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Sailing as a foreign language

by Mark Jardine 17 Oct 2022 12:00 PDT
A confused Finn sailor © Robert Deaves

While taking one of my kids to his running club last week I, like many other parents, was using the time to work. I know it's something many mums and dads are familiar with, opening the laptop and using the time to catch-up.

There are inevitably various groups around you, and it's impossible not to overhear conversations, and one comment in particular made me furrow my brow and wonder what it meant. A golfing group were sat down discussing their round, when one said, "The high fade is the hardest shot in golf".

Having the laptop open, I searched up the term, to find many results including 'Is it ok to hit a high fade', 'Why am I hitting a high fade', 'Should I hit a high fade' and 'Did Jack Nicklaus hit a fade'. No-where did I find that it was the hardest shot, and when I googled what is the most difficult, the 40-yard bunker shot was regarded by many as the trickiest.

Anyway, enough about golf. My experience of it is limited to wondering how a ball can leave a club 90-degrees from where I was aiming, but it made me reflect on sailing parlance, and what effect it has on newcomers to the sport.

We need to be mindful of everything we say when talking to those who are only out on the water for the first time, because many of the terms we use - and find commonplace - are like a foreign language to those unfamiliar with them. There are so many concepts to grasp when getting to grips with sailing, and any way we can make things easier need to be embraced.

Even the basics such as bow and stern need explaining - there's really no harm in saying front and back to start with - and describing what something is, and what it does, rather than just using a term, helps understanding no end.

For those familiar with the sport, giving people a chance to go sailing for the first time, this will take a real and conscious effort. After so much use, the sailing vocabulary comes naturally to us, and we need to think of it like teaching a foreign language, and help new sailors find the parts of the boat, and our references to the wind, using terms that they can relate to.

Some may think of this as 'dumbing down' sailing, but I believe that viewpoint is absurd. Anything we can do to be more approachable to non-sailors should be embraced. They'll learn sailing's expressions soon enough, and if their first experiences on the water are easier for having been taught using familiar terms, then it must be for the better.

On that note, I have to say I'm not a fan of SailGP's use of kilometres per hour instead of knots when talking about a boat's speed and the windspeed. Trying to do this conversion in my head is just too tricky, and the only way I've managed is to know 100kph is roughly 54 knots and 50kph is 27 knots. It's not ideal and distracts me from the actual racing.

Then there are the rules... A recent conversation I had highlighted to me how many of the Racing Rules of Sailing will always be subject to interpretation, especially relating to luffing (another sailing term which means nothing to the uninitiated).

Take for example Rule 17. On the same tack; proper course: "If a boat clear astern becomes overlapped within two of her hull lengths to leeward of a boat on the same tack, she shall not sail above her proper course while they remain on the same tack and overlapped within that distance, unless in doing so she promptly sails astern of the other boat. This rule does not apply if the overlap begins while the windward boat is required by rule 13 to keep clear."

This is something I needed to read through a few times to make sense of, and has changed a bit recently. Firstly, you need to know the definition of a proper course: "A course a boat would choose in order to sail the course and finish as soon as possible in the absence of the other boats referred to in the rule using the term. A boat has no proper course before her starting signal."

Then you need to refer back to Rule 13. While Tacking: "After a boat passes head to wind, she shall keep clear of other boats until she is on a close-hauled course. During that time rules 10, 11 and 12 do not apply. If two boats are subject to this rule at the same time, the one on the other's port side or the one astern shall keep clear."

So, as I read it, you can luff if you've established an overlap more than two of your boat lengths to leeward of another boat, or while they're tacking, but otherwise you have to sail the course you'd have chosen to sail if they hadn't been there. The definition, and judging, of a proper course is tricky to say the least, as your heading to reach the next mark can change dramatically as the wind goes up and down, but you have to disregard the effect the windward boat may have on that wind strength as it blankets you. I really don't envy judges or protest committees...

This is complex for seasoned sailors, and completely inaccessible for newcomers, which reminds us to be mindful when applying the rules on the course with the less experienced. For sure, it's useful for them to learn, but maybe best not by shouting your Rule 17 rights at them.

Even Rule 14 for avoiding contact is complex: "A boat shall avoid contact with another boat if reasonably possible. However, a right-of-way boat or one sailing within the room or mark-room to which she is entitled need not act to avoid contact until it is clear that the other boat is not keeping clear or giving room or mark-room.". At what point does it come obvious that another boat isn't avoiding contact? And surely they're obliged by the first sentence of Rule 14 to do so anyway?

Whether describing something to a newcomer, or discussing the finer points of the racing rules, it nearly always descends afterwards into the bar sport of karate sailing. We become Mr Miyagi, showing The Karate Kid our moves with flat hands.

A while back the late, great Paul Elvstrøm had a great book called 'Elvstrøm Explains the Racing Rules', which had a handy pack of mini boats, buoys and wind indicators which is infinitely better for explaining things than karate, but we should also be mindful of his quote when using the rules:

Please enjoy your sailing, help others enjoy theirs, and help them access the sport we all love.

Mark Jardine and Managing Editor

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