Friday, April 22, 2011

A lifelong 505 sailor looks ahead – Ethan Bixby

Editor's note - Portions of Ethan's text were included in an article written by Mike Martin in the March 16th , 2011 Scuttlebutt that wondered if 505s would be the next class to convert to an A-sail.

I’ve been asked many times why I keep coming back to the 505. Well, it has been a tough year in terms of my 505 sailing as I haven’t sailed the 505 since last year’s midwinters! But Erik and I got out for a short sail on New Year’s Day, and it brought it all back so quickly. It’s the nicest sailing dinghy you will have the good fortune to sail!! Always fun - always challenging. It was way ahead of its time when introduced, and the rules have allowed it to evolve over the years to maintain its reputation as one of the finest designs. I know I don’t have to preach to the choir, but it’s the best!

However, looking forward I have other thoughts. When we were rigging up for our sail, the whole double pole business again struck me as a huge pile of stuff that is not helping the class in the long run. The class is doing great with the existing sailors, but we need to keep attracting newer and younger teams. Part of that is being able to control the costs, modernize the boat a little, and keep the boats as simple and affordable as we can, and still enjoy tinkering around. We all like tinkering to some degree, but the double pole system requires a lot of extra fiddle time – too much in my opinion. With this in mind I’d really like the class to consider converting over time to an asymmetric spinnaker and a retractable bow sprit. It might seem like a big change, but consider these points.

Conversion costs – would not be very different than switching to a double pole system. Ultimately I feel the bow sprits would have to be retractable. I know some classes carry fixed ones, but I think most would prefer a retractable style. Larry Tuttle figures that a retro fit conversion kit could be pretty easy, especially for a side launcher. Above deck systems and below deck systems could both work for conversions. Knowing all the bright and creative minds we have I am sure we could find a way to transition smoothly over time. This is not something to get hung up on, but a good challenge.

Simplicity – The pile of parts I took off my boat was shocking! The big parts include two poles, two shock cord retractor systems, a Spiro/Spinno mast part, two cleats, two topping lift systems, two downhaul systems, and two guy purchase systems. Suddenly I have a much cleaner boat!

Sailing – yes, it is all about the sailing! The boat tracks really well downwind in a big breeze, and the A-sail tends to lift the bow nicer. Jibing is very easy as the boatspeed seems to stay up better when the crew comes in off the wire, and you just turn the boat with no hesitation and the boom comes over with less load. The crew just eases into the jibe, and trims out the other side. Consequently, I felt more able to jibe any time needed, without worries of a swim. This is really important as more teams would have more fun racing in heavy air. This is an issue for many in the fleet that don’t have the time to sail as much as they’d like. It takes a lot of time to perfect the pole systems and get the practice in, and honestly most class members don’t have that time anymore. We all know that if there is a pause to wait for the pole to come off the mast or any delay that causes the boat to decelerate quickly, you might be headed for trouble.

The A-sail does make the runs more tactical, as you can really jibe on the shifts and puffs without hesitation and you lose less distance jibing. After the boom is across, the A-sail tack stays down and doesn’t tend to fill high, load up and heel the boat like the symmetrical sail sometime does. With the change to the 6 meter luff spinnakers, we really do sail skiff angles downwind. With the A-sail we felt that we pretty much sailed similar angles to the rest of the fleet. In light air there is plenty of separation between the jib and the A-sail, so all of the sails are more efficient. We did try the wing and wing thing which seemed fine, but not tested.

However, it is not all about relative speed. With similar area on the initial test, speeds were close with an advantage to the A-sail as the wind increased. That can all be adjusted with changes in area. But it is more about the nature of sailing the boat. I think the class needs to consider making the boat easier to sail, especially in heavy air and for newer teams, and keep it a bit simpler to enhance our ability to attract sailors and builders to the class. I have Larry’s bolt on bowsprit and the A-sail, so if someone would like to try it let me know.

Another simple rule change would be to standardize the mast step height so that all future boats would accept the same mast. It’s a small matter, but it would make it easier on the equipment side if things were more interchangeable. As high performance dinghy sailors, we all know the pressure on our free time to sail and work on the boats and of course money too. This might be a good time to look further forward and make some changes to ensure further growth of the class.

Ethan Bixby
USA 8715
North Sails
St. Petersburg, FL


  1. Ethan, thanks for sharing your thoughts.

    One of the things I think about in this discussion is how successful the class was with the transition to 6M kites. No one who sailed the boat before and after would say it was a bad idea, and the transition was handled very well.

    Perhaps a recap from some of the people who were involved in that transition (Ali, Pip, etc) would be useful in this discussion.

  2. I think one of the cool things about the 505 is that it is the ultimate dinghy and it really takes a skilled crew to pull off gybes well. Now with the double poles a lot of that boat handling has been lost. I did like the fact that the crew work was very important but now that we have eliminated a big part of that with double poles, why not just eliminate the hardware too? The boat would be so much cleaner.

    I do not think that changing to an a-sail would make the boat so easy to sail that those who practice would still not be rewarded for their efforts.

  3. From personal experience, I think that making the boat easier to crew in would help get more boats out racing and keep skippers who can't find a crew from having to sit onshore. Those who want the challenge are more than welcome to sail with a more complicated system.

  4. I would really consider buying one of these
    with an asymmetric.... I have had 3 sport boats which flew asymmetrics. I don't think that I would ever consider anything else. I think that this boat would be great with such a sail plan,
    especially, if the conversion kits become available at a reasonable price so that older hull conversion makes sense.

    You need not worry about making the boat too simple. The better sailors will be rewarded
    for their skill no matter what the configuration.