When winter's winds begin to blow, some racing sailors head south to sample the daiquiris on the southern circuit or the lazy run from Los Angeles to Acapulco. Others gird themselves in quilted long Johns, launch their 12-foot dinghies into the ice floes of Long Island Sound and grimly pretend to enjoy the rigors of frostbiting. A third group just sits around the yacht club, playing gin and wishing it were spring again.
It was from the seasonal frustration of such a group at Long Island's Sea Cliff Yacht Club one grisly evening two winters ago that the brisk competition shown at the left was born. Unable to join the southern migration, unwilling to go out on the water, these disenchanted sailors got to doodling with match-sticks, soda straws, bits of cardboard and the like. Before they knew it they had a fleet of sailboats.
Racing sailors being what they are, the urge to pit one boat against another was instant and predictable. Some baking pans were commandeered from the Sea Cliff club galley and filled with water to serve as miniature bays. The lungs of the assembled members were pressed into service to whistle up a wind, and the first of the Downwind Yacht Club's annual indoor winter racing seasons was under way.
The Downwind's name stems from the fact that all its races are to leeward, but the name was not adopted until the racing had become considerably more sophisticated than on that first informal night. As competition and interest among the members grew, the baking pans gave way to a carefully constructed tank, 16 feet long, 20 inches wide and an inch deep. Lung power was replaced by a big electric fan artfully installed behind a honeycomb grating to direct its blast straight down the length of the tank. The paper-and-matchstick sailing fleet proliferated into a four-inch rating class of astonishing scope and variety.
Unlike one-design classes, in which all boats are theoretically identical, a rating class permits a wide range of design within a certain fixed formula. Thus the boats that race for the America's Cup can be any size or shape, provided their various dimensions resolve out to the figure 12 under the complex formula of the International Rule. The boats that compete at the Downwind Yacht races must likewise conform to a rigid, if somewhat simpler, rule, i.e., fully rigged and ready to sail, they must be able to pass freely through a section of four-inch drainpipe (above), which is kept handy at all times on the club premises.
Within the limitations of the drainpipe rule, the members of the Downwind have combined ingenuity and imagination with a number of dime-store plastic and cellophane products to produce a glittering fleet of spinnaker-rigged monohulls, catamarans, trimarans and out-riggers. There is even a sailing hydrofoil that climbs up on its hind legs and skitters down the course like a praying mantis in a panic.
Since all the Downwinders are serious competitive sailors when the weather permits, they are constantly worrying over hull forms and sail shapes and scrapping old designs to make way for new ones in an effort to gain a split second against an opponent.
Up to now Downwind sailing has not made a stir in international competition comparable to that of the America's Cup, but there are subtle indications that it might. A group of English yachtsmen has issued what sounds very like a challenge to the Downwinders and—a sure sign of the success of any sailing event—has even urged a change of rules. With some slight modification of the ducting of the airflow, say these iconoclasts, the Downwinders could provide some very spirited upwind yachting.