Man has always used wind to propel boats for trading, fishing, and warfare, but it wasn’t until the 17th Century that the Dutch decided to turn it into a competitive sport. England’s King Charles II adopted the custom around 1660, ensuring it spread to the American colonies and the rest of the world. Whilst sailing doesn’t exactly compete with the Superbowl or the World Cup for ratings, you might have heard of a certain prestigious regatta: The America’s Cup, as brought to you this year by a flotilla of banking, software and luxury goods sponsors.
A one-on-one ‘match race’ elimination between as many as ten different challenging nations, the race was traditionally the preserve of venerable yacht clubs and their plutocratic patrons. The Us held the cup for an incredible 113 years, the longest winning streak in the history of any sport, until 1983 when the Australians took the “Auld Mug” away from the New York Yacht Club. As we go to the press, the current holders are still the Swiss, which is pretty good for a landlocked country.
The Cup aside, sailing also attracts nine Olympic classes, and thousands of other races are officially sanctioned annually, in everything from one-person dingies to multi-million-dollar global Volvo Cup boats. The inherent challenges of the sport are its complex and unpredictable racing conditions, intricate rules and high stakes. At its top level, running a team mirrors the scale of a reasonably sized business; so it unsurprisingly tends to appeal to a certain type of character—CEOs and entrepreneurs seem to find discipline a good place to take their egos for a splash when competition on land runs dry.
Apart from living on a sailboat, and spending a large majority of weekends booze cruising chicks around the LA coastline on my mate Spoon’s 50 ft Catalina, my racing experience is limited. I first cut my teeth as a bowman on a J-105 crew some years back on the East Coast of America.
The 105 is a 10 ½ meter racer built in Rhode Island – its popularity sterns from an amazing construction and design, making it a very competitive class. I’ve come up to the J-Boat Advanced sailing course in San Francisco to re-acquaint myself with the concept of ‘performance over pleasure’, on a boat that I thought I knew.
Day one, my first obstacle is terminology. Sailing has its own language and often there are five different ways of saying. I sit in the introductory Monday morning confused by the barrage of weather helm, aft, clew, backstay Cunningham – instead of what I’m used to which is a drunken (and occasionally stoned) captain shouting “un-clear that… mm, red thing.”
Wayne, our instructor who started out racing dingies at the age of six in Southern California, walks us through the rudimentary of tuning a boat to sail at its optimum (neutral helm) on the chalkboard. Again I try and make sense out of the complicated explanations of center resistance (moveable point beneath the water line/on the keel) and the center effort (moveable point on the main or big sail). Balancing these two opposing forces will allow the helmsman to let go of the tiller.
Steering a boat is accomplished by pulling or pushing the tiller in the opposite direction you want the boat to go in. The tiller is connected to the rudder, which acts as a moveable fin under the water. In racing, steering causes resistance or drag, so racers find ways to minimize steering and perfect the tacking and jibbing with as much fluidity and grace as possible, in often very hectic conditions – which me and my fellow members were soon to experience fist hand.
There are five of us in all including the aforementioned inebriated Captain Spoon. George, a late 40s commercial real estate agent from Texas; ray, an Irishman late 30s from New York who’s been racing for two years, and Bill, a retiree who races a boat he owns in the local bay. We are divided into two groups and head down to a pair of J80s, a smaller, 8-meter version of the 105. I’m assured it’s as fast if not faster than its bigger sister. With a little ado owe launched, with an instructor each, through the supertanker-lined channel for our first taste of the infamous San Francisco bay winds. We switch our three crewmembers between each position on the boat: helmsman (captain/steering), jib trimmer (from sail adjustor) and pit person (tactician). Teas George has the misfortune of being partnered with Spoon and myself.
As we arrive in the lower basin, with me at the helm, we are struck by an unmitigated sailing disaster: no wind. And to add insult to injury the current is making both boats sail backwards. I look at Wayne our instructor for help or clue; he just shakes his head with a smile and shrugs his shoulders. After an hour, we finally see the wind coming on the surface of the water. With the boat turned in the right direction we are swiftly accelerated upwind. We are told about the importance of keeping the boat flat by shifting body weight around by hiking or leaning over the side, to keep the sails as flat to the wind as possible, which increases speed. Wayne signals it’s time for a “tack” or turn so I, as the helmsman, shout, “prepare to tack.” The wind change means the sails swings across the deck. Once again we’re moving at a furious pace as Wayne now explains how the sails are fine-tuned.
