A race (sort of) and then a day of “learning experiences”
The New Mexico Sailing Club has traditionally held its Fourth of July Long Race every year. But the race hasn’t happened for the past few years because of the drought that has left the lake without enough water to float the marina, and last year, when there was enough water, there were bureaucratic hassles that kept the marina from opening until August. So this year we tried to revive the Long Race after a long interval.
It couldn’t exactly be considered a smashing success. There were only two boats entered, Black Magic and one of the loyal marina-maintenance work-party guys who decided to enter when he saw that we had bottles of wine as prizes for the first three finishers – if there were only two boats in the race, he’d get some wine.
We started the race about even, but on the first leg of the race, we gradually pulled out a lead. Winds were very light and extremely dodgy – not steady enough to consider raising a spinnaker. The other boat had a whisker pole and did run well wing-on-wing. Then, for some reason I can’t figure out, we were moving and he wasn’t. We sailed through some patches where there was actual wind, but then, so did he. And we sailed through some patches where there wasn’t any wind to speak of.
The race course was going out from the Narrows, around the Point, passing north of the Island, to a channel marker northwest of the Island, rounding the Island to port, to another channel marker north-northwest of the Island, then round the Island, round a channel marker on the south side of the lake, then back through the Narrows to finish. We made our second rounding of the Island shortly after the other guy made his first. After we rounded the southern channel marker, we were becalmed for 20 minutes, while the lake to the west of us still had wind, so we feared the other guy would catch up to us. But then we got wind again, and we headed into the Narrows – at this point the other guy was probably about two miles behind us. Winds in the Narrows were bizarre – we went in on a broad reach, and then we were close-hauled, and then the wind switched again, and we were on a reach again, and then on a run. The winds that had been light and fluky strengthened, and just after we crossed the finish line, they got fierce and gusty as a thunderstorm approached. We got in to the dock just in time, as the wind really began to howl.
We waited around the marina for a long time for the other guy to finish the race, but then we needed to go in to Chama to get groceries before the supermarket closed. It turns out he eventually showed up about 9 p.m. – when the weather got fierce, he gave up on the racing and decided to anchor until the weather let up.
Tuesday, the Fourth of July, we had more excitement. At least our “learning experience” isn’t nearly as scary as that of some other sailors.
Early in the day, there was no wind. So we brought our picnic lunch to the marina and socialized with the dockmaster and others who were around (surprisingly few for the Fourth of July, when one would think there would be more people with vacation time – apparently there are a lot of cruel employers out there who made people work Monday even though Tuesday was a holiday, and it wasn’t worth the trip to the lake for just one day of time on the water. We need to enlighten these employers that time on the water makes for happier, and therefore more productive, employees).
The wind finally came up enough to sail, but there were also looming thunderclouds to the northeast. I didn’t like those clouds. But the winds at that moment were nearly dead calm, and Pat wanted to sail. So we set sail.
We were about a quarter of the way up the Narrows when the wind started to do really weird things – shifting direction almost totally at random, and getting intense but only in bursts. Pat wanted to keep sailing, but with those winds, there was no way we could have had any control of where we were going. So we headed back to the marina. The wind continued to stiffen, and it also continued to shift direction. One moment, we were on a run, and the next, we were in irons. Pat and Tadpole were frantically hauling on the sheets, only to let them out again when the wind changed. I had Tadpole drop the jib, which helped a bit to keep the boat controllable, but not by much since the Etchells jib is very small compared to the mainsail. In retrospect, I realize I should have dropped the main and kept the jib up.
The wind continued to build. I did not realize it at the time, but some serious communication problems were developing between the captain and crew. I was feathering the boat into the wind to slow it down and keep control. My crew didn’t know that that’s what I was doing. They worried about whether I was putting the boat into irons and losing control of it. Pat at this point said “What are you doing?”, and he used the same tone of voice and exact words that for the 23 years we’ve been married mean “Carol Anne, you’re screwing up.” I didn’t know what I might have been doing wrong, so I couldn’t answer him. It turns out what he really wanted to know was my plan for coming into the marina and docking. But I didn’t know that was what he was asking. I didn’t even know he was asking me a question. I just thought he was criticizing my handling of the boat.
The winds were getting even fiercer. Pat suggested that we might wish to try to tie up at the end of a pier instead of going into our dock. I said that might be a good idea, but I’d look at getting into the slip first. We went into the channel toward the slip, and I very quickly agreed with Pat – “We’re going in a circle and then to the end pier,” I said.
