TO WEATHER AND BACK AGAIN
There was a time when the speed of a racing sailboat could be determined by nothing much more complicated than her length on the water. All else being equal, the longer the boat, the faster it sailed. No matter how hard the wind blew, no matter how much sail she piled on her spars, no matter how they shaped her keel or centerboard, the little boat simply could not go as fast as the big one. Hence, when great J boats like Ranger and Enterprise, with their 80-foot waterlines, raced for the America's Cup, there was no question that they were the fastest sailing yachts afloat. But in those days boats stayed in the water.
Then things got complicated. Yacht designers began building light, airy kinds of boats designed to climb up out of their natural element and skim along on top of it, reducing the resistance of the water to almost nothing. First came planing boats like Thistles, scows or Flying Dutchmen—swift, lightweight cockleshells with paper-thin skins of fiber glass or plywood that slid along the waves like a skipped stone to make archaic nonsense out of below-the-waterline physics. With no weight to steady them from below, to keep upright some of these boats slung their crewmen overside on trapezes hung from the mast.
After the planing boats came the catamarans and the outriggers, multihulled vessels with two or more waterlines like the Malibu canoe shown on the preceding page. Thin as razors in the water, broad-beamed as barges in the air above it, stable as churches and swift as the guillotine, the cats broke all the rules for predicting speed afloat. Ever since their entrance onto the racing scene an angry argument has raged on two points: Are cats the fastest boats? Are they boats at all?
Last week 83 top racing skippers, each sailing a different kind of boat and each convinced that his was the best, took to the waters of Florida's Biscayne Bay to settle the argument, presumably once and for all. They were taking part in Yachting magazine's One-of-a-Kind Regatta, a series of races designed to put a variety of class boats into contention with one another. The skippers came from as far away as California, Canada and Great Britain, and their credentials were impressive: three-time Mallory Cup Winner Buddy Melges sailing a new fiberglass M-20 scow; Pat Duane, the crack woman sailorman, who as U.S. representative will race a Flying Dutchman against all comers, male or female, in the Pan American Games this year; England's renowned yachting writer, Jack Knights, sailing a new 16-foot 2-inch Fireball; Van Alan Clark, class winner in last year's Bermuda Race, sailing a rusty-red 300 catamaran named Beverly.
Although interest in the pure speed sweepstakes focused on the cats, the scows and trapeze planing boats, the race committee encouraged obviously slower varieties by dividing the regatta into five groups of relatively similar classes (see page 16), in somewhat the same way that pointers, setters and retrievers are all grouped as "sporting" dogs in a dog show. The groups were: 1) the cats and outriggers; 2) scows and trapeze planers; 3) conventional centerboarders such as the Lightning, the Highlander and the Y-Flyer; 4) racing keelboats like the Star and the 110, and 5) auxiliary cruisers up to 30 feet in length—all of them theoretically equalized under a handicap rule.
The rule simply complicated matters; one boat had its rating changed twice during the course of the regatta, and the biggest handicap turned out to be that suffered by the people trying to figure out the results. A conclusion no impartial observer could avoid reaching at the end of the races, however, was that the catamarans had demonstrated complete and unimpeachable superiority at making speed.
The races themselves were almost boring, so completely did the catamarans dominate Biscayne Bay. The wind blew through a chill drizzle at 15 to 20 miles an hour for the first race. By afternoon it was kicking up whitecaps at 20 to 25. The next day the wind was down to 10 to 12 with a mild chop, but the weather made no difference. The catamarans were slashing around the courses so swiftly that the powered spectator boats could not keep up with them. Many of the boats in the slower divisions were actually lapped, and at least one was almost lapped a second time.
When the two-day competition was done, the cats had sailed off with everything but the orange dinghies marking the racecourses. Unofficially, they had taken the first 10 places in overall fleet standings in each of the three races. It had to be unofficial, for so formidable was their performance that the sponsors refused to acknowledge anything more than one overall winner—which happened to be Van Alan Clark's catamaran Beverly.
Both the contestants and spectators should have been less surprised than they were by the cats' triumph. A great deal of research (largely British) has gone into these boats during the last 10 years, and it has not been kept secret. It has proved basically that a catamaran must move faster because it combines lack of resistance with stability and a large sail area to a degree virtually impossible in a single-hulled boat. "The speed of anything is dictated by its resistance and the amount of force that can be applied to it." Roderick Macalpine-Downie, one of the world's foremost catamaran designers, explained last week with clipped British precision. "The catamaran, with long, thin hulls and light weight, has a low displacement-length ratio. This, of course, means low resistance without the need for planing. The wide separation between the two hulls gives the catamaran high stability without the need for ballast. This enables it to carry a large sail area and results in the application of high power."