The Duel

A quick look around the lake revealed eighteen mainsails drifting about so finding an opponent wouldn’t be difficult.  Even sailors cruising for an afternoon scarcely pass on a race.  I can only compare it to two teenage drivers stopped at a traffic light.  Though only casual glances are exchanged there’s a scamper to the next light.  The winner sports a grin and the looser beats his palm against the dash.  Sailing is a complicated game that combines technical, strategic, physical and social challenges. We tacked into the wind with our J34 and noticed another vessel, a J24 Severe J piloted by a husband and wife, one hundred yards off starboard doing the same.  Though no words were spoken and glances too far away to be noticed, everyone knew it – the race was on!

Suddenly, our previously calm sailboat became a cacophony of sounds and movements.  The lines cranked through their housings, the sail fluttered, the boom clanked and everyone on board shifted position.  I think you use every muscle in your body to pull the jib line on the other side.  You constantly watch how the sails react to the wind and make adjustments as needed. Sailing upwind is similar to driving a car up a mountain; you have to zigzag through the water, which is called tacking.  Every time you tack it involves changing the position of the sails.  Knowing when to tack and the time it takes to accomplish a tack is where races of this nature are won and lost.  We coaxed the sails from one side of the boat to the other, working as a team as we glided through the water.  The wind was coming out of the south with heavy gusts on the leading and trailing edge.

The adrenaline was flowing and our performance was at its apex.  We were holding the boat pretty deep, keeping her balanced as we stood on the high side and tried to keep the rudder planted.  By the end of the first leg we were ahead by two boat lengths – a fair distance for our makeshift racecourse.  Our skipper instructed us to prepare the spinnaker and to wait for his command to “fall off”.  Turning the sailboat away from the wind is to fall off or bear away.  Turning into the wind is to head up or harden up.  We were waiting to fall off while preparing the spinnaker.  In that moment gear is flying everywhere.  Now was our chance; the tactic we rehearsed all morning, the most important maneuver of this race, was being deployed.  The command to “fall off” came from the helm and everyone leaped into action.

Something went wrong.  Honestly I cannot even recall what it was.  What populates my memory is the emotional and physical let down we all felt when we looked up and saw our previously behind adversary now five lengths in front with a full head of wind stretching their spinnaker.  We were devastated.

No fingers pointing.  No blame cast…just the reassuring voice of our skipper reminding us that this race was not over. We got back to work and quickly noticed we were gaining on them.  Once the spinnaker flies it must be carefully trimmed to be effective. To trim the spinnaker properly, the first requirement is setting the pole at the right height and correct angle to the wind. The correct height is when both clews are at the same level and the pole is horizontal.  The corner with the sheet attached will rise and fail with varying wind strength. The pole must be raised or lowered to put the other clew at the same height. With the vertical trim of the pole correct, the next task is to work on horizontal trim. The best way to do this is to keep the pole perpendicular to the wind direction. Some skippers even put telltales in the middle of the pole to obtain an accurate reading.  Our kite was trimmed perfectly and we hoped we had enough real estate on this leg to stretch out ahead.

We gnawed at our opponent’s tail for several minutes getting closer with every bite.  Within a couple hundred yards from where this challenge first started we slipped past our competitor.  We cheered and they took pictures.  It felt awesome; teamwork and determination paid off.  We won our first official non-official race.  We were one win – zero loses.  In retrospect, the inequality of the boats and crews really made this an unfair contest.  But, it was still fun!

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