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Anchors Aweigh

I've accepted the United States will forever lag the developed world in terms of broadband penetration, television quality, cell phones, power systems and countless other technologies.

But I will not accept that my favorite diversion, sailing, is turning into yet another Yankee-doodle techno muddle.

Sailing's collapse in the U.S. is a shame. Gliding on the water, powered only by the wind, is a full-on active mystery -- you don't have to know how it works, but you can still revel in the sensation. And once you harness these forces beyond your control, you make the world, not the other way around.

Sailing was our country's technological birthright. The United States stepped onto the world stage when it developed a class of fast but viciously powerful sailing frigates in the late 18th century.

Take a trip to Boston and see a ship called the USS Constitution: That hulk of oak and iron is probably the reason why Tony Blair has to eat the George Bush lapdog jokes, and not the other way around.

But that was a long time ago. Our dominance of the wind has since faded. And sailing is going through a revolution everywhere but here.

In July, French sailors obliterated the New York-to-England sailing record in a multihull wonder boat called Orange II. Captain Bruno Peryon and his crew of 11 barrelled across the pond at an average speed of about 32 miles per hour over a four-day, eight-hour period. That's probably faster than most folks have ever gone in any boat, powered or not.

A Dutch yacht, the superadvanced ABN AMRO, set a record for fastest-sailing monohull. The boat streaked across the South Atlantic in 2005, sailing 627 miles in a 24-hour period. That's farther than most people can drive in a day.

The United States is also losing the race in recreational sailing.

American sailors still use the same slow old boats they have sailed for 50 or even 100 years. I love older boats, but most can only manage 8 mph maximum. Compare that sad figure to the 20 mph reached by popular international sailing skiffs such as the International 14 or Moth.

That's not to say some Americans aren't trying to bring speed to the water. Vanguard Boats of Portsmouth, R.I., builds a speed-sailing skiff called the Vector. Speed sailing requires new skills, and the Vector is this company's attempt at making them easy to acquire.

The Vector is about 15 feet long and sports just 370 square feet of sail, compared with about 550 square feet for an International 14. The Vector's hull is also shaped to be more forgiving, so it does not capsize as easily as full-blooded racing skiffs. And it is made from very durable fiberglass laminates, so bozos like me can't destroy it when they wipe out.

The Vector is also reasonably priced, at about $10,000, ready to sail. Compare that to a similarly equipped International 14, which can cost as much as $30,000 or more.

Into the Sunset

To get a sense of whether the Vector had a shot at putting some zip into American sailing, I visited blustery northern Michigan for a demo.

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