Earth, Wind & Water

Ramblings of an Earthling, Laserite and small boat sailor

Friday, March 19, 2010

Beautiful Stranger

I was going to write a post with some original content, but once the idea popped into my head, how could I resist a song with this title, especially given the Austin Powers segue?

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Even Stranger Cargo

Some more William Orbit. Early 90's psychedelia from his Strange Cargo III Album. (insert Austin Powers voice) Groovy Baby, Yeah!

Friday, March 12, 2010

Strange Cargo Hinterland - William Orbit - Million City

Like a lot of electronic music worth listening to, it takes about a minute to get going. What cities can you identify?

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Deep Water: The Loneliness of a Long Distance Liar

I watched this gripping documentary alone over the weekend, and it put me in a funky mood. It revolves around the strange and tragic last voyage of Donald Crowhurst, an entrant into The Golden Globe race, that set off in 1968. Francis Chichester had recently sailed around the world single-handedly, stopping only in Sydney to make repairs. This success, and the sensation it caused prompted the Sunday Times to organize a single-handed, nonstop race around the world. In addition to Deep Water (2006), Crowhurst's failure which presumably ended in suicide inspired the book, The Strange Last Voyage of Donald Crowhurst by Nicholas Tomalin and Ron Hall.

A struggling inventor, Crowhurst signed a contract with a promoter worth £5000 requiring him to enter the race and to not drop out too early. Despite his recognition that his own made boat was not ready, he put on a brave face for interviewing journalists, and set off on the last day before the deadline, imposed by the race organizers to avoid winter in the Southern Ocean.

Immediately, he ran into problems, fouling the main halyard on the buoyancy bag on the masthead, if full view of the on-looking press. Once underway, the outriggers of his trimaran started taking on water through their numerous leaky hatches. From the very start, he was deliberately vague in his position reports. By the time he made it to the trade winds north of the equator, he started issuing false progress reports, and keeping two sets of logs. His deceptions and lies pushed him to further deceptions and lies. At this point, strange obsessions entered Crowhurst's logs . The number 243 cropped up repeatedly. He reported covering 243 miles in a day, which would have been a single-handed record. In addition, he had planned on finishing the race in 243 days.

He now knew that his boat was not adequately seaworthy for the Southern Ocean. Through his lies, he had backed himself into a corner. After a certain point, he couldn't retire from the race without exposing himself as fraud, because he was supposed to be thousands of miles beyond the ports he would have pulled into.

After ruling out that option for himself, he concocted a new deception. He would loiter in the South Atlantic, off the coast of Brazil until the race leaders had rounded Cape Horn and headed north. Now he couldn't make any radio broadcasts, as those would give away his position. By the time he broke his radio silence, Robin Knox-Johnson had already finished, winning the Golden Globe, as first to finish. To avoid close scrutiny of his faked logs with fake celestial observations, his plan was to now finish more slowly than Nigel Tetley, who was on course to win £5000 for the fastest voyage. Then, only 1200 miles from the finish, Tetley sank. Now in real danger of making the fastest voyage, and being uncovered upon the inspection of his logs. He went insane as evidenced by his delusional and incoherent log entries. As his log entries ended that day with what's taken to be suicide note, he is presumed to have taken his life on 1969, July 1st, the 243rd day of the year.

A big lesson to be taken from this tragedy, is the loneliness of holding a deep and dark secret and confiding in no one. In fact, can there be anything lonelier than telling such a lie?  Also, as with all big lies, and as the experiences of Presidents Nixon and Clinton illustrate, lies beget more lies in an ever more tangled web of deceit.  The best thing to do is to swallow one's pride and admit the truth.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Book Review: Ben Ainslie - The Laser Campaign Manual

After I'd had my Laser for a while, I thought I could do with a more modern book on sailing it. I couldn't decide between this one and Dick Tillman's Complete Book of Laser Sailing, so in the end I ordered both to find out which one was better. I won't make judgment on that directly since the books have different strengths, but in terms of how to sail the boat fast without any nonsense, this is the book you want.

The book is extremely well organized. Each point of sail and each maneuver (tacking and gybing, etc.) is rigorously covered in medium, heavy and light airs. Each of these chunks is illustrated with color pictures, with nice sequences for the tacks, gybes and 720, mark roundings and start. The book was clearly thoroughly planned before the photos were taken on the water. For each point of sail at each wind strength he gives recommended sail trim settings and body positions, and lists common mistakes. He avoids long tracts of prose, breaking it down into small chunks with headings, even bulleted lists, making the book very easy to navigate and digest.

An Olympic gold and silver medalist in the class, his credentials are beyond dispute, and from an engineering point of view, I agree with him on almost everything that he says about what makes the boat go fast. I don't always agree with his explanation for why these techniques are fast, but ultimately that's of secondary importance. For instance, he gets muddled up in his explanation of fullness of the sail on the reach, drawing a half-baked analogy to a jet airplane wing, confusing chord with camber, all of which jar to this aeronautical engineer. He's a layman engineer, but an expert sailor, and ultimately, the sailing expertise is what we want from the book.

