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Scuttlebutt News:

Whatever happened to the Dumbo sails?

Optimist insignia
(June 16, 2009) There are rules that regulate sail measurement throughout the sport. Under handicap systems, the rating of the boat is based in part on the size of the sails. For one design racing, each class dictates sail sizes and how they are measured. However, as sail material improved, and as sailmakers became more innovative, there have been instances of how the class rules allowed for unintended innovations.

Not too long ago, the Optimist class weathered a loophole in their sail measurement rules that allowed for an extended roach sail, aptly referred to as “Dumbo” (for big ears). This report comes from the “If We Don't Learn From History, We're Bound to Repeat It” Department, as reprinted from the Optimist class newsletter (#57 Sep 2004):

While the Optimist hull is very strictly one-design, the Class has always allowed a certain flexibility in sail design because of the huge variation in weight of even the top sailors (last year the top ten at the 2003 Worlds varied from 37 to 55kg). Strict one-design sails, we believe, lead to strict one-design sailors as can be seen in, for example, the uniform stature of top Laser sailors.

In the second half of last year (2003) we became aware of experiments with extended roaches. Initially they were certainly within existing Class Rules, but by Easter 2004 we were seeing some very strange shapes indeed. Sailmakers around the world had studied the minutiae not only of our Class Rules but also the definitions in the ISAF Equipment Rules of Sailing to experiment with different shapes.

Some of the more extreme were ruled, with the help of ISAF guidance documents, to be outside the Rules, but in general we adopted a "wait and see" policy. In particular we suspected that many of the sails would have an unacceptably short life span but this could obviously only be established by experience.

There was also a political aspect. The Optimist Class is very democratic, with important decisions being taken by our Annual Meeting on a “one vote per country” basis. An “emergency” rule change could have seemed autocratic. In January (2004) our Executive Committee tabled a proposal to outlaw extended roaches to express its (at that stage) tentative opposition, but it was by no means sure that whatever it finally decided would in fact be acceptable to national representatives.

As it turned out the (2004) Annual Meeting in August (with representatives of 50 countries) was in unanimous agreement that it did not want an “arms race” or disposable sails and voted unanimously to support a total ban on this type of sail. Even grandfathering of existing sails was held to be undesirable: by then it was clear that many of the sails would have a short life span but there was always the chance that someone would stockpile them.

So it is proposed to the ISAF November Meeting that such sails become illegal on 1 March 2005. Any that will have survived can be re-cut fairly simply. One aspect which has been widely overlooked is that Wei Ni won the 2004 Worlds with a perfectly standard old fashioned sail. Maybe it is not the gear which wins races but the sailor!

Scuttlebutt thanks Tom Coleman for his help with this story.
Additional background found on the UK class website.

Photo by Carlo Borlenghi.

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