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Who ate all the (mince) pies?

by David Henshall 31 Dec 2018 16:25 GMT
Who ate all the pies? © David Henshall

With the festive holiday, the big question has to be if Santa delivered the Finn class the biggest stocking filler ever, a reprieve from their banishment to the wilderness outside of the Olympics. Whilst this might sound like asking for a unicorn for Christmas, there could still be a final twist in the tale of the rather unedifying story surrounding the choice of Olympic classes for 2024.

Will World Sailing resolve the issues that have arisen from a voting system that looked more in keeping with the Presidential Elections in a banana republic, not to mention a new level of lobbying that makes even UK politics look like an honourable pastime. It could happen (was that a pig or Santa on his sleigh flying past the window) and not just because of the need to fix World Sailing, but simply because there really ought to be a boat for what has in the past been called the 'heavyweight' male sailor.

It is quite likely that some of the problems have come from the fact that by sticking such a label on the Finn, it has marked the boat out as an outlet for sailors at the extreme end of the weight spectrum. Yet a look at how the physical attributes of us humans have changed over the last 50 years ought to suggest that there should be MORE boats like the Finn rather than less (or none at all). Back in 1957, the 'average' British male also appeared to be remarkably mid-table when looking across at other nationalities. At 5ft 7in and11st 8lb/1.70m, 73.7kg, these first-generation baby boomers, born soon after the end of WW2, were already showing signs that the societal changes, with less manual work, better diets and a greater awareness of social care were seeing an increase in the birthweight of babies, with this just being the start of fitter, healthier and larger children...and later, adults.

Now fast forward by 50 years and in just two generations, the norms are already up to 5ft 10in and 13st 3lb/1.78m, 84.1kg, with all the indicators showing that the next generation to come will be even taller, stronger and heavier than the last. The new man of today and tomorrow will come in to his prime earlier and will live appreciably longer, with a life expectation that has already increased by 13 years from 68 to 81. Statistics for females show similar trends: it is not an act of exclusion in this article to ignore them, but the focus in this case is that World Sailing definition of a 'heavyweight man'.

Yet in dinghy sailing terms, the above presents something of a paradox! The numbers about the helms are all pointing one way, yet as rig technology, better fittings, lighter hulls and... yes, maybe better schooled sailors populate our sport, the mean weight of the winning sailor has come down and then down again. This weighty issue of weight is now become one of the great determinants in success afloat. When working as a Race Officer recently I watched with interest a very good sailor, with good gear on a well-prepared boat, trailing other entries simply because he was 15 kg heavier than the helms ahead of him. That was in what I'd describe at medium conditions, when the leading boats were lifting up onto the plane before he was able to, with quite remarkable results. Yet the next day, when it was windier, that weight over the side premium never materialised. The lighter helms raked their rigs aft and still were there or about at the top of the beat, then flew away on the downwind legs. Course setting also played a part here, that 'grit the teeth and hang on' beam reach, when weight really can play a part, is all too often now an overlooked part of the set up.

The Merlin Rockets are a good example to look at in detail. Back in the 1970s, a very good helm complained that his lightweight and spare stature left him at a disadvantage when compared to the front runners at the time, who were all beefier that he was. He even went as far as commissioning a special design, aimed at maximising the benefits of having a smaller helm, larger crew and was rewarded for his commitment as it worked, yet he still lost out to a larger helm/crew combination on the open water Championship courses favoured by the Merlins. Then Jon Turner introduced deck stepped raking rigs (he had been working with raking rig technology in the FD see...) and the results were dramatic. With the new breed of powerful hull forms, in just two seasons the winning all-up weight needed for the coveted Championship fell from 168.6kg to 136.8kg.

Before leaving the Merlins, their role as a restricted development class has ensured that designers remain active within the fleet. Some years back, a move was discussed to bring down the weight limit for the hulls, seeing that few of the modern boats are carrying anything less than the maximum correctors. It was none other than Phil Morrison who highlighted the hard truth that as the weight of the boat reduced, the importance of the weight of the sailor/s in the boat increased. A lighter Merlin would, he argued, become even more of a lightweight's boat.

