The term “sandbag” is used in several seemingly unrelated senses. As a verb it can mean to emplace bags to prevent flooding; to pretend to be a duffer at golf or poker or auto racing, only to reveal your mastery when the wager becomes substantial; or to overwhelm a person or group, as in a public meeting. As a noun, a “sandbagger” is a person engaged in the activities just mentioned. If you trace the term’s origins on Google, you get references to its use in 1860, when criminals were known to use sandbags that didn’t appear to be dangerous as weapons to violently attack someone by surprise.
But this term was also used even earlier, in the 1850s, to describe a kind of racing sailboat. The “sandbagger,” was so named because of the practice of using movable bags of sand as ballast, which the racing rules of the day permitted. Without shifting the ballast, these boats could capsize. Moving ballast to improve upwind speed, like modern dinghy sailors hiking out or racing crews sitting on the rail, was not new. It had been done by pirates, privateers, and slavers for decades to improve performance when on the wind, running from the law. But as ballast of the day on big boats was pig iron or rocks, it took a large crew to achieve the desired result. It couldn’t be done very quickly, so was reserved for those times when you would be on one tack for quite awhile.
The racing “sandbaggers” were flat-bottomed sloops in the 18-28 foot range, small enough so that one or two men could have a large effect on the upwind performance of a boat by moving bags of sand. They first became popular in New York, later spreading to Boston and the Great Lakes. Sandbaggers were based on working oyster boats, but quickly became one of the earliest classes of boats commonly raced in the United States. Replicas have been recently built and can be seen in action here: http://www.nshof.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=443%3Abull-a-bear-music-video&Itemid=271. Oddly, this video and the longer one that follows make no mention of the use of sandbags.
Today, high-end race boats use exactly the same concept, moving water instead of sand and pumps instead of manpower. But the relationship is between the derogatory term “sandbagger” and the clever and perfectly ethical sailing practices of yesteryear, if indeed there is any such relationship, remains obscure.
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