It's All in the Wind

by Amy Groh
Photography by Charity Monroe and Norm Meyn

From the beginning of time, humans have responded to the pull of the sea. Not only has water satisfied our literal thirst, but also our yearning to explore and travel, and the desire to trade for exotic goods from distant shores. Egyptian artifacts dating back to 3500 B.C. depict sailboats, proving that some of the world’s earliest civilizations used this resource in much the same way as we do. Today, sailing remains a prime form of adventure and relaxation.


“When you’re on the water,” relayed Norm Meyn, sailor and longtime member of the Illinois Valley Yacht and Canoe Club (IVY Club), “it seems like you’re in a different world…The smell of the water, the bobbing, the movement through the water, it kind of reminds you of other places that you’ve sailed. You can close your eyes and imagine you’re anyplace…”

In the Minds of Sailors

Cruising a sailboat is quite a different experience from racing. According to Dave Monroe, a member of the IVY Club since 1975, this difference is mostly “in the mindset.” Cruising is done more for pure pleasure—sailors can kick back, have a few drinks and enjoy the company of friends and family. Racing, however, is a competitive sport and requires the astute attention of everyone on board. Monroe likened the difference to shooting some hoops versus competing for the NBA championship. In the latter situation, you wouldn’t just go out onto the court and throw the ball around—you’d work as a team, implementing plays and strategies, making every shot count. “Everybody wants to win…[and] exert as much skill as they have,” he added.

Other differences between cruising and racing include the type of vessel and how it’s prepared—how it’s rigged, the way things operate, and the quality of the sails and lines.

Choosing the right sailboat is based on one’s skill level and objectives. When first learning to sail, children are often taught in boats called prams, which, because of their small size, are used exclusively for that purpose. After getting a better grasp on the sport, students advance to more technical boats, which require greater skill to operate.

The most common sailboats are 22 feet long, but it’s not unusual to see 27-foot sailboats on the Illinois River. The bigger the boat, the more populous the crew. A 22-foot boat is usually crewed by four people, but it can be sailed by three or five. On a 27-footer, the crew would consist of a minimum of four people, but would more commonly have five. According to Monroe, most Olympic boats have crews of one to three people, determined by the class rules of each race.

Parts of a Sailboat
BOW—the front end
STERN—the rear end
PORT SIDE—the left side
STARBOARD SIDE—the right side
MAST—a vertical pole which support the sails
MAINSAIL—the primary sail, behind the mast
JIB—the smaller sail, in front of the mast
BOOM—a horizontal pole attached to the mast stabilizes the mainsail
KEEL—a boat’s fixed underwater part that prevents drifting and provides stability
LEEWARD—away from the wind
WINDWARD—towards the wind

Wings on the Water
The hull, or body, of the sailboat is an important factor in racing. Cruisers, although usually well taken care of, aren’t perfectly manicured. But according to Monroe, “racing sailboats are perfectly done. The keel is perfect, everything’s smooth, there’s no drag at all under there. Preparation of the boat is a big part of it. Likewise, if you look at the deck layouts…all the lines are very efficiently laid out and tend to be very high-tech.” The America’s Cup, the most prestigious sailing regatta and match race, is well known for testing boat and sail designs.

There are two types of hulls: displacement hulls and planing hulls. Displacement hulls displace the water and create greater resistance—clearly not the optimal choice for sailboats, which have planing hulls. Planing hulls make boats come out of the water and plane on top of it, allowing them to go faster. The speed at which a sailboat can travel is largely determined by the length of its hull. Longer-hulled boats can go faster because the stern wave can spread out under the entire length of the boat.

Most sailboats have keels attached to their hulls to provide stability and keep them from capsizing or drifting sideways. According to Monroe, keels are like underwater airplane wings and sails are like above-water wings. “The same forces that make airplanes fly are what make sailboats go,” he said. The shapes of the hull and keel are used to provide lateral resistance under the water and prevent the boat from just drifting downwind.

The sail itself greatly influences a boat’s racing performance, and there is strong competition in the industry to produce the best sails. Racing sails are made of high-tech materials like Kevlar, carbon fiber and mylar with specialty fibers, while cruising sails are made out of dacron, which last a long time but do stretch and begin to lose their shape the day they’re affixed to a boat. Racing boats generally need new sails every three to five years, because even the slightest bit of stretch can make a tremendous difference in a race setting, while the sails on cruising sailboats are replaced only every 10 to 15 years.

Port and Starboard
While it’s commonly thought that sailboats are pushed by the wind, the truth is actually the opposite. The wind, faster on the outside of the sails and slower on the inside, creates a pressure difference which pulls the sails out. The only time a sail is filled with wind pushing the boat along is when it’s going downwind.

