Flight and sailing: Vendée Globe, America’s cup and surroundings
This post is also available in: Italiano (Italian)
August 22nd 1851 the Royal Yacht Squadron organized what nowadays we would call “a club race” on a route that winds around the Isle of Wight.
Fourteen local boats and a New York Yacht Club boat participated. At stake was a silver pitcher (quite ugly to be honest) that costed the fair amount of 100 Guineas, golden coinage equal to the British Pound at the time.
If I could have a time machine, one of the travels I would like to do is a visit to the beach of Cowes in that summer afternoon and looking at Queen Victoria’s face when she saw the only American boat in front of her was detaching the second by 8 seconds, the British cutter Aurora. A defeat that forced an anonymous and unfortunate regatta official to whisper to the queen the famous phrase “There is no second, your Majesty”.
That American boat was the schooner America; better supplied and much faster than those of the British hosts. America was a more modern boat than the others: America was a state-of-the-art boat.
This is how America’s Cup story begun. In the following decades it moved to the other side of the Atlantic, slipping back in a little more than “club race” routine; until 1983, when Alan Bond – a weird Australian – tore the cup from the numb Americans thanks to an exceptional helmsman but – especially – thanks to a boat sporting a completely revolutionary keel: Australia II with its famous “winged keel”.
Design and construction technology shuffled everything, it brought disarray to the padded New York Yacht Club rooms, and above all, since then the America’s cup would be totally dependent on it. Do you see where I am going?
Let’s change scene: at 1976 Ostar, everyone was perplexed when Alain Colas showed up on the starting line with Club Méditerranée, 72 meters of boat (the biggest that ever competed in an ocean race), 1000 sqm of sails, 280 tonnes of weight and 4 masts. An absolute concentration of technology that Colas sailed on his own. Without too much success to be completely honest: the French sailor will arrive fifth 7 hours and 28 minutes behind the winner Eric Tabarly on the Pen Duick VI, “only” long 22,25 metres. Even in this case – beyond the not excellent result – it was the burst upon the scene of a technology injection that wouldn’t take steps back anymore in the offshore races.
Here’s the point: evolution does not stop and – especially – evolution is a linear movement that has peaks but that stretches upwards in an unstoppable way, and it did not start today. The point is that we sailors are definitely a reluctant tribe regarding embracing sailboat evolution.
Nowadays evolution in certain classes is foil; it exist today a new navigation set-up, which includes lifting from the water surface, on foils, indeed.
This does not mean that sailing is just that, but it is a “niche” destined to widen. Frankly, it is quite incomprehensible to me the reticence of the average sailor towards this new frontier: if – for example – on a blog about sailing someone posts a picture of a Imoca 60 with foils or a Ac75, reading comments you will find yourself in front of a wall of rejection.
Take 10 sailors writing their opinion online, you could bet that at least 7 of them will indulge in a series of considerations on how wonderful was sailing of yesteryear (which years then? Of course theirs) and so on and so forth discussing on how ugly are these new boats, useless and even how dangerous.
What I do not undestand is why one would deny that a given project could be, in a few decades, a new J Class, a new Croce del Sud, Moro di Venezia or whatever other vintage boat is today admired and worshipped as a milestone of the naval design.
In my opinion, the point is another: that of recent years is an unsettling technological leap, a technology we are not able to use; these boats are nothing like ours and they are boats on which we can hardly imagine to sail.
I would be honestly curious (and actually kind of amused) of seeing how some of us would manage to sail a J Class or a 70’s thrust race boat, yet those boats appear reassuring and familiar exactly like ours; they are part of our imaginary and sailing them looks like sailing our loved ones.
Today the paradigm has changed, for some time to this part (quite a long time actually, but we didn’t realize) attending the American Cup or a round the world race such as the Vendée Globe requires a really demanding campaign economically speaking and a huge effort in different phases. We are talking about design, research and development, logistic and organization, and preparing the crews with a completely different approach from the “classic” one. Materials have assumed vital importance (hence the search that crosses the aeronautical field) and the navigation technique and sailing is extremely different from the traditional one.
Until a few decades ago, preparing for an America’s Cup campaign – taking account of the proper proportions – could look like, in a certain way, to preparing for a Medium High Level Racing Season: physical care, attention on materials, team building, working together and studying the tactics of racing.
I repeat, taking account of the proportions (please do not come after me!) but after the entire recipe was quite familiar and each of us in his heart could compare himself to the skipper of some big sailing team.
Nowadays “all this technology” upsets us and makes us wonder about the good old days. The problem is not technology, though. Us sailors not understanding it is the problem.
If watching an America’s Cup race I do not even understand how the route works, it is not technology’s fault, but mine, since I did not even mind reading and understanding the rules. If I have the impression that trimmers are cyclists wo are freewheel pedalling, if I do not understand who is the tactic and why there are two helmsmen, it is because I am not keeping up with technology and sailing this boats.
Nowadays you fly, or better you sail on foils but let’s not forget that the driving force is always the wind, the usual one, the “old” one, the one that also propels us in our club races or in our summer cruise. Wind propels these boats. These are sailboats.
Of course, some reliability problems are under everyone’s eyes, some resounding damage during the Vendée and American Magic capsize have caused a stir. However, have we forgot a race of a few decades ago with 15 dead sailors, 24 abandoned boats, 194 (out of 303) withdrawn? It was 11th august 1979, and it was the Fastnet tragedy.
What are we worried about, then? Why are we this prevented? Maybe it is because we are afraid that technology is substituting us in many actions that we were so fond of, but with little or no added value. Technology begins to replace us even in the processing of simple thought, the one that more or less we can all formulate.
Basically, technology is taking away from us everything we felt good at, leaving us only complex activities and thoughts and exposing the weakness how average human: everyone could do those activities and formulate even very complex thoughts, but only a few can. This, unconsciously, bothers us, scares us.
My modest conclusion, my friends, is that we should put us in the armchair and enjoy the America’s Cup, enjoy the Vendée for what they are: the most recent and evolved expression of our beloved sport, the inspiration, the state of the art; the window to understand where we are going and how.
After all – allow me the jab – I am sure that among us many are still those who in navigation regularly use the sextant…aren’t you?
Fair wind everybody, see you at sea!
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