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Forty Years Among the Stars - Chapter 17

Forty Years Among the Stars


Commodore George W. Elder

Chapter XVII - One-Design

The term one-design, except perhaps in a broad sense, does not mean identical. It simply classifies a group of yachts built from any given set of plans, as against a class consisting of yachts of various designs. Wooden hulls and spars are made by hand. No two are, or ever were, absolutely identical. It is only a question of how small a unit of measure is used before some differences can be detected. Boatbuilders are not watchmakers.

Stars are built all over the world and under all sorts of conditions, mostly by professionals, but some by amateurs. Specifications have to be translated into many languages and figures given in the nearest metric equivalent. The same materials are not obtainable everywhere. Some countries prohibit the importation of certain foreign materials. Even at an excessive cost, Stars could not be built in those places unless the closest local substitute was made optional. The Star is international. It cannot specify American materials not obtainable in other countries, nor other products if not obtainable here. These combined circumstances are bound to cause some trivial discrepancies.

If it is any consolation, the club one-designs of old, built right in the same yard, probably varied just as much as Stars built at opposite ends of the earth. Small boats were then very unimportant. They were not measured with the painstaking exactitude of today. When completed, the designer gave them a casual inspection. He did not try to check and report trivial variations. If the group conformed to his plans, to all intents and purposes, he pronounced the boats O.K. That was usually done before the prospective owners drew lots for their boats. They were mostly cheap little boats, the contract being given to the lowest bidder. The best of builders could not have afforded too much time to their construction. The public, however, took it for granted that those boats were identical throughout and that idea has remained in the minds of many.

The answer to the above is invariably, "I mean alike within reason." That is just the point. What is within reason? For Stars, it is defined by the I.S.C.Y.R.A. table of limitations. It fixes the over and under tolerances allowed in a Star. Many people will not agree with these figures, but that is because they do not know the problems and conditions involved. All I can say is that these tolerances have been very carefully studied. The advice obtained from impartial designers has always been that boats built within those tolerances could have no material advantage one over the other. In any event, Star measurement rules are made by and for Star members and we do not care what outsiders may think.

Why quibble about a few pounds, when there is such a great difference in the human weight aboard the boats, which cannot be controlled? Sails change size and shape each time they are used and if wet or dry. There are very drafty sails and very flat ones, big and little ones, with respect to linear dimensions, and all intermediary stages to be found on yachts in every class. They keep on changing constantly and the differences are tremendous. Sails are a component part of the boat. They can only be governed in a rough general manner. Even if everything else was absolutely identical, which is impossible, there would be wide differences between cloth sails. Everyone knows that the sail is a sailboat's driving power. Why then make such an issue of fractional hull discrepancies? At best the hull can only account for a very small percentage of the relative speed of boats in a one-design, or nearly one-design, class.

We had to learn the hard way, by actual experience. We first became aware of hull variations during the Star national championships of 1922. Those boats were in accord with the specifications sent out by the designer, but lo and behold the specifications were not exactly alike. It has been said that Gardner ran out of mimeographed sheets and dictated several new sets from memory. It is much more likely that he intentionally made a few minor changes, believing them to be improvements, which would make the boats better suited to conditions in the localities where they would be sailed. It was the sort of thing expected of designers in those days. Bill had no way of guessing that the Star would become a world-wide standard and no reason to maintain uniformity.

In the winter of 1922-23 the Star association wrote its own specifications, ironing out all known kinks. Bill Gardner approved and agreed to make them official henceforth. Among other things, they provided that all Stars built before 1922 would be given a blanket certificate. That was common sense, since no one knew then that there would be inter-fleet events and no Stars had been built with the idea of beating those in another locality. In fact, very few were aware that there were Stars in other localities.

Fred Teeves was then our one and only measurer. He and the executive committee drew up our first table of limitations. Fred and the secretary-in-chief (myself) had the only two official copies. Builders were advised to adhere to plans, as tolerances would not be made public and were only enough to cover unavoidable inexactnesses in normal building practice. It meant nothing, but the builders were satisfied. It was a tossup as to whether Gardner or Herreshoff was tops. Many people considered William Gardner the foremost designer in the world. They had the utmost faith in him and believed that an exact replica of his lines would result in the fastest Star. No one even thought of trying to beat Gardner at his own game, within the obviously fractional limitations.