As I posted earlier, for Ed Baird, tactics were a major part of Laser sailing. For Ainslie, it's all about boat speed. He subscribes to the point of view that "boat speed makes you a tactical genius". Upwind, stay in close proximity to the front runners, or if ahead, keep in between them and the windward mark. Sailing off the wind, learn how to use the waves maximum advantage, deviating substantially from the rhumb line if need be. In short, sail fast.

As a mediocre sailor with distinctly average boat speed, I feel I have to try harder than this on tactics and reading the wind. For one thing, you can't stay close to the front runners if they're way ahead of you! So, if you can't outrun them, at least try'n outwit them.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Marooned on Islands in the Car-chipelago

That's what the title of the previous post should have been...

Friday, March 5, 2010

Stuck in suburban gulags

When I was a child, I lived for two years in a New Jersey suburb of Philadelphia. When I think back to those times, I'm often struck by how small a world it was we lived in. I don't mean the world in the sense of the planet - my native South Africa seemed a million miles away - but in the sense of how far afield my friends and I could roam under our own steam. We lived in a small subdivision of 64 houses (I just counted on Google maps) abutted on the west by a four lane road without sidewalks. It was like a moat, a conduit we could traverse or travel down only by car. South of our development was an open field and then some woods with a stream running through it. To the east and north were farm fields, but in what seemed like a daring act of trespass, we would sometimes cut along the edge of the field to make it to the next subdivision, that was similarly isolated.

Today the weather was nice enough for me to cycle for the first time in months, and I wanted to do some errands while I was out. Going to the library was no problem, but the bank was just out of reach. For the lack of a safe way of traveling down a quarter mile of four lane, 45 mph road at rush hour, I just couldn't make it! There was no alternative route because this is the only road for miles that crosses the DuPage river. And no surprises, the next road that does is also a busy four-laner flanked by curbs rather than shoulders. I could see the bank, but I couldn't get there for the lack of a car. As I cycled home so that I could drive there instead, I was struck by the madness of the way we confine ourselves to suburban gulags, imprisoned by the barriers of major roads, impassable to all but cars.

The pedestrian and cyclist are really second class citizens here in the US. Late at night when the seating area was closed, I was once denied service at a McDonald's drive-through because I wasn't in a car. I was livid, and felt discriminated against by a policy utterly lacking in common sense. I've lived in subdivisions in Illinois and Alabama that didn't even have sidewalks! What were the plan commissions thinking, that in the future we'd chop off our legs at birth and ride around on Segways?

I'm trying to come up with the best term to describe this suburban isolation imposed on pedestrians and cyclists. "Archipelagos" is maybe more descriptive, but it lacks the ominous, overbearing and entrapped connotation of "gulags". Any ideas?

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Book Review: Laser Sailing - Ed Baird

These days, Ed Baird is probably best known for his exploits with Alinghi and on the World Match Racing Tour, but like so many other top skippers of big boats, he got his start in the Laser. The 1980 world champ in the class wrote this book when men were men, and used to do acrobatics in the boat to put the vang on and tension the outhaul. It was written even before the sailcloth weight was increased from 3.2 oz to 3.8 oz, which precipitated multi-purchase systems with thimbles, which eventually led to the proper, modern sail controls we have today.

I got this book from my dad when he generously gave me his Laser. (I asked if I could borrow the boat for the summer - he said sure, and a few weeks later he called me and told me I could keep it!) The book is brief and well organized. He breaks it down into four chapters, covering the boat, your body, the race, and mental attitude. The race he covers in the order in which you encounter the phases - start, beat, tacking, reaching, etc - and illustrates the important techniques with series of photographs.

A few notable things stand out about this book. On techniques he covers a few things I haven't seen other authors and pundits mention. He describes a really clever trick of pulling the sail down into the water using the main sheet after a capsize to windward, which lets you right the boat without it capsizing again. He illustrates this with series of photos that finishes up with a delightful grin of his that says without saying, "I didn't even get my feet wet!". He's also the only person I've seen distinguish between the reach to reach gybe and the run to run gybe. Think about it - it really is different. A gybe from by-the-lee to by-the-lee involves heading up.

Coming back to this book after reading Ben Ainslie's (to be reviewed soon), I was struck that there really is nothing new under the sun. As Ben Ainslie has it, the technique of "s-curving" on the run was invented by Robert Scheidt and Peter Transcheidt in the early 90's, but in Baird we find, "Sail by the lee, pumping (legally!) and heading up whenever you need power to surf down a wave". Likewise when I read in Ainslie that you should steer up when going over waves, this flat water sailor without experience of it, but armed with an understanding of the wave mechanics thought it was brilliant! And then, again I read the same pearls of wisdom in Baird's book nestled in a nonchalant manner. Maybe Ainslie was sufficiently heavy, tall, and fit to not need to do it, but Baird stresses the importance of easing the main on a heavy air beat and when ducking transoms to keep the boat flat, fast, and maneuverable.

All top sailors realize that it is a multifaceted sport requiring fitness, tactics, and boat speed, but focus of these guys, and the reasons for their success varies. What really shines through in Baird's book is his tactical brilliance. He was an early adopter of the tactical compass with a zero to 20 scale and pairs of lubber lines, invented by Anders Ansar. Ansar specifically mentions Baird's use of the compass in his story of how he invented it, and quotes him in his description of his first racing compass. Much more than that, though, I am impressed by his unveiling of numerous tactical tricks.