“Watch it! You’ve got RESPITE under you.”
“There’s the one minute horn. One minute and counting.”
“Loose the vang! C’mon there! Loose the vang!”
“Head up! Head up…Head up, OK, you’ve got her, fall off, fast!”
“OUTER LIMITS in front! SHOOTING STAR just under her. Wait! It’s OK, It’s OK, we’re clear.”
“Thirty seconds! Thirty seconds!”
“I need more outhaul on the main! Outhaul on the main!!”
“Twenty seconds! Nineteen seconds!”
“GRAY LADY’S trying to take you out! Don’t let her. Watch it! Watch it!”
“Coming about — Now!”
“Perfect! JINX is out of it. SEPTELLION flopped!”
“Get the main in! I need six inches on the main! Good! OK, ease the main, ease the main!”
“Five, Four, Three,
“Starboard tack! Starboard tack! Give way, dammit!”
And indeed we were. Seventeen J-24 class sailboats have just exploded past the anchored committee boat in the start of the Dillon Yacht Club’s 24th race of the summer.
I’m on board OUTRAGEOUS at the invitation of owner/skipper George “Geoie” (pronounced “Joey”) Writer, Chairman of The Writer Corp. in Denver. It’s my first sailboat race, and everything I thought I knew about sailing has already proven to be so much bilge water.
Most Summit County residents have had the pleasure of seeing the sailboats compete on Lake Dillon. You can’t miss them as you drive across the dam on a weekend afternoon, with their brightly colored sails fluttering pleasantly in the breeze. How lovely, one thinks, to be out there away from ones cares, sitting back, soaking up the rays, maybe with a beer in one hand, eyes half-closed in relaxation…
At least that’s the kind of sailing I’m used to. But racing J-24’s, the elite class of the Dillon Yacht Club, bears as much resemblence to that pastoral image as being caught in an avalanche compares to sitting at a fireplace with a hot buttered rum.
I’d been the first to arrive at the boat that morning, and had enjoyed a few minutes of looking her over privately while waiting for the others. I’d been sailing since I was eight years old, and my experience spanned everything from tacking a sunfish across the muddy Cedar River in Iowa to sailing a 41-foot yawl across the Gulf of Mexico, but I’d never raced. And as I looked over OUTRAGEOUS I was worried that I could identify the function of only about 60% of her lines and fittings. The rest were a mystery.
J-24’s carry a crew of five, and the second member of the team soon arrived: Carrie Williams, a perky 29 year old blonde who looked more like a fashion model than a die-hard race freak. Maybe this wasn’t going to be so bad after all.
“I’m pretty new at this,” I confessed.
“Oh, you’ll do fine,” she replied, smiling confidently.
“I was up all night trying to remember the parts of the sail,” I continued. “You know, the luff and the clue and the foot and all that.”
This was designed to elicit a dismissive wave of her hand and the comment: ‘Oh don’t be silly! No one pays attention to any of that stuff.’
But it didn’t.
“Well…” she began, and seemed a little worried. I panicked.
Geoie’s daughter Katie arrived next. She was a college senior, and just back from a year in the French Alps. Katie, also, did not fit my image of an America’s Cup racer. She resembled Katherine Ross, the actress. Outrageous apparently had the best-looking crew on the water, as well as a crewman about to make a fool of himself.
Geoie arrived a few minutes later in company with Howard Witkin, the final crew-member. Howard at least looked the part. His beard was flecked with gray and his leathery face bore a weathered aspect. I could imagine him battling it out on the high seas with Dennis Connor.
The five of us set about preparing to get the boat underway. I knew how to take the blue cover off the mainsail, so I did. I wasn’t sure about much else.
We ghosted away from the dock under main alone. Geoie had the tiller and Carrie was down below getting the spinnaker ready. The day was hot and still, and only a few darkening clouds on the horizon bore promise of more interesting weather ahead. Howard and Katie took me up to the foredeck to explain my duties. I was to be responsible for the halyards: the ropes which raise and lower the sails–a job I thought I could handle–and also the topping lift and foreguy. I knew what a topping lift was, but they weren’t talking about that topping lift. They meant the spinnaker topping lift. I didn’t know a spinnaker had one. And I’d never heard of a foreguy. It sounded like a loathsome creature.
