Sunday, December 26, 2010

Douglass Christmas 2010 - Blizzard Babies

Gee, I feel like I'm in an episode of "Little House on the Prairie". Snowed in, sister's baby is worryingly ill, supplies are running low, and I'm about to have to cross-country ski over to the doctor's house. At least the wireless internet is still working fine.


Here's my older niece yesterday with her favorite present.

And here are some other nature and people pictures from my folks' new place in Asheville, North Carolina. These were taken by my aunt Mary Garland and Uncle Tom, who are big-time nature enthusiasts.

Apparently it's a blizzard in Boston, too, with 50 knot gusts. I wonder if anyone is windsurfing?

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Olympic Sailing Classes; Sailboat, Windsurf, Kite?

They've had sailing in the Olympic Summer Games since 1896, but the number of divisions and the types of boats have changed a lot, as interestingly described in this Wikipedia article. Right now they race about 7 types of boats, which includes one type of windsurf. In this post I briefly describe all the current Olympic classes, then weigh in on the controversy of whether things should be rearranged to add kiteboarding as an additional class.

The longest enduring model of boat in the Olympics is the "Star", a 22' keelboat with a crew of two, which was designed in 1910 and has been in the games since 1932.

The second longest enduring Olympic sailing class is the "Finn", a 15' dinghy sailed by one person, which was designed in 1949 and has been in the games since 1952. Compared to other singlehanded dinghys, the Finn favors a bigger, heavier sailor, so the burly male sailors of the world insist that the Finn remain an Olympic class to give them a chance to compete at the top level.

The third oldest Olympic Class is is the "470", a high-performance 15' dingy sailed by two lightweight athletes. It was designed in 1963 and has been in the games since 1976. The 470 is really complicated, with a lot of sail area divided among three sails, and a "trapeze" so the sailors can hike out over the water to balance. It requires a bunch of weird physical techniques from the sailors, like pelvic thrusts and disco pointing, to reach maximum planing performance. Fabulous!

Since 2000 there has been an even more complicated and higher performance 2-person dinghy in the Olympics. It's called the "49er". These boats have a ridiculous amount of sail area and special wings that the sailors stand on to get leverage over all that power. 49ers are fast enough to be competitive with windsurfs and kiteboards.

There's two other kinds of dinghy in the Olympics, the Laser (for men), and the Laser Radial (with a slightly smaller sail, for women). The lasers are nice, cheap, simple boats with one sail that are very popular with recreational sailors. The laser is a singlehanded event in the Olympics, but it can hold two people if they're not too heavy.

There was a 20' catamaran called the "Tornado" in the Olympics from 1976 to 2008. They dropped it for 2012 but they're probably going to bring it back in 2016. It has a two person crew.

The newest Olympic boat is the Elliot 6m, a moderate-sized keelboat with a full array of sails and a crew of about 3. It was designed around 2000 and will sail its first Olympics in 2012 as a women-only event.

Last but not least is the windsurfing class, which has been in the Olympics since 1984. In '84 the board was a "Windglider", which was a flat-bottomed longboard similar to the original Windsurfer One-Design that popularized the sport in the 1970s. In '88 they used round-bottomed boards called Division II boards, which were fast in light winds but awkward to sail. They used round-bottomed boards again in '92, but with some upgrades to the board and sail. From '96 - '04 they used a modern, flat-bottomed longboard called the Mistral One Design. That was a good board, but people complained that you had to be a very specific weight to be competitive. They also complained that the narrow longboard wasn't representative of performance windsurf racing in the 2000s, which was mostly done in 100% planing conditions on wide shortboards. In 2008 they changed the Olympic windsurf board to the "RS:X", a cross between a longboard and a wide shortboard, which used a daggerboard in light winds but fully planed around the course without the daggerboard in stronger winds. (For more info on the different kinds of windsurf racing, and picture, check my older blog post here.)

The perennial crisis for Olympic sailing comes from the fact that hardly anybody cares about sailing except sailors, and sailors care SO MUCH about their own favorite types of sailing that they rarely see eye to eye regarding what types should be in the Olympics. That and there's a high cost and hassle per athlete in sailing because of the large and expensive equipment and the logistical support needed. With those challenges in mind, I think that the organizing principles for choosing Olympic sailing classes should be:

1) Representing the most popular, affordable, and portable type(s) of sailing with the minimum number of classes.
2) Providing an interesting spectacle for TV viewers, raising the worldwide profile and popularity of sailing sports.
3) Giving a fair chance for the most talented and dedicated athletes to rise to the top.

