Monday, July 18, 2016

How to Sail an Australian Sailfish

Over on the comments section on the post More Photos of the Australian Sailfish there was a question raised on how you jibed the Sailfish, given the boom seemed very low. I wondered that as well so I asked Chris Cleary for more details on how you raced the Sailfish. He responded with an email which I found interesting and pass along below. (I took a pause when I read that race adjustments were not allowed, but on reflecting for a moment, I reminded myself that the Sailfish is a simple boat; no need to have cleats all over the place.)

"I was introduced to sailing when invited by a schoolmate to crew in his Cherub. Three seasons later it was time to move on to my own boat. My family couldn’t afford a decent Cherub, but we could afford a very decent Australian Sailfish. And, despite crewing for three seasons, it was on the Sailfish that I really learnt to sail and learnt to race.

"The Australian Sailfish had obvious attractions:-

  1. Simple, very strong design and therefore a durable boat.
  2. Easy to build.
  3. One-design. In no sense a development class like the Moth.
  4. Inexpensive.
  5. Unsinkable. Bailing obviously not necessary.
  6. Car-toppable.
  7. Easily stowed in garage or car-port.
  8. Light (63 lb).
  9. Good performance.
"The Sailfish was strictly one-design. Through my sailfish days, Jack Carroll was the National Registrar of boats and was, as I recall, official measurer at all the National Championships I attended. He took his job seriously. The only allowed optional variation in hull shape was in the 6 “ nose-cap forward of frame number 1. The plans showed a rounded nose-cap but, by the time I became interested in the Sailfish, there seemed a general agreement that for a hull with a very shallow V-shape which was sailed to windward heeled on its chine, it made no sense to sacrifice 6” of waterline length along that chine.

"As well as strict one-design, there was a strict limitation on in-race rig adjustment. In-race adjustment of luff tension, foot-tension, stay-tension and boom-vang tension was prohibited. I don’t think this affected the quality of racing as the rule clearly was the same for everyone, although it possibly affected an individual skipper’s sailing education. It made us good weather forecasters. Mind you, if there was an unexpected weather change before a race but after boats had left the shore, it was common to see several Sailfish inexplicably capsized while their skippers frantically adjusted boom-vang tension before the 5 minute gun.

"The Sailfish is a light and narrow boat, with a beam of only 2’ 10 7/8”. It is therefore a very tender dinghy. In view of this characteristic, there was an evolution over the years to a lower rig so as to lower the C.E of the rig and hence reduce the heeling moment. The Victorian sailors took this to its extreme, with a low boom position accentuated by a lot of mast rake and mast bend. This is illustrated well in the photo you posted of a championship start - Sailfish 3129 and Jack Carroll’s boat next down the line (both from Victoria) have much more mast bend than my boat (1918). With his mast rake and bend, Sailfish 3129 would have had a marginally lower boom position than most of the boats from New South Wales. The Victorian skippers were always very keen to be as close-winded as possible. To achieve this they sailed with flatter cut sails, a lot of mast rake and mast bend as already mentioned, and with high luff, foot and vang tensions. To my mind however it made no sense to sabotage the off-the-wind strengths of a shallow-V hull, so my rig had a sail of greater chord depth, much less mast rake and a stiffer mast with bend controlled by diamond stays. I never enjoyed being caught to windward of a Victorian boat because of the danger of being lee-bowed, but mine and some of the other NSW boats could at least match them to windward, and then we would usually have a definite speed advantage downwind.

"Gybing was a challenge, both because of the low boom position but also, and more significantly, because of the narrow beam. Many a Sailfish race has been decided at the wing mark. There certainly was a technique involved, particularly in heavy weather. It used to terrify me as a junior. Many skippers gybed in a kneeling position, keeping their head and bottom as low as possible. The problem with this technique was that the skipper had to come out of the hiking straps before the gybe, and then not be in an optimal position to regather the straps after the gybe. Note that the straps used in any sort of breeze were those aft of the mainsheet track.

"My technique began with ensuring that the centreboard was as far up and raked as it could be without catching the boom. Just before the gybe I would extract my front foot from the hiking strap and position it in front of and to windward of the mainblock. As I gybed I would lay backwards (ie supine) and pivot and slide on my bottom across the deck to the other side while releasing my rear foot from the straps. The previously front (now rear) foot would be slipped under the straps and I would be hiking out again. I never whacked my head and this technique gave full control throughout the gybe. I would always attempt to gybe, even in very heavy winds. I would concentrate on ensuring that the boom crossed the midline of the boat so that, even if I capsized, the sail would be on the new tack. The Sailfish was so easily righted after a capsize that I found this much faster than attempting a granny manoeuvre. Of course, if you pulled off the gybe you could look back and chuckle at the carnage.

"With a fine, horizontal bow, the tendency of the Sailfish to nose-dive when reaching downwind with following waves made life interesting. The skipper had to hike out over the aft windward quarter hanging on by his toenails. A gybe in those circumstances was especially challenging and had to be carefully timed. In contrast, surfing across waves on a shy to three-quarter reach was absolutely exhilarating.

“Janus” remains in my garage in pretty good condition 46 years on. She shares the garage with a nearly completed Iain Oughtred-designed 15’ 8” MacGregor sailing canoe. Apart from a similarly narrow beam and an Australian designer, they have absolutely nothing else in common.

Chris Cleary

18 July 2016.

Click here to go to the post featuring the plans for the Australian Sailfish.


Chris Cleary said...

Was just reading the June 30 post again, and realised that the Australian Sailfish sail insignia is an abstraction of the Alcort Sailfish emblem. I'm guessing that has already been noticed by most readers.
It's a nice little gesture of acknowledgement by the Australian Sailfish designers to the model for their boat.

Tweezerman said...

Thanks Chris. You have to squint a little, and go back and forth between the two logos, but I believe you're right.