Iron Women and Wooden Ships, A Winning Combination

The tyranny of GPS and synthetic materials is broken on the Pacific:

It took a thousand or so miles of sailing with the long, powerful waves of the Pacific Ocean for Hannah Jenner, a rising star in ocean racing, to get comfortable in this year’s Transpacific Yacht Race. Jenner, a 31-year-old from Britain, is used to racing ultralight 40-footers across oceans. But in the Transpac this month, Jenner was sailing Dorade, a 52-foot wooden sailboat from 1930 that is trimmed in varnished mahogany and adorned with polished bronze hardware…

Dorade, considered the forebear of modern ocean racing yachts, won the 2,225-nautical-mile Transpac race from Los Angeles to Honolulu in 1936. And 77 years later, the slender white hull with tall spruce masts rolled to victory again, beating the most modern carbon-fiber ocean racers to win its division and the overall King Kalakaua Trophy.

Readers of the blog know that my family has a long-time heritage on the sea and in yachting, running from the 1880’s to the 1960’s (and bleeding on both ends, too).  Although most of our time was spent under power (steam and diesel) we had some success in sail and were involved in the early years of the Canada’s Cup races.  Boats made from mahogany, although even then under threat by the fibreglass kind, were the way we made many of our trips to the Bahamas in the 1960’s.  (And they were certainly capable of rolling, as my mother and cat found out the hard way).

It’s easy these days, with all the computer simulations we have out there (and I’m getting my PhD in that) to minimise the value of old stuff made from “old” materials.  But ultimately design consists of taking the materials and analytic capabilities we have and, combined with a good “feel” for the application, to produce a superior product.  That was what the Dorade was all about, and the value of an internalised understanding of the art–something that both my great-grandfather and Olin Stephens had–is crucial for success, both when the boats were designed and built and now.

And, although not an event today, we should note that this victory was won by a woman.  True to its conservative traditions, seafaring was slow to put women at the helm.  This is in contrast to, say, aviation, where women became pilots much more quickly.  With the family’s yachting era in suspension, in 1934 my grandfather feted Laura Ingalls after she flew from the U.S. to South America and back.  We should have done this sooner, not only for the skill such as Hanna Jenner exhibited, but this: one of the interesting rules of the 1898 Canada’s Cup race was that “…crews shall be limited to six men, whose total weight shall not exceed 1,050 pounds”, or an average of 175 pounds per man.

It’s good to know that some of the “old stuff” still has the “right stuff”, particularly those of us who have been involved with the old stuff for a long time.

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