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Going Sailing

Vicki Hyde

We've been engaged in a bit of team-building exercise of late -- for that read the staff taking an afternoon off once a week to go sailing at the Lyttelton Sailing School. It's good to get away from the computers and out into the sunshine and the spray and learn a whole new skill, not to mention a whole new vocabulary.

The latter reeks of historical antecedents: words like forecastle and lazarette. We might not be shipping knights or lepers anymore, but their presence remains in an intangible form. The technology has changed relatively little too. We still rely on buoyancy and the push of the wind to get around, regardless of whether we have a carved piece of totara or some carbon-fibre reinforced plastic and fibreglass beneath us. Sure we might have all sorts of scientific underpinning for our sailing these days -- check out this issue's feature on the tidal physics of the America's Cup for just one approach -- but in a basic sense we're not so far from the triremes, longboats and waka of our ancestors.

For all our understanding of time and tide, of weather systems and coastal geography, much of sailing relies on the feel for wind and wave, sail and sun. Geoff, our tutor, took each of us forward and talked about the physics of the wind and the Bernoulli principle of the sails, but what sticks in my mind is his intense pleasure at the beauty inherent in the curve of a perfectly set sail. Such delight would not seem out of place to most people, even if they would consider wierd the similar delight that a mathematician can experience in working with an elegant formula.

And one day we may well take those skills and sail on other worlds. We know that the dusty seas of Arthur C Clarke's A Fall of Moondust don't exist, and it will be a very long time before the terra-forming envisaged by Kim Stanley Robinson in his Red Mars series gives us a means of sailing on our neighbouring planet. We might have to settle for the vicarious thrill of the huge star sails suggested as one means of leaving the solar system.

Vicki Hyde is the editor of New Zealand Science Monthly.