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Old 04-09-2000
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John Rousmaniere is on a distinguished road
Four Seamanship Lessons from Auckland

Like most activities, seamanship has three components: equipment, skills, and the human factor—the last of which includes leadership, alertness, teamwork, and the cautious state of mind that the navy calls "forehandedness." In the America's Cup trials and races earlier this year, all these components were on display, but not all the time. I think we can draw four lessons from the events of Auckland.

First, it's crucial to mesh sail-trimming gear and skills with the situation. Bob Vander Ploeg stimulated this conclusion in an e-mail in which he asked what Gary Jobson meant in his ESPN commentary when he said that a crew was "trimming for power" or "trimming for speed." The brief answer is that they mean the same thing: when sailing close-hauled, head off a little and adjust the sail trim to make the boat sail faster. Other people might say "footing," "sailing deep," "driving off," "cracking off," "powering up," "putting the bow down," or "sailing full and by." The sailor's language is full of such confusions, but the technique is the same.

If you watched the races closely on television, you often saw the New Zealanders in their black boat steering about three degrees lower and sailing a bit faster than the gray Italian boat on beats to windward. You may also have noticed that her sails were fuller than the Italians'. Deep sailing and deep sails suited the Kiwis' chosen and, as it turned out, apt purpose, which none of the 11 challengers identified. Bruce Kirby described it on March 16 in the most recent of his superb SailNet articles on the 30th America's Cup match: "The task was to win the America's Cup on New Zealand's Hauraki Gulf, where the breeze was always shifty, where it would vary in strength from 10 to 25 knots in minutes, and where races were won by beating the other boat to the next area of increased wind, or to the next major change of wind direction." To get to the next puff required sailing a little faster rather than pointing a little higher. The tactic that racing sailors often call "foot for the headers" was modified to "foot for the puffs and the headers."

So, you ask, what has this got to do with average sailing? Although NZL 60 had a more narrow purpose than a cruising boat, the principle of suiting the conditions is the same. Where NZL 60 footed for tactical reasons, the average boat should trim for power for seamanlike reasons. Boats need to aim a little lower and go a little faster when waves threaten to stop them. Any boat also needs power to gain speed after a tack, where she is slowed drastically by the turned rudder and luffing sails. To trim for power (foot, crack off, etc.), head off three-five degrees from close-hauled, ease the sheets out a couple of inches or more, and move the main boom to leeward by easing down the traveler. The mainsail will twist off noticeably, with the top batten aimed to leeward of the bottom batten. The speedometer should read higher and the helm should tug only a little; you don't want much weather helm. Once the boat is aimed right, trim the sails so the mainsail telltales on the upper leech and jib luff telltales are all streaming aft most of the time (unless there's a stiff helm, when sheets may be eased further). Don't sail too low or you'll lose ground to leeward.

When the New Zealand boat reached the puff she had been footing for, her crew headed up "hard on the wind" and pulled in the sails. A cruising boat or daysailer sailing close-hauled can point a little higher when the water becomes smooth or she has gained speed after a tack. To point, steer a little higher, trim the sails a little flatter, and pull the traveler up until the boom is near or over the centerline. The mainsail leech will be straighter up and down, with less twist and even a little cupping, and the leech telltales will stream aft most of the time (a 10-inch ribbon attached to the main's leech about 75 percent up is the best single indicator of good mainsail trim). The wheel or tiller should tug a little harder since weather helm helps a boat squeeze up to windward. The windward jib luff telltales can lift often, but don't pinch (sail too close to the wind) with the telltales standing straight up or the boat will stop.

The second lesson from Auckland is that teamwork is important to effective sailing. All this is a process. Conditions constantly change, so an alert crew regularly shifts from footing mode to pointing mode and back again. This demands strong motivation. The gear and skills needed to sail a boat capably to windward are relatively simple compared with the human demands. Organizing the crew and focusing on the job demand strong leadership, good teamwork, and keen concentration.

During the Cup trial races and match, most sail trimmers on all the boats usually seemed alert, always looking up at the sails with their hands on the sheets, but NZL 60's crew was noteworthy in two ways. First, it was noisy. The fact that the best crew in Auckland also was the loudest will shock sailors trained in the traditional way to shut up so the skipper can concentrate on steering, choosing tactics, and (most important) shouting commands. The Kiwis, on the other hand, came across on television as a gang of chatterboxes. If you listened carefully, you learned that they were not gossiping about pubs and lady friends but, rather, were reporting on the wind and sea conditions and the boat's performance. It was no accident that the loudest of all Kiwis was the fellow trimming the forwardmost sail. Scrunched against the leeward rail, Simon Daubney, the muscular gum-chewing jibsheet trimmer, may have sounded like a hyperactive nervous twitch as he studied the wind sweeping across the jib luff and telltales, but in fact he served as the boat's chief weather vane.

The second most notable feature of the New Zealand Cup defender was that while many were talking, one person was silent. This was the steerer, Russell Coutts, who absorbed all the information thrown at him, made the crucial decisions while delegating the less important ones, and steered his tricky vessel. The gifted but outgunned Italian skipper, Francesco de Angelis, also showed admirable self-discipline, but it was Coutts who led the crew that bonded in an unusually democratic, collaborative way that any American should admire. When he handed the helm to young Dean Barker for the last race, his selflessness only certified the truth that everybody already knew, which was that this was a remarkable team. As a historian of the America's Cup (see my article in the February-March American Heritage magazine), I know of no better combination of boat and crew in almost 150 years of Cup competition.

Coutts explained his thinking in a talk that he gave on March 9 at the Stamford (CT) Yacht Club. To some extent the 2000 campaign was an extension of the previous one. "In 1995 the whole team sat down and decided what to do so that the team would not fall apart. I'm most proud that we never lost a crewmember." But standpatism was a concern in the preparations for the defense. "It's important to bring in new people on an equal basis in order to avoid complacency. Ambition is an important thing to keep on a team. Thirty to 40 people contributed significantly toward the 2000 programand it was hard to tell sometimes the difference between the sailors and the designers. The word 'sailor' is becoming a broader and broader term."

To perform at such a heightened level of performance for an extended period of time is demanding, but there are times when a cruising crew must focus its collective energies, for example to get through a squall or gale. While the example set by the New Zealanders (and many of their competitors) is impossible for most of us to match, it should be called upon to inspire us to sail a little better.

The third lesson is that a sailor can be too aggressive. Without patience and forehandedness, even the most talented sailor invites sorry results. A cruising crew can over-confidently (or arrogantly) carry on under too much sail or take a shortcut across a reef. In Auckland, incautious tactical decisions were made every day, but this has been forgotten in the hue and cry about a conspiracy theory that the US boats lost because they were handcuffed by non-sailing restrictions, like shortage of money and scattering of talent. America One, remember, came within a race of winning the Louis Vuitton challenger finals against the Italians, losing 5-4. She surely would have sailed against (and been beaten by) the Kiwis had she not lost three races due to fouls, two of them blatant. When a boat on port tack sails square into her competitor on starboard, as America One did in Race 3, rationalizations about shore-side disorganization fall flat. Paul Cayard fessed up after his foul in Race 8, when the San Francisco boat was nailed by a predictable, legal luff while trying to pass Luna Rossa to windward. "We were just playing a little too much with fire," he admitted.

From this we can draw seamanship lesson four from Auckland: The resources that count are not the ones you wish you had, but the ones that you use best.

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