THE GOODS : Sailing, Sailing Into the Virtual Ocean Blue


Ever watch America's Cup competition on ESPN2?

Ever watch paint dry?

For most of us, the excitement level is about the same. Except for die-hard sailors, the sport does not work well on television, where you get endless overhead shots of boats making their way through the waters off San Diego, interspersed with close-up views of a crew member frantically cranking a winch device that looks like a leftover from the Spanish Inquisition.

All quite alluring for those lucky few who regularly don Top-Siders and head out to sea for a bit of competition. For the rest of us who are fascinated by sailing but not into the rigors of racing, computer software is a far more entertaining alternative to TV.

Two programs now available, one on floppy disk and the other a CD-ROM, allow you to practice sailing maneuvers and even engage in a bit of virtual competition.

The simpler--but perhaps more enjoyable for us amateurs--of the two is "Sailing Master," created by sailor/programmer/illustrator Gary Shelef, who distributes it through his company, Starboard Software ((810) 545-9928). The floppy disk program is available in either Macintosh or Windows versions from Starboard for $59.99, although some catalogues list it for as low as $42.

The program starts with a bit of sailing music and then gives you a screen that allows you to choose the type of course you'll be sailing, and whether or not you want the program to automatically position your weight for optimum performance in this single-person craft. You can also choose to have it automatically adjust the "trim." If, like me, you don't know exactly what the "trim" is, it's best to allow it to do so.

You can also choose to practice alone or try your skill against computer-controlled competition.

After another screen that describes wind and weather conditions, you're on the virtual water!

If you are completely new to sailing, you can have fun clicking on the "tack," "jibe," "point up," "sheet out" and "fall off" buttons to your heart's content, just to see how they affect the course and speed of your little sailing boat.

But to get at least a fundamental understanding of what these sailing terms mean, you have to browse through sections of the 92-page manual that comes with the program. Luckily, unlike many software manuals, this one is clearly understandable.

After a few trials at the course laid out by "Sailing Master," you might want to try a little race. Even without a full understanding of how to get maximum speed out of a boat, you can watch the speed indicator on the screen and keep maneuvering until you reach a decent level of knots.

In a short course of only 300 feet, heading upwind, I managed after a bit of practice to beat my competition, the America Squared, across the finish line by five seconds!

My next race was not as momentous. In my good ship Cyburbia, I took a wrong turn and smacked right into the Stripes & Stripes. Then I was forced to travel in penalty circles while the competition continued on its way and easily beat me.

For more advanced sailors, there is "Interactive Sailing," a Windows CD-ROM distributed by Swfte International, available at a suggested retail price of $69.95.

Opening up this program, you can choose a view from the cockpit or from an elevated angle behind your boat. You also get a nautical chart showing the course you'll be traveling and a control panel that allows for adjustments of the various sails.

On this boat, a 34-foot J/105, you're a bit wealthier and so there is a full crew. You can choose to be the captain and give the orders, or be the crew making adjustments to the sails as ordered.

"Interactive Sailing" comes with only a small manual, but includes several videos taped at the J World Performance Sailing School to demonstrate the basics of boat handling. The videos get a bit promotional at times--I could have done without the below deck tour--but are mostly helpful.

The second best thing about both these programs, for me, was that they made me want to get out there on the water and take live-action lessons so that I could enjoy a bit of sailing this summer.

The best thing about them: After I was done sailing, I didn't have to wash down the boats.

* Cyburbia's Internet address is

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