CLOSING THE GAP
is almost as old as life on Earth
Early man’s observation of a leaf sliding across a puddle of water must have been intriguing. Or perhaps he caught sight of a stonefly (Plecoptera) skimming across the water while holding its wings up as sails to increase speed. Historians tell us that sailing’s origins may date as far back as the 5th or 6thmillennium BC in Mesopotamia, but the stonefly was tacking downwind long before that.
Man walked before he sailed, but that’s the only form of transportation that preceded sailing. The wheel didn’t come along until ca.3500 BC. Quite a few years before that (60,000 BC, some say), the Polynesians had discovered and colonized thousands of Pacific islands in their sailing canoes and outriggers. Sailing unlocked the gates of the world, providing a vehicle for man’s inborn, insatiable curiosity about what was across the river, or beyond the horizon. Sailing took fishermen to more productive waters, and ferried travelers to otherwise inaccessible destinations. It wasn’t long before competition entered the picture, competition to bring a catch of fish to a small village, for instance. We all know that two sailboats within sight of one another is the definition of a race. One must assume that definition was born the very first time it happened. It was inevitable that sailing would eventually become a sport.
The basic tactics of competitive sailing were invented and refined in naval combat, beginning with the Egyptians. From the outset, speed was a critical element of victory at sea, as it was for success in trade. The need for maneuverability quickly followed. It was just a matter of time before men of means were challenging one another to duels under sail, with substantial wagers riding on the outcome. Several yacht clubs in the United States were founded in the 1840s, including the New York Yacht Club in 1844, with a condition for membership being ownership of a large yacht. Russia’s Imperial Yacht Club, whose members were drawn exclusively from the aristocracy, dates to 1846. The first America’s Cup race took place in 1851. The St. Petersburg River Yacht Club in Russia was founded in 1860. The club excluded anyone who had ever worked for wages.
By 1888, sailing tactics were firmly established in the lexicon. The Encyclopedic Dictionary, published that year, defined taking the wind out of someone’s sails as depriving them of their means of progress, “as by one vessel sailing between the wind and another vessel.”
When a sport is born, standardized rules of play must follow. Probably no sport relies tactically on the rules as much as sailing. Unlike other games played on well-defined, hard surfaces with object balls or discs, goals, and a set number of players often wearing numbered uniforms, sailors compete on a vast, unstable medium (water) with a second unstable medium (wind) providing their power. As a result, sailors are at the whim of Mother Nature, and she abides by her own complicated rules. From that fact alone, perhaps one can begin to comprehend the diversified knowledge, the depth of understanding, the fitness, and the adventuresome spirit that competitive sailing requires. A sailor must begin with a basic comprehension of both aero- and fluiddynamics that explain why sailboats work. Next, sailors board a vessel of choice and manipulate scores of lines that shape mast and sails for optimum speed given ever-changing conditions ranging from gear-breaking gales to flat calms. They do it in temperatures ranging from sweltering to freezing, usually while working on a tilt and being jolted by random bumps. Meanwhile, in the cockpit, the skipper’s job is to steer the fastest course possible while his tactician plans strategic moves and communicates with the crew. As a former top sailing administrator once said, “Sailors may do dumb things, but I have never met a dumb sailor.”