There can be little in the way of dispute that we, as sailors are getting bigger, but bigger doesn't necessarily equate to faster and the one boat that seemed suited to the sailors of today has now been dropped, whilst World Sailing talks of a new set of Trials for an even more pronounced 'lightweight' single hander. It seems that the snouts in the trough brigade have adopted a 'mind over matter' approach, in that they don't mind and the majority of normal sized people don't matter.

But this DOES matter!

If you look at many of the classes out there, and now the focus will really be on the singlehanders, you'll see a lot talked about the weight range best suited to the boat. It may seem reassuring that 85kg, which by a happy coincidence we saw as being very close to the 'average' adult male weight of today, is often quoted as being the idea weight for boat 'X'. There are lots of boats with target weights below this point, but far fewer for those who have the figure 85 on the scales whilst one foot is still on the bathroom floor. Yet it is worth restating once more; 13st 3lb or that wonderful 85 kg figure does not mark you as big, nor heavyweight, merely that you are close to where everyone else is. (cue the Maths and Statistics anoraks who will now debate the difference between average, mean, median and much more... they can go and deviate all they like!).

It is hardly the case that these issues are some sort of hidden secret, with weight being the issue that even your best friend won't discuss with you. For a while some classes flirted with the idea of weight equalization, with both the RS600 and Devoti D-One having a choice of either wide or narrower wings, with this being determined by the weight of the helm. This binary option may be a brave, if rather crude attempt at levelling the playing field between heavy and light sailors, but it has been thought to work. Elsewhere, a more structured approach was considered that would take into account the height and weight of the sailors, with these factors being applied to a matrix that indicated how much extra weight the boat would have to carry or conversely, how much could be taken out.

Many of these initiatives faced considerable resistance and have quietly faded into the background, leaving the harsh reality that it is easier to match the boat to the sailor than the sailor to the boat. This situation has not been helped by the ever-increasing dominance of the SMOD, where 'one size fits all' success today could well all be about finding a boat that you fit in to, rather than the one you want to sail!

This means that for those of us who could live on a super model diet of lettuce leaves and fresh air and STILL not reach 85 kg, the choices of boats to be sailed could be seen as inversely proportionate to how far on that weight scale away from that 85kg 'norm'. The best starting point therefore would have to be a question back to the prospective sailor asking, 'what is it that you want to be doing with the boat'. Are you just looking for a steed for club racing, would you like to do the occasional open meeting, or maybe even a championships or two. Other sailors might be wanting to do all the above and also enjoy the travel and extended friendship that comes from being a regular player on the international scene.

If there is one boat that suits the needs of the bigger sailor and offers quality competition at both domestic and international level, not to mention satisfying a wide range in both weight and age, then it is hard to argue against the merits of the Finn. From the U-23 to the Masters, the 'F in Finn' can also stand for fun and friendship at home and abroad and remains as always, a truly class act to sail. High quality construction means that the hulls can remain competitive for years and with the plentiful supply of rigs and gear filtering down from the top echelons, the buoyant second-hand market benefits the less well-resourced sailors. It goes as well inland as on the sea and for the sailor looking for something for club level racing, the Finn can be a fierce competitor in the PY fleet too.

Finn sailing isn't so much a boat, more a way of life and even if the boat fails to regain Olympic status, it is hard to see the 'Finn-tastic' formula flagging any time soon. Of course, every boat has its downsides and the most obvious one with the Finn has to be the weight of the boat when moving it around on shore. Finn sailors tend to be a helpful crowd when it comes to pulling boats up a slipway and a launching trolley with a jockey wheel up front helps, but the boat IS a lump for a single person to shift around. Another negative that could be seen to be working against the wider acceptance of the Finn has been the adoption of 'free pumping'. This might be great for the hyper-fit squad members who can prove that 'practice does indeed make perfect' but it does little to encourage the less committed sailor into competing.