We’d left the dock early so as to afford time for practice, what with the new crewman and all. We raised and lowered the spinnaker, then the genoa, then the spinnaker twice more. We tacked and gybed a few times. Nothing here I couldn’t handle as long as I paid attention. Essentially the topping lift raised the horizontal spinnaker pole, and the foreguy held it down. To raise the pole you had to trim the topping lift and ease the foreguy. To lower the pole you had to trim the foreguy and ease the topping lift. Kind of like rubbing your stomach while patting your head.
Each member of the crew was assigned a specific location and set of responsibilities. Katie was on the foredeck, controlling the spinnaker pole and occasionally helping with the jenny halyard. I was next, just aft of the mast, foreguy in one hand, topping lift in the other, and with an eye on all three halyards. More than anyone else I was at risk from the boom, the horizontal spar which controlled the mainsail and whose purpose in life was to decapitate a crewman. The words “ready about” were primarily for my benefit, and were the signal to bury my nose in the deck, lest I not have one in a few moments.
Directly aft was Carrie, feet anchored in the cockpit with hands on the two spinnaker sheets when on a downwind leg, but up on the rail next to me when beating to windward.
Behind Carrie was officer country. Here resided both Geoie and Howard, one on the tiller and main sheets, one on the jenny sheets. They argued incessantly.
“Bear up, Goddammit!”
“That’s crazy! You’ve got a wind-line at ten o’clock.”
“Yeah but look at Shooting Star. She flopped too soon.”
“Carrie! Spinnaker in, Spinnaker in!”
“Oh shut up, Howard.”
“Leave her alone, Howard. Just sail the boat!”
“Foreguy! Trim that foreguy!!”
Like as not the foreguy did need trimming, for all my attention was usually focused on the topping lift. The topping lift commands a certain respect while the foreguy is merely it’s bastard cousin. Equally likely was that I was engaged in a serious conversation with Katie, who had discovered a common interest with me on the subject of European trains, and whose attention to the spinnaker pole was therefore at risk of lapsing.
If Outrageous were a warship Geoie would be her opinionated Captain, Howard would be a rebellious Exec, Carrie would be a competent Chief Bosun’s Mate who didn’t take to officers, and Katie would be an enthusiastic young Ensign. I’d be cook.
I’ve flown sailplanes over the continental divide and I’ve gone night-diving amidst kelp forests in Tasmania but I’ve never done anything half as exciting as being on board a J-24 at the start of a race. The committee boat (an anchored runabout) provides the only reference point in a world gone utterly mad. It sits there at rest, as does it’s counterpart which is an anchored buoy 50 yards away. An imaginary line between the two is the starting gate, and each vessel was determined to cross it precisely as the gun went off.
Sailing yachts lie victim to countless rules pertaining to right of way. If you‘re on the starboard tack, for example, you have right of way over anyone on the port tack. Two boats on the same tack must consider which one is to the right of the other, for that vessel has right of way. An upwind boat has right of way over a downwind boat except in certain circumstances. A boat which is ignoring right of way rules is considered an “obstruction” — as is the comittee boat — and is to be avoided although in doing so a protest will be lodged and a solitary protest is as unlikely as a single lemming on the way to the sea. Protests breed other protests like rabbits breed rabbits.
“That’s a foul, Geoie!”
“You’re off the mark, Pete, Look at you, you’re off the mark!”
“Catch 24 had to give way to Lady J!”
“Lady J was starboard, Shooting Star was an obstruction!”
“Jinx started it all! Shooting Star is forced to protest Jinx!”
“Not true! Blue Side Down was on the port tack!!”
