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Saturday, Aug. 14, 2004

Optimists head out to sea, next Olympics in view

You must forgive the fact I am not straying far from the ocean side this summer, but interesting people just keeping falling into my lap within kilometers of my home. Take this week, for example. . . .

News photo
Hal Wagstaff, who trained as an architect but had sailing in his blood, merged his interests and began designing yachts, creating entirely new classes of boats.

"Do you speak English? Parlez-vous Francais? Sprechen sie Deutsch?" rattles off this guy in friendly fashion, plonking himself down beside me at Zushi JR train station. "I'm Hal Wagstaff, from Auckland, New Zealand, staying at Shonan Village Center and judging the Kyorin Cup 2004 IODA (International Optimist Dinghy Association) Asian Sailing Championship out of Hayama Marina."

We meet there on the morning of the first race, the quayside busy with youngsters readying a battalion of nippy little boats known as Optimists, the whipping of sails acting as a snappy counterpoint to the languages of many nations.

Now a sprightly 73, Hal was born into a sailing family. "I was named after my Uncle Henry, but it got shortened at my baptism; there was only a little bit of water in the font!"

His paternal grandmother's father was a sea captain between Britain and Australia. "When she married my grandfather, he did an apprenticeship as a carpenter and worked in the Australian shipyards. In 1896, when the economy downturned, he moved his family to Wellington in New Zealand."

Here he set up a construction company, joined by two of his sons. "One was a keen cricket player. The other -- my father -- always had an interest in the sea, and turned to building racing yachts. My parents had five sons, and we all became interested and competent in sailing, winning national titles from 1939 until quite recent times."

Hal trained as an architect, moving to London in 1953. After working for several years in and around the U.K., he merged his interests and began designing yachts. "I built my first boat at age 16." Right now he's completing a vessel for a customer in Australia.

His favorite design is known as the Moth. In the 1960s, he met Takao Otani, who was interested in developing a fleet of sailing craft in Japan. "Sailors in the U.K., Oz and New Zealand agreed there was a niche in the sport for an 11-foot-long (3.3-meter) vessel with 85 sq. ft (7.8 sq. meters) of sail, but which within these parameters could be any shape or design." It's now known worldwide as the Moth Class.

The Optimist -- designed to encourage interest among young people (in this championship aged from 8 to 15) -- was conceived in the U.S. about the same time, and was quickly adopted in Scandinavia, Europe and Asia. It is now popular worldwide.

There is another niche to be filled, Hal believes, for 15- to 20-year-olds. And yes, Hal is working on it. "Many of the designs in use today were devised 40-50 years ago. Heavy and dour, they don't stimulate the spirit. It's important to move on, or we'll lose out to whatever marine sport makes kids feel good. Looking back is fine, but as our national champion Sir Edmund Hilary says, don't get bogged down; use what you learn about the past to move forward."

Optimist Class sailing is not part of the Olympics and never will be, he says, but there are some 4,000 such vessels in Japan alone, with 110,000 Optimists enjoying the sport in 120 countries. Hal is confident that among the young sailors representing 12 nations in Hayama (mostly Asian but including teams from Italy and the U.S.) are future stars of the Games .

Sailing as part of the Olympics is designed around physique and gender, with Flyweight through to Heavyweight sailors provided with boats designed to standards and made by the same manufacturer. Hal thinks sailors should be allowed to apply their technical skills. "Rowing and cycling are also equipment-focused sports. If you've designed your own bike, kayak or oar, you can win a gold medal, but if you want to develop your own yacht, you can't."

Another regret is the image of sailing as an elitist sport -- a hangover from colonial times, when only the privileged enjoyed the luxury of recreation. "Back in the 1880s, my granddad was a great supporter of the eight-hour day. Sadly the concept of the weekend has all but disappeared again. It's not helping alter the image of the sport."

Hal has been a judge of sailing events for over 30 years. Regarded as an independent, he is called upon in many parts of Asia and comes to Japan on average twice a year. He acts as a coordinator and adviser to the Optimist Dinghy Association, and sees the sport developing along a slow and steady path. "Asia has a lust for sailing."

Hal's wife is a great support for his activities, but right now is recovering from heart surgery and not traveling far. "Our eldest son is commodore of a yacht club in New Zealand and recently brought a team to the All Japan Sailing Championship Omaezaki." Son No. 2 is in Australia. The third is a pilot in Canada.

Being blessed with good health himself, Hal cannot imagine ever retiring. "In 1992, the helmsman who won the 200-mile (320-km) Toba Pearl Race in Japan (in a yacht designed by Hal) was 82." Sailing makes him feel so alive and in balance that he likens it to chess on water. "I love the way it unites the physical, emotional and cerebral."

Most minor differences that arise on the water tend to be resolved by the kids themselves. But as vice president of the International Sailing Federation, Hal and his fellow judges raise a yellow flag for any infringement of written rules, whereupon the boat must make a complete turn before rejoining the race.

The great thing about sailing between the sea and sky, he adds, is that barriers disappear. "When kids from India and Pakistan meet in competition like this, Kashmir does not exist."

International Sailing Federation: www. sailing.org , International Optimist Dinghy Association: www.optiworld.org , English links for sailing in Japan: www.netlifemin.org/missions/shaw/links/htm

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