Surfing the Scooner Excitement and ennui 
Photos from the 2000 Clipsal Classic, Goolwa-Milang race. (c) Nick Fatchen

Phil Bolger's sharpies all carry their bow out of the water (in flat water).  Sharp-bowed boats with immersed bows often have steering problems from the differences in water pressure  and water eddies acting on the bow, a result of the bow pushing more water out than down.  In Bolger's later designs, the bow held clear of the water is especially pronounced, for example in the Advanced Sharpies
The Light Schooner, though, is a nearly 20-year old design: the bow is barely out of the water and some strange manoeuvering chracteristics appear when she's surfing.  Planing the scooner in flat waters presents no difficulties - the crew simply shuffles about, usually back, until the boat is flying at her fastest and only the run is still attached to the water...

But surfing in moderate waves (2-3 feet) in strong winds creates a new raft of problems.  There is a limit how far back the crew can shift before the transom submerges in the following wave, especially where the wave is breaking or whitecapped. (The sound of a breaking wave coming from behind engages the attention, rather like the sound of sharp fingernails on Elm Street).

Where wavelengths are long, the immersed bow makes for much effort on the part of the helmsman to anticipate attempts at broaching.  However, as the water shallows and the distance between waves decreases, the challenge ceases to be bow eddies and broaching possibilities, but rather becomes the chance of running the boat bodily under...and especially where the skipper is race-maddened by 11 miles of windward work, which have wiped out almost all hope of even a placing, and is attempting to get every last ounce of speed out of the boat.

It's possible to sit angled down the following wave with the bowsprit and most of the fordeck stuck into the back of the wave in front.  Indeed, with a bit of judicious helm work and quiet sheet manipulation, it's possible to scare the forecockpit crew witless.  Injudicious helm work resulting in a totally buried bow and 4-inch waterfalls into the cockpit will scare everyone witless (though in this case, the helm had only half a wit to begin with).


This photo series is on Lake Alexandrina in moderate chop, with about 23knots of wind.  Watch the body language of the (new) forward hand.  We start with total relaxation as the schooner tears down the following wave. (ASA 400 film, 1/250th shutter speed)


The parting of the Red Sea starts as the helmsman rams the wave in front.  The forward hand wakes up.


The helmsman has miscalculated--rather than crashing over the wave in front, the bowsprit and most of the foredeck are now buried in the wave, there's a waterfall into the bow cockpit, and the boat has slowed down.  Note the foot-operated bailing bucket attempting to pre-empt the submarining... 


...with but little success.  Forward hand to the pumps! The helmsman has recovered the boat, and is starting to surf her again. 

Now, go to the first photo and repeat the sequence for the next nine nautical miles, and you'll get a feel for a "good sailing breeze" crossing of Lake Alexandrina in a light schooner.  (Incidentally, that pump was lost overboard shortly after the photos were taken.  The leading hand told the skipper it was a choice between losing the pump and losing the new forward hand, and got soundly castigated for making the wrong choice.)


Three-quarters of the Flying Tadpole crew in yellow stormsuits (cheap but effective)  prior to the preceding photos.  The boat is now officially in what used to be known as "offshore waters" but now given the far less romantic label of "unprotected waters" -- more than 2 nautical miles offshore.  The low-freeboard light schooner is being steered through the path of least resistance in an area of confused chop. The mainsheet hand, now resting from her earlier windward labours, is debating whether to have lunch or just die from low blood sugar, over-exertion and sea-sickness. 

The boat is moving at about eight knots on a beam reach in this photo, but alas, much too late to be of any use in this particular race...

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