…and so on. This repartee would echo between the boats not only at the start, but at each buoy thereafter, and with it came the inevitable:
“Damn! We’re going to be up till midnight in committee hearings on this one…”
As soon as the race began the legal chaos was replaced with a kind of cold, determined silence. The seventeen boats were now clawing to windward, sails pulled in tight, heeled far over, spray flying from their bows. On these exhilarating upwind legs my duty was to sit at the rail amidships and hang my legs precariously out over the abyss, thus helping to balance the vessel. It was not an intellectually-challenging role, but it did afford a good view of the water. Carrie and Katie were sandwiched tightly on either side of me, and while this had obvious appeal it did not come without cost. Being stuck together like sardines it was difficult to pull ourselves back to the center of the boat as we frequently needed to do.
Lake Dillon is considered one of the world’s most treacherous for sailing. The surrounding 14,000 foot peaks and deep valleys generate constant and violent wind shifts which play havoc on a racing sailboat. It was Carrie’s duty to foresee these changing wind patterns as they rushed towards us, and to warn the helmsman.
“Puff in five!”
“Four, three, two, one, NOW!”
The sailboat would pause uncertainly, feather momentarily to windward, and then heel violently back from the wind and surge forward with renewed force. But during that momentary tip to windward it would lower the three of us into the water, or at least try to. We could anticipate the motion but there was only so much we could do about it. More often than not our feet and ankles would be plunged into the icy lake.
On one occasion LADY J was sailing on an identical course no more than four feet to windward. The two vessels tore thru the water with rails down, crashing into the waves and precisely matching each other’s speed. It was spectacular but dangerous. A slight inattention to the helm on the part of either boat and three pairs of legs would be severed. Katie, Carrie and I knew this, but to leave our posts would be to deprive OUTRAGEOUS of needed ballast which would cost her as much as half a knot of speed. The danger to our legs could not be compared to the importance of that extra half knot.
Suddenly LADY J moved in even closer, and we exchanged nervous glances. Then she spun around on a new tack and vanished.
“That’s one less thing to worry about,” said Katie.
But there were many more, one of them being our own tacks. When a sailboat changes its course and its bow crosses the wind, it is going from one tack to another. This is called “coming about” and it is one of the most violent maneuvers a yacht can perform. The fact that a yacht must perform it frequently in no way lessens its severity. When a boat which has been turned one way to the wind suddenly presents its opposing side, it will frantically need to tip in the opposite direction. The crew, at least those sitting with their legs over the rail, must be prepared for this. The skipper warns us with the cry “Ready about”, and then shoves the tiller hard to leeward.
Katie, Carrie, and I would then disentangle ourselves from the stanchions, lifelines, and each other and scramble backwards up the slanting deck in a frenzy of interwoven arms, legs, and mysterious pieces of hardware. All the while we needed to keep our heads and bodies flattened against the deck, for we were crawling under the boom and the boom was still out for blood –– seeing its chance every time we tacked. Halfway through the race we had sat, stepped, and fallen on each other’s body parts so many times that by unspoken agreement we quit apologizing for it. To simulate the experience on land, try racing several others to the top of a flight of stairs while lying on your back.
We were by now half way to the first buoy marker, and the seventeen yachts were spread evenly around the lake, each skipper having chosen somewhat different times to execute the four or five tacks necessary to reach the next buoy. Carrie, Howard, and Geoie affected a continuous banter.
“Puff in ten! Looks like a knock!”
“Gray Lady’s knocked!”
“Four! Three! Two! One! NOW!”
Chaos would rein momentarily as the burst of wind had its way with OUTRAGEOUS.
“Lift! Coming up on a lift! Lift in five!”
“Four! Three! Two! One! LIFT!!”
“RESPITE flopped! OUTER LIMITS went!”
“You’ve got the whole fleet on the starboard tack now.”
“Yeah, but look at BLUE SIDE DOWN. She’s still on port tack.”
“It’s time Geoie! Let’s do it!”
“No! Look at BLUE SIDE, she’s lifted. Damn! Helmer knows this lake better than anyone. He’s the old man of the sea around here.”