Eye trouble forced Bill to retire, but his firm still owned the plans. It charged fifteen dollars for a set and a like amount for every Star built from that set, after the first one. It had great difficulty, however, in collecting the royalties it was entitled to. The Star was only one of the innumerable small classes designed by Bill Gardner. The firm was most friendly and co-operative, but it made its money from very much larger yachts. The time and effort necessary to check upon Stars built was not commensurate with the income derived. The I.S.C.Y.R.A. bought the plans and had them copyrighted. It started by charging ten dollars for working drawings and imposed a five dollar number tax on each Star built. Builders had been reticent about divulging how many Stars they had sold and to whom, not wishing to pay a fifteen dollar royalty. The owner insisted that the builder pay the tax or paid it for him, as he could not race his boat without a number. Both parties gained. William Gardner and company took in a lump sum, which amounted to more than it could have collected in royalties in several years. The I.S.C.Y.R.A. more than paid for the plans the first year and has derived a small income from them ever since.

The 1927 annual meeting, held at Warwick, R.I., voted to publish the limitations. It was argued that a builder was entitled to know how far afield he could stray. I believe the resolution was prompted by the curiosity of the delegates, but it did not matter. Keeping the tolerances a top secret had already served its purpose. Enough Stars had been measured for us to know how close a builder could stick to the lines, if he really tried. As might be expected, the average amateur was not quite as accurate. We could not be too strict and discourage home building, but from then on we tightened limitations and added new ones. I know that limitations eventually had to be published, but it was kind of a pity. Henceforth certificates were carefully scanned and victories often attributed to some minor discrepancy. Neither Gardner nor any professional designer had to do with the modern Star rig. In fact, Gardner's only connection with the short Marconi was negative, an experiment which was a failure.

The reader has probably noticed that a white boat looks somewhat larger than a black one of the same size. The optical illusion caused by the boot top, if any, on a Star is much more deceiving. For example, a Star without any, looks chunky and heavy, whereas a curved one makes the hull appear sleek, slim and light. This is most noticeable when two Stars are side by side out of water. Straight, high, low, narrow and wide boot-tops cause a lesser optical illusion. That is what started the first wild rumors about variations in Star hulls. It is needless to say that outsiders were chiefly responsible. Had they seen two Star hulls that were painted the same, they could not possibly have detected any of the minor variations that then existed.

While it was generally known, in a vague way, that some discrepancies existed in all one-designs, publishing the Star limitations was the first official acknowledgement and it made everyone variation minded. It started a mild epidemic of surreptitiously boarding another's Star, in an attempt to find out what made it click. Those who did this without the owner's permission, did not want it known that they had trespassed and said nothing. There was one notable incident, however, that caused quite a fracas. A U.S. skipper unofficially measured Ratsey's Irex after the races in Havana. Whatever he said was probably greatly exaggerated. The gist of it was that Irex did not measure in. The arguments became so widespread and vehement that a hearing was ordered. In the meantime Irex had been returned to City Island and was remeasured by Fred Teeves. A few ranking Star officers were there as witnesses. Fred used templates, the taut wire base line was not yet in vogue. Templates were checked with the plans and applied to the hull. They fit like a glove. Irex was one of the most correct Stars ever built.

The hearing was attended by many. Testimony the fact that Irex had been measured with a piece of string and, if I remember correctly, over its shipping cover. Faced with the remeasuring facts, the one who did the measuring admitted that his methods were perhaps a little inaccurate and he escaped with a reprimand. It resulted, however, in two rules being passed. One, a fifty dollar deposit would have to accompany any protest involving the measurements of a Star holding a certificate. Two, any statement, which could not be proved, reflecting upon the validity of a certified Star was, thereafter, to become grounds for suspension. While altered Stars have been remeasured by order of the proper authorities, no fifty dollar protest has ever been filed. If anyone has ever said, without proof, that a Star was not entitled to its certificate, it has never reached my ears.