By looking at the sails an accomplished racer can see problems and solutions. This is where the men are separated from the boys in sailboat racing. Like tightening a sheet on a bed, a sailboat has four different options as to how change sail shape, to either power up or de-power a sail. Manual adjustments and tweaks to the OVBC (Outhaul, Vang, Backstay, Cunningham) happen continually as the wind shifts and the advantage for a tight hauled (most direct route to the marker) course is sought.
By mid-afternoon Spoon earned himself the new nick name ‘St. Tropez’ for his relaxed and casual hiking style. Everyone else sits legs over the side of the boat with maximum body weight pressed into lifelines. Spoon lays legs-crossed on the deck, with his cap tipped over one eye like a vacationing Frenchman.
Wayne signals its time to jib around. I shout, “Prepare to jib” and my small crew prepares (wakes up). Once the boat is eased around, George the technician to set spinnaker. The spinnaker is the big billowing colorful sail one is accustomed to seeing in race photographs. Once it’s set the boat takes on a whole new feel, as the speed increases by a margin. Then bizarrely it starts to hum. The hull of most race boats is designed to surf on top of the water on downwind reaches. As our speed increased the hull sounds this eerie moan as if I’m causing it pain.
Spoon, my sail trimmer, is now working to keep the spinnaker sail up out of the water and full of wind. I try and keep the boat pointed in the optimal downward position. For a moment I look up and realize that we are flying.
Once my turn is finished I’m rotated to sail trimmer and St. Tropez’s somewhat relaxed demure allows the spinnaker to drop in the water, where it stays until it rips. The big tear causes us to retire for the day. And Spoon’s nickname to be temporarily changed to adjectives I cannot repeat here.
After a long and deep night’s sleep we are back at J-boat school for our morning brief. Texas tells me he’s drained and that he didn’t even consider the physical aspect before the trip. Today we discussed race tactics: reading the course, other boats and the wind. What is presented to me in the following hour seems more like what you’d expect to take in during a four-year degree.
Soon we are underway again. The wind is slight so we are towed out of the lower basin – these sleek racing boats would never have an onboard motor for weigh purposes. I eat my lunch early and contemplate removing my follies as the sun is shining bright. Once in the basin we are met with a surprisingly windy bowl and not much chop, ideal sailing conditions. Sails are tightened in or flattened and one by one George, Spoon and I again swap responsibilities. Wayne mentions that the wind is picking up and in normal racing conditions a smaller and thicker “storm” spinnaker would be used, but we don’t have one aboard so we just do what we can. With Spoon at the helm I get a chance to enjoy the thrill as the boat skips gracefully over the water.
As we near the end of the downwind run we prepare to bring the spinnaker back onto and into the boat. This involves every once of strength you have and a scrambled sail gathering technique, which looks like a crab eating at high speed. Failed spinnaker sets or retrievals often result in the loss of a race. As with most of the things that Wayne said in his morning lectures his wisdom eventually started to make sense: “you don’t have to go faster than everyone else, just don’t go slower and don’t make any mistakes.”
With George now on the helm and another downwind run before us we prepare the spinnaker. With me now on sail trim duty I’m responsible for the spinnaker’s shape, which I control by pulling in, or letting out the one corner that’s not fixed to the boat. It feels like the wind has picked up since our last run. George does a good job of keeping the boat on the very narrow course one has on the down wind. If the helmsman steers too far away from the wind coming from behind us, the spinnaker collapses. If the helmsman steers too much into the angle of the wind your speed increases but it also heels the boat over, which means it’s no longer surfing on top of the water but cutting in and down.
We all have a very valuable lesson in this as we run upwind again for another spinnaker set, with me now on the helm. The wind speed has increased substantially, to 35 knots. 40 is considered a gale force. Our hair and hoodies flap madly in the wind. Hearing each other has become hard as the wind blasts us. George and Spoon set the spinnaker perfectly. The boat lurches forward. Spoon, now the technician, is closest to the mast and the boom vang – hydraulic tool used to shape the sail that is also known as the “oh shit” panic button. When fully released it deflates the main sail and all the wind spills out instead of the sail. Wayne screams forward to Spoon to keep this option well within his reach. Nerves start to tingle as the speed just keeps increasing.