OUTRAGEOUS is now pursuing BLUE SIDE DOWN, the two yachts far to port of the rest of the fleet, seemingly in a regatta of their own.
“He keeps going, he’ll get caught in the wind shadow off that mountain!”
“Yeah, he’s waiting too long.”
“OK, ready about! Coming about!”
Havoc on the foredeck.
“Ease the vang!”
“You’re pinching Geoie!”
“No I’m not, check the telltales.”
“Katie, how’s it look? Are we pinching?”
Katie up on the foredeck doesn’t hear, there is too much noise from the wind and the spray.
“Trim the cunningham! Fast!”
That’s part of my job. I do it, but can’t get more than half an inch of trim no matter how hard I pull.
“OK on the cunningham! OK on the cunningham!”
“Trim the vang!”
The vang always needs trimming. I trim the vang also, for all the good it will to do.
“Major knock! Major knock! Look at GRAY LADY! It’s a puff and a knock in five!”
“Four, three, two, one, here it comes!”
“Another puff, and a knock, in five!”
“Four, three, two one, KNOCK!”
We were fast approaching the mark now. From their positions all over the lake the seventeen yachts were converging on a single white buoy. Geometry and respective rights-of-way began to interact with the delicacy of dueling swords.
Five boats were close together on the same tack, rapidly approaching the buoy. Suddenly LADY J appeared without warning on a perpendicular course and each of the five was forced to give way, although none of them did so. LADY J slashed mercilessly thru the herd of charging vessels, each boat missing her by inches. Then LADY J tacked and now all six J-24’s were converging on a single buoy, all likely to arrive simultaneously, and all frantic with desire to circle it first.
“Hold the course! Hold the course! You can take out RESPITE if you hold the course!”
“It’s going to be close with LADY J!”
“Puff in Five! Four, Three, Two, One, NOW!”
“It’s a knock!”
“Fall off! Fall off! Crew, watch your weight!”
“OK! OK! That knock forced BLUE SIDE to tack. We’re clear to the buoy if we can beat GRAY LADY! God, it’s going to be close!”
The yachts were now maneuvering at high speed in an area the size of a large living room. You couldn’t see water anywhere, there was only a frenzy of hulls and masts and sails. It was as if a veneer of J-24’s had been spread across Lake Dillon.
“Katie! Get the pole up!”
I had to help Katie, since she couldn’t do anything with the spinnaker pole without support from the topping lift. OUTRAGEOUS was twenty feet from the buoy, travelling at eight knots. Only GRAY LADY had been able to beat us to the mark, but the others were swarming behind. For these last few seconds it was acceptable for the ballast (meaning Katie, Carrie and I) to leave the windward rail and prepare the spinnaker which would need to be hoisted the instant we rounded the mark.
Carrie pulled it into a ready position from inside the hatch, and attached the halyard to the sail’s head. I loosed the foreguy and hauled in on the topping lift, a pair of actions which allowed Katie to attach the spinnaker pole to the mast eye. I snugged down the foreguy and topping lift and went immediately to the spinnaker halyard.
The yacht heeled violently to starboard as we rounded the buoy, nearly scraping the paint off three other boats.
“Raise the spinnaker! Now! FAST!”
Saying “Now!” and “FAST!” on a sailboat is the yachting equivalent of “You know”. It’s excess verbiage thrown in as a nervous twitch, because anything you do on a racing sailboat you do Now! and you do FAST!
Carrie “launched” the spinnaker, by which is meant she threw it into the air. I “caught” it by pulling so fast on the spinnaker halyard that the sail was raised before it had a chance to fall back into the water. This passed the action to Katie, on the foredeck, who grabbed the spinnaker guy and secured it to the spinnaker pole. All of this consumed perhaps three seconds. The huge green and white sail mushroomed above us as the wind caught it from behind. OUTRAGEOUS took a leap forward and our wake boiled and churned with renewed force. Behind us eight more spinnakers ballooned out simultaneously as the rest of the fleet rounded the buoy within seconds and began charging in pursuit.
