BROOKLIN — To the casual observer, sailboat racing must seem a pretty straightforward pastime. A few boats gather around a starting line and, on a signal, head off around a few buoys before returning to their starting place. Not much to it.
When the race includes boats of different sizes, it is easy enough to understand that the bigger boats tend to be faster than the smaller boats in most conditions. In one-design racing though, it may be harder to understand why some boats sail fast while others, theoretically identical, seem mired in mud, and why some skippers seem to always finish at the top of the fleet while others seem always to lag behind.
While there is always an element of luck involved because of weather conditions, the successful boats are well prepared, before the race, and so are their skippers. Whether at the Olympics or at a high school regatta, the fastest boats are always carefully tuned. Their skippers have an understanding of the adjustments that need to be made to meet different wind and sea conditions, know the ins and outs of the arcane rules that govern sailboat racing and understand the tactical moves necessary to take advantage of those rules.
Last week, nine students at the Woodenboat School, who do their sailing with radio-controlled model sailboats, got the opportunity to learn the skills necessary for racing their “pond yachts” in serious regattas. While the scale is different, it turns out that many of the elements are the same as for racing full-size yachts — proper tuning before the race, understanding sail trim during the race and knowing how to apply the rules and tactics of sailboat racing.
Over a period of nearly 30 years, the Woodenboat School has become well known for its courses on seamanship, boatbuilding and a variety of maritime and nautical skills. Most of those courses have featured full-size vessels, whether building tiny, super-light canoes and kayaks or sailing large, traditional schooners.
In 1999, the school began to offer a course on building “pond yachts,” model boats that were not merely suitable for display on a mantelpiece, but were meant to be sailed. Taught by Blue Hill summer resident Thom McLaughlin, the course gave students an opportunity to build a 36-inch vintage-style sailing model.
Among the students in that first class was Alan Suydam. Since 2002, Suydam has joined McLaughlin in teaching the art of building, rigging and sailing vintage pond yachts. Suydam taught a course that featured construction of a 36-inch boat. McLaughlin taught a course that featured construction of a 50-inch model.
For the first couple of years, Suydam said, the Woodenboat pond yacht course taught students how to build plank-on-frame model yachts. At the end of the week, he said, “we sent the students home with a hull and instructions on how to finish it.”
Four years ago, Suydam found the design for “a quick-build boat.” That allowed him to offer a course in which students could build a boat using the “stitch and glue” method that would be ready to sail by the end of the one-week session.
“It’s kind of an instant gratification course,” Suydam said during a break at the school last week. “I bring the radios, sails and subassemblies,” for controlling the movement of the models’ sails and rudders, “and by Friday afternoon, they have a boat that’s sailable.”
At about the same time, the school began offering the course that Suydam laughingly calls “Pond Yachts 2.” It allowed students who had built a plank-on-frame hull for a model sailer “to bring it back and finish it,” Suydam said. ”
Last week, Suydam was teaching a course that he described as “a whole different situation.” Instead of focusing on building a hull, or turning it into a complete, or nearly complete boat, this course was designed to give students the skills necessary for getting their models into the water and out sailing and racing.
Suydam’s class wasn’t limited to just theory or discussions of rules and tactics. The students had the opportunity to do plenty of sailing, both at the Woodenboat waterfront and on a picturesque nearby pond.
Wednesday afternoon was devoted to practice. On Thursday and Friday, the class sailed mock regattas.
While there are many racing classes for radio-controlled model boats, the American Model Yachting Association (AMYA) — the sport’s governing body — recognizes four “vintage” classes based on traditional designs. Those classes include schooners, skipjacks — a type of Chesapeake Bay oyster boat — the Vintage 36 sloop and the larger Vintage Marblehead sloop.
Most of the boats brought the students brought to last week’s session were Vintage Marblehead-class sloops. Originally designed as a development class (with dimensional and construction standards that may differ from boat-to boat), the VM class boats are all keel boats 50 inches long and flying 800 square inches of sail.
“They’re about the right size to fit in the back of a car,” Suydam said.
The VM boats built in McLaughlin’s classes use traditional plank-on-frame construction methods much like those used to build a full-size, traditional wooden boat. First, “forms” are set up that reflect the shape of the hull. Next, the builder bends tiny wooden frames into shape over the forms, then the planks are attached to the frames using tiny wooden treenails made from toothpicks.
“What you hear in his class is a lot of tap, tap, tap, tap,” Suydam said with a laugh.
Once the hulls are completed, keels and rudders are attached, the deck supports and deck are installed, and the mast and rigging put in place.
On the water, the VMs are controlled by radio signals from small, hand-held transmitters. Each radio has two channels, one controlling a small servo motor that adjusts the boat’s rudder, the other that controls the trim of its sails. The radio receiver and servos are mounted below decks and in the open “cockpit.”
The VM’s jib is set on a pivoting boom. The jib and mainsail are ganged together so that they are trimmed together. Typically, the sails are pre-adjusted before the boat is launched and the setting is “typically good for all wind conditions,” Suydam said.
Radio-controlled model sailboat racing is serious business. The AMYA recognizes 30 separate classes, about a dozen of them developmental and the rest one-design. Models in the J Class, based on the one-time America’s Cup yachts, are 85 to 95 inches long. Thousands of enthusiasts race their boats at regattas throughout the country.
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