Just like" is the wistful phrase most often used by a new breed of racing sailor—a breed whose number is growing fast on yacht-club floats and docks all over the country. "Look at her round that mark!" one of these sailors will cry in a state of high excitement. "Just like Intrepid." "I'm going to try a spade rudder," another will tell you, "just like those on the Cal 40s." Or another may come up with a sad tale: "When she got rammed and I watched her sink, I tell you it was just like seeing a real boat go down."
These enthusiastic simile makers do their actual sailing by remote control with the aid of small hand-held radio transmitters and lots of body english. The transmitters send electronic impulses to receivers aboard model boats to control rudders, sheets and—if need be—other navigational machinery. The sailboats, relatively tiny craft for the most part, are perfect miniatures of racing 12-meters built to a scale of one inch to the foot. They may strike some as merely expensive toys, but their skippers sail them in competition with all the determination of a Jock Sturrock seeking to wrest the America's Cup away from Bus Mosbacher.
The writhing and moaning that accompany the radio transmissions seem as important a part of this new kind of helmsmanship as the firm control of sheet and tiller and often as doomed to failure. Despite the tortuous efforts of its skipper to avoid collision in race after race, one miniature Twelve at California's Newport Harbor Yacht Club rammed other competitors so often that outraged club members insisted she wear a tennis ball on her bow as a kind of bumper.
Although there are many similar groups—almost equally ardent—in Kansas, on Long Island's North Shore, in England and many other places, one of the most enthusiastic model sailing fleets has its headquarters at the Newport Harbor club. Known as the RC (for remote control) Club, it is a curious organization that exists without dues, flag officers, by-laws or even any home except the Yacht Club float.
January 27, 1969
Even the racing schedule at Newport Harbor is somewhat vague and dependent on the whim of the competitors. Every now and then—no one knows precisely how often—the club decides to hold a really big regatta, sail free of the float and race around Lido Island. To a real sailboat the six-mile round trip would be nothing, but to a boat only 72 inches long it is global in scope. For this reason the event is generally broken up into six separate races to give the competing skippers time to catch up with the fleet and to wet their whistles in the process. "I wouldn't want anyone to get the idea that these races are just an excuse for drinking," says Swede Johnson, a blue-water sailor and sailmaker who seems to find as much fun in little boats as in big ones, "but in the Lido Island race we do find it necessary to make pit stops at nearly every bar."
For the most part, the RC holds its contests over less strenuous courses laid out in the harbor. "We try to keep the courses down to about 100 yards," says Lyman Farwell, the manager of a local marina-apartment complex who builds his own racers on uniform hulls produced by a California plastics company. "Most of the time we have a straight windward-leeward course, though every now and then we send them around a triangle so as to get in a reach. Whatever happens we do our best to sit at about the middle of the course so we're close enough to follow the boats at each mark."
To start each race with complete fairness, a tape recording calls out a countdown second by second to the gun while a movie camera covers the line in case anyone should cross over early.
Remote-control sailing poses a number of problems unknown to seaborne skippers. It requires the same knowledge of racing tactics plus a whole new set of skills. For one, there is a time lag in the steering, a noticeable lapse between the time the tiller is moved and the time the rudder responds. For another, sheet trimming is very critical. "Pull your jib in too tight," says Johnson, "and you'll surely kill the boat."
Most difficult of all is judging distances when the boat is in one place and the skipper in another. "Being in the lead poses a lot of problems," explains Farwell. "If you tack too soon, you don't make the mark. Tack too late, you overstand and the boats behind profit by your mistake."
The RC group keeps its racing rules "just like" those used in big boat races insofar as it is possible. There are a couple of important exceptions due to the nature of the game. Hitting a mark, which provides grounds for quick disqualification under IYRU laws, means nothing to the RC boats so long as they pass on the correct side. In grown-up racing, a skipper who conks a rival boat with the right of way is out. Not in the RC division, where the only penalty is an immediate 360° turnabout.
Molded of fiber glass "just like" production boats, the little Twelves weigh about 35 pounds, of which a large proportion, about 70%, is lead keel that fits down inside the hull underneath the radio receiver. They carry an average of 1,775 square inches of Dacron sail, and in an eight to 10 knot breeze the model Twelve will fly along at speeds far in excess of her maximum theoretical hull speed.
The man responsible for their basic lines, Naval Architect Gene Wells, adapted the little boats from the highly satisfactory Twelves Vim and Gleam. However, he gave them proportionately wider beams for additional stability and made other minor changes to enable them to stand up in breezes that are not scaled down. Boats built to Wells's basic design now number more than 120. "We used to know where they all were but now there are so many we've lost track," says Farwell.
When not racing, the Newport skippers simply mess around with their boats. Some send them in pursuit of the ducks that paddle about the waterfront. "You should see those birds when they look over their shoulders and see a sailboat chasing them," says Farwell.
The radio hookups offer the sailors their greatest avenue of experimentation. These electronic mariners fiddle with gear ratios to improve steering sensitivity and to provide more or less power for trimming sheets. Their jargon is a jumble of sailing and radio terms. They talk of servos, proportional control, sail draft, reed sets and megacycles with confusing familiarity. With several channels to control different functions on the boat, the skippers theoretically could even set spinnakers but don't. "By the time we got one rigged and up," points out Farwell, "the boat would be out of sight."
In sailing by remote control Swede Johnson, winner of more than his share of prizes aboard his 20-foot Cal 20, believes a skipper gets a more objective view of what forces are involved in sailing. Because the skipper is more detached, Johnson says, he appreciates just how flukey wind really can be, how it varies from second to second.
There are, of course, other benefits. In the time it takes to unwind a big boat turnbuckle or bend a dinghy's sail, a model Twelve's mast can be unstepped, the sails stowed, the hull cradled, the car door slammed and the top pulled off a cold one. And the whole package costs around $500. Moreover, rarely do the participants in a race sit around hashing over a protest. "We sit there on the dock," explains Swede benignly, "with the tiller in one hand and a beer in the other, and when there's a protest we simply settle it then and there."