• Otter Views: Post Nautical Sailing

    by Tom Stevens

    A Tuesday bicycle spin took me to a corner of Monterey Harbor where a squadron of dinghies had raised sail. The small white boats bobbed in line like ducklings as the sailing coach called out final instructions.

    At the tiller of each boat, a young girl or boy awaited the signal to cast off. Another young sailor sat forward, ready to let out the jib, take in the sheets, or whatever it is that makes boats go.

    For someone who has spent a lifetime a stone’s skip from the ocean, I know lamentably little about sailing, and I’m much the worse for that. So I was heartened to see young mariners with their boats lined up smartly along the wharf and their life vests snugly secured. Someone is covering what I missed.

    At length the whole flotilla set off. Without collision or clamor, they rode a soft southwesterly breeze down the narrow channel. Because the kids knew what to do, the boats smoothly negotiated a virtual Scylla and Charybdis of docks, pilings, pleasure craft, fishing trawlers, buoys and barnacles.

    Soon only the peaks of the sails were visible, floating serenely as clouds beyond a thicket of masts and spars. Pushing off on my bike, I felt unreasonably happy. It pleases even a landlubber to know that ancient maritime arts are vouchsafed to a new generation.

    Sailing is on my horizon these days as San Francisco prepares to host its first America’s Cup. The races would be history-making for the site alone, but the advent of hydrofoil catamarans powered by computer-trimmed Kevlar “wings” puts this Cup in a class by itself.

    In pre-race trials, these sleek new racers reportedly have reached speeds of 40 knots (46 miles per hour) skimming across the wind-whipped, Ovaltine-colored waters of San Francisco Bay. Or not skimming, in a couple of notable cases. Already, two boats have “pitch-poled” after their sharp bows dug too deeply into the waves. One boat was wrecked; the second pinned and drowned its best crewman.

    These ruinous setbacks have prompted some longing for the kinder, gentler America’s Cups of yore, when boats had a single hull, several canvas sails, and no crew fatalities. That desire is understandable, as the new boats seem almost post-nautical; closer to aircraft than watercraft. Their designs are so radical, their tolerances so unforgiving, and their velocities so great that they bear comparison not to previous boats, but to other speed record aspirants.

    Remember the “X-1?” I recall as a kid watching flickery black-and-white “Movietone News” footage of a stubby rocket plane designed to break the sound barrier, or two sound barriers, or something. Because this quest would subject the pilot to extreme new forces, the training included terrifying rides aboard a “rocket sled.”

    The pilot would be strapped into this contraption like a human cannonball. At some unseen signal, flame would belch from the undercarriage, firing the sled along its track like a bullet.

    Close-ups then showed this acceleration turning the handsome young test pilot into Dorian Gray. His head would tilt back, his goggled eyes would bulge hideously, his neck and cheeks would start to flap, and every inch of visible skin would ripple like a flag. At the end of its run, the sled would slam into a water trough, sending up a huge explosion of superheated spray.

    “Can this possibly be worth it?” I wondered even then. “Will his face stay like that?”

    But as usual, I underestimated the human capacity for suffering, risk and reward. After many jet sled tests, the X-1 broke whatever record it had set out to break, and copious glory followed. So did the X-2, the X-10, and all the other Xs that led to space flight. That process cost any number of lives along the way.

    The same could be said for land speed records. As each new generation of jet-fueled motorcycles and chute-popping rocket cars blasted over the salt flats, vehicles spun out of control and drivers paid with their lives.

    Those were rogue speed record attempts, one might argue, not internationally sanctioned races. But racing can be fatal too, as any Nascar fan will attest. Whatever the course – be it land, sea or air – someone is crashing and burning on it. Tragically, even thoroughbred horses break up and die, and they have little say in that fate.

    OK coach, tacking back to starboard. Given the rocket sled trajectory of human ambition, the America’s Cup is not likely to return to single hulls and canvas sails anytime soon. The catamarans should make this year’s races the fastest and most dangerous ever, and that should bring out whatever fans aren’t rooting for the Giants. Come to think of it, with the right stadium seat, you could probably do both.

    posted to Cedar Street Times on June 6, 2013

    Topics: Otter Views

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