Downwind on a sailboat is usually the most relaxing time of all. You are moving at almost the same speed as the wind, so there is no noise. The boat is no longer being pushed over on its side, as it is on an upwind tack, so it levels out almost as if it were still at the dock. This is the time to lie back, close your eyes, and enjoy the sun.
But downwind in a J-24 race is when all the work begins. Carrie was standing athwart the cockpit, spinnaker guy in one hand, spinnaker sheet in the other, controlling the horizantal set of the spinnaker like a lion tamer with a whip. I was crouched in a most uncomfortable position behind the mast with one hand on the topping lift, the other on the foreguy, controlling the vertical set of the spinnaker. Katie was standing in front of the mast ready to gybe the spinnaker every few minutes as we tacked down-wind.
“Why are we tacking?” I asked Howard. “Why don’t we just head straight downwind to the next buoy?”
“If we headed straight downwind, we could only go as fast as the wind itself,” he explained. “This way we can beat the wind.”
I would have dismissed this as the ravings of a madman if I had not a few days prior seen the movie “Race the Wind” at the IMAX theater, where it was explained that sailboats can in fact exceed the speed of the wind which is blowing them. It has something to do with the Bernoulli principle.
“Prepare to gybe!” (Geoie to Katie)
“Break!” (Geoie to Katie)
“Topping lift!” (Katie to me)
“Set!” (Katie to Carrie)
“Spinnaker guy! “(Howard to Carrie)
“Foreguy!” (Carrie to me)
“Damn rope!” (Me to foreguy)
“Nice job.” (Geoie to crew)
This gybing of the spinnaker was repeated every few minutes as we raced the wind down to the next buoy. I could not determine if we beat the wind but we certainly gave it stiff competition.
We were also giving the other boats some competition. As we approached the second mark only GRAY LADY and JINX were ahead of us, although the rest of the fleet was bearing down furiously, spinnakers flying in outrage.
“When we come around the buoy,” I asked Carrie, “will we lower the spinnaker first or wait till we raise the genoa?”
“Genoa first,” said Carrie. “Genoa always first. In fact, genoa NOW!”
“Raise the jenny! FAST!”
Katie and I leaped on the halyard. The jenny is a heavy sail and to raise it quickly took our combined strength, although we had it up in less than ten seconds. I turned to the halyard winch to set the sail more precisely, but Carrie waved me away.
“I’ll trim the halyard! Get ready to help Katie with the spinnaker!”
Amidst all this sail handling I had no clue how our fortunes were proceeding. J-24’s were all around us, and the buoy itself was sliding past on our port bow. OUTRAGEOUS heeled far too starboard as Geoie brought us into the wind and a puff chose that moment to arrive.
“This is going to be tricky,” Katie explained to me. “We’re going to have to drop the spinnaker and then immediately tack before the pole’s even down. Give me plenty of slack on the foreguy so I can hold the pole against the mast while the jenny comes around. We’ll secure everything later.”
The spinnaker was cascading over us like green slime as I let the halyard run free.
“Get that jenny over!”
“Puff in ten! Major puff in ten!”
“Outhaul! Trim the outhaul! NOW!”
“Five, four, three, two, one!”
I was thrown off my feet as OUTRAGEOUS heeled violently to port.
I clawed my way to the starboard rail as Geoie struggled to get the yacht under control. With my legs out over the side I could just reach behind me and manipulate the topping lift. Katie was securing the spinnaker pole and Carrie was stowing the spinnaker itself. Soon they joined me at the rail and we had a moment to take stock. By some lucky fluke of wind and position OUTRAGEOUS was in the lead. The entire fleet was savagely clawing up to windward in an attempt to overtake us. BLUE SIDE DOWN and RESPITE were trying to head us off. But for the moment, OUTRAGEOUS was ahead of everyone.
I turned to Katie and whispered in her ear: “Is it my imagination or are we in first place?”
“We are,” she whispered back, “but when that happens we don’t talk about it. Too many things can still happen.” That seemed both sensible, and likely.
