28 Mar 2011

XVII Descenso del Oria - A Basque Rowing Regatta

We arrived in Orio late on a Friday night after seven hours on the road from Barcelona. As we drove slowly down the main street that runs parallel to the river, patrons of the outdoor bars and the strollers along the sidewalks paused to look at the odd boat we were towing on the trailer. Eventually someone recognised the boat and they shouted in Castilian, "the Catalans have arrived!" and there were cheers. Some more shouts followed, some of it in incomprehensible Euskara, the language of the Basques. We were in the Basque country for the XVII Descenso de Traineras del Oria, a pre-season regatta. The organisers had invited some Catalan clubs to the event. The two Iberian nations have many cultural differences, among them the rowing boats that Basques and Catalans race.

While the Catalans have been racing llaguts for about two decades, the Basque traineras have a history that goes back to the 19th century. The Catalans launch their tubby seaworthy llaguts, based on old fishing boats, through the beach surf along a stretch of Mediterranean coast that has few natural harbours. The 300 kg llaguts are manned by eight oarsmen, or oarswomen, seated side-by-side and a coxswain. The traineras, longer and lighter than the llaguts, are derived from whale chasers that darted out from harbours into the Bay of Biscay. The traineras seat 14 in an odd arrangement of seven rowers on port side and six on starboard side. Instead of a rudder the coxswain uses a steering oar over the port side. Whether rowing in an llagut or a trainera it is still hard-on-the-ass fixed seat rowing.

Orio a town of 5,000, and like many Basque coastal communities, has a splendid rowing tradition. The rowing club is very impressive, not only do the members row traineras they also race sliding-seat shells. The boathouse is filled with Empachers, Filippis and Hudsons. During the years of the Spanish dictatorship Orio hosted international regattas, including some in the late 1960s and early 1970s, that attracted Oxford and Cambridge. However, the Descenso del Orio is strictly a fixed-seat rowing event.

On race day Saturday it was overcast and raining. The main launch area for the visiting clubs and crews was down by the llotja where the Basque fishermen land their catches and repair nets. There were dozens of trailers and boats surrounded by crews preparing their boats. Spectators and supporters milled about examining the llaguts and traineras. The Basques and Catalans were keen to look over each other's boats. Since their respective languages are mutually incomprehensible the lingua franca was Castilian but there was not a single Spanish flag visible the length of Orio's waterfront.

The llaguts were all of fibreglass construction, heavy and stoutly built. Most of the trianeras were also fabricated with fibreglass but built with more finesse and greater economy of material. However, there were some traineras of wood construction made with the same craftsmanship as old wooden rowing shells. The varnished wood of one of the traineras that I examined reminded me of the wide-grained cedar used on Pocock racing shells of forty years ago. Most of the oars are made from carbon fibre.

The Descenso del Orio is organised like a head race four or six kilometres long depending on a crew´s category. As the race course is on an estuary, the start of the regatta is timed to coincide with slack water at high tide. Otherwise the upper reaches would be too shallow to row. The tide at Orio is an impressive four metres and it makes a big difference to the navigability of the river.

There were only three llaguts and as guests we were given the first three starting positions but there were 62 traineras entered. A couple of the Catalan clubs raced in borrowed traineras. They were handicapped by their unfamiliarity with the equipment. All of the boats milling about the start area reminded of the Head of the Charles in Boston. The Oria especially at the start is much narrower than the Charles. Even the damp weather felt like autumn in New England but the background on the Oria consisted of steep green mountains instead of Boston skyscrapers.

Like any rowing race one expects to hurt and the Descenso del Oria was no exception. Fixed-seat rowing is as hard as sliding-seat rowing. The first part of the course was narrow and meandering but the second half wider and more open to the head wind and rain that seemed to build during the course of the race. The last 800 metres of the course followed the Orio waterfront and there was a bridge just beyond the finish line. It seemed like the whole town was out to watch and the crowds on shore and on the bridge were very vocal in their appreciation of the crews' efforts. We bested the other llaguts and then drifted by the finish line to watch the traineras come across. With longer waterlines, narrower beams and larger crews the traineras are much faster than the llaguts. The traineras have an impressive ponderous grace as they move, their fine bows slicing neatly through the water. I thought that it would be interesting to row in one.

