Friday, December 21, 2007

Innovators, Sailors, and Good Reads

Thanks to offerings from friends and long flights to Thailand and back for King's Cup racing, I've had a few good reads of late, and they're worth sharing.

The Six Metre – 100 Years of Racing

I love strong statements, and Pekka Barck kicks off these 304 pages by declaring:

"The International Rule is the most important development class rule in yachting history. It has been the backbone of yacht racing for 100 years."

What's more, that is a defensible statement, as I glean from the book's introduction, written by Olin Stephens. The International Rule gave us many classes, most notably the Twelve Metres that raced in America's Cup matches from 1958 to 1987, and the Six Metres, which were the focus of development for decades. It was in Sixes that the first overlapping jib was proved—on a racecourse in Genoa, giving us genoa jibs—and the first-ever headsail arsenal (5 sails) was seen aboard Nancy in the 1932 British-American team races. Before that time, the "parachute spinnaker" had already debuted on a Six, and later, Briggs Cunningham would introduce the first "cunningham" on the mainsail of a Six. You get the point.

These are classic beauties. Lisbeth V, SWE 136, and Nada, K12, were photographed at the 2007 World Cup in Cowes . . .

A note for trivia fans: The first Six Metre racing in the USA (I'm going to use the European spelling, following on from the book title) was part of the 1915 Panama Pacific Exposition on San Francisco Bay, celebrating the opening of the Panama Canal. A prominent local, Lionel Barneson, commissioned a new but traditionally gaff-rigged boat named Lady Betty. She proved no match for her only rival--World War I was already under way, and only King Christian X of Denmark sent a boat and crew. That boat was Nordug IV. Press accounts of the day noted the "leg of mutton rig" on the Danish boat, and the astute reader will recognize that as a precursor to the standard Marconi rig of the modern sloop. I have no ID on the Marconi-rigged sloop pictured below, but yes, it was a grand fair, and none of those buildings were built to last. This is more or less the site of St. Francis Yacht Club today.

In the USA, the Sixes had flowerings on Lake Ontario, San Francisco Bay, and Puget Sound, where the Seattle fleet is the last holdout of activity on these shores. So while the book is a bit Euro-centric, it's for good reason, and that will be no problem for its intended (fanatical) audience. The Six Metre – 100 Years of Racing is authoritative, satisfying to hold, lush and lovely to see. Some of you will just have to have it (you know who you are), and I am influenced only mildly in my recommendation by the authors' decision to include a reprint of my account of the 1985 World Cup (June, 1985, SAIL Magazine). There. Full disclosure.

The Six Metre – 100 Years of Racing

Pekka Barck & Tim Street

ISBN: 978-952-5045-31-4

Roughly 65.00 €


Mine's Bigger: Tom Perkins and the Making of the Greatest Sailing Machine Ever Built

David Kaplan, who got his foot in the door by writing about the Silicon Valley tech/venture capital scene, here offers a tour of the 289-foot "modern clipper," Maltese Falcon, from concept to early voyaging. The book is also a bio of sorts of venture capital pioneer Tom Perkins.

To appreciate Perkins you have to understand him as a hands-on engineer as well as a businessman. Far from being a mere manipulator of money, Perkins is an inventor who made his first fortune by rethinking optical lasers. I already knew that, but until I read Mine's Bigger, I had no idea that Perkins had done that development work in a lab in Berkeley in the same building where a certain Augustus Owsley Stanley III was developing his own contributions to the 1960s—the wall of sound amplification system that became the signature of the Grateful Dead (he was their soundman), and those famous little sugar cubes.

