Monday, April 11, 2011

Mea Culpa – Double Poles – JB Turney

This article must begin with a confession: I was once decidedly opposed to double poles.

I recall a rather broad discussion of the topic at the Midwinters in February 2010 with passionate opinions on both sides of the debate. Spinnaker pole systems were on everyone’s mind as Ethan Bixby’s Waterat had appeared at the regatta with a five foot bow sprit for an asymmetric spinnaker. Ethan had built the sprit after sailing the 2009 Worlds with double poles; it must be noted that the 2009 Worlds featured broad based acceptance and use of double poles. These new approaches to the 505’s downwind sail plan certainly had everyone thinking.

The traditional side of the argument, on which I found myself, called for a rule change to clarify that the 505 should be sailed with only one spinnaker pole. As I can recall, this argument was based primarily upon three reasons: cost, complexity, boat handling. We argued that the allowance of double poles necessitates higher costs for class participants. Not only would one need to purchase a second pole, but a new mast fitting and hardware for the launcher lines. In terms of complexity we argued that double poles simply represented more to break and tangle. Further, that rigging the system introduced yet another complex step to fitting out a 505. Lastly, and I believe correctly, we argued that using a single pole is a skill. It takes practice to successfully gybe a single pole in 25kts of wind. Why would the people who have honed the needed skills want to level the playing field?

The catalyst for my conversion from non-believer to double pole advocate came that same February weekend. On the last day of the regatta, Russell Miller and I attempted to match Henry Amthor and Dustin Romey in a gybe. Using their double poles, Henry and Dustin gained at least five boat lengths through the maneuver and easily passed us; my eyes had been opened. In further discussions with users of the system and now in my own experience sailing Craig's boat, gybing with double poles is simply faster in all conditions.

With respect to the three notable objections voiced at the Midwinters, I offer the following rebuttal: the advantages of the system outweigh the objections entirely. I believe it was current Class President Drew Buttner that attempted to debunk the cost concerns. Drew constructed a good argument that I will attempt to relate. At the time, I simply was unwilling to accept any additional expense; I was blinded by the recent costs of refitting my aged Waterat. While it is true that changing an existing one pole boat to the new system involves additional cost, the additional cost to a new boat is minimal. I believe now that in either case it is money well spent. There are several options to examine when implementing the system. A major contributing factor to the cost of the system is the chosen mast fitting. Options range from the South African made Double Spinno, the Waterat made cheek block fitting, to whatever homemade solution you might come up with. I chose to go with the South African fitting made by Warwick Ham. The mast fitting and associated pole end fittings cost me a little under $350 dollars with shipping. For the sake of comparison, APS sells the Proctor pole launcher for a single pole for $369. I have already saved some money! Carbon Waterat poles are available for $185.

Obviously with this system you have to buy two poles, two launcher cleats, two launcher lines and more boom fittings. Say this additional hardware costs $400; that would be an increase of 1.6% over the cost of a $25,000 new boat. It is difficult to argue that an increase in the total cost of 1.6% is going to dissuade someone from buying the boat, particularly given the improvement in performance the upgrade provides. As far as complexity, yes the system is more complex than a single pole. Fortunately for us late comers, much of the pioneering development work has been done. There is plenty of rigging know-how on the system available on the internet. The segue from rigging complexity to sailing skill is natural as the system makes gybing the boat far less complex than with a single pole. I believe that the benefits of gybing with double poles outweigh all noted and potential drawbacks of the upgrade.

The boat is simply faster with double poles, it is more fun to sail, it is easier to sail, and it is safer to sail. Gybes in light and heavy air are faster meaning more time spent sailing full speed; this opens up additional tactical options. The boat spends less time out of racing trim and is therefore less likely to capsize in big breeze. This also makes it easier to gybe away from a dangerous crossing situation since the gybe is less likely to result in a capsize. The pole is easier to launch as it is not carrying the load of the guy until it is nearly fully extended. Lastly, the system makes it easier to sail competitively with less practice time. While this may render the art of a single pole gybe on the Berkeley Circle to the dustbin of history, it makes the boat easier to introduce to newcomers broadening the appeal of the class.

I would like to personally thank the pioneers for their trailblazing efforts. Double poles are a true improvement on an already great boat. Consider me a convert.

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