Yacht Racing

The Aerodynamics of Sails and Racing Tactics
Fifth Edition, 1953

By Dr. Manfred Curry

Yachtsman’s Omnibus
Learning to Sail
Learning to Race
Learning to Cruise

By H.A. Calahan

Review by Peter H. Vanderwaart

My father moved to smaller quarters. He sent me a box of sailing books, many which were on our shelf when I was a boy. My father learned to sail and race from these books. I learned from him, and eventually I read the books myself. As I looked through the worn volumes, I noted that some ideas have been accepted, some have been discarded, some have simply been left behind. And I learned something about myself: two of these books were major influences on how I think about sailboats and sailing, and the kind of sailor (or sailboat fanatic) I am.

Manfred Curry brought engineering analysis of racing sailboats into the public eye. I was familiar with Yacht Racing when I was in elementary school, long before I had the scientific or mathematical education necessary for any deep understanding. I remember looking at the pictures of birds’ wings, wind tunnel tests, polar diagrams, smoke trails, and race photos with great curiosity, and marveling at Curry’s apparent ability to gain practical advantage from theoretical insight.

(click to enlarge)

When Curry was writing in the first half of the 20th century, there was great concern about the distribution of pressure and “suction” at the various parts on a sail. In a modern book, the discussion concerns laminar flow, stalled flow, and the shedding of vortices. I suppose this is progress.

The sections on racing examine the aerodynamic interaction of boats sailing in close company, and derive appropriate tactics for common racing situations. These I experienced for myself crewing for my father in our GP 14 dinghy. The practical importance of the ‘safe leeward’ and ‘hopeless’ positions were confirmed by experience. The photographs in this section convey the excitement of racing and the wonderful workmanship of the handmade boats of the early 20th century.

Sail racing has changed a lot since 1925. In the preface to the fifth edition, Curry wrote, “In spite of experience gained in about 1,400 regattas, I have been unable to improve on my racing tactics.” The problems raised by wind shifts are absent from Curry’s analysis, but are a major topic in any modern treatment of sail racing tactics. I wonder if he excluded them as “not tactical” or “not susceptible to analysis”, or if he was actually unaware of them.

H. A. Calahan’s Yachtsman’s Omnibus is single volume containing separate books on sailing, racing, and cruising. This is a book with which I passed my winters, honing my skills, vanquishing my competition, and, especially, setting off around the headland and up the sound of my imagination. Calahan was a great personality and a wonderful writer. Here is the opening paragraph of the chapter on Sleep from Learning to Cruise:

“Most readers will probably contend that one doesn’t need to learn to sleep; but on a boat, where all things are so different, sleeping must be learned just as seamanship is learned. There is an art to sleeping on board a boat. Sleep is a scarce and precious commodity. No one should ever go on a cruise with the idea of catching up on his sleep.”

His advice is commonsensical. He stresses competence, diligence and planning. Of special interest to me was the chapter-by-chapter discussion of different sailing rigs and their suitability for cruising. In this he was open minded, but not afraid to declare favorites. So well did I absorb his arguments, I carry his prejudices to this day.

Illustration from Learning to Sail

Of course, all of his advice as to specific products and techniques is obsolete, but his outlook is not, and never will be.

Calahan’s discussion of racing presents a contrast to Curry’s. It is anecdotal rather than systematic, intuitive rather than scientific. Still, Calahan was familiar with Curry’s work and refers to it. Calahan does have a section on wind shifts, and while Curry’s interest is around the buoys, Calahan is more interested in distance racing.

It used to be said that you learn to ice skate in summer, and to swim in winter. Learning occurs when the mind processes experience. These books helped me process the experiences of small boat sailing, and from them I learned attitudes that I still bring to sail boating.