He built his electronic, wireless wing set out of Wii controllers, accelerometers harvested from an HTC Wildfire Android phone and Turnigy motors.

I have no idea what a Turnigy motor is, but I'm glad someone has actually found a useful application for Wii controllers and Android phones.

I don't speak Dutch but I'm pretty sure I know what Mr. Smeets is saying around 1:33 and 1:35 in the video so I will spare my readers a full translation.

If you are interested in more details (in English) Mr. Smeets has a blog at Human Birdwings.

Bravo sir!

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Where to Look While Sailing Upwind

What does it mean when your coach tells you to get your head outside the boat? Where do top sailors actually look when they are sailing upwind?

This video made by the Laser Center at Cabarete gives a brand new insight into the answers to these questions. Featuring Laser sailor, Julio Alsogaray, winner of the 10th Caribbean Laser Midwinter Regatta - with commentary by the Laser Center at Cabarete head coach, Rulo Borojovich - you can at last see where a champion is looking in various phases of upwind sailing.

Rulo tell us that in the sprint after the start you need to focus on your boat speed and looking at such things as your telltales and the waves in front of you.

Once you pop out in front of the group (you always do, don't you?) you need to look around to see if you are on a header or a lift, and where the wind pressure is up the course. You constantly need to switch attention between the boat, the sail, the approaching waves, the sailing angles of the other boats, the windward mark and the clouds in the sky etc. etc. etc.

Hmmm. In the one minute of sailing by Julio in this video, I counted him switching attention from one place to another at least thirty times! Once every two seconds!

Speaking purely personally I know that one of my faults is spending too much time looking at the telltales on the sail to make sure I am not sailing too high or too low when sailing upwind. A coach recently told me to look forward, not at the telltales, and with experience I would learn to "feel" when I was pinching or stalling the sail, and be able to make adjustments without being so fixated on the telltales. I did try that in my last practice session, and I'm sure it's a good thing to do in practice - almost as good as sailing with your eyes closed - but the video of Julio demonstrates that top sailors are constantly flicking their eyes all over the place... the boat, the telltales, the waves in front, the pressure up the course, the other boats to right and left and behind, the leech, the sky, the windward mark... and repeat and repeat and repeat.

I wrote a post on this subject, Snap!, back in 2006. It was written after a race where I was so focused on boat speed that I didn't even notice that the wind was stronger on the other side of the course and I should have been heading over there for that better wind. I wrote about how I should have been taking "snapshots", switching attention every few seconds between all the variables. "Telltales look OK? Boat flat? What's the wind ahead doing? Where's the next puff? Am I being headed? Big picture wind - where is it strongest?"

Hmmm. So if I knew all that six years ago, why am I still not doing it consistently?

Good question!

Thanks Rulo for reminding me.

Monday, March 19, 2012

7 Reasons Why Human Beings Love The Beach

Why do human beings like going to the beach so much?

I've been asking myself this question because the whole Tillerman family, myself and all nine Tiller extensions, have been making plans over the last few days to spend a week together at a rented beach house this summer. We all like the beach. Well, we don't quite know whether Isabel (four months old) likes the beach. She hasn't expressed an opinion on the matter yet. But the rest of us do. Most human being do, don't they? But why?

On Sunday, seven of us drove down to Cape Cod to check out the house where we will be staying and, most important of all, to check out the beach. We all loved it, although perhaps for somewhat different reasons. My son's wife seemed to be the most enthusiastic. Her love of the beach seems to be almost visceral. I just looked up the meaning of "visceral" to see if I had the right word there. "Related to deep inward feelings... instinctive... felt in or as if in the internal organs of the body... deep." Yes, that's the right word. But why do human beings have such a visceral attachment to beaches?

This is a beach. Indeed it is the beach where we will be spending a week this summer. It is wide. It is flat. Those little dots on the left are some of the Tiller extensions. Why do we love places like this so much?

