If you guys want all the science that came in the beginning of this artical I can get it for you.
An individual who has sailed with and around Dennis Conner (of America’s Cup fame) related a quote to me in which Mr. Conner was asked why he wet- sanded his cup boats. He replied that he had absolutely no idea, but that if he didn’t, he was sure the other teams were and by God he was going to as well, if for no other reason than to level the playing field. It is also postulated that his teams wet-sand to promote team unity and to assure as “fair” as possible a hull form, more than a scientifically based attempt to gain speed. I believe he should wet-sand, then follow up with a silicone-based polish. It is interesting to note that when Dennis lost the Cup to New Zealand and subsequently took the Catamaran (yeah, boy) “Stars and Stripes” to get it back, he was not only wet-sanding, but using a controversial coating (polish) that I believe was called “Shark Skin”. It’s amazing to watch how in their desperation to go 0.001 knot faster, it’s even easier to suck the best sailors into trying every bottle of juice from every snake oil salesman on the globe. The fact is any possible difference that “Shark Skin” could have made, as compared to wet-sanding, or wax, or silicone polish, is so miniscule that it can’t be measured from the noise.
Go ahead and wax your hull. It will protect it from UV damage, keep it looking shiny and, thanks to Billy Crystal, we all know it’s better to look good than to feel good.
A Hobie Mailing List subscriber made another salient point that, unless you are doing your wet-sanding, on the beach, just before a race, you can rest assured your tow vehicle and trailer will be throwing all manner of road filth on your bare sanded hulls and it ain’t as smooth as you thought once you get to the race. Just a few streaks of tar and all your bets are off. Ever done a comparison of road grime removal between wet-sanded and silicone polished hulls. I have. No contest. Cleaner hulls are faster hulls we can all agree, N’est-ce pas? It’s also been postulated that wet-sanding on the beach the morning of a regatta is used as a psychological tactic. That is if someone sees a competitor paying that close attention to the details of his boat, he/she may begin to question his/her equipment preparation and any doubt one can place in an opponent’s mind on the beach translates to inches on the water. There may be some merit to that argument. Wet-sanding vs. Polishing is also moot the first time you blow a start or a tack, miss a shift, fail to cover a closely matched opponent, or foul someone and have to do a penalty turn(s).
So go ahead and wax your boat. If someone beats you and they wet-sand instead of waxing/polishing, they were a better sailor, not a better boat prepper. Even if it was Dennis Connor. Even the best can be scientifically misled. We won the spring A-fleet series on Cayuga Lake (NY) in a heavily waxed J33 this year. I have race-prepped boats from Sunfish® to Cats for people, including waxing and silicone-based polishes and they have finished no worse and sometimes better (psychological advantage?) than ever in regattas.
I believe the most important part of this debate, whether you personally decide to wet-sand only, or follow up with polish/wax, is the attention to detail either process brings. This is where gain can be achieved. By this I mean that a sailor/crew that expends the time and energy to painstakingly go over every inch of his/her hull(s) in preparatory obsession will necessarily be in tune with all his/her vessel’s nuances and idiosyncrasies and, I believe, this attention naturally flows to the rest of the sailing experience and the entire experience is heightened. Kind of Zen-like? One will also spot potential trouble spots sooner. That’s why most motorcycles you see are always spotless. A rider’s life may depend on mechanical integrity and a good way to stay in touch with that is to clean and preen. This has nothing to do with “having a faster boat”. Adjusting the “nut on the end of the tiller” through conscientious, contemplative time in the butt bucket is the only real way to do that.
I admit there are arguments to be made in opposition to mine that can sound pretty convincing. The only “fact” in this debate is that it is still just that. Most aerodynamicists will admit it’s still as much of an art as a science and the more we learn and understand, the less we realize we understand and the more we have to learn. The bottom line is that, as long is there is argument and the differences are microscopic anyway, I’m willing to err on the side of making my boat prettier and easier to maintain and, at the same time, will spend more time on the water, practicing skills.
For those who may be curious at this point, here is what I do to my boat (H16):
I wet sand, by hand, all the way up thru 500, 600, 800, 1000, and on to 1200 or 1500 grit 3M papers. I rub each grit of sandpaper in one direction only. Obviously you don’t want to sand through the gelcoat, so prudence is essential here. Then, as I switch to the higher number paper, I rub at a 90 deg. angle to the previous. In this way, I can easily see when the tiny scratches from the previous paper have been removed. I keep alternating as I go up. Then I apply 3M Fine-Cut rubbing compound with a 7” orbital buffer. This removes the rest of the sanding swirl marks. I proceed with a good quality polishing compound (3M, or Turtle Wax) and finish with a silicone- based polish (Starbrite Boat Polish, McGuiar’s #53/#53 Boat Polish, or Eagle Poly-1; whatever I have in the shop). I generally don’t wax/polish the topside of the decks because it’s virtually impossible to get the white residue out without gasoline and a flame thrower. I have discovered a silicone-based product from Black Magic®, called Professional Protectant™, that when applied to the decks, leaves an ultra-glossy, non-fading, UV protecting shine that lasts for weeks and makes the non-skid look like new. It’s a simple spray on/wipe off process. Yes, it’s possible I have to much spare time and, after all this, I still get my head handed to me on the race course, but it’s not the hull prep of my boat that’s to blame.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go put some time in on the water. See you there.
Christopher H. VanEpps
Aeronautical Systems Engineering