Shaping the sails so that this is possible is actually a fairly recent development, according to Meyn. “When the explorers were coming over in the square rigs [vessels in which sails are always perpendicular to the keel], they couldn’t sail upwind very well—or at all. So they had to rely on the trade winds that were going one direction across the ocean and had to sail down to the equator the other way to get back. But once they got the air foil effect of sails on a boat, they could go back the same direction, zigzagging as they came.”

This zigzagging while going upwind is called tacking. The maneuver turns the boat’s bow through the wind so the wind “moves” from one side of the sail to the other. A sailor will do this several times in the course of an upwind journey, alternating from starboard tack (when the wind comes from the right) to port tack (when the wind comes from the left). To tack, or to sail at all really, one must know the direction of the wind—the first and most important thing of which sailors need to be aware.

All of this may seem a bit confusing, but seasoned sailors explain that it’s like riding a bike. With a little experience, it becomes second nature. Once you know what you’re doing, you can relax and steer with beverage in hand, entertaining conversations with friends and family. “Racing is a whole different matter,” noted Monroe. “Everybody on the boat pays attention.”

May the Wind Be With You
Understanding how the wind propels the boat and what angles of the sail are most efficient based on its direction and speed are essential in racing, when every second counts. “Even a tenth of a knot makes the difference between winning and losing,” reported Meyn.

The ability to determine when the wind is going to change directions, even slightly, is extremely helpful. It allows you to change the shape of the sail and the direction of the boat before the competition does. According to Meyn, “The really good sailors can tell what direction the wind is going to blow before it gets to them.” By looking at the objects ahead of them in the race course—other boats, the ripples in the water—racers can better position themselves to win. “If we see that a boat is changing direction, we can anticipate that that wind is going to get to us and be all set to take advantage of that change.”

One prevalent myth about sailing is that the most fun can be had when the wind is blowing upwards of 25 or 30 miles per hour. But Meyn believes that most sailboats are built with an overabundance of sail and reach their optimum speed when the wind is blowing at just 10 mph. “Anything over 10 mph, everybody is pretty equal; it’s kind of a drag race style,” he said. “But between five and 10 mph, it seems like it takes more skill to sail well.”
With dates set far in advance, there’s no way to know what the conditions will be like for any given race.

Committed racers generally see the gamut of Mother Nature, with all different kinds of weather and wind conditions. “If you go out when [the wind] is 35 mph, you’ll think you’ve gone to Perdition because it’s shallow water, so the waves are short and close together, and they have whitecaps on the top,” explained Monroe. “Not only are you dealing with 35-mph wind—which can make you feel like you’re going to fly off the boat all by itself—but the hull is slamming through the waves, there’s spray coming all over the boat and it’s wet as can be.”

Racing the Waves
In biking and running, the end of the race is the most difficult, but in sailing, the beginning is the most challenging. With the exception of long-distance races, most courses are set up in the shape of a triangle or as a windward/leeward course, with just two legs. The first leg of the race is generally the leeward—upwind—which is more technically demanding.

The starting line is marked by two flags, one at each end, and boats cannot cross the line before the start gun goes off. This is especially tricky because, unlike other sports in which competitors are stationary behind the starting line, the sailboat is already in motion—with the goal of crossing the line going as fast as possible. If a boat isn’t going fast enough, it is much easier for others to gain a lead and change the wind pattern of those behind it. “It’s very, very challenging to get the start right,” offered Monroe. “It’s probably the tensest—and therefore the most fun—part of the race.”

If a boat crosses the line before the gun goes off, it’s called over early, and it must circle around one end of the starting line and back behind it—simply backing up isn’t permitted. “The tactics in a sailboat race can be really, really significant,” explained Monroe, “and one of the things that you learn very quickly is that you have to judge time, speed and distance. You really have to have an understanding of how fast you’re going and how long it’s going to take you to get from here to there.”

Meyn noted that there’s often a lag in the middle of a starting line where it’s more difficult to tell if you’re over the line. Many sailors play it safe by hanging back. But Meyn will go out early, before the race begins, and take a line of sight with the starting line marker and a stationary object on shore. When those two objects are in line as the race begins, he doesn’t need to worry about going over early.

Sailors are held by the honor code to follow both the “rules of the road”—those rules all boaters must follow—and those particular to racing that are handed down from the Olympic committee. According to Meyn, this system works well. “If you’ve broken a rule, you’re responsible for fixing it,” he said. If someone believes that a competitor broke the rules, they can file an official protest. After the race is over, both sides tell their stories and a committee judges what they believe happened and apply any necessary penalties. “It’s sort of a jury system,” explained Monroe.

Whether relaxing on the water with friends or racing for the finish line, the sport of sailing has a definite niche in central Illinois. For the uninitiated, it’s not difficult to get involved. Learn to sail by taking a beginner’s class at the IVY Club, or come out to a regatta and watch these impressive vessels in action. It’s yet another way to appreciate the Illinois River, this magnificent resource of ours that is so much a part of our heritage. a&s