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Member Since 05 Aug 2011
Offline Last Active Oct 21 2012 04:44 PM

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In Topic: I get some unusual design jobs

05 August 2011 - 08:42 PM

   So, here I am living in Anguilla and all I've been hearing about for the last couple of weeks is "the new big boat designed in America". This week is August Week, an extended public holiday, and also the week of Carnival and daily boat races. Sailboat racing is the National Sport of Anguilla and the boats discussed on this thread are unique to the island and a huge part of its cultural identity. Tropical Storm Emily spoiled the first three days of races but the boats were out yesterday and today. I'll try and add what I can to what's already been written here.

   For one thing, it's probably a good idea to dismiss any thoughts that the men that build and race these boats don't know much about sailboat rigs or hull design. I know a lot of these guys and they are extremely well-informed. Sandy Ground, the bay from which most races begin, is also a natural harbour full of yachts with expensive Bermuda rigs that anybody could see and copy. A lot of these same guys crew on these yachts when they aren't racing their own boats. So, not understand modern rigs and hulls isn't the issue; rather, it's all about tradition and sportsmanship.

   Anguilla is a very small, scrubby island without much in the way of natural resources. As such, it has always had to rely on sailboats for trading with other islands and for transporting men to the Dominican Republic to work in the cane fields. Boats have been built on the beaches of Anguilla for at least 200 years and possibly more. It was inevitable that with such a strong tradition of sailing that the crews would eventually begin racing one another, leading to the formal racing of today that was first established in the early part of the last century.

   Other than construction materials and the fantastic amount of canvas that they fly today, the boats are essentially unchanged from small, nineteenth-century workboats. The boats are deliberately meant to reflect this tradition both as a way of celebrating Anguillian culture and as a way of trying to keep costs realistic. All of these teams know that they could ditch their current boat and show up with a modern, light-weight racing hull with an expensive, high-tech rig and win everything, but that's not what this sport is about.

   Which is not to say the teams are not trying to find a competitive edge; they are obsessive about it. Many of the teams use Kevlar sails now and another experimented last year with a carbon fibre mast. They'll tinker with hull profiles and mast steps and rudder shapes and sail area but still stay within the bounds of local tradition.

   Which brings us to Tsunami, Bob's design. It's causing a lot of anxiety in racing circles right now and it'll be interesting to see what develops. It's easily the most expensive boat ever built in Anguilla and quite a step removed from what traditionally races here.

   For one thing, a typical race hull is deepest about a third of the way aft of the bow and then tapers off into the transom, sort of like a Chinese soup spoon. Bob's boat carries the depth well aft, as well as more aft beam and higher freeboard. The result is a boat that's significantly larger if not any longer than the rules permit.

   The other major departure is the keel. The usual keel shape is an age-old industry standard for Caribbean work boats and the racers derived from them. Its shallow draught allows for loading and unloading at the beach, its shape allows for easy hauling out of the water and it also allows a boat to slide over a submerged reef with minimal damage if one is struck accidentally.  Bob's keel should be more efficient but also looks like it draws more, too. This might possibly be an issue for certain race starts in shallow bays, which all happen with the boats lined up along shore.
In any event, much of the idle talk this week is that the Tsunami owners may have crossed the line of traditional sportsmanship with their new boat. They've only finished mid-field in the races so far, but if they should start to dominate, then the other teams are in trouble. Bob's design is too much of a departure for them to modify their boats to imitate; they'd have to scrap their boats and build anew. On the other hand, if it doesn't win everything, other teams can bask in the glory of their wisdom in "keeping it local".

   With regards to the races themselves, as I said, the boats start lined up at the beach with their bows at the shoreline. Two lines are led from the bow: One to shore and another to an anchor set a short ways off behind the boat. When the start gun goes, the shore line is dropped and the crew quickly hauls on the other line to turn the boat around and then head out to sea. It's pretty dramatic to see as many as 17 boats taking off in such a manner. The race courses vary: short courses may just be out to a single marker a few miles out and back again, or perhaps a triangular course; longer races are from Sandy Ground to Blowing Point on the far side of the island and back again; the annual Easter Race is a complete circumnavigation of the island.

    A committee boat follows the race and watches for infractions. Missing a marker or contacting another boat is instant disqualification. As was written in another post, there is no right-of-way rule. Instead, when two boats are set to collide, a Hard Lee is called and both boats must tack off in the opposite direction or be disqualified. Hard Lees are often used strategically; for example, in a race two weeks ago, the two lead boats, Sonic and Real Deal, were racing towards the finish line at the shore from two different angles. Sonic had a very slight but insurmountable lead. Real Deal changed course, ignored the finish line and made a beeline for Sonic. A Hard Lee was called, Sonic was forced to tack away from the line while Real Deal's tack put it straight across the finish and to victory. The crowd went wild.

   Bob, somebody was having fun with you when they told you that half the crew jumps out on the final leg of the race. It's true that in the past a few crew would sometimes jump out to lighten the boat, but that was outlawed years ago and now results in disqualification. Nowadays, everybody carries bags of sand to be dumped as needed.

   Crews are generally more or less 20, mostly because the boats are unballasted and the crew can move from side rail to side rail to steady the boat. A couple of small boys usually stay down on the deck to bail out any water that comes over the gunwales. For an island with a population of just 13,000, race day may see as many as 300 sailors competing. I haven't seen any boats use iron pigs as moveable ballast, although it makes sense. The two of the boats I've been on lay removable lead bars in the bilge and then cover with sand bags.

   The mast is a massive aluminum structure up to 60 feet high. Unlike most boat masts, it's a thick, heavy cast aluminum structure. As a result it is very strong, requiring just a tiny pair of spreaders, but still fairly flexible. Adjustable running back stays are used to bend the mast and are the primary method of trimming sail shape.

   The races are wildly popular and both men and women in Anguilla follow the results closely. Hundreds of people will pile into cars and follow the race from various vantage points around the island. For some of the longer races, a huge barge with a live band and several bars will follow the race with about 400 fans aboard. Race finishes in Sandy Ground are always fun parties.

   I have always been immensely impressed that an island as small as Anguilla, just 16 miles long and 3 miles wide, has been able to produce such remarkable boats literally built right on the beach. Each race boat represents a specific community where it was built and great rivalries spanning several generations from different parts of the island continue to this day. Prize money is meager, so it's really all about doing your neighbours proud. The 28-foot boats we've been discussing are known as Class A boats; there is also the immensely popular Class B boats at 23 feet and the now-discontinued 18-foot Class C racers.

   Anguilla has built much more than 28-foot race boats; some huge and impressive inter-island ships were built on its beaches as well. The most famous is the 75-foot schooner Warspite, launched in 1902. Built on the beach in Sandy Ground, for decades it was considered the fastest and finest trading ship in the West Indies. It is still featured on certain Eastern Caribbean currency.

   So, if you're interested in indigenous West Indian race boats, plan a trip to Anguilla. Carriacou and a few other islands have their own home-grown race boats that are a big part of their local culture as well. David Carty, a local historian and boat builder, published a book and produced a DVD called Nothin' Bafflin', a fascinating history of sailing in Anguilla and the development of the modern Anguillian race boats. I don't know if copies are available off-island, but it's a great read. The phrase "Nuttin' Bafflin'" is from racing: each boat has a spotter in the bow to primarily watch out for changes in wind conditions.  If he shouts "Nuttin' Bafflin'", it means the winds are fair and steady. Good to go.

P.S.: Bob, they're speaking English, just with Anguillian accents and phrasing.