For #1, I think it's useful to start by supposing you can only have ONE kind of sailing in the Olympics, so you have to pick the most general. Then as you add additional classes you do so in the way that hits the broadest branches of the sport first and the finer divisions later if resources allow. If there could only be one kind of boat in the Olympics I would pick a simple, single-handed dinghy like the Laser, which has all the elements of a traditional sailboat, including a fixed mast, a centerboard / keel, and a movable rudder.


If there could only be two kinds of boat, I would pick Laser and kiteboard, because kiting is the most different kind of sailing from the Laser, yet it still meets the criteria of being popular, affordable and portable. As a bonus, kiting would be a good TV spectacle (#2 on my "organizing principles" list).


If there could be three kinds of boat, I think windsurfer would be the next to include. Windsurfing is not as distinct from traditional sailing as is kiting, but it's still pretty different, seeing as the sailor stands up and holds the sail and doesn't use a rudder. Windsurfing is also pretty good as a TV spectacle because of the speed and the focus on the athletic rider.


If there could be four kinds of boat, I would add a sporty, 2-person catamaran. Little catamarans are the cheapest and most popular kind of high-performance sailboat, their split hulls effectively differentiate them from the first four kinds of boat, and they look pretty dramatic on TV when they get up on one hull. The Tornado catamaran that they've been using lately seems like a good one.


If there could be five kinds of boat, I would add a moderate-sized keelboat with a crew of about 3, since a lot of the world's recreational sailboat racing is done on boats of similar nature, i.e. bigger than a dinghy. Having a "real" sailboat in the Olympics might also help evoke the nautical mystique and the seafaring and naval battles of yore. As for the particular boat model, I think the Star has had a good run, but it's an old design that's boring compared to modern keelboats of similar size like the Elliot 6m. So I'd vote for the latter or something like it.


Only if there could be six or more kinds of sailboat would I consider adding a high-performance dinghy (aka "skiff") like the 470 or the 49'er. If it came to a choice between the two, I would go for the 49'er, because if you're going to go high performance you might as well go all the way for the maximum TV spectacle, and also because the 49'er is supposedly more accommodating of different size and weight sailors.

I'm getting pretty long-winded here, but I can't skip #3: giving a fair chance to the athletes. Making the competition fair for more than one specific body weight has been a major point of contention. One solution might be splitting the classes into actual body weight divisions by rule instead of de-facto body weight divisions by class of boat. Then you could get rid of some of the cheesy classes of boat like the Finn that only exist for the heavier sailors. Having fewer classes of boat, but more competitors per nation per class of boat, would give the competitors more opportunities to train together and share equipment and stuff.

For windsurfing and kiteboarding, fairness could also be increased by relaxing the one-design restrictions to allow different sized sails or kites for different weight competitors. That seems to work pretty well in the Kona ONE windsurfing class. You could also go a step further by allowing windsurfing and kiting competitors to choose different equipment for different conditions under a "box-rule". A box-rule allows a diversity of gear, but sets certain limits on the amount of stuff each competitor can bring, what size it can be, whether or not it can be custom made or has to come "off the shelf", etc. For example, the box-rule for the formula windsurfing class says you can bring one board with a max width of 100 cm, three sails with a max size of 12.5 m^2, and three fins with a max length of 70 cm. Switching gear between races would require a shift in the way the competitions are held, but you would need a shift, anyway, if you were going to try to accommodate kiting. That is, instead of launching from a marina or boat ramp like the current Olympic classes, the kiters would have to stage their show from a beach, and the beach would suit the windsurfs better, too.

I think some kind of blend between a box-rule and a one-design rule would give the best combination of fairness, coolness, and affordability for Olympic windsurfing and kiting. Like, multiple sizes of sails and kites would be allowed, but they would all be the same model, and there would just be one model of board. Being allowed to use a jumbo kite or sail in light wind would make 100% planing competition realistic in winds down to 7 or 8 knots. And the windsurfing class could finally get away from the continuous sail pumping, aka "air-rowing", that characterizes underpowered windsurf racing. Air rowing is an extremely athletic skill, and I have the greatest respect for those who are good at it, but it looks super lame and unappealing and windsurfers rarely do it except in Olympic style competition.

One problem with getting a tight box-rule for kiteboarding (which I believe is a prerequisite for fair Olympic competition) is that most kite raceboards have at least three fins, with an infinite variety of fin sizes, shapes, and tilt angles that need to be tweaked and changed all the time for different conditions.


