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Analog Digits

By Joe Cooper

I am becoming more analog the older I get. This is odd, because years ago I was very digital. Bob Miller, aka Ben Lexcen the designer of, amongst other boats, the 12 Metre Australia Two, was also a very talented artist. In 1979, when were working on Australia (NOT “One,” just “Australia”) and there was some kind of break in the action, he would whip out a sketch of one of the guys that was a caricature of the person. In my case, I had an arm with a collection of pencils/pens for a hand and the other arm/hand was a pile of notebooks. This was because I was always writing down things that need to be built, fixed, picked up, broken down, organized, etc. Being in charge of the boat, I was writing things down all the time.

On occasion, just because I can, I refer to pencil and paper as a carbon-based digital recording device, much to the confusion of my sailing team students who think, “Oh no, he has finally lost the plot.”

October started with needing to get a couple of hundred bucks’ worth of silicon (Yeah, I know, but a different carbon product) digital stuff. New drivers, keyboard, backup and related stuff for my 4-year-old laptop. That’s OK, but the thing that really bugged me was having to buy, again, MS Office, which I’d bought 14 months ago when I purchased the (used) laptop.

Then, on top of it all I read in Scuttlebutt of computer-driven sailing…Beyond Autopilot…It seems that Harken and Jeanneau have been beavering away in a secure, undisclosed location developing the software and hardware that will let a helmsman push a button and have the boat tack the sails. We are familiar with the auto-tack function in autopilots, but this apparently is intended to cast off the jib and reel it in on the other side. Described on the Harken and Jeanneau websites as Assisted Sail Trim (AST), the Harken press release states this is a “collaborative effort to re-imagine cruising and shorthanded sailing.”

OK…It is interesting that all the images in the brochure show calm water, pretty girls and handsome dudes smiling and laughing, and nice pictures of teak decks. It reminds me of the photos in life jacket and life raft ads that are always taken in flat water...

It is proposed that the AST will release and/or ease the headsail while you steer the boat through the tack and trim it in on the new tack. It is also going to adjust the sails for you. This is after you set the sails to the “initial trim.” The rest of this paragraphs reads as follows:

“Set the initial trim, press the button to engage Auto Trim, and then let the system handle sheeting. The system monitors apparent wind for perfect trim while you relax at the helm. An integrated heel control detects gusts and limits heel to your desired setting for maximum passenger comfort.” Sounds like the ad copy for a first class ticket on Virgin Air.

They are, wisely I think, saving the best for last, which is intended to hoist and lower the main and/or roll up and unroll the jib.

My only…well, first, question is, “Why are we going sailing then?” This push-button caper is a bit like reading articles about people out cruising on 50-footers and electric push-button everything, who then write stories about yoga exercises you can do aboard and workouts you can do while cruising so you can stay in good nick.

I am not a 5th Dan Luddite, mebbe just a 2nd or 3rd. I get computers, automation, robots, autopilots, etc. But didn’t anyone in this secret lab ask anyone who actually goes sailing on a regular basis about the relationship between salt air and electronics? Hands up, anyone who has gone an entire summer without the AP having a bad hair day and knocking off early. 

The French solo guys have entire teams of PhD electronics guys and girls ministering their autopilots day and night. The sailors need to sail a zillion miles before they go racing so as to get the pilots to learn the characteristics of the boats. The skippers go to autopilot school so they can work on the pilots in the middle of nowhere, aka the Southern Ocean. And they carry a number of spares, although it is probably down from the record of eight or nine or so I read about once, a few years ago.

I know this seems like I am knocking innovation, progress, and development. But really, when I want to go sailing, I want to get away from all this stuff and actually exercise a skill and dexterity honed over years of actually sailing. Knowing just the right time to pull hard on the sheet, or grind when tacking so as to get the best result from the effort. I want me to learn, not the bloody computer.

“Making sailing easier” is the claim. Well, sailing ain’t easy. It certainly ain’t digital, on or off. Sailing is analog; it has shades of finesse and subtlety, as Snape recites on Harry’s first day in Potions. It is an art, an acquired skill, a way of thinking, a way to exercise parts of our brains in a way we are increasingly being invited to ignore. Well, let me correct that a bit. Sailing is actually pretty easy. It is seamanship that is the ever-learning part. The ‘What is going to happen next?’ ‘What will that wave do?’ ‘Why is the wind going there?’ and so, so much more.

