People and Boats: A Conversation with Peter Isler

Peter Isler (in white) calling tactics with owner George David at the helm aboard Rambler off St. Barths

When it comes to professional sailing, Peter Isler, 59, of San Diego, California, literally and metaphorically helped write the book. Isler’s sailing resume is pure pedigree: two America’s Cup wins as navigator (1987, 1988); Intercollegiate Sailor of the Year while at Yale University (1976); world championship titles; and line honors/course records in the Newport-Bermuda Race, the Transpac and the Transatlantic Race. Additionally, Isler is the author of several books, including Little Blue Book of Sailing Secrets and At The Helm: Business Lessons for Navigating Rough Waters. Isler earns his keep sailing and as a motivational speaker. His free time is spent windsurfing, riding horses with his daughter and playing rhythm guitar in his band. I talked to Isler about the evolution of pro sailing and the changes he’s seen in navigation and apparent-wind sailing.

SAIL: How did you get into navigation?

Peter Isler: I took a year off in between high school and college and did a lot of big-boat deliveries where I was exposed to early electronic navigation. I have a head for mathematics and at college taught a traditional piloting class, which I loved. I [sailed] as a tactician, trimmer and bowman back in the day, but in my first Cup I got slotted in as navigator.

SAIL: Can you describe the evolution of grand prix sailing?

PI: Back in the ‘70s, there really wasn’t such a thing as professional sailors. There were some “superstars,” but they were all industry people, mostly boatbuilders, sailmakers or delivery captains. Take, for example, the Admiral’s Cup, a preeminent event in the day. The owner might cover expenses, but no one got paid, and some of us slept on the boat.

Today 95 percent of grand prix sailing is done by professionals. There are still some industry people involved, but a large percentage are pure pros. And nobody sleeps on the boat anymore, except maybe for naps in between races!

SAIL: What was navigation like when you got started?

PI: Back then mental navigation was really important, and Dennis Conner was very good at it. It’s all trigonometry and geometry, good old piloting and dead reckoning, which was more in use back then, but is still super-useful today. The navigator might come up to the cockpit and ask the helmsman, “What have you been averaging for heading and speed for the last half-hour?” Mental navigation was a cool thing, and it has served me well to this day.

SAIL: Can you compare and contrast sailing grand prix trimarans and super-maxi monohulls?

PI: The biggest difference is that a multihull will be going faster, in certain sweet spots maybe two to three times faster, but mostly one-and-a-half times faster. Also, crew size is smaller on a multihull—you’re constantly rotating positions, so it feels like you’re on a small boat because there are less people. On a maxi, crew weight is usually good, you’re lucky to touch a sheet if you’re in the afterguard, and it’s a bonus if you can find a spot on the grinding handles.

As for similarities, both boats are apparent-wind machines. On the old IOR maxis, you’d go pole-back and sail dead downwind. Now that doesn’t happen. On a modern maxi the apparent wind rarely gets aft of 60 degrees. It’s colder, wetter and feels windier. Paradoxically, multihulls are much drier; fast monohulls are wet all the time—like riding on the leeward ama of a multi-hull.

SAIL: How does this change how you sail modern boats?

PI: You need to be much more sensitive to the apparent wind angle. The penalties for “setting and forgetting” the sheets are great; it’s Bernoulli’s Principal, not barn doors. The trimmer and the helm need to get into a groove—fall out a few degrees and your performance is off by many percentage points. On the old boats, there was less of a penalty.

Photo courtesy of Amory Ross

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