A possible way around that would be to use a twin-tip kiteboard with a single center fin that could be adjusted on the fly for different conditions. This kind of board is a recent development, but it apparently performs on about the same level as the more fin-crazy directional raceboards.


Whew. I should stop there.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Cold Weather Limits Survey Results

Dang, is it ever cold here in Massachusetts. There is a lot of wind but I am definitely NOT thinking about windsurfing. Actually, that's a lie. I AM thinking about windsurfing, but only in a mournful, unrequited love kind of way. If it got up to 4.5 Celsius (40 Fahrenheit) I might don the drysuit and give it a go, but this below-freezing stuff is just not my style.

I reckon now would be a good time to post the final results of my "What's your minimum air temperature for windsurfing or kiteboarding?" survey. Here they are:


Looks the most common temperature cut-off is between 10 and 7 Celsius (50 and 45 Fahrenheit), but there is a significant minority of insane people who claim to ride in sub-freezing weather. Must be Canadians and Europeans.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Leaks - Good or Bad?

I had to stay home with a bad sore throat today, which was a bummer because I missed a bunch of marine biology student presentations at work, as well as big wind for a windsurfing lunch-break I had planned. It turned out to be ok, though, because I got to lay back on the futon and watch a cool Netflix movie that had been sitting on my breakfast table for a month. The movie was a documentary called "The Most Dangerous Man in America, Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers". I didn't know exactly what it was about until I started watching, but I soon realized that even though it described a 40 year old event, it was apropos to the current fuss about WikiLeaks. Check out the trailer...

Did you catch what Nixon said?

"I think it's time in this country to quit making national heroes of those who steal secrets and publish them in the newspaper."

Ellsberg's outing of the "secrets" Nixon was talking about revealed how presidential lies had mislead the US into the awful Vietnam War. Along with the later Watergate Scandal, they contributed to Nixon's ouster and to the long-overdue US withdrawal from Vietnam. Who knows how much longer the war would have dragged on, and how many more millions of Vietnamese and thousands of US soldiers would have died if Ellsberg's leak hadn't exposed the false pretenses and un-winable nature of the Vietnam War. That was a case where the whistleblower was in the right, and the government was definitely in the wrong.

Now check out this quote:

"Some may mistakenly applaud those responsible [for the leak], so I want to set the record straight. There is nothing laudable about endangering innocent people, and there is nothing great about sabotaging the peaceful relations between nations on which our common security depends."

That was Hillary Clinton, responding to Julian Assange's recent "WikiLeak" release of a bunch of secret correspondence among US diplomats, which revealed, well, nothing new, really, unless you thought that world leaders WEREN'T a bunch of egotistical, conniving sleazoids.

(As an aside, it's interesting that this WikiLeak has garnered much more media attention and government condemnation than the Afghanistan and Iraq "War Log" WikiLeaks earlier this year. The war log leaks showed that the Iraq and Afghanistan operations are horrible, bloody, hopeless grinds, which are accomplishing little in the way of improving those countries, and even less in the way of making the world safer from terrorist attack. But folks don't seem to care about that news nearly as much as they care about the gossipy "she said WHAT about WHO?" world-leader trash talk in the latest release. Sigh.)

Anyway, I think the important question is, who is in the right this time around - the secret makers or the secret leakers? I won't say much about whether Julian Assange himself is a hero, a lout or a terrorist, except that I don't think he's a terrorist. He has some date rape allegations pending from this summer in Sweden, so he might be a lout. Then again, the alleged date rape incidents occurred right after Assange had made himself hated by the most powerful governments and spy-agencies on earth, so he could easily have been the target of a professional frame-up. So I think we need to reserve judgement on the personality of the man for now and focus on the rightness or wrongness of the leaks, starting with Clinton's main arguments against leaking the secrets:

Have the leaked secrets really put diplomats, spies, and other "innocent people" in mortal peril? I doubt it, because WikiLeaks and the news companies like the New York Times that have the secret files are careful about erasing the names of individuals who might be endangered before they release anything. As far as I know, no individual has been outed and done harm through any of these leaks, including the old Pentagon Papers.

Have the leaks really been harmful to the cause of world peace and social justice? I doubt that, too. You can't oppose war and injustice if the war and injustice are kept secret by the government.

Eh, that's about all I have to say now, but I'll definitely be watching this closely to see how it develops.