After rounding three more buoys our lead had slipped and we were back to fifth place. The finish line was 200 yards away.
Then disaster struck: the wind died completely. Worse, it didn’t die for everyone. A few boats far off to leeward were still picking up a breeze. The three of us on the rail moved cautiously back to the center for our weight was no longer needed and was now actually causing us to heel in the wrong direction.
Geoie and Howard were silent. Carrie, Katie and I breathed not a sound. The entire fleet––with the exception of the two boats still moving––had become as quiet as a tomb. In the far distance we could hear a truck shift into lower gear as it climbed up from Silverthorne. But there was no other noise. It was almost as if a single word would bring down the wrath of the wind God on whoever spoke it, sealing their doom and depriving them of wind forever. If we could only wait silently, it seemed, we would be able to see or feel a puff. It would take only a few to get us across the finish.
Up ahead, GRAY LADY in first position had been able to carry forward enough momentum to cross the line. She captured first place by coasting while the rest of us stared in impotent fury. The silence and tension were finally too much for a crewman on one of the nearby boats.
“This SUCKS!!!” he screamed.
“Damn!” said Geoie. “This is ––” he paused, searching for the most potent expletive. “This is enough to make you want to take up Golf!”
Eventually we did ghost across the finish line –– with all the excitement of an earthworm oozing across a crack in the sidewalk. Twelfth place.
It was a full hour and a half before the beginning of the next race. We dropped the sails and let OUTRAGEOUS drift while we ate sandwiches and drank beer. On board, the custom was to share a single can of beer between the five of us. When it was finished we’d break out another. No one liked keeping track of five different beer cans rattling around the deck. During lunch I asked if it was proper for the J-24 boat crews to talk to the Ensign or Santana-class boat crews, inasmuch as they were “lesser” classes.
“Sure,” said Carrie. “We talk to the Ensigns and Santanas. It’s the other J-24’s we don’t talk to!”
Howard had his eye on the weather, which was darkening rapidly. The wind was all the stronger for having rested. Small white caps were forming on the waves.
“I think we’d better put on the foul-weather gear,” he said.
We had raised the main and were running downwind back to the starting area. I struggled with my two-piece rainsuit and Katie did the same.
“I think I should have on a life preserver,” said Katie soberly, as she regarded the darkening sky over the Ten Mile range. A large bolt of lightning struck somewhere behind Peak One. Katie’s position on the foredeck made her most vulnerable to being pitched into the water during heavy weather.
“Should I have one of those as well?” I asked Howard.
“Would you feel more comfortable with it?”
“No,” I decided. “I think I’d feel more comfortable without it.”
I needed the freedom to move efficiently. If left unencumbered I could react fast, grab on to things quickly, and do what had to be done instantly. None of that would be possible in a burdensome life jacket.
We were within ten minutes of the start of the next race. The J’s were tacking to one side of the starting line. It was the Ensigns’ turn to go first, but the boats were all moving so fast because of the wind that the two classes had become mixed. This had happened at the start of the first race as well, and one of the Ensigns which had interferred with our start at that time was now rapidly approaching on our port bow. It’s skipper hailed us.
“Hey! Would you please get the hell out of our start area!”
“Calm down! We’re not even in your way!”
“Just get out of here, will ya!!”
Carrie grinned. “See? We talk to the other boat classes all the time. Everyone’s so friendly on the water!”
But the water itself was not looking friendly. The wind had whipped it into a maelstrom, and when we raised our genoa two minutes before race time OUTRAGEOUS heeled far over and a burst of spray slapped against my raingear. The storm was approaching.
Katie turned to me with a sultry glance. “Boy, am I glad you’re aboard!” she said coquettishly. Unfortunately, Katie was referring to my weight. She would have been just as attracted to 180 pounds of lead. The stronger the wind, the more important the ballast.
