Five O'Clock Somewhere

Welcome to Five O'Clock Somewhere, where it doesn't matter what time zone you're in; it's five o'clock somewhere. We'll look at rural life, especially as it happens in Rio Arriba County, New Mexico, cats, sailing (particularly Etchells racing yachts), and bits of grammar and Victorian poetry.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

What a Mother’s Day weekend

Sailing, more sailing, Etchells fleet evangelism, yet more sailing, bruises, more evangelism, more bruises

OK, here’s a quick quiz: What sort of Mother’s Day are you having if your offspring, sailing your boat, crashes into the boat you are sailing, at the start of the first race of a regatta?

Don’t try to answer that question just yet. Some explanation is in order.

This weekend was the weekend for two special races for the Rio Grande Sailing Club: the Joshua Slocum single-handed race, and the Jack-and-Jill his-and-hers two-person race (one male, one female; the tradition is that the female helms while the male is crew, but there were never formal written rules to that effect, so last year a lot of hard feelings were created when some of the competitors broke that tradition; this year, the rules have been written specifically to state that either person can helm).

For the Slocum, I’m still not experienced enough with the Etchells that I can single-hand, so I offered to allow Penzance, who has crewed both for me on Black Magic and for Applegal on her Etchells, and who has significant sailing experience on other sorts of boats, the opportunity to sail my boat. For the Jack-and-Jill, I arranged to sail with Zorro on Constellation.

Friday, Penzance and I drove down to the lake so he could get an intensive lesson on helming the Etchells. He has become interested in the boat, and he might be buying one for himself, so the chance to take the helm was especially appealing to him.

We got in some good practice at upwind sailing. When we got to the lake, the wind was extremely light, from the north. We set sail, barely making way, and after about two hours, we got to the race course area of the lake. By then, there were only a bit more than two hours of daylight left, so we turned south. So did the wind, so we were headed upwind again. There was one difference: Finally we actually had some significant wind, including some whitecapping. So Penzance got some really good experience sailing the boat upwind in brisk conditions, and the sail back to the marina was really fun.

The problem was that our training trip was upwind both ways, so he got no experience whatsoever in sailing downwind, and while I explained a lot about the specialized controls of the Etchells, such as the mast moving system, he got no experience actually practicing the moves.

Saturday for the Slocum, Pat and I were race committee, on board our MacGregor, Syzygy. There were four boats competing: Zorro on Constellation, Penzance on Black Magic, Dumbledore on the J/24 Kachina, and Cheech on the S-2 Cultural Infidel. Conditions were light, so light that Cheech eventually dropped out – there was no way a boat that big was going to move in that little wind. Penzance did reasonably well upwind, but his downwind performance showed the distinct lack of practice; he didn’t get the mast moved forward to project the spinnaker out away from the boat, and he had trouble with sheeting the chute in too tight. Zorro came in first, Dumbledore second, Penzance third. But he said he still had immense fun in the race, and he greatly enjoyed having the time on Black Magic; he is still very much interested in getting his own Etchells.

After the race, I hopped off the committee boat onto Zorro’s boat to sail back to the marina as a warm-up for the following day’s Jack-and-Jill race. I racked up a couple of bruises during the transfer, as Syzygy was at anchor and Constellation was moving, but I’ve discovered that a certain number of bruises just seem to come with the territory of sailing competitively.

Saturday evening, Dumbledore phoned with a request – Esther and Yoda were going to be sailing their J/24 Hot Flash in the Jack-and-Jill, but since that race was just for two people, Esther’s foredeck crew, Bonnie Blue, was looking for a partner to sail with, so she wouldn’t just be sitting on shore with binoculars. Dumbledore asked whether Tadpole might be available.

I had observed Bonnie Blue in action in previous regattas. She’s not very big, but she has the agility of a cat, and on the foredeck, it’s as if she has suction cups on the bottom of her feet, like a gecko – she just sticks there and doesn’t fall off. Not only did I offer to let her have Tadpole as crew; I also offered her Black Magic to sail on (Dumbledore had, I am sure, been planning to offer a boat of his). Sure, Tadpole was in the doghouse after the previous regatta, but part of that problem was family dynamics, which wouldn’t be an issue if someone other than family was on the boat. Plus I wanted Bonnie Blue to get a taste of the Etchells.

Sunday morning, the race field consisted of four boats: Constellation, Black Magic, Kachina, and Hot Flash. The first race did not start well. Conditions were very light, so the fleet was creeping toward the starting line. Zorro and I were on Constellation, on track to get to the line (eventually) somewhere close to the starting horn, but Tadpole and Bonnie Blue were upwind and came down on us. We had the right of way, and we hailed, but they kept coming down anyway, and they ended up not only pushing us off course but also colliding with us several times as there was nothing we could do to get out of the way. It really hurt to have to run into my own boat, but there was no choice. Tadpole did do a two-turns penalty, but Zorro and I ended up 100 yards behind the line at the start instead of at the line.

