© Catherine Roche

© Catherine Roche

One of several remarks I make to the assembled throng, at the first meeting of the Prout Sailing Team, usually in late February, has to do with the amount of time sailing takes up. I mention this in concert with the admonition to use our time on the water wisely. The background to these remarks has to do with the proposition that generally sailing is not the kind of sport where you can come home from school and head out to the backyard, street, park or YMCA and “practice.”

By and large, every other sport allows such after-hours practice and/or goofing around. Given how touch- and feel-centric sailing is, this is a serious drag on a new sailor’s ability to develop the requisite skills, simply in the senses that sailing uses. Pitch, roll, yaw, a sailor’s response to puffs and lulls, waves, other boats or objects including marks (moorings), land, and so on.

OK, I know you may go home and read the theory, the Racing Rules of Sailing, watch videos and so on, but while book learning for sailing is a help it really does not substitute for being in the boat. Tiller time is King (one of my Coop’isms on the t-shirt).

On more than one occasion, I have taken a boat around the corner of the Mule Barn at Sail Newport, out of the direct breeze, rigged it and put kids in it and tried to simulate the motion of a boat in the water. I have done a similar drill with a boat in the water, moored between the docks. In this variant, there are no sails set but I rig lines to the masthead, with which I manipulate the boat, port to starboard, (roll-aka heel) to try and give, especially the new kids, the non-sailors in particular, some sense of what is going to happen when they do actually go sailing. None of this is particularly fantastic, but I humor myself it’s better than nothing.

I have taken one of US Sailing’s online courses, Teaching and Coaching Fundamentals. In it there is a momentary clip of an Opti that is rigged and occupied by a student. The dinghy is sitting in a bunks-like structure that is on wheels that the instructors are moving the dolly, boat and sailor around. A much better version of what I am trying behind the Mule Barn. Well, it can only yaw in time with the puffs. Assuming the instructors are on their game. No pitch or heel.

One of the marketing pitches from the America’s Cup squads is that the Cup will inspire the next generation of sailors. Well, my very unscientific evaluation of this suggests The Ocean Race and the Olympics are more inspiring to my Prout kids, and some oven remark on the Vendee Globe. One is fired up by the Mini Transat. On average, the AC is not on the top of their lists. There are of course the 69F foiling 24-footers and now the 40-foot one-design baby AC boats, but getting into one of those programs assumes an awful lot of skill already, as a baseline.

Watching that kid being towed around in his Opti got the ol’ grey matter vibrating. The one thing the current batch of AC contenders have in absolute truckloads (maybe container loads) is tech guys and girls: computer types creating software for everything on the boats, likely down to how many sugars Ben has in his tea. I suggest the collective we somehow get a hold of this vast computing intellect and do the following:

Create software that can receive input from an actual wind wand with a vane and cups. This software would reside somewhere on a device set up as for the Opti mentioned above, or as an app on a phone or tablet.

My vision is a real boat, on a dock or otherwise close to the water, with sails up and the operator “sailing the boat” based on the motion of the boat and his or her reactions to the boat’s motion. The only difference from actually sailing would be the boat responding to the manipulations of the gear’s box. This is manipulated by the input from the wind wand into the software actuating the boat’s screws, hydraulics, cogs and chains.

If there is a puff, the boat heels appropriately. If it gets a header, the boat flattens and the luff folds in a bit. There is a sensor on the rudder/tiller that gives feedback to the code to make the appropriate adjustments to the bunks/hull (pitch, roll and yaw, as might happen in real life). The wind wand is mounted on the front of the bunk’s structure (an actual dinghy in the first place). One could go out and record real time information from sailing around the bay for a couple (of hundred) hours use that information to drive the pitch/roll/yaw machine that manipulates the boat on the bunks.

The Boat Bunk structure could be designed to receive bunk shapes for different boats, like Optis, 420s and Lasers for instance in the U.S. I see a structure that has a bottom platform, like the # character. On top of this structure sits the (a) box with all the mechanics in it. On top of the box is the bunk structure in which the boat in question rests. The boat must be lashed down, of course, so the sailor can hike as needed. The athwartships legs of the # will need to be extendable out to one side so as to not let the hiking sailor bring the boat down on top of him or her.

At this point in the design process, it does not take much more effort to make bunks for multiples of trainer boats: International Cadets and Mirrors for the Brits, P-Class Trainers for the Kiwis, Flying 11s, Manly Juniors and Flying Ants for the Aussies. Would it be possible, necessary even, to use a wind wand, mounted on a tall, 2- or 3-meter “stick” attached to the forward end of the # frame, the bunk’s structure? This input would manipulate machinery (small hydraulics, worm gears, bicycle chains – haven’t got as far as thinking that out yet – or a combination of all three) in such a way that the boat responds as it would when on the water and experiencing the wind “for real.” Might some kind of random wave generator code also be incorporated into the software?

And note well, this is most assuredly NOT a video game.

Heck, of the 200 souls involved in the current AC campaigns are all the computer geniuses all at work every time the AC boats are on the water? And are they not already gathering the wind conditions data, in order to compare with the performance of the boat? What am I missing here?

If the AC engineers can invent from a blank piece of paper the software and machinery to make the 75-footers sail, is it really that much of a jump to make a cradle for a small boat to pitch, roll and yaw to the sounds of wind input?

I have read that one of the ways Dalton kept his Kiwi team together was by expanding into the commercial market. NZL has always been pretty up on technology. For years, importing a car into the country was very expensive for some reason, so they got really good at looking after their cars. I was in NZL in 1999 and was told there were more internet connections per head of population than Silicon Valley. The enterprising Kiwis figured out that they can fabricate stuff or write the code someone needs. Come to think if it, much of the coding for the Bunks model boat platform probably already exists in the CPUs of the autopilots the
IMOCAs use.

What might be the market for such a gizmo? At what cost? Gotta be cheaper than buying a quiver of 69F skiffs and related support infrastructure. So first off, the market research questions.

How many junior programs are there that might be interested? I am told there are 1,200 yacht clubs around the country. There are likely some, like NYYC, that do not do junior sailing.

Of this 1,200, what number might be customers of such a gizmo? Then there are community sailing centers, like Sail Newport. Is there a global market for such a gizmo? Why not? Or (and I am on a roll here), co-opt high school or college Robotics teams to cross-fertilize with the Sailing teams…

Is not this kind of approach used in learning to fly, either planes or foiling monohulls…or commercial ships? Can some of this software be transferred to teaching sailing? Am I alone in thinking that such a device would make teaching “sailing” much easier for instructors and more satisfying and less stressful for the kids?

It might not get sailing a break into the world of after-school in the backyard, street or park arena as other sports, but surely anything that makes it easier to get kids used to being in boats is a worthwhile exercise.

Any takers? Just save me a 5% royalty. ■

Australian born, Joe ‘Coop’ Cooper stayed in the U.S. 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, dog and several, mainly small, boats.

© Catherine Roche


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