Unfortunately, Pat and Gerald didn’t understand what I meant by “a circle.” To port was the shore, so I couldn’t turn that direction. So I needed to turn to starboard. And as the boat turned, at one moment the bow of boat was pointed into the slip. I wanted to keep turning and go back out into the open water beyond the marina, but Pat didn’t understand that, so when the bow was pointed at the slip, he pulled in the mainsheet to point the boat into the slip. Never mind that we had way too much way on the get into the slip without a major mishap. I still had the helm hard over to steer clear of the dock completely, so we could circle around and try again, or just dock at the end or the pier until the wind went down.
But Pat kept the mainsail on and didn’t jibe it, and instead of jibing and coming around again, we crashed into the dock. Actually, it wouldn’t have been so bad if there wasn’t a cleat just in the wrong place. The boat rode over the edge of the dock, and it scraped some of the paint off, and it would have just rocked back into the water, except there was a cleat at that spot on the dock. So now Black Magic has a hole in the bow – it’s above the waterline, so it’s not all that serious, about the size and shape of a standard dock cleat. We’ve patched it with duct tape for the time being, but we’re going to need Dumbledore and/or Zorro to help us fix up that hole. We know some about fiberglass, but not enough.
Based on our learning experiences, we’re working on communication. For one thing, Pat has promised he will only use the code for “Carol Anne, you’re screwing up” when I actually am screwing up, and he will find some other way to communicate when he needs more information about what I’m doing or planning. We all now know that when I say we’re doing “a circle,” it means a tack and a gybe in rapid succession I may also call “penalty turn starboard” (or port) to indicate to my crew that we’re doing a short-order tack and gybe – even if we aren’t being penalized, the idea is that we do this maneuver quickly.
Another thing that I didn’t realize was that Pat and Tadpole didn’t really have a good feel for how nimble Black Magic is. They were worried about such things as my slowing the boat down by putting it into irons. For them, having the boat go backwards is a bad thing. For me, that’s not necessarily the case. Sometimes, being able to bring the boat to a dead stop is a good thing, and even going backwards can be useful. Yeah, I have to keep track of what’s to leeward, so I don’t run into something that wouldn’t be good to run into. But still, I’ve had practice in racing boats, and I know how to take a boat that’s standing still and get it up to speed. (I’ve also had practice in making the boat stand still at a specific point in the water.) I’m still learning the specific characteristics of Black Magic, but I know generally how it works.
One piece of advice that I can give – do NOT use the same words for sailing that you use for your personal relationships and conflicts. If “What are you doing?” (especially if expressed in a condescending tone) is a code for “you’re doing it wrong, you idiot,” you don’t want to use it on the water if you actually want communication.
But even if I got a hole punched in my boat, I got off easy. Shortly after we got into the marina, we got a distress call on the radio – a boat had been out on the water, and when the fierce winds struck, the boat had been knocked horizontal. Two non-sailor passengers on the boat had been washed overboard. During the knockdown, the boat’s motor had become non-functional, so the boat’s owners couldn’t get back to the persons overboard, although they had at least been able to throw a couple of PFD cushions for them to hang onto—a good thing, since the folks in the water weren’t wearing PFDs to start with.
To make matters worse, the boat that had lost the passengers subsequently had an engine problem – either the knockdown flooded the engine with water so it wouldn’t work, or the main halyard that came loose during the knockdown fouled the prop. However you put it, these people were in trouble.
As it turns out, there were other people out on the lake to rescue the overboards. There’s a couple who have just bought and brought to the lake a very large cruising-type boat. They haven’t got the sails working yet, but they wanted to get out on the water, even if only under motor power. They came across the naufragés and rescued them.
The State Parks people have a patrol boat, but it’s not even in the water, so it takes them a while to respond to anything. When we got the report of people overboard in the water, it was at least 20 minutes before the State Parks boat got launched. Before the drought that dried up the marina, the NMSC had provided a slip, free of charge, for the State Parks to keep a patrol boat docked at all times. If I remember correctly, that slip was a part of the club’s concession agreement with the State Parks – we were to provide a slip for a State Parks boat.
Certainly, recent events have proved the value of having a public-safety boat in the water at all times. We, as a sailing club, should definitely look into having the State Parks people keep their boat on hand so it can be available at a moment’s notice. I believe we should make a formal policy (assuming such a policy hasn’t already been made) that we will provide a slip in which the State Parks powers-that-be may keep a public-safety boat.