1. One theory, proposed by the zoologist Desmond Morris in his book The Naked Ape (and by others), is that homo sapiens is descended from apes who lived on the shore. We spent a lot of time in the water. We dived for shellfish. As a result we started to adapt to life in the water and this explains a number of features that are unique to our species among the apes, such as our lack of body hair, our poor sense of smell, and our ability to swim underwater. Hence our visceral attraction to spending time on the beach and frolicking in the water. It's what we were made for. It's more than visceral. It's in our genes.

2. Another theory, advanced by Christian Lander the author of the blog Stuff White People Like, is that white people like living by the water for a number of reasons including that it enables us to pursue many of the activities that we like such as "swimming, kayaking, canoeing, sailing, and it’s a perfect place to read next to." He also points out that "on the East Coast, many white people dream of owning ocean front property in New England, where they can make their lives as close as possible to a J. Crew catalog." Can it just be a coincidence that, after our visit to the beach yesterday, my daughter-in-law is now dreaming of saving up to buy a house on that very beach? Perhaps I should buy her a J. Crew gift card for her birthday?

3. In search of more expert opinions on this question, I asked my 6-year-old granddaughter Emily why she enjoyed the beach. She answered that she liked searching for hermit crabs and other sea creatures in all the tidal pools.

4. To the same question, my 3-year-old grandson Aidan said that he liked building sandcastles.

5. My 20-month-old grandson Owen (that's him in the photo above) seemed to be having a grand old time on the beach yesterday. When asked what he liked about it he replied, "Granddad... water... bucket... digger... more water... Grandma." I think this is the best answer yet. Then he sat down, fully clothed, in a little pool.

6. Speaking purely for myself, I like beaches for long runs by myself, long walks with Tillerwoman, playing with my grandchildren, flying a kite and, of course, launching my Laser. (Although I will not be taking my Laser on our beach vacation this summer.)

7. Sometimes the ultimate wisdom on the great questions of life can be found in poetry and music. The question of why human beings love the beach so much is addressed by the famous beach expert, Zac Brown, in his composition Toes.

I got my toes in the water, ass in the sand
Not a worry in the world, a cold beer in my hand
Life is good today, life is good today

I think that about sums it up.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Initial Impressions

I am blogging with difficulty. 
Keep Clear.

I need to change Proper Course.

Proper Course posts need to be shortened.

Baydog made me do it.

Friday, March 16, 2012

How to Beat Winter Hibernation

It was a first for me.

Since moving to Rhode Island in 2007, I've not done a lot of sailing in January, February and March. They have this season called "winter" which tends to induce in me a state of partial hibernation. Might be inherited from my caveman ancestors who would huddle in their caves under animal skins with their women and eat woolly mammoth fat in the winter months. (I made that last bit up.)

The first three months of the year have typically been the time when I've traveled to somewhere a little further south, like Australia, to sail. Three years in March I've been to a Laser clinic in Florida at SailFit with Kurt Taulbee. Some years when the mood has take me I've done a bit of frostbite racing in Newport in these months. The mood hasn't taken me very often.

But I have never, ever just gone sailing in Rhode Island waters on my own for a bit of fun sailing deliberate practice in the first three months of the year. The earliest I have done that has been April... and even then the water has been frigging cold and I haven't usually seen any other sailboats out on the water.

But yesterday I went Lasering on my own in Rhode Island in March.

Maybe I was inspired by the SailFit clinic at the beginning of the month. Maybe I was inspired by my own post about the benefits of solo practice. Maybe I was fed up with my attempts during the last few days to get all the members of Tillerman clan to agree on what house we should rent for a summer vacation. (Who would have thought that three guys with my genes could be so difficult?) Or maybe it was just a nice sunny day with unseasonably warm temperatures.

So I toddled off to Fort Adams (site of the America's Cup World Series this June) and rigged up my boat and went for a practice in the natural amphitheater of Newport Harbor and off the iconic Newport waterfront. I tried to apply what I had written in that post about deliberate practice. Focused on a few boat handling skills and worked on them the same way I used to practice learning a new piece of music on the guitar. Definitely got better at one thing. Definitely got worse at another thing by trying to change my style as recommended by a certain coach. But I think that's to be expected; one step back before two steps forwards.