The race began, and with it came the rain although the rain was not immediately apparent. There was now so much spray flying from the windward bow that the raindrops actually seemed to dry one off. Katie, Carrie and I were in our customary position up on the rail and the two girls had their heads turned directly into the wind, a look of ecstasy on their faces.
“This is what it’s all about,” said Katie.
“It doesn’t get any better than this,” agreed Carrie.
And they were right. There was something majestic about the powerful and violent wind being harnessed perfectly by the sails. The boat’s narrow hull sliced furiously through the waves.
When I used to watch the sailboat regattas from the shore I would pity the poor sailors when the weather turned sour. I never will again. Racing sailors love violent, rainy weather. It’s the horrible, disgusting periods of calm that make them want to quit and go indoors. That’s not really so surprising: skiers love snow, sailors love wind.
OUTRAGEOUS was performing like a well-oiled machine, and even her newest crew-member was making fewer mistakes. One by one we rounded the buoys. There were going to be no periods of calm in this race. The wind, already blowing half a gale, was getting stronger. My instincts as a cruising sailor would have been to take down the jenny and put a reef in the main. Such action would have been blasphemy on a racing sailboat. But the speed of the yacht was becoming almost frightening.
“Cunningham! Trim the cunningham!!”
The three of us were back up on the rail, but the cunningham –– a complicated piece of hardware on the mainsail –– was my responsibility. I eased myself towards the middle of the deck from whence it could be reached.
“No! No! The cunningham! The genoa cunningham!!”
Genoa cuningham? Who’d ever heard of a cunningham on a genoa? Having a cunningham at all is like having a FAX machine in your car. A cunningham on a jenny would be like having a FAX machine on your motorcycle. But the officers were screaming for it, so there must be one. My reactions were becoming numbed by the noise of the wind, and the spray against my face. I had no idea what I was supposed to do.
“Get back on the rail! Katie’s already trimmed it. It’s her job!”
Oh, OK. I sat down next to Katie.
“Katie, where’s the genoa cunningham?”
“Right here,” she said.
Sure enough a bright red line was running along the rail next to her.I followed it with my eye and realized that it did provide a kind of downhaul on the genoa.
We were doing very well in this race. Only JINX and BLUE SIDE DOWN were ahead of us, and we were gaining on them. This was the last leg. We were racing for the finish line. It seemed unlikely we could overtake JINX but we might catch BLUE SIDE. We had a real shot at second place and were guaranteed third.
Carrie had been calling out the puffs as they hit. Each seemed to be stronger than last. OUTRAGEOUS was heeled over 45 degrees and the noise from the wind was indescribable. Ocean sailors who have survived hurricanes at sea are in agreement on what aspect of the experience is the worst: it’s the noise. A sailboat in a strong wind generates a cacophony of sounds. The waves burst against the hull, the wind shrieks around the halyards and stays, the boom crashes back and forth, the sails themselves snap like gunshots. If an inventor were to design a machine to do nothing but produce the most possible noise from a given amount of wind, the machine would look like a modern racing sailboat.
We had all been so intent on balancing the boat, watching the other yachts, and measuring the dwindling distance to the finish line that the weather itself had been ignored. I happened to glance at the sky and what I saw made me gasp. It had gone from the typical dark gray of a stormy afternoon to an absolute pitch black. This was like no storm I had ever seen.
“Major puffs coming! I think they’re knocks. Major puff in ten.”
The edge of the storm caught OUTRAGEOUS and threw her rail deep into the water. Geoie turned into the wind and the vessel regained her stability. Then another puff, just as hard as the first, forced the rail once more into the water. The sails flopped back and forth with increasing fury and the strength of the wind kept building.
Then we saw it. It was no puff. This was more like the edge of a tornado. And it was advancing across the lake directly towards us.
“Good God!” said Carrie. “Do you see what’s coming!”
“Everybody hang on!” said Geoie.
It hit JINX first, and knocked her down like a house of cards. She was rolled on to her beam ends and her keel was visible out of the water.
Then it hit BLUE SIDE DOWN with all of its fury, and turned her sails into chaos. BLUE SIDE DOWN was now mostly Blue Side Up.