Personally, I do not want to be on a boat with more electronics than Matt Damon on Mars. I want to be on a boat with me, my sense of thinking stuff out, and the opportunity to introduce my guests to the sensuous business of detecting the bloody wind gusts for themselves. Part of “detecting a wind gust” and “integrated heel control” is seeing the puff on the water, and feeling the helm start to load up. Instruments, even the best ones, tell you what just happened. Oh speaking of electronics and salt air…all of this runs off the boat’s sense inputs, boat speed, wind speed apparent and (I hope) true wind speed and angle and so on. Consider just how long your electronics have gone with out needing some service. I tell people, although not in the first 90 seconds of knowing them, that sailing is a very sensuous activity. Ya gotta be careful with that one because, well you know sensuous…

But sailing uses – demands – the use of senses. Why do you think blind sailors are so dammed good? They use the rest of their senses. Sheesh. What are we coming to? Me? I like the idea of analog, especially while sailing.

Really, I think the Harken guys are lovely. Peter and Olaf have a dedicated their lives to the progress of sailing over the years. And the Jeanneau guys make nice boats. And I hope they sell a million of these set-ups. But can someone please put the disclaimer on the purchase contract that this will dilute the actual effect of sailing?

The third “package” to be released, the “Sail Management” package, will debut in coming seasons. Until then, we will have to continue hoisting our sails ourselves. And not rely on the “load sensors to detect jams and allow the halyard to be eased for safe operation.”

I am so grateful for the possibility of going sailing and not having to do anything and being safe, not to mention the full redundancy and manual backup in the event of power loss. (Sarcastic comment, jumps up and down like a 2-year-old having a sugar meltdown). I do not want sailing to be “safe and easy.” I want to go sailing and be reminded that I need to be thinking ahead of the curve. I want to determine what is safe for me and bear the consequences for screwing up my planning, if that happens.

OK, I have run out of words. Not mine – I have plenty more to say – but my allotment for this column. It is digital, you know. One word too many and

Joe Cooper AnalogAustralian born, Joe ‘Coop’ Cooper stayed in the US after the 1980 America’s Cup where he was the boat captain and sailed as Grinder/Sewer-man on Australia. His whole career has focused on sailing, especially the short-handed aspects of it. He lives in Middletown, RI where he coaches, consults and writes on his blog, joecoopersailing.com, when not paying attention to his wife, teenage son, dog, two cats and several, mainly small, boats.


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  • commented 2015-11-17 07:04:46 -0500
    This is so correct. When I began sailing it involved ME doing things… coordination, timing, analysis… figuring out where I was and so on. It was pretty lo tech compared to what we have today… but at the time I thought LoranC was awesome and I still had to plot on a paper chart. Fast forward to plotters and routes and dog knows whatelse the new electronics provide. I do have an AP but one which I program the heading… not some GPS. I don’t use routes because I sail and fetch one mark at time and in 99.999% of the time I have ample time to set the next waypoint. My electronic ADDs are more or less “crew” for me. And as I get older and I am not the physical person I was years ago… these crew allow me to sail as I once did. Allison the AP steers… I tack the head sail. Her tacks are not perfect but we are not racing and it hardly matters. Not having to plot and having position awareness on a small in cockpit plotter means I don’t have to go below without watch and where I usually sail there are too many boats to do that safely for very long. I have all chain and an electric windlass… with a cockpit remote switch and can anchor effectively and solo… without Max the windlass I would be spending lots of money on a chiropractor! My latest electric crew acquisition has been Millie, a Milwaukee battery operated drill with a winch bit. Millie’s only task is to hoist the main while I tweek Allison keeping us head to wind. Up goes the big hood main… and then we can sail. I doubt we will see an end to the electronification of sailing… But probably most will take a pass… thankfully. I do expect more digitally based real time data to become available… currents and wind of the REGION we sail in not just the 1500 foot (more or less) radius around the boat we can see with our naked eyes. I do not want my sailing to be a video game. But then again… I don’t play video games.
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