There were a couple of sailing teams out on the water too, a high school team and Salve Regina University's sailing team, I believe. I did my best to keep out of their way. Noodling around the web later yesterday evening I came across this video about Practice Philosophy and other good stuff featuring Salve's coach John Ingalls. You will probably learn more from listening to him than by reading any more of my ramblings.

So, it was a first for me.

What next?

Thursday, March 15, 2012

The FrankenLaser

Laser hull, I14 rig, main, and spinnaker, custom bowsprit

Wind: 5 knots


Whenever I see red and yellow stripes, it takes me back to 1996, to the Twenty Sixth Sunfish World Championships at Boca Chica in the Dominican Republic. The Serious Sunfish Sailors these days always race with serious boring white racing sails... except at the World Championships when they sail with colored sails made especially for that event.

1996 was my first World Championship and set me off on a path of traveling to Sunfish Worlds and Laser Masters Worlds all over the world during the next 15 years. I still remember how excited I was to receive the letter from the Sunfish Class inviting me to be part of the US team. It seemed a big deal at the time, although in those days it wasn't anything as hard as it is now to qualify for the Worlds.

Here's the full photo of the start from which the first picture was clipped.

Who is that guy taking huge advantage of the midline sag? Not me! Although I'm in that mix somewhere.

I don't remember much about the racing but I do remember that the sailors from Bermuda served us Dark 'N Stormies after racing some days. Mmmmm.

There was a young Dominican sailor called Raul Aguayo racing in that Sunfish Worlds. He must have been about 15 at the time. He went on to become the first Dominican sailor to sail in the Olympic Games when he raced in the Laser class at the 2008 Olympics.

I, on the other hand, went on to write a sailing blog which comes up pretty high if you do a Google search for "best sailing blog on the planet." Take that Rick Santorum.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Recuerdos de la Alhambra

The nice lady asked me, out of the blue, "What's your goal?"

Laser sailing? Goal? Hmmmm. Do I even have one any more?

The occasion was a group dinner during the Massapoag Mashers Spring Break Very Serious Laser Sailing Clinic in Florida a couple of weeks ago. There were five of us Very Serious Laser Sailors and three non-sailing wives. I expect we five Very Serious Laser Sailors were blathering on about Laser sailing and all the drills we had been doing during the week and our sailing plans for the year - as we did every evening - and our long-suffering wives were suffering it patiently.

One of the other sailors' wives, a very nice lady, turned to me and asked me, "So, what's your goal?"

I was taken aback.

I didn't know how to answer.

Probably she was just trying to make polite conversation. Or perhaps just trying to get a word in edgeways as five Very Serious Laser Sailors blathered on about Laser sailing. Or maybe she was genuinely interested in my sailing goals.

But I took her question, probably entirely wrongly, as an accusation. She probably didn't mean it that way (she is a very nice lady) but I read into her question a hidden meaning something along the lines of, "Why on earth are you old geezers taking this Laser sailing game so seriously? What's the point of attending all these clinics? Do you seriously hope to improve your skills at your age? What's the point? What's your goal?"

So instead of answering her question politely, as the very nice lady deserved, I went on the offensive and tried to think of some clever riposte to her question about my sailing goals. I had just been reading the pages that inspired yesterday's post, the account of the research into how top violinists became so great. In my mind I was bouncing around the idea that my approach to sailing these days is pretty much the same as my approach to playing the classical guitar forty years ago.

I played for my own pleasure. I would pick a new piece every week and teach myself how to play it and practice and practice (on my own) until I could play it properly to my own satisfaction. The only goal was to be able to play each piece correctly, without mistakes, flowing smoothly, and with some element of musicality so that I could enjoy playing it.

