Get a White Boat and Start In the Middle
How Sailing a Windmill Is Different From Sailing Other Two-person one-designs

by Ed Fontana

In my 25 years of sailing experience, I have met many good sailors and good people thoroughly enjoying the sport. Returning to the Windmill Class after a ten year hiatus, the questions on my mind included: 1) Is there any real difference between the different One-Design classes, 2) Is there any reason to have more than one active class of sailboats in the two-person market category, and 3) Where do I get the best return on my sailing investment?

Fortunately, this Nationals provided the critical data required to sufficiently answer each of these questions. The crystallizing moment came with a Windmill Sailor's reaction to a suggestion volunteered by a race committee member who's experience was in other types of boats. The comment seemed fairly benign to me: "Get a white boat and start in the middle." (footnote 1) I had been sailing other types of boats where this had been considered normal - most boats were white. In vivid contrast, the Windmill Sailor's reaction to this suggestion was outrage.

Why the different reactions? Was one reaction more appropriate than the other? A look at the top seven finishers (top 25% of 26 boats sailing) in the 1997 Nationals helps explain the difference. (footnote 2)

Place Boat Color Construction Manufacturer Boat Age Crew Composition
1) Black Fiberglass McLaughlin 10 years Husband/Wife
2) Mahogany Wood Home Built 5 years Father/Son
3) Red Fiberglass Moorman 20 years Couple
4) Light Blue Fiberglass McLaughlin 10 years Father/Son
5) Medium Blue Wood Home Built 4 years Brothers
6) White Wood Home Built 3 years Club Sponsored
7) Whitish Fiberglass Moorman 20 years Husband/Wife

How do these results help explain the difference? Let's look first at boat color. Each of the top seven boats is a different color. The skippers in boats placing 1, 3, 4 and 7 have been sailing the same color Windmill for decades - if they have bought a new boat they have stuck with their color. The skippers in wooden boats placing 2, 5, and 6 are sailing works of art. Their pride in work is reflected in the quality of the boats they sail. Each of these boats is excellent.

The point here is: Windmill Sailors are proud of who they are and what they do. Suggesting "get a white boat and start in the middle (so the race committee will be unable to identify you)," is like saying "Make a practice of deliberately doing things you are ashamed of and then hiding your identity." This does not match with pride in work, honesty or lifelong friendships. This does not match with racing a Windmill sailboat.

Back to our list of questions: 1) Is there any real difference between the different One-Design classes? We talked about a trend toward honesty in the people who sail Windmills. Is there any difference in the characteristics of the boats themselves or maybe the degree of one-design control within the classes?

Windmills are relatively light and tippy. They are not considered forgiving boats, but they have won awards as a "Heavy weather one of a kind." What is going on here?

The key is light weight. The live weight of the crew on a Windmill is more than the weight of the boat and all its rigging. This means that the boat responds quickly to what the crew does. If a person steps on the outer edge of the deck and stays there for long, the boat will roll over. If one steps quickly and lightly there is no problem. The boat is just very responsive. The responsiveness of the boat makes it an excellent boat to learn to sail well on. On the other hand, if your interest is not in sailing well the boat will indicate your sailing skill with high fidelity - you will lose by large margins. When we first started sailing, losing by large margins was discouraging, but we didn't blame our homebuilt wooden boat that introduced us to the sport. We looked at the boats that were going fast and copied them. It was easy to figure out which slight changes in sail trim would improve speed through the water - the boat would tell us by responding instantly.

Windmills offer an honest assessment of your sailing skills - skip the flattery. Most other boats are much more polite about their feedback. The boats are heavier and tend to go the same speed without so much sensitivity as to how they are sailed. In some boats it seems that how you start is how you finish - so starts become much more important.

If Windmills are light, tippy and unforgiving, how come they have this reputation for heavy weather sailing? There are two factors here. One is: the light weight allows the boat to break hull speed and skip across the water like a windsurfer (or a water skier after they are "up"). This is called planning. The big benefit here compared to heavier boats that don't plane as easily is that the load on the sails, rigging and crew are greatly reduced as the Windmill jumps out of the water and onto its bow wave. In other boats, a strong gust downwind just flexes the rig and stretches the sails as the boat's weight keeps it trapped in the trough of its waves (like a water skier unable to get "up"). The other factor is that Windmill sailors have been operating on an honest assessment of their skills and have therefore improved their skills faster than people sailing less responsive boats.

OK, the responsiveness of the boat does provide an honest, if not flattering assessment. Are there any differences in the rules of the Windmill Class that make it different from other classes? Yes, there are. Boats like the Laser are strict one-designs. All the hulls, rigging, sails and attachment points are defined by and supplied to the sailor by a single manufacturer. The Windmill Class, on the other hand is governed by a specification with tolerances - there can be competition between a large number of manufacturers. The benefits of a strict one-design class are: 1) an honesty about outcomes - it is hard to blame the boat, and 2) a focus on the controls that are most important. The benefits of a class governed by a specification are: 1) Freedom of choice - one can make ones own parts or buy parts from whoever. If they meet the specification they are allowed, and 2) The opportunity to develop a more refined understanding of the art of sailing.

The focus on what is important that falls out of the strict one-design format is extremely valuable. One can obtain the same focus in the Windmill class but one sometimes has to pass through the land of gadgetry first. The Windmill is more of a real world model in that you have to do your own prioritization. As far as honesty about outcomes goes, in a Windmill you have to elect not to blame the boat. One way to do this is to purchase a fiberglass hull and aluminum rig to match the boats that are winning. There are without a doubt more opportunities to make strategic mistakes in a class governed by a specification.

The freedom to experiment in the Windmill Class provided two specific benefits at this years nationals. Since mast rake and jib lead fore and aft position are both adjustable in the class, I was able to show my crew how each could control the ratio between jib foot tension and jib leech tension in about 5 minutes. Second, since most Windmill sailors have a finite sailing budget there are alternative ways to compete. We were sailing an older club boat purchased used from Saratoga Yacht Club. The sails were quite worn. Some friends had previously resolved a finite sailing budget problem by cutting and sewing their own jib using some overstock material from their local loft. They loaned their old main and this jib marked with a logo designed by one of their children for our effort at the nationals. These sails and some excellent hiking by the crew were fast enough to make us second to the windward mark in the windy race on the last day of sailing. The option of learning by making it yourself is not available in every class.

My three questions were: 1) Is there any real difference between the different One-Design classes, 2) Is there any reason to have more than one active class of sailboats in the two-person market category, and 3) Where do I get the best return on my sailing investment? My answers are:

1) There are real differences between one-design classes. The fact that people have different budgets, interests and sailing goals makes room for several active classes in the two-person market category.

2) The fact that competitive Windmills can be purchased used or built at home combine with the honest nature of the boat and the people who sail them to give Windmills a niche market consisting of people with finite budgets who want to learn to sail well quickly.

3) As far as return on my sailing investment. I have a rule that the boat I sail on weekends can't a) weigh more than the crew that sails it, and b) can't be worth more than the car I drive to work .

Ed Fontana

(1) This suggestion was rendered after some discussion about a new for 1997 Z flag rule that has to do with starting. The practice of starting in a white boat in the middle of the starting line (away from the eyes of judges on either end) is established and well developed in other classes. It is sometimes countered by pasting numbers on the bows of the boats for identification purposes.

(2) At the awards ceremony, it was pointed out that the top three boats were tightly grouped and can be treated as similar in performance. The second set shows a similar, continuing pattern. It is important to know that each of the wooden boats listed was substantially constructed by the families who were sailing them, and that each builder had significant one-design racing experience prior to construction start.