The only way to understand what happened next is to drive at top speed down a highway in a Lamborghini Murcielgo – naked, with windows down and your body covered in Vick’s vapor rub. The boat is comes up out of the water and leaves a wakes like a motorboat. Water sprays from either side of the boat. The hull’s cowboy yahoos with watering eyes and the normally composed George looks like he’s just been propositioned a threesome by two beauties. Everyone’s screaming with joy with the exception of the helmsman (me) who’s very focused on not getting too much wind under our skirt. Then it happens. An extra gust takes us over the edge as the Murcielago leaves the highway.
As the breach happens everything slows down. I shot “vang!” Once released, the main sail makes a loud crunching noise as it releases pressure but it’s not enough. The boat is going over and before other measures can be taken, I see George fall past me and into the water. The mast and the mainsail are now in the water still fighting to fulfill their earthly purpose harness wind. I look down and see only the bottoms of George’s sneakers as he fights to untangle himself from the web of ropes that have spilled from the cockpit. Wayne tells me to release the tack line, which will leave only one of the three sides of the spinnaker sail attached to the boat. Then standing next to meat the rear reaches in and grabs the Texan as I fight with the tiller. Once George is safe back in waist deep cockpit, Wayne, calm as 007, looks at me and says, “I’ll take that.” I relinquish command of this sinking vessel and move forward to help bring the spinnaker in which is now wildly whipping around in front of us.
I wake up the next morning, in a room of the infamous rock and roll Phoenix hotel after an amazing dinner, a fine bottle of Mas de Dumas 2002, one too many cognacs and some lewd photos somehow recorded on my digital camera. I really would love a break but I know in a couple of hours I will be heading out to sea for the hardest day yet. My body aches. I can only imagine what these offshore racers feel. After our morning chat on downwind strategies and tactics I go to the toilet throw up.
Once on the water I don’t feel quite so bad. We tack back and forth across the channel, moving gracefully from side to side as the boat shifts in a dance whose grace I never thought I would master. We head out to the lower basin for a day of racing. Spoon and I put some good fights but we are out-sailed every race. We have a few close ones with finish within a boat’s length but my heart and my brain were not in strategy mood. We have made a lot of mistakes – or I have – I suppose knowing that tomorrow is the big day and that’s it’s bad luck, in sailing circles, to win the practice races. I head back, zombie like, to the Phoenix and am asleep by nine.
Friday, I’m up early and ready. Again I, like everyone else going out on the toilet-less boat, am going through the daily coffee ritual in hope of inducing that moment of need on-shore. Even though we were defeated yesterday, Spoon still managed to mention with a smile, the fact that at least he hasn’t had to shit whilst sea. Our final morning’s lesson is on regatta preparation. We have a few practice starts and races, which we don’t do so well on. After lunch, we are ready for a race against the other team and it becomes my turn to take the helm.
Slightly behind the start, I switch to a tighter series of tacks up by the middle of the course. We have luck with the wind and by the time we get the windward marker we are ever so slightly ahead. The pressure is on as both boats set spinnakers feet from each other. We increase our lead on the downwind section and have a nice spinnaker retrieval. I bring the boat around to once again charge against the wind and increase our lead. I have yet to look back and I decide I am only going to see that boat during this race if they pass us-- All or nothing. I hear from the crew that they are now shadowing our course upwind and making progress. We make it first to the marker and set the spinnaker for the last time of the J-World advanced racing course. This should now bring us home, as the finish line is the dock (where we launch from every morning). It’s a long leg down the channel, which involves the other boat screwing up a jib, shifting wind patterns and our boat almost breaching in a maneuver to avoid a tugboat without losing speed, but in the end we manage to take less mistakes and bring her home for a marginal victory.
A week later, I receive an email from George telling me: “by the way, on the final race, count your blessing that we bobbled the spinnaker takedown at the leeward park.”
This reminded me of a great race in the America’s Cup of 185. The US Schooner yacht, America, beat 15 other yachts representing the Royal British Yacht squadron by 20 minutes. When Queen Victoria asked, “Who was second,” the answer famously was “There is no second, your majesty.
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