In late January 1967 near Oakland, California’s Jack London Square, I took delivery of my first boat, a new Excalibur 26, which was a kind of mini-Cal 40, the hot race boat of the time.  I was twenty-six years old, and it was a day I had been dreaming of for literally half my life,   I had taught myself how to sail the way I taught myself most things:  by reading and then doing.  I thought I knew how to sail; but this would be the first time I’d ever been the one in charge of the boat, as well as the first time I ever sailed alone.

    I was in a word, innocent, and the salesman had taken advantage of that innocence and sold me a lot of stuff I later discovered I didn’t need, including a 170% genoa.  For some reason the 170 and the mainsail were the only sails on the boat that day.  The working jib wasn’t ready, and neither were my outboard motor or winch handles.  Across the years this is beyond tolerance or belief; but such was my excitement that I pushed the boat away from the dock anyway to sail her to the slip I had rented at Berkeley Marina. 

    The distance was about nine miles:  three west tacking out the  channel between Alameda Island and Oakland; three northwest under the Bay Bridge; then three back east to the marina.  Even though the wind was moderate for the Bay area, short tacking that genoa without winch handles was hard work. 

    I still remember the joy I felt when I cleared the end of the channel and was finally out in the chop of San Francisco Bay.  I was sailing, sailing my own boat, and I didn’t have to pull the jib across again for almost an hour.   My hands were bloody on the tiller, but I didn’t care.

    After a final tack, I was able to turn downwind for the marina.  My slip too was downwind.  I had expected to be entering it with the outboard, and decided to lower the mainsail outside the marina and sail in under jib alone.  Faced with the same situation forty years later, I’d do it the same way.

    I don’t recall the square footage of the genoa.  Certainly it was considerably less than the genoa on my current 37’ sloop, THE HAWKE OF TUONELA.  But it seemed enormous as I kept easing the sheet, trying to spill wind and speed as I turned into the slip.  The bow did hit the dock, but not too hard, before I leapt off and secured dock lines.  After I lowered the flogging sail--this was before furling gear--I just sat in the cockpit and looked at my boat.  It was a great, great day.  Bloody hands and all.

    I learned a lot from the Excalibur.  Reading can only take you so far.  Enough so that seven months later I made my first coastal passage when the woman who was then a part of my life and I sailed out the Golden Gate and south to San Diego.

    Among my earliest lessons was that a 170% genoa is not much use on San Francisco Bay.  It is probably not much use anywhere unless you are racing, and not often even then.  I’ve never owned another.

    My next two boats, an Ericson 35 and EGREGIOUS, the Ericson 37 on which I completed my first circumnavigation via Cape Horn, had only 150% jibs.  EGREGIOUS’s was cutter rigged, so the 150% wasn’t even a genoa, but a jib top, with the clew high off the deck. 

    Spending more than three months south of 40º South on the first leg of that voyage, I didn’t use the 150% as much as I did a smaller working jib; and when I bought my next boat of ‘normal’ size, the S & S 36 which I named RESURGAM, I ordered a 135% genoa, even though by then I trusted and installed furling gear, which made handling headsails much easier.

    In between EGREGIOUS and RESURGAM, I sailed an 18’ Drascombe Lugger, which was yawl rigged and had furling gear on her 30 square foot jib.  I wondered about that until I got in bad weather in her out at sea and learned how useful it was to be able to reduce sail quickly without having to move my 156 pounds to the bow of a boat that displaced only 880 pounds.

    RESURGAM was the first boat on which I had a good instrument system.  She was, as have been all my boats except for CHIDIOCK TICHBORNE, a 1970s IOR design, with fin keel and spade rudder, big foretriangle and smaller high aspect ratio mainsail. 

    Over the years and miles of the circumnavigation and a half that I did in RESURGAM, the instruments helped me fine tune her and verified what I had sensed on EGREGIOUS, that as the wind picked up, I could keep furling the jib without losing speed.  In fact, boat speed often increased as RESURGAM heeled less and came back on her lines. 

    Although THE HAWKE OF TUONELA is only a foot longer than RESURGAM, she is noticeably larger, with five more feet of waterline, almost two more feet of beam, and a much taller mast.  Having found RESURGAM often overpowered by a 135% genoa, I ordered only a 130% for HAWKE.

    Obviously there is a trend here, and it doesn’t have anything to do with my getting older.  The first part of the equation is that I kept finding that my boats didn’t need a big jib going to windward in anything more than the lightest breeze; and the second part is that I frequently set spinnakers off the wind--conventional symmetrical ones with a pole on EGREGIOUS, and pole-less asymmetricals on RESURGAM and THE HAWKE OF TUONELA--and snuffer bags had made spinnakers easier to handle.      Two years ago I started using a Facnor gennaker furler, which has revolutionized how I sail.  Knowing I can quickly roll up  asymmetrical spinnakers from the cockpit if the wind increases, I set them now more than I ever did and use my jib as a reaching sail less when the wind is below fifteen knots.  Above fifteen, unless the wind is from dead astern, THE HAWKE OF TUONELA is near hull speed under working sail.

    I’ve sailed about 25,000 miles in the past eighteen months, completing my fifth circumnavigation, so my 130% jib is due for an honorable retirement.  THE HAWKE OF TUONELA’s next jib will be only a 110% or maybe even a 100%. 

    It’s taken more than forty years, but I think the trend has reached an end.