As a pure read, I didn't fall in love with this book, but it kept me going with useless but tasty bon bons such as that. Not to get hung up on rock & roll, but get this passage re. Perkins' purchase of an estate in Sussex, England. The manor had once belonged to Henry VIII, but more recently Led Zeppelin's Jimmy Page had owned the property, which had seen the death of a 19-year-old "friend of the band" who failed to make it out of the pool at the end of a party:

"The local vicar suggested an exorcism. Perkins laughed and told Gerd [his late wife] this was really about the local church needing a new roof. But a few weeks later, Perkins flew over from the United States to observe the rite. Saturday arrived, though the vicar did not. Instead, the archbishop arrived in his VW. 'Son,' the archbiship told Perkins, you must be wondering why I am here instead of Father Lawton. It's because the forces of evil may be so powerful that when they're suddenly released, should there be an emergency, I should be present' . . . Under other circumstances, the archbishop and Perkins might have had a lot to talk about: the archbishop had a PhD in physics from Oxford."

The church got a new roof and a new foundation.

For the nautically-minded, the book is worth the read if only to learn that yacht builder Fabio Perini had first made his mark by reinventing his family's paper-making business, automatizing the task of feeding huge spindles of paper into machines that produced individual rolls of toilet paper. The trick was a tensioning device--his father then set him up in a machine-making business--and soon the family dominated the market. It was part of a process that led Perini to eventually design the captive winches that make big-yacht, small-crew sailing possible. Once again a tensioning device, to keep a line from jamming, was critical, and not until Perini brought the same sort of thinking to the problem of furling and unfurling sails on Maltese Falcon did the Dynarig begin to fulfill its promise.

Here's a view looking down on the yards, each with a 12 percent chord, but each a different length and therefore not cut from a single mold . . .

Perkins is a self-made man who might dine with the crew in the absence of guests, but he makes no apology for living in utmost luxury . . .

Here is Perkins in the atrium of Maltese Falcon with an Emmanuel Chapalain aluminum sculpture of a you know what.

Having been interested in Maltese Falcon from the beginning—it's the only innovative work that's been done lately in big sailing-yacht development—I'm a sucker for anything that tells me more. I interviewed Perkins in his downtown San Francisco office while the rig was still in development at the Perini Navi yard in Turkey. Tom just couldn't wait to talk about the concept—he could have been a 13-year-old who had just discovered girls—and his enthusiasm was infectious. From small sailing models to fractional-size sailing models to a full-scale test of mast, spars, and sails on the hard, the Dynarig concept was vetted at every stage. But until the boat sailed, it was still a risk, and it could only have been born under the guidance of a man who has lived a lifetime sailing hard in everything from IOD's up, and taking calculated risks.

Well worth the time, and thank you, Frank Kawalkowski, for just sending the book on over as a US Postal surprise.

Mine's Bigger: Tom Perkins and the Making of the Greatest Sailing Machine Ever Built

ISBN 9780061227943
William Morrow & Co
MSRP: $ 25.95

She's charterable, but if you have to ask . . .

Six Frigates: The Epic History of the Founding of the U.S. Navy

It's a pleasure seeing a first-time author hit a home run, and Six Frigates is certainly that. Don't mistake my brevity here for a lack of enthusiasm. It was Karl Limbach who put this book into the hands of someone who had no background whatever in the origins of the U.S. Navy, much less the finer points of the social/political dramas that complicated the emergence of a Navy in a country more focused on pushing into the West. I was reading the epilogue as my China Air flight hit short-final into SFO, and I was wishing we could stay in the air just a few pages longer.

From the embarrassments of the alleged Continental Navy to the vicissitudes faced on the first forays of the Marines into Tripoli to hand-to-cannon triumphs over the might and main of Her Majesty's fleet in 1812 to insights into the sheer humanity of it all, Ian Toll has done his homework. His web site tells us: Ian W. Toll has been a Wall Street analyst, a Federal Reserve financial analyst, and a political aide and speechwriter. Six Frigates is his first book.

Except for the true Six Metre fanatic, Six Frigates is the pick of this litter at a mere 592 pages.

SIX FRIGATES: The Epic History of the Founding of the U.S. Navy

Ian W. Toll