September 17, 2009

How not to start a race

I WAS THINKING the other day of how, in the world of sailboats, racing helps with cruising. Racing helps you develop a sense of when a cruising boat is sailing most efficiently — what the current is doing, how the wind is switching, what the most favorable tack is, and how to trim the sails.

I haven’t raced in a long time now, but when I’m out cruising I often think back on my racing days with gratitude. Not all of my racing days, of course. Some of them were pretty fraught with anxiety. Like the time I nearly blew my foot off with the starter’s shotgun.

I was the sole organizer of a Sunday afternoon race in Durban harbor, where the race course was a channel between sandbanks about 200 yards apart. Durban was a busy port and this channel was used by large ocean-going ships.

As secretary of a new class of 11-foot wooden sailboats called Mirrors, I had sent out invitations to 80 local owners, most of whom were beginners who had never raced in their lives.

Seventy eight turned up at the yacht club and started bumbling down to the start line, completely filling the channel with their bright red sails. One end of the line was on a sandbank where I was waiting with a shotgun I’d borrowed from the Royal Natal Yacht Club.

As I was getting ready to fire off the starting signal I was stricken by the thought of what might happen if a big ship came down the channel. Ships had no room to maneuver in this narrow strait. They couldn’t slow down, otherwise they’d lose steerage way and drift sideways onto a sandbank. I didn’t have any rescue boats to shepherd my little ducklings out of the way. And I