Later, many of the crews went for dinner at a sagardotekis, a traditional Basque cider house, high on a hill overlooking the river and valley. The Basque cuisine is said by many to be the best in Spain. We were served codfish omelets, huge thick beef steaks, and chunks of pungent cheese. We drank the strong apple cider poured directly from the huge barrels that lined the walls of the sagardotekis. Sitting a dozen to a table on bench seats, oarsmen and oarswomen talked about rowing and food. The table next to us was occupied by a group of Orio veterans who had there own rowing stories to share. It reminded me of long ago Saturday nights up at the Henley Island clubhouse on Martindale Pond but the Basque food was better.

(All photographs by Sergi, Carol and Blanca, Club Nautic de Premia, Premia de Mar)

18 Mar 2011

Solar Sails See the Light

 An artist's depiction of the solar sail spacecraft LightSail-1.
By Rick Sternbach and courtesy of The Planetary Society

Over the last decade the development of interplanetary spacecraft fitted with solar sails propelled by sunlight, much like sailboats dependant on the wind over a terrestrial sea, has evolved in fits and starts. The solar sail is not a new concept. In 1871 Scottish physicist James Clerk Maxwell postulated that light photons from the Sun exerted a force on exposed surfaces. Three decades later Maxwell´s theory was proved experimentally by the Russian physicist Peter Lebedev. Quantum theory suggests that photons act as small packets of energy with the character of matter. A photon striking a surface thus imparts a bit of momentum. In the 1920s Soviet rocket pioneer Friedrich Zander proposed that photons could propel a spacecraft. The notion of photons exerting a force should not be confused with the much weaker solar wind that gives comets their tails. Proof that solar radiation could be used as means of control and propulsion came in 1974 when the Mariner 10 spacecraft, on a mission to Mercury, was low on fuel. To stretch precious reserves NASA engineers successfully manipulated the pressure on the satellite's solar panels.

Two recent events have advanced the development of solar sails as a means of propulsion. First, on January 20 NASA deployed the NanoSail-D, a small experimental solar sail spacecraft, into low Earth orbit. NanoSail-D will eventually succumb to drag from the upper atmosphere, re-enter and burn up but not before providing important data on the capabilities of solar sails. The other event occurred in late January when the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) announced that it was extending the mission of its IKAROS spacecraft. IKAROS was launched in May 2010 and, partially propelled by solar sails, flew past Venus in December and is now on its way to the far side of the Sun. IKAROS has proved the practically of solar sails for interplanetary travel and gathered much relevant data.

The acceleration provided by light photons bouncing off the surface of a spacecraft's sails is very slight but given enough time very high speeds can be reached. The more reflective the surface of the sail the more momentum is imparted to it by the colliding photons. A lighter spacecraft has less inertia to overcome so considerable engineering ingenuity is required to cram extendable sails into the smallest and lightest package. A solar sail spacecraft, once blasted into a high earth orbit by a rocket would have no more need for conventional chemical fuels. The same sunlight also works on the spacecraft´s solar panels to produce electricity. The sails are made of ultra-thin aluminium covered mylar that can be folded compactly and stored for launch. Once in space the sails are deployed by either telescoping struts, or, as is the case of IKAROS, by spinning the spacecraft to create centrifugal forces that hold the sails open. The direction of the push, and thus, the spacecraft's trajectory can be controlled by changing the angle of the solar sails with respect to the Sun.

Later this year another experimental solar sail project is expected to go into space to gather more data. The Planetary Society, a US-based private non-profit organization, hopes to launch its LightSail-1 spacecraft into a high earth orbit. Solar sailing may prove to be more practical for interplanetary travel within the solar system rather than for deep space missions where the strength of the push rapidly diminishes as the craft moves away from the Sun. However, some scientists envision solar sail spacecraft powered by laser beams aimed from Earth. A sort of ongoing shove from the home planet, powering and directing the mission onwards.