Remember that all this happened before builders began to experiment with round and flat bottoms. These experiments were made possible by one of our old measurement committees misinterpreting the contour tolerance. It was originally one inch total, meaning that if the contour was, for instance, one-quarter of an inch under the three-quarters of an inch over, or any fractional variation totaling one inch, it was O.K. The said committee interpreted it to mean one inch under or over at any point which was twice what was intended. Probably those who framed the tolerances did not word this too clearly. Three years elapsed before we woke up to what was going on. A great many Stars had been built, measured, obtained certificates and been raced. It was too late to make a change. Had this affected only one or two boats, something would probably have been done about it, but it affected many and we had no idea which type of bottom might be the fastest. Had a change been made that was not retroactive, it could eventually have meant that some old Stars would become unbeatable and ruin the intrinsic value of others. It would have been making a mountain out of a molehill, for after all the variation is comparatively minor, although twice what was intended, and there are still two schools of thought on the subject.

Now let us consider what advantage can be gained by the contour tolerances, if any. I am not expressing my personal opinion, but that of technical experts who should know. Theoretically a rounder bottom should be faster in very light air and one flatter than standard should point better and be a bit faster in a strong breeze. In like manner a perfectly standard contour should win a mixed weather series on points, while those who gambled on either extreme are taking a shellacking. The only thing is that it does not work out that way. The athwart and fore-and-aft contour tolerances are not great enough to offset a skipper's lack of skill. Somehow the good boys always seem to be in the money, unless they get caught with the wrong sails. Sails that are much too drafty for a blow, or much too flat for light air, are a real handicap.

The I.S.C.Y.R.A. has never attempted the impossible. It recognizes and has maintained practicable uniformity among Stars. No retroactive changes are ever made that would deplete the class, or inflict a sudden and severe financial loss upon a substantial group of its members. Its chief aim is to carry out the intent and purpose of one-design racing. It looks upon a one-design yacht as an accessory, governed by reasonable restrictions, much as a bicycle in a bicycle race. It is primarily interested in making winning depend upon the ability of the human competitor. It has never prevented the individual from using his ingenuity in improving the appearance and speed of a Star in such a manner that it could be copied, at little cost, and benefit the Star class as a whole. Had it not been for this policy, the Star would still be the crude little gaff rigged boat of the past, so outmoded that in all probability the class would no longer be in existence.

Ability in yacht racing includes more diversified attributes than any other sport. The skipper must be a skilled helmsman. He must know sails, how to treat them and keep them efficient. He must be a good judge of weather, speed and distance. He must know the rules and racing tactics and be able to act instinctively, as he who hesitates is lost. He must have the knack of training his crew and perfecting team work, since he cannot always depend upon having the same crew. Having some of these attributes is not enough. A really good skipper must possess them all.

There is such a thing as being too technical. Technically minded skippers have been known to turn the helm over to the crew while making a number of minor adjustments. By the time they got the boat going the way they wanted, so many yachts had passed them that they were never able to overtake them. The average skipper spends entirely too much time in beautifying his boat and messing around with minor improvements. He would do better if he devoted that time to improving his racing technique. Only those who have already become potential champions can afford to waste time on minor details. Such details in themselves cannot contribute enough additional speed to overcome the superior skill of the better skipper.

The most important thing of all, of course, is to possess that rare sixth sense of tune. Except for a few fundamentals, it cannot be taught. It has to be inborn. No one can buy speed anymore than he can become the world's best violinist, just because he can afford to buy a Stradivarius. If I have said some of these things elsewhere, they bear repeating, as many people have the wrong conception of the real purpose of one-design yacht racing. It was never intended as a means of equalizing ability, since that can never be done. Winning or losing between skippers of equal ability depends upon who has the fewer unlucky breaks. That is true of all sports, whether individual competition or team play. Otherwise championships would all end in a tie.

In yacht racing the mediocre skipper has a better chance than the average competitor in any other sport I can think of. No one can always predict wind shifts accurately. If a skipper knows that he is outclassed, or is hopelessly out of it and has nothing to lose, if he splits with the pack, he will on rare occasions pick up a favorable slant, or wind shift, and win an individual race. Such practice is certainly not recommended. No one can improve himself doing that, or hope to win a series. In no other sport, however, does that element of rare luck exist.

The Star class has something more than that to offer the mediocre and even the very poor skipper. It offers him world-wide friendships and a life long interest. There are other ways in which he can become popular and even prominent, which have nothing to do with his ability as a racing skipper.

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