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A Cunning Use Of Line
Mr Cunningham's contribution to sailing
April 2023

ravelers. Vangs. Booms. All these oddly named parts of a sailboat. There’s another one, and it was named after its creator: the Cunningham.

From air to sea?
Marine First Lieutenant Alfred A. Cunningham was the United States Marine Corps’ first aviator. Along with his Navy counterparts, Cunningham reported for flight training on May 22, 1922. Cunningham was Naval Aviator number five.

His military career included service in the Spanish-American War, World War I, and the Banana Wars in the Caribbean (few people know about the Banana Wars.) The airfield at Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point is named after him: Cunningham Field.

The bascule drawbridge in New Bern is also named on his behalf. Now you have New Bern bridge knowledge.

Alfred’s bridge

However, Marine Aviator Alfred A. Cunningham had nothing to do with the Cunningham on your sailboat. Read on.

The correct Cunningham
The Cunninghams found on modern sailboats were developed by Briggs Cunningham (January 19, 1907 – July 2, 2003).

Briggs Cunningham was most known as an automobile racer. He was featured on the 26 April 1954 cover of Time Magazine. He was the definition of an American Sportsman.

Cunningham’s Time Magazine cover.

This unrestored 1960 Chevrolet Corvette, chassis 3535, represents a milestone in Cunningham’s legacy.  This car, exactly as you see it, sold for $758,500 at the May 2021 Amelia Island Sotheby’s auction.

Cunningham’s 1960 Corvette, run at the 1960 Le Mans. (Sotheby’s Auction photo)

This was the #1 car run by Briggs Cunningham at the 1960 24 Hours of Le Mans, a grueling endurance race. It represents Cunningham’s successful effort to win the world’s most challenging race. In an American car. With American drivers.

Cunningham is a member of Motorsports Hall of Fame of America (1997) and the International Motorsports Hall of Fame (2003). In tribute, one of the corners at the LeMans International Speedway bears his name.

Having established Cunningham’s acumen in speeding on land, we get back to sailing…

An idea forms…
The downhaul idea came to Cunningham during the 1939 Fastnet offshore yacht race.

But it was only after World War II that Cunningham bought the schooner Brilliant from the Coast Guard and modified it to increase its speed; it was the first vessel to have a Cunningham downhaul installed.

What it do?
The Cunningham pulls down on the mainsail luff.

Opposed to the mainsail halyard, the Cunningham tensions the luff in the down direction. Luff tension controls draft position. Adding tension pulls the draft forward.

The Cunningham is the entire rig – lines, and blocks – used to tension the luff.

Draft position is mostly about drag, not power. If the draft is too far aft, it creates too much drag. As draft is moved forward, drag is reduced with some loss of power.

I talk about the Cunningham:

So where should it be?
The draft should be just forward of the middle part of the sail, most of the time. If you are overpowered, you can pull the draft forward with some extra luff tension. If in light air, a shape with more “aft draft” can create power. That’s another thing you now know.

Back to Cunningham the man
Since 1953 Brilliant has been the traveling ambassador of Mystic Seaport Maritime Museum. Cunningham donated the ship to the museum to be used as an off-shore classroom.

In 1958, Cunningham sailed in the America’s Cup. He was the skipper and helmsman aboard the winning twelve meter boat Columbia.

He is a member of the Americas Cup Hall of Fame (1993) and was inducted into the National Sailing Hall of Fame with a Lifetime Achievement Award.

Quite the sailing résumé.

SV Brilliant looking brilliant. (Mystic Seaport Museum photo)

He would have been well qualified for membership in Oriental’s Neuse Sailing Association, the Sailing Club of Oriental, or the Oriental Dinghy Club.

Gary Jobson, another renowned National Sailing Hall of Famer, met Cunningham when Briggs was much older. Jobson said, “Cunningham was gifted, vibrant, innovative, and a successful sailor who set a powerful example by helping many others reach their goals on and off the water.”

Yes, as we all know, the Cunningham tensions the sail luff in the down direction. But, Briggs Cunningham still deserves our respect and reverence.

Cunningham was racing royalty – on land and water.

So, I refrain from calling the Cunningham a “downhaul.” And I encourage you to do the same.

Fair Winds,
Captain John Rahm
(always too tight in the luff with too much Cunningham)

I was stuck for an idea. Thankfully, while having lunch together at the Silos, my live-aboard friend John Guessner recommended the Cunningham. I have written about the traveler and vang. Missing the obvious, the next step was the Cunningham. Thank you, John (Shoutout).

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Captain's Blog on TownDock.net is all about making your time on the water enjoyable. Captain John Rahm teaches sailing and boat handling at Third Wave Sailing.