Within the dinghy racing community, there is a wide caucus who feel that maybe it was indeed time to 'Bin the Finn', but only so that it could be replaced with a more modern big boys' boat and you do not have to look far from the Finn to find one. Devoti, who have enjoyed such success through their range of Finns, also have the superb D-One on their books. Originally envisaged as a replacement for the Laser, the D-One grew instead into a powerful beast that carries weight well, yet at the same time demands an above average level of skill and fitness if the boat is to be sailed at anything like it's potential.

There are a number of reasons why the D-One never sold in big numbers, despite the 'class' of the boat that becomes obvious to everyone who has sailed it. The all carbon construction and the very complexity of the boat resulted in it not being a cheap option, (though this was less of a problem within the euro-zone) whilst the large asymmetric on a non-trapeze rigged hull makes the D-One a bit of a one trick windward/leeward course pony. Although pockets of the class exist in the UK, the heartland for the boat has become mainland Europe, where well organised events are thoughtfully supported by the builder and make for an interesting, hugely exciting and lighter alternative to the Finn for those sailors with bigger builds.

Scroll back a decade and it seemed that the only thing a new dinghy needed to be a success was an asymmetric spinnaker, though now, with the benefit of hindsight it can be seen that the market potential for a hiking kite rigged singlehander was majorly overstated. It has taken the excellent D-One the best part of a decade to patiently carve out a niche for this sort of boat, albeit a very selective one. Much more recently, the Devoti boat was joined by another such boat, though where the D-One has the hiking benefit of add on wings, the VX Evo relies on a powerful hull shape and plenty of weight in the helm, for this is a boat that was specifically designed for the larger sailor. At 4.8m/15ft 7in long, the Evo is a big boat for a non-trapeze rigged singlehander, driven by a very generous sail area, though the Evo now has the option of choosing from one of three sizes for the mainsail. Surely, a boat that is aimed at appealing without compromise to the more generously figured sailor would find a ready market across the sailing world, but although an attractive package, with all the usual quality hallmarks that come with a boat that in the UK carries the stamp of the Ovington brand, the VX Evo still has to find its feet outside of the USA.

Once you lose that requirement for a spinnaker, another strong contender in the 'who ate all the mince pies' competition has to be the Phantom, which has evolved from an interesting if somewhat basic stitch and glue build it yourself boat into a real powerhouse at least on the UK domestic scene, where the FRP hulls with a raking carbon rig enjoy an enviable reputation both as a fleet racer and when competing in handicap events. A measure of just how quick the Phantom has become can be seen in the repeated and significant changes made to the PY number for the boat, which has gone down faster than your last pint at closing time! For a while the Phantom was THE boat to sail in the large winter handicap events, though now, like the Merlin Rocket, the latest positioning of the PY number has made this a harder task and also made the boat less attractive as well on the club scene. But with an active open meeting circuit, with events being held right across the country, a well-attended Championships and a thoughtfully managed class association, for the sailor happy to stay at home in the UK, the Phantom ticks so many boxes. East to move around ashore, good value for money and a boat that can actually reward an extra kilo or three, Phantoms are fun and Phantom sailors have form for enjoying a drink or several drinks when at the bar.

The only downsides to the Phantom would have to be that the boat is essentially UK only and it can be a bit of a sod to recover after a capsize. Moves have been made by some builders to address this second point with deeper cockpits and reduced buoyancy in the side tanks, resulting in a boat that doesn't float quite so high when on its side. These changes and the addition of righting lines can help address the bugbear of so many single handers, easy recovery a real issue when one looks at the trends towards helms being older in the demographics.

Certainly recoverability was high on the list of design criteria for the Hadron H2, a boat that was a surprise inclusion into this article. The lightweight yet very powerful hull and not overlarge rig would seem to suggest that the H2 would be something of a mid-weights boat, yet to date the design has proven itself to be a far better boat for the bigger helm than anyone could have dared hope for. Not only has the H2 shown that it can carry a good range of weight, at the same time it has also demonstrated that it works equally well with both extremes of sailor size on the gunwale at events held inland and out in blustery conditions off-shore. And for those who are even bigger, the earlier version, the wooden hulled Hadron, with its bigger rig, looks an even better bet for the big boys.