I hardly ever played for anybody else. After a while I did take some lessons so that I could improve my skills even more. Guitar playing, generally speaking, is not a competitive sport. But my guitar teacher did persuade me to enter a local music festival and I did win the classical guitar section. Woo hoo! But that was never a goal.

Where was I? Where am I? Oh yes, the very nice lady and her question about my Laser sailing goals.

With all my thoughts about the analogy between playing the guitar and Laser sailing jostling around in my head, I blurted out, "What is my goal? Would you ask a musician that question?"

As soon as I said it, I knew it was a stupid question. Of course musicians have goals. To win a job with that elite orchestra. To play at Carnegie Hall. To master Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto in D major. All sorts of goals.

But I must have had enough attitude in my response that the nice lady could tell I meant it as a rhetorical question. After all I was talking about my younger self, just plucking away at a guitar for my own amusement.

"Of course not," she answered.

She was sort of right. I don't have goals any more like "Place in the top half of the fleet at the Masters Worlds" or even "Sail my Laser 100 days in 2012."

But I do still want to sail my Laser correctly, without mistakes, flowing smoothly, and with some element of seamanship. Purely for my own amusement.

What's wrong with that?

Monday, March 12, 2012


Is solo practice the secret to achieving perfection?

I've recently been reading a book called Quiet by Susan Cain. It's about people like me. One passage in the book really got me thinking about my approach to Laser sailing...

It was about some work done by the research psychologist Anders Ericsson. Dr. Ericsson is interested in the question of how extraordinary achievers get be so great at what they do. He has looked for answers in fields as diverse as chess, tennis and music. As far as I know he hasn't studied Laser sailors (yet) but I think his research may be relevant to us too.

In a famous experiment he compared three groups of expert violinists at an elite music academy. The students were divided into the three groups based on their professors' assessments of their skills. It turned out that all three groups spent about the same time (over 50 hours a week) on music-related activities. But what was different about the best violinists was that they spent way more time practicing in solitude than the others. 24 hours a week compared to 9 hours a week for the least skilled group.

Ericcson and his colleagues found similar results among chess players and even elite athletes in team sports.

So what is so special about solitude?

Ericcson's theory is that it is only when you are alone that you can engage in what he calls Deliberate Practice, when you can work most effectively on the tasks that are just out of your reach, strive to improve your performance, monitor your own progress, and revise your practice sessions accordingly. It is best to practice alone because other people can be distracting and, when alone, you can fully concentrate on working deliberately in a focused way on the areas that you personally need to improve.

So how does this apply to Laser sailing? Well, of course, you need other sailors if you are going to work on things like boat-speed, how to create a gap on a crowded start line, tactics at busy mark roundings and so on. But if you want to improve aspects of boat-handling such as tacks and gybes, and acceleration at the start, and sheeting in and out quickly, and steering the optimum track around a mark, and managing your mainsheet so you don't get it tangled around your feet, and other stuff like that, Ericcson's work suggests that your best approach would be to go off on your own in your Laser, find a few buoys, and just work on each aspect of boat-handling until you have it perfected.

God knows there are plenty of basic boat-handling skills that I need to improve. After feedback from three excellent coaches in Menorca last September, Cabarete in January, and Florida in March, I have a long list of issues to address. Maybe this will be the year that I do some Deliberate Practice on my own and finally fix all those "issues"?

What do you think? Does this make any sense to you?

Sunday, March 11, 2012

First 10 Rules to Sail by in 2012

Andrew Campbell over at has taken on the task this year of passing on to us his 50 Rules to Sail by in 2012. Andrew was the US Olympic representative in Lasers at the 2008 Olympics, and has been running an Olympic campaign in a Star boat for the 2012 cycle, so I reckon this is going to be 50 rules worth following.

He has just completed the first 10 rules, so here they are for the education of all racing sailors...

1. Have a plan. Very important to have a strategy for every race. If nothing else you need to have an answer to the fundamental question of sailing: is right wrong or left right?

