Sailing Science

By Koren Wetmore

A firm grasp of aerodynamics allows you to understand what’s happening when wind passes over and around a boat’s sail, yet provides little strategic edge in a yacht race. The real advantage comes through teamwork, an understanding of the weather, and a little luck, says Professor of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering David R. Williams, an avid sailboat competitor.

“In sailing, the difference between winning and losing is much smaller than the accuracy of our predictions, so it really comes down to trial and error and experience,” he says. “When you reach a mark rounding and have three people who know each other so well that they do what needs to be done without any discussion, everything just flows. It takes years to get to that level of teamwork.”

Williams built his first sailboat at age 15 and purchased his first racing craft a year later. He’s raced in three Olympic sailing trials, and in 2008 his team qualified for the Etchells World Championship in Chicago. The team finished in 35th place out of 83 boats.

Williams continues to race competitively for the pure joy of sailing with his friends. He will set sail again this summer in a 31-foot-long Etchells 22 for the Chicago Yacht Club’s Racing Yacht Fleet series.