Thursday, September 6, 2007

39 and holding

In the big picture of competition under sail, it doesn't matter in the least who wins the International Knarr Championship.

That's part of the success.

Because, inside the Knarr fleet, it doesn't matter in the least what goes on in the world around. They have their own thing going. If what this class has developed in the way of community could be bottled and sold, the world would be a better place. When you buy a Knarr you don't buy a boat, you're buying into a way of living, you're joining a fraternity/sorority of lifetime devotees, and you're telling the world where you will be on weekends and Wednesdays. Nobody ever leaves this fleet. Somebody might sell a boat and not buy another. They might sail in other fleets
(many do) but they'll always be back crewing, they'll be at the parties, they're not "gone."

The frustration is, I can be a witness for the Knarr phenomenon; but how to explain it?

And I hear many of you asking, what in blazes is a Knarr? Stay with me. First let me tell you, more than one world class sailor has jumped into the SF fleet expecting easy pickings and discovered that it's . . . not . . . that . . . easy.

Here's a look at the fleet, courtesy of Peter Lyons.

We're not talking high performance, we're talking minute details and a lot of time in the boat to be successful. I once went out to crew for Steve Taft, a co-owner of #122, Gossip, and a former North sailmaker who's won the Fastnet, Admiral's Cup, Transpacs, etc. so I figure he's pretty good. He loves his Knarr, but he has a sense of humor about it too.

Steve put the boat on the wind and trimmed in the main. I did my front-of-the-boat thing. Ease jib and move car forward. Trim. No. Ease jib and move car back. Trim. Yeah, it was better where I started. I turned to Steve and I asked, How does she feel?

"Like a desk."

Now, I'm familiar with the Knarr fleet on San Francisco Bay but not the fleets in Europe. If the picture of the class is different there, that's not my problem. What I do know is that European fleets are active and strong, they use the boats (especially the Danes) more often for cruising than American owners do (roughly zero), and in the fjords of Norway, where the boat originated, they pronounce the "K". Here are two more views from Peter Lyons.

The 39th IKC regatta is under way now at The San Francisco Yacht Club, on the northern shore of San Francisco Bay, and that's a story, but I'll come back to it in a minute. First, let's nail down the boat itself, because most of you reading this are still going, "Knarr? Knarr?"

Think occupied Norway, WWII, and two young men wanting a boat larger than the popular 25-foot Folkboat but not as dedicated-racy as a Six-Meter or Dragon. Here is the thread, as related by the late, great, Shimon-Craig van Collie:

Their search led them to Erling Kristofersen, a designer who had a knack for inexpensive but fast boats. He drew up plans for a 30-footer. Among Kristofersen's innovative techniques was building the boat upside down on a last, as a cobbler would make a shoe . . . known originally as a "Last Boat" it was later renamed Knarr after a Viking cargo boat.

The prototype was built in a little shack in the woods. Native pine was readily available, but oak and mahogany had to be scavenged or hauled across the border from neutral Sweden. When the occupying authorities got wind of the project, they declared that the boat's construction could continue only if they got use of the boat upon completion.

After launching and sailing the prototype in the summer of 1944, the owners declared it to be "unseaworthy" and in need of changes. Another boat was started in the winter of 1944/45. Curiously, by the time the builders had satisfied themselves that the boat was safe, the occupation had ended.

Along with developing one single, solitary, but vigorous U.S. fleet (there are a few other Knarrs scattered around the U.S.), there have been two important developments in the life of the Knarr class. 1) As the world changed around them, the leaders in the fleet moved to allow boats to be made of fiberglass, but the weight and weight distribution were spec'd to keep performance characteristics the same, and it worked; choose wood or glass to suit yourself, but not because one or the other will make you a winner; 2) Beginning in 1969, the class began the International Knarr Championship on a three-year, three-city, revolving circuit that has become in itself a reason to race Knarrs. Foreign contestants are hosted and housed by local sailors, feted and celebrated, and supplied with boats (locals racing are not allowed to sail their own boats). The next year, the former visitors return the favor when the show comes to their own town, and yes, this is quite the way to make friends in faraway harbors and really experience a place.

This year the San Francisco Bay fleet is hosting the IKC. Then it's on to Norway and Denmark before returning to San Francisco in three years. The sparkplug in the development of the IKC was Knud Wibroe, a Dane who was living in the U.S. in 1966, when he received an invitation to sail in the Royal Danish Yacht Club's Centennial Regatta. Here's Knud: "I was the only American who raced at Copenhagen, and I won, and that inspired me to invite them to come over to the U.S. Soon we were talking about an international regatta. The centennial of The San Francisco Yacht Club was coming up in 1969, so that's when we had the first one. This is IKC number 39."

But, Knud, what's the secret sauce?

"The Knarr is a lifestyle that involves the whole family. There's a support group who don't own boats, but they participate ashore. We have a wealth of volunteers. On that measure, we are the envy of all the classes on San Francisco Bay."

Here is the post-race scene dockside at SFYC.

For results as the regatta continues (through Saturday), click into knarr-sf.

I realize I haven't answered what ought to be the fundamental question here. How do they do it and why does it work? Sorry. I'm just a reporter, but that's my good news for the day. One further note. The San Francisco Yacht Club will also host the Folkboat San Francisco Cup beginning September 16. That's another woodies classic that has bridged the fiberglass chasm and soldiered on with success. We'll check on those guys too—Kimball