2. Be flexible. He's talking about being flexible in how you use your plan, not about doing yoga.

3. Prior Proper Planning Prevents a Piss Poor Performance. No, this isn't a repeat of rule #1. This one is all about reading the Notice of Race and other documents well before a regatta and making sure you take care of all the administrative and logistical details. For example do you need proof of insurance, or national letters on your sail, or even a passport?

4. History can be dangerous. And its corollaries - "a little local knowledge is a dangerous thing" and "the weather is never like this here."

5. Having the forecast is nice. Knowing how to interpret the forecast is important. Knowing when the forecast is irrelevant and making your own decisions about what will happen based on what you see can be critical. Use the forecast to your advantage, but don’t rely on it too heavily.

6. Have a goal for practice. This is probably why Andrew Campbell is a superstar sailor and I am not. When I go out to "practice" I get all distracted by actually enjoying sailing and taking pleasure in the moment of being out on the sea in the wind and the waves and the sheer joy of making my little boat go fast. If I had a practice goal when I launched, it is soon forgotten.

7. Enjoy Sailing. Damn you Andrew Campbell. You train like a maniac and yet you still remember that the real point of this whole game is to enjoy it? Seriously... good for him. This post is actually about the time when Andrew crewed for his Dad in the Zagarino Masters Regatta.

8. Put the bow down. Andrew writes about how important it is to keep the bow down and the boat going fast in a keelboat like the Star, but "put the bow down" was probably the most repeated instruction from our coach Kurt Taulbee at the Laser seminar in Florida a couple of weeks ago.

9. Wide and Tight, Slow if necessary. He's talking about mark roundings, of course.

10. Andrew doesn't sum up this rule in a single pithy phrase. He talks about a key factor for racing two weeks in Miami, especially for folks coming from the cold north. His advice is "to keep covered up and recover well each day." Specifics include hydration, sunscreen and having the right clothes for both hot and cool days. As Andrew says, "Peeing clear early in the week will prevent sore muscles, headaches, and ease sunburn recovery later in the week."

So what do you think? Which of these rules is the most important? Which one do you really need to work on in 2012?

Friday, March 09, 2012

No More Captchas

To all my bloggie friends who use Blogger, please go and read Spam-O-Phobia on Doc's blog and then get rid of those damn word verification checks on comments. Follow his link for instructions if you can't work out yourself how to do it.

Those annoying captchas are not necessary.

You won't get overwhelmed in spam if you turn them off. I have proved it to my own satisfaction over the last few weeks.

I can't read the damn things and often have to type them several times before the evil captcha checkers in Mountain View understand me.

If you don't turn them off (or persuade me that I am wrong about this) I will stop commenting on your blog.

No, wait. You might want me to stop commenting.


Please do it.

PS. It would be nice if bloggers on other platforms turned them off too, but I don't know whether your other spam protection tools are as good as Google's. Also, the illegibility of the Blogger captchas seems to be an order of magnitude worse than what I see on most other blogging platforms.

Thursday, March 08, 2012

Amsterdam Olympics 2028 Poster

Who said the Dutch don't have a sense of humor?

Jos Spijkerman today strayed from his usual topic of the intricacies of the Racing Rules of Sailing and has written a fascinating post Olympic Games 1928 - 2028 about posters associated with the Olympic Games in Amsterdam in 1928 and the proposed bid to return the Games to the Netherlands in 2028. He claims that the picture above is of a poster already made for such an event.


I think someone has been enjoying a Cannabinoid Moment.

Tuesday, March 06, 2012

Mashers Gone Wild

Last week I spent four days at a Laser clinic run by Kurt Taulbee of SailFit in Clearwater Beach, Florida. The trip was organized by the soon to be famous Massapoag Mashers Sailing Team of which I am proud to be an honorary member. Five of us Mashers attended the clinic, along with some random Finn sailor who had seen the error of his ways and switched to a Laser.