That put Zorro into a really bad mood, and the rest of the race didn’t improve it. The winds continued to be light and shifty, and almost purposefully cruel. What started as an upwind leg became downwind, and while Zorro was quicker to recognize that and get the spinnaker up than the rest of the fleet, we were also away from the rest of the fleet at that point. When the wind shifted, all of the rest of the fleet ended up in a line of wind, but Zorro and I were in a hole where there was not wind. Everybody else coasted past us, and we were just sitting there.

Toward the end of the first race, the wind came in, light but more steady – or at least, a little less unsteady. We ended up finishing third, ahead of Tadpole and Bonnie Blue. I was watching the jib telltales, and I was spotting the wind shifts, but not quickly enough for Zorro, who wanted me to see them as quickly as he did.

Even though the plan had been for me to drive the boat all day, after the first race, Zorro proposed that he take the helm for the rest of the day, and I agreed. I really didn’t feel like fighting about it.

The second race, we nailed the start, peeling one of the J/24s off on the starting pin, and we had a terrific first upwind leg. The winds increased, and I could spot the shifts in the wind so well that I could see a header and get the jib ready to tack even before Zorro called for it. Everything clicked, and we rounded the windward mark ahead of the rest of the fleet. Then we had a disastrous spinnaker set – in the previous race, we had taken the spinnaker down to starboard, but Zorro forgot that the pole and topping lift were on the other side of the jib, and then the chute itself was tangled up such that he had to sit down on the foredeck and straighten things out, and then something else snagged, so that by the time we finally had the spinnaker flying, we had lost a huge amount of time and Mother and Dumbledore had passed us in Kachina. That put Zorro right back into the rotten mood he’d been in before.

But when we got to the downwind mark, we were once again ahead of Kachina, and Zorro cheered up. We drew out our lead in the final upwind leg, and we finished far enough ahead of Kachina that we finished first (if modestly) on corrected time.

The third race, it was all Constellation, all the time. We got a great start, and there was never any question of who was in the lead. The wind was increasing, and the boat really took off. Zorro and I were in a groove, and I was able to anticipate when he was going to call a tack. We got out ahead of the rest of the boats, and we kept widening our lead. The interesting leg of that race was the downwind leg; the wind shifted so that we were headed almost directly toward the mark. Mother took off on the other gybe, and Esther sailed higher than she could have, given the increase in wind. Constellation rounded the mark well ahead of the rest of the fleet, and then second around the mark was Black Magic – even though Tadpole had never helmed her in a race before and Bonnie Blue hadn’t even set foot on an Etchells until that morning. When sailed well, Black Magic is very fast downwind, and Tadpole later reported that Bonnie Blue was especially handy with the spinnaker pole on sets and gybes and douses, working it with the precision of a baton twirler. They had no major spinnaker foul-ups all day. Tadpole didn’t point as high on the final upwind leg as the increased wind would have allowed, and Mother passed him, but he did stay ahead of Esther. Unfortunately, on corrected time, Esther beat him.

On the way back to the marina after the racing, Zorro commented that I seemed to be able to concentrate much better when I was on trim than when I was on helm. I’m not sure that’s completely true. I think what really made the difference was the wind conditions; the light, flaky air for the first race just plain frustrated me, and there were a few times Zorro himself had commented that he couldn’t tell what the wind was doing. When the wind did come up, I think I probably would have done all right even at the helm, even if I wouldn’t necessarily have been spotting the shifts as quickly or as instinctively as Zorro does. Still, the way things worked out, we did make a winning team.

Back at the marina, Bonnie Blue was really pumped up about having the experience on the Etchells. Even though she and Tadpole had come in last in all of the races, she had had a blast. She had been afraid that the Etchells would be a hard boat to sail on, and she was pleasantly surprised to find that the foredeck was so easy to work on, compared to the J/24. I know that her first allegiance is to Esther and Yoda, but I also know that any time they aren’t sailing, I want Bonnie Blue on my crew.

Sunday night as we drove back to Albuquerque, I counted up my injuries. Even though I had put on sunscreen, the intense sun Sunday during the races was enough to fry my face and arms – I had on long pants so my legs were safe from sun exposure. However, my legs faced another peril – bruising. By the time the weekend was over, I had more than a dozen bruises on my legs. Some of them, I can remember the impact that created them, but others, I have no clue about. I also had bruises on my arms, neck, shoulders, and back.

Anybody who thinks yacht racing is a genteel, laid-back sport that doesn’t involve major physical effort is seriously mistaken.

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