We were next.
“Major wind hit in Five!” screamed Carrie.
“Four, Three, Two,
“Here it comes!”
NOW! HANG ON!”
The wind exploded against our boat, and it was like the end of the world. The deck pointed at the sky and we fell back amidships –– each grabbing for something, anything, to hold onto. The yacht’s foreward motion had been completely stopped, and the sails were trying to rip themselves to pieces in frustration. Geoie was fighting with the tiller, trying to bring the boat back under control. But no control was possible in the midst of a hurricane. If he headed up into the wind OUTRAGEOUS would just flip the other way, and if he fell off the sails would drag our mast down into the water. All he could do was try one, then the other, because to do either for more than a few seconds would sink the boat.
The crew had given up trying to provide ballast. We were fighting to stay alive. The danger was the boom. It weighed over fifty pounds but the wind was whipping it back and forth like a piece of straw held out of the window from a fast moving car. I saw Katie start to raise her head and I flattened her against the deck with my arm. As long as we kept ourselves prostrate the boom could not reach us. That was the most frustrating thing of all. We could do nothing to help OUTRAGEOUS. We could only keep ourselves from getting killed. And there was no doubt in my mind that it was that serious. That satanic boom would crush a skull like a ripe tomato.
In five minutes Geoie had OUTRAGEOUS moving forward again, but while the sharp edge of the storm had passed the wind was still blowing a strong gale and our sails were continuing to flap violently and dangerously.
The three of us were up on the rail again although with the boat heeled 50 degrees I wasn’t sure if being on the rail was even useful.
Carrie leaned over and spoke close to my ear.
“We’ve got too much sail up,” she said.
“Are you scared?” asked Katie.
That was an interesting question. I’d never been scared on a sailboat in my life. In fact, I’d spent my life trying to help others not be scared on sailboats.
But the continuous hurricane-like wind, the violent flapping of the sails, the on-going depradations of the boom, the incredible heeling of the boat, the spray blowing everywhere, and more than anything else –– the noise…
“I’m terrified!” I said.
“It is a little scary, isn’t it?”
“I wouldn’t miss it for the world.”
“So. Read any good books lately?”
Trying to joke about it made us feel better.
“Lower the jenny!”
That was the command we’d been waiting for. Lowering the jenny on the final upwind leg of a regatta is like turning off the engine of an Indy 500 race car on its last lap. But by now it was a question of survival. We got it down fast.
Almost immediately we could feel the yacht come back under control. We crossed the finish line in sixth place, and dropped the rest of the sail area. Katie went forward to inspect the jenny.
“The sail’s ripped!” she called from the foredeck.
And it was. The genoa was brand new, but the violence of the storm had torn it to pieces. The wind had also ripped off our masthead and caused some other damage around the boat.
“At least no one got hurt,” said Geoie.
There was nothing to be done. OUTRAGEOUS limped back to port under main alone, our only consolation being the sight of four other yachts returning ahead of us –– similarly damaged. OUTER LIMITS had ripped her main and her jenny.
There was to be one more race, but OUTRAGEOUS would not enter it. A new jenny costs $1,000, and we did not have a spare. I couldn’t speak for the rest of the crew, but my body felt like it had just gone over Niagara Falls in a barrel.
We tied up the yacht and had a beer.
“Sorry about the next race,” Geoie said to me. He assumed I was horribly dissapointed to have to quit for the day.
I felt like I needed to be carried to my car on a stretcher. The thought of the energy required to turn the key in the ignition nearly caused me to despair.
“Well,” I said in my best John Wayne voice, “there’s always next weekend!”
[Astute members of the Dillon Yacht Club may notice that I did not try too hard to replicate the exact tactical situations of the various yachts. The events happened as described (July 28th and 29, 1990) and the sailboats specifically named were involved. However I did not find it possible to always match the proper name of the yacht with the precise situation. To those members who might be offended, I apologize. But who has time to keep good notes while fighting with a foreguy? ––JV]