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poles apart

The current kerfuffle over headsail outrigger spars [“um,okay?” March 22] reminds us of how obsessed some people in our sport have become with squeezing every last fraction of a knot out of the rules, and how safety issues can often go to the back of the queue during the headlong hunt for trophies.

There is nothing new in pushing spars to the extreme limits of their capacity to control the force of wind on sails. The early Australian racing skiffs (above) had two-part gunter rigs, largely because a single wooden spar was unlikely to withstand the pull of the massive clouds of sail their crews set. 

The spinnaker poles were so long they were carried in three sections and then slotted together before the hoist. Gybing was so difficult the crews simply dropped the forestay, swung the pole through and then restored the forestay on the new tack. Not for the faint-hearted!

But even the best-made wooden spars could fail in unexpected ways. I am old enough to have done my first Sydney-Hobart race in a yacht whose sails were set on timber. Running hard under spinnaker in a fair-sized swell we buried the bow as a gust drove us down into the back of the wave ahead. The boat stopped but the rig kept going. 

Unable to cope with this sudden extra load the spinnaker pole snapped into three pieces, one of which flew back over the coach-house and nearly decapitated two of us in the cockpit. The shock of that near-death experience has never left me.

Which brings us to outriggers (or “reaching struts” as they are known Down Under). 

To my mind a key issue seems to have been forgotten in the debate over their legality, or how they should be rated and the measurement of the special sails they can support: safety. Anything that adds power also adds stress to the rig, and extra stress always increases the risk of failure.

Less than a year ago the massive mast of Wild Oats XI failed in moderate reaching conditions with the headsail clew poled out on a reaching strut. It is likely that the strut exerted just enough side-force on the mast to compress it ‘out of column’. (Much like pushing down hard on a pile of coins – eventually one coin will begin to slip and the whole pile then collapses.)

Good seamanship and a dose of luck saved everyone from injury on WOXI but it could have been ugly. That’s the problem with carbon: it can handle enormous loads but when it fails it does so explosively, and without warning. The common view among racing sailors in Australia after the Oats incident was that struts would be banned in the coming season. Apparently not.  

It’s pointless to blame the designers, sail-makers or spar manufacturers for trying to keep outriggers legal. They are only striving for market share at the most competitive end of the boating business. 

If there’s any blame to be apportioned then surely it lies with the ambitions of owners. Are the risks worth it? Don’t their carbon rocket ships go fast enough already?

– Anarchist David