For a while it looked as though a spin off from the Blaze would top the wish list for Santa with the Halo (a cunning acronym for 'Heavy And Large Option'), which was simply a larger and more powerful rig grafted on to the existing Blaze package. This really did look to be an exciting new option for the bigger than average or even 'bigger than an average big person' sailor, with the added bonus that the boat could easily be turned back into the mainstream Blaze option. In its original guise, the Halo needed a different mast, but after some thoughtful insight from Norths, a Halo sail was created that would fit on the existing spars.

For those with the weight and the skill to really maximise the power that the wings on the Blaze can offer, the Halo can really power upwind, but the real boost comes when you turn downwind, when the boat can deliver some sparkling performance without the complication of a kite, yet the power seems manageable and reasonably vice free. The weaknesses of the Halo are no different to those of the Blaze itself, with the Achilles heel being the light airs performance, with going to windward in a chop and not a lot of wind being particularly slow...until the helm can get out onto the wings, at which point normal service is restored. The PY for the Halo remains something of a moot point too, but with most systems placing it at close to the 1000 point, the Halo is ranked as one of the quickest non-trapeze, non-spinnaker rigged boats.

However, that Blue Riband crown for the best belter for the big boys has to be the RS300. Like the Hadron H2, the 300 has been made to fly by lightweights and heavyweights alike, though this is a boat that really does like a bit of weight up on the side.

With a hull that is only 14ft long, but weighs in at a skimpy 58kg, the large 107 sq.ft/9.9 m" B rig making the RS300 into a powerful, if not downright hairy beast, even without the wind getting past the description of 'moderate'. Exciting and a huge amount of boat for the money, in terms of 'bang for the buck' the 300 has few equals and is about as far from the benchmark Finn as it is possible to get. All of the boats discussed so far are reasonably accessible to the majority of sailors, with the ease of uptake mainly being contingent on their skill and commitment. However, the RS300 requires something more, as the learning curve when first getting into the boat is steep and will involve a lot of swimming. This is both a downside and a plus point, as those who persevere, putting in the required effort during those tricky early days, will eventually get the reward of a stunning, sizzling sail in just about all conditions, but an experience that is something very special and worth writing about when the wind is up!

There are of course other options, helms can always move into one of the two-handed boats that carry weight well, from the Albacore to the Kestrel to the more modern RS400, or for those who know when and where weight can really be an advantage, a boat such as the innovative X1has shown itself to be a great weight carrier when raced on inland or more restricted waters.

Seeing that this article starting with some festive reflections, it is only right that we should end with the same. Another favourite activity at this time of the year is the making of predictions, so to finish, here is a look forward to 2019. One sure fire bet is that World Sailing will continue to show their world class abilities to break what didn't need fixing in the first place, then to really screw up the attempts to put things right, so there will be no change there! The other expectation following the thoughts expressed here is that many of the class association fanboys will be rushing to their keyboards to point out that not only is their boat great for being sailed by sailors from 50 to 150kg, but that it is also great for sailors aged from 7 to 70 and will happily trot out pictures to prove it.

Proof that anything is possible, with the 97kg author squeezed into a classic low-rider Moth this summer. The fact that I could sail the boat quite successfully is yet more proof (if any were needed) that all too often, the quoted weight range for a dinghy design can be overly optimistic. In this case, if I could change the 9 in my weight for a 7 then I'd be fine but that won't be happening anytime soon. If you can't change the sailor then change the boat!

Without wanting to sound negative, it is unlikely that a big sailor will find it easy to slim back down to a 'competitive' sailing weight (with the emphasis on being truly competitive) in time for the 2019 season, despite what Resolutions we convince ourselves that we're following in the new year. Maybe now is the time to accept the reality and finally fork out for that Finn, go glam in a D-One or join the pie eaters in the Phantom (you could always go for broke and get prepared for the ride of your life in the 300... you know you want to) just don't kid yourself that you're really a lightweight and suited to a smaller boat.

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