Thursday was devoted to working on tacks and gybes and mark roundings, all of which god knows I need to improve. Kurt followed each of us in his motor boat and filmed us on his video camera and gave us much helpful feedback. I thought I was doing OK roll tacks until he came up behind me with his camera and on the third tack of mine that he filmed I somehow got the tiller extension tangled up with my feet or the toe-strap or the sheet or all of the above and I capsized on camera much to the amusement of the other Mashers at the video debrief session later... Clumsy!

Friday was a glorious sunny day with 10-14 knots of breeze and we sailed out on the Gulf of Mexico instead of the more sheltered waters of Clearwater Bay. The topics of the day were starting and upwind and downwind boatspeed in waves, all of which god knows I need to improve. For some reason I had one of those rare days when I had the right mental attitude conducive to sailing fast, a bit like the races I wrote about at Cannabinoid Moment and Lawn Mower Guy. After a slow start when a couple of the other Mashers "won" some of the drills I seemed to get in the groove and was sharp on the starts, fast on the reaches, powerful on the beats, and swift downwind (except for that occasion when I got confused about the course we were sailing... and that other occasion when I somehow failed to see the leeward mark.) All in all it was one of the most enjoyable sailing days I have ever had. If I had to think of one word to sum up my mental attitude for the day it would be... Aggressive!

On Saturday the wind picked up to 18-24 knots and gusting higher. Kurt originally proposed a plan for the day involving more starting practice and even a slalom course. But then I guess he realized he was dealing with the Massapoag Mashers and not some elite youth squad so he revised the plan to something that amounted to "let's just see if we can sail upwind and downwind for a while with the pointy thing aiming at the sky most of the time." (My quote not his.) Some of my friends switched to Radial rigs. Some of my friends bailed out of the drills before the end of the session. All of us spent some time with the pointy thing aiming at the bottom of Clearwater Bay instead of the sky. I didn't feel that I sailed at all well but Kurt was kind enough to say that I was looking good upwind... before he told me several things I should be doing differently to be sailing properly upwind. Then we did some reaches and gybes where I was not even looking good and I managed to do two more capsizes for the camera much to the further amusement of the other Mashers at the video debrief later, where Kurt was able to explain exactly what I was doing wrong to cause me to capsize while gybing.

Eventually there were only two of us left on the water, and the other guy was sailing a Radial so I felt it was a moral victory for me. The only Full Rig sailor to survive Day 3 of the Massapoag Mashers Spring Break 2012 - Mashers Gone Wild. If I had to choose one word to sum up my mental attitude for the day it would be... Terror!

A cold front passed through the area early on Sunday morning, the wind shifted to the north, and by 10 am it was blowing at 28-30 knots gusting to 35. Kurt arrived at the sailing center and informed us, with a smile, that he was working on the "theory" that we wouldn't be sailing that day. So we started watching some video of sailors much better than us, sailing in winds much heavier than we would ever sail in, doing much more stylish wipeouts than we would ever achieve.

There was an Optimist Regatta at the sailing center that weekend. The Opti kids rigged their boats and prepared to sail. A couple of 420s went out for a few minutes. One of the 420s returned with its mainsail in shreds. All the Opti Moms and Dads looked at the shredded 420 sail and remembered how many hundreds of dollars they had paid for little Johnny's Opti racing sail, and a few minutes later the Opti Regatta was miraculously abandoned.

So the Mashers stayed inside and watched more video and listed to Kurt explaining in theory the techniques for heavy air Laser sailing which god knows I need to improve but which was much more comfortable (and a lot drier) than actually doing heavy air Laser sailing. After a few hours of such stimulating and comfortable discussion we packed up the boats and said thank you and goodbye to Kurt and collected our wives including the beautiful Tillerwoman and went off to a nearby waterhole for a late lunch and a few beers. Chilling!

America's Cup World Series in Newport

The AC45 World Series will be in Newport from 23 June–1 July 2012.

Five questions...

1. How do I get a press pass?

2. How do I get a ride on one of the boats?

3. How much can I charge per night for my spare bedroom?

4. Have they made sure this doesn't clash with any Laser regattas in the area?

5. Will there be free beer?