From Rum to Formula
I was reading about the most recent PWA competition in Tenerife and a picture at the bottom of the page caught my attention. In it was the podium celebration where the men's winners were spraying each other with champagne (or the Spanish equivalent). Philip Köster was on the top step - he's been on a tear this year having also just won Pozo - alongside Alex Mussolini and Victor Fernandez. Spraying bubbly is a popular way to celebrate sporting victories except, perhaps, at the Indy 500 where the winner drinks milk.
And then it struck me, what Köster was doing could never happen here in the U.S., at least legally. Philip Köster is only 18 years old. As any college student will tell you, the legal drinking age here is 21. In Europe, the legal age is 18 and sometimes, even, 16 (e.g. Austria).
It makes me wonder, is this why the PWA struggled so much to maintain a foothold in the U.S.? Is this why our 1996 Olympics were lauded as only "most exceptional" instead of the traditional "best Olympics ever"? Does our nation's attitude towards the legal drinking age keep our athletes from competing against the world's best? Is this why I doubt we'll never win the World Cup in my life time?
Of course, those between 18 and 21 largely treat alcohol restrictions much as our entire nation did during Prohibition, something to evade and ignore. Since the production of alcoholic beverages was illegal in the U.S. during that time, like college students today, people knew how to get it anyway. In the South, bootleggers smuggled moonshine out of the coves and hollows of the Appalachians. The skills required to evade and outrun authorities on those mountain became the basis for NASCAR racing. The first generation of drivers and builders was flush with those who had honed their craft running whiskey. And, it's not by chance that many of NASCAR's first tracks were in otherwise isolated spots like N. Wilkesboro. NC and Bristol, TN.
Those who could afford the finer things in life arranged to have better quality alcohol imported from places like Cuba. But to do that, you had to be faster than the government vessels patrolling the seas. So, "wealthy private clients (the Mafia)" hired MIT PhD naval architect Lindsay Lord to design high speed boats to bring in rum. Lord was good at what he did - when you have clients like that, you'd better be good.
When WW II broke out, the Navy needed fast boats and put Dr. Lord's expertise to more legitimate use. He was commissioned in the Navy and sent to Pearl Harbor. Partly inspired by Hawaiian surf boards, he began systematically studying planing hull forms to determine what characteristics, especially aspect ratio, provided the best results. After the war, he published his results in a book, Naval Architecture of Planing Hulls.
Lord found that a 2.5:1 ratio of length to width seemed to be optimal in rough water. More narrow shapes had more drag and less lift while wider shapes suffered from more "wave-making". In smooth water, even wider was better but he was trying to build craft suitable for a variety of conditions including rough water. Lord's book found it's way into the hands of a California surfer Bob Simmons
Bob Simmons was a very clever mathematician who worked for Douglas Aircraft and a bit of an odd duck. In the old days, he would have been called eccentric. Fortunately, for the world of surfing, he understood Lord's research and helped revolutionize the surf board. Prior to that, while there were some shorter, wider boards, surfing was dominated by long, heavy (75 lbs) boards. Simmons instead began to experiment with new techniques such as fiberglass and styrofoam. He started building boards with these new materials and based on the research of Lord. What came out were boards that were so quick and fast that they literally scared riders who were accustomed to their previous logs.
These new boards transformed what could be surfed.
Bob Simmons Big Malibu (1947)
"The ride and size of the wave has not been replicated to this day. Note: not another surfer can be seen, nor could they surf anything like this on the old planks and paddle boards." - Bob Ewell, Simmon's friend.
Simmons was very emphatic that his new style of surfboards were "hydrodynamic planing hulls". Unfortunately, his untimely death in 1954 in a surfing accident meant that while he left the surfing world his boards, he didn't leave it his understanding of board shape. Those that followed copied aspects of his boards without necessarily understanding why they worked. Over time, some elements were copied and improved on and others changed by those who didn't have his understanding of the hydrodynamic forces involved or they simply preferred a different aesthetic or look. Board width was generally limited to what could fit between a surfer's shoulders. It had to be paddled.
A Simmons Hydro Dynamic Planing Hull
By the late 1960s, surf board design had diluted many of his concepts. When Jim Drake and Hoyle Schweitzer began their noble experiments then, they simply used the existing standard for a "water board" at a size that would support their weight. That choice helped define what a windsurfing board looked like until boards became shorter and shorter. And narrower and narrower.
Some designers experimented with wider shapes but it wasn't until the late 1990s when sailboard designers focused on light wind performance as reality set in. Too many professional events had been cancelled due to wind below allowable minimums. Too many windsurfers grew tired of waiting for enough wind to plane.
Starboard was the first major proponent of wide boards with the Go. Jim Drake began a collaboration with them and among the results was the world beating Formula 175, "the worlds most winning race board ever".
In the last dozen years, Formula racing boards have become more refined. Formula racing puts an absolute premium on early planing with the ability to remain controllable even in high winds. Starboards current model Formula board, the Formula 168 measures 228cm long by 100cm wide - approx a 2.3:1 ratio. Almost all current Formula boards have pretty much the same dimensions.
Within rounding error, that's pretty much what Lindsay Lord said in 1946. I'll drink to that.
It's good to be the Captain.
- Thanks to Chris Pyron for telling me about "Lord Boards". Also, thanks to CNN for the annoying idea of interrupting the article with tangentially related links every other paragraph or so.
Surfer's Journal Article on Bob Simmons. Worth the read.