On Sailboats - Winds of change for the Tornado

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A nostalgic look at the peppy cat, from its humble plywood days to high-performance Olympic Class

A nostalgic look at the peppy cat, from its humble plywood days to high-performance Olympic Class

An expert knows a lot about very little and learns more and more about less and less until he knows everything about nothing. We’ve all heard it, perhaps cursed it, yet we all live by it.

The battle of the one-trick pony vs. the jack-of-all-trades has been decided. In the age of specialization, narrowly defined but highly developed skills supersede versatility. This trend also determines how sailors pick their boats or, perhaps more fittingly, how boats pick their sailors.

International and Olympic classes have been trending toward faster and more athletic boats that require younger and more athletic crews. Sailors who transcend class molds and age boundaries like Star skipper John Dane, who at 57 will represent the United States at this summer’s Olympic Games in Beijing, are increasingly rare. But the future is even more monochromatic.

In November the council of the International Sailing Federation, which is made up of delegates from various countries, selected the Olympic sailing events for 2012 and reduced the count from 11 to 10, as directed by the International Olympic Committee. The slate now includes six events for men and four for women, with match racing instead of fleet racing. However, the council’s most controversial decision was the elimination of multihull sailing — i.e. the Tornado catamaran.

“I extend my thanks to the multihull, which has been on the Olympic program from 1976 to 2008,” says ISAF president Göran Petersson in the official press release. “We are sorry to have to say goodbye to such an old friend.”

That’s right, a dozen years into the 21st century Olympic sailing will comprise monohulls only, just as it was at the Paris games in 1900 when sailing was on the Olympic program for the first time. This vote strikes me as anachronistic, putting nationalistic interests before a balanced representation of the sport. And I’m not alone.

“What is going on with the Olympics?” asked yachting photographer Geri Conser in the online sailing newsletter Scuttlebutt, posting one of the more restrained comments. “Are we going back to the Dark Ages? One of the most beautiful and exciting parts of the games is the multihull event.”

Spectacular images aside, the Olympic multihull also is the “rich cousin” of the beach cats, which helped grow sailing dramatically thanks to the likes of Hobie Alter, the father of the Hobie Cat, and Rodney March, who in 1967 designed the Tornado. To say nothing about the distant relatives, the megacats and trimarans that dominate high-speed ocean racing and hold just about all the absolute speed and distance records anyone could care about.

But the verdict is in, and multihulls are out. It isn’t quite final, but hoping that ISAF will reconsider this decision instead of sending it to the IOC March 18 is like hoping for the pardon of a death row inmate. A “positive groundswell,” as one Tornado sailor describes the state of the pro-multihull lobbying efforts, is encouraging, but it will take a full-blown storm to reverse the vote.

I felt a pang of nostalgia when I heard the news, because the Tornado represents a strand of my personal sailing DNA. Dad bought a used one in 1970, when I was in third grade — a plywood rocket of the early days. A Model T compared to the modern high-tech composite racing machines. But it was cool because it zipped past all the plodding tubs on our lake, and it had a famous past: Baby Doll, as the boat was named, once belonged to British catamaran legend Reg White.

Before a crowd of gawking yacht club members, I helped Dad assemble the pieces for the first time. “Whoa, look at those skinny runners,” I remember hearing, along with the suggestion that this “contraption will break apart in a breeze.” Of course, that never happened, and pretty soon Baby Doll was a popular sight on our lake and along the central coast of Croatia, where we spent our summer vacations. The reliable sea breeze was perfect for shredding and flying a hull within spitting distance of shore. Dad steered, I dangled from the trapeze, and Mom held my baby brother so he wouldn’t slide off the trampoline. When I was old enough to appreciate girls in bikinis, Dad graciously let me drive.

Today I realize what kind of bravery this was, because I came close to crashing the good ship Baby Doll more often than I had the nerve to admit. Of course, Dad knew it, but he allowed me to refine my stunt. Perhaps he remembered his teenage days when he had to “borrow” his father’s old Harley with sidecar to impress the girls in town.

Other exploits took us to the KornatiIslands, a chain of barren islands a long daysail from Biograd. Today it’s a national park with crowded anchorages, tightly packed mooring fields, and overpriced restaurants. However, 35 years ago there was nothing, save for a few fishing villages, some goats and millions of cicadas. The water was crystal clear and teemed with marine life. Lunch showed up on the other end of the fishing line or, more often, it flopped around on the cockpit sole of a passing fisherman.

We always sailed with basic supplies, though without engine — after all, it was a Tornado — or radio. PFDs and yellow oil slickers, slightly mildewed for character, had to be dragged out from inside the hulls on the return trip, which inevitably ended in a wild and wet beat. Sometimes we dawdled too long in one of the protected anchorages — swimming, diving, snorkeling — and paid dearly when we ran out of breeze, still miles from the barn. But a Tornado is light and has little wetted surface area, so the “wooden breeze” (aka two paddles) was always enough to get us back safely, if not in time for supper.

Those were the good old days, some years before the Tornado became the Olympic multihull for the 1976 Olympic sailing competition in Kingston, Ontario, and long before Paul Elvstrøm won the 1983 European championship at age 55, sailing with his daughter, Trine. They also represented Denmark in the Tornado in the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles, and came close to a medal (it would have been his fifth) but had to settle for fourth place. It was another fine moment for Elvstrøm, but soon Olympic sailing began to change. In 2001 the Tornado adopted class rules that permitted double trapeze, gennaker, square-top mainsail, self-tacking jib and a carbon fiber mast.

“It’s a physical boat,” says John Lovell, U.S. silver medalist in Athens in 2004.“When you get up there in age, it gets harder, especially for the crew.”

By “up there” Lovell means 40. His crew of 15 years, Charlie Ogletree, also 40, works as a sailmaker for Ullman Sails and races even when he doesn’t race Tornados. To remain competitive, he moonlights in Melges 24 Class with his boss Dave Ullman or Russell Coutts or Philippe Kahn. “There are about 50 active Tornados in the U.S. with perhaps six of them racing seriously,” says Ogletree.

“Sailing Tornados [ambitiously], like any other Olympic class, requires a full-time effort,” explains Greg Thomas, product manager for Hobie Cat, who sailed the Tornado prior to the 1996 and the 2000 Olympics. “You have to compete and train in Europe because that’s where most of the races are. That’s at least $75,000 to $100,000 per season for lodging and travel, perhaps more with the current exchange rate.” This number does not include the cost for two or three boats (around $45,000 each new, without sails) that are kept in different places around the world.

As staggering as those numbers might seem, Ogletree thinks the Tornado has unfairly been singled out as expensive. He calls it a “common misconception” and points out that campaigns in other Olympic classes are either more costly or force teams to replace equipment more often, because other boats tend to have shorter useful lives than the Tornado.

Ironically, now that only a miracle can save Olympic multihull sailing, the Tornado’s future looks anything but bleak. Without Olympic status, Ogletree reckons, “the class might decline because the pros get out. Down the road, however, I see a good chance for a renaissance with weekend sailors.”

Judging by the prosperous afterlife of other Olympic have-beens — like the Flying Dutchman (72 boats, 15 nations at the 2007 World Championships) or the Soling (52 boats, 14 nations at the 2007 European Championships) — one question begs to be asked: If life is that good without Olympics, why bother with the five interlocking rings at all? Baby Doll and her happy crew certainly didn’t care.

Dieter Loibner is sailing editor for Soundings. You can order a signed copy of his book, “The Folkboat Story” ($35, plus shipping) by sending an e-mail to scribe@thefluidpen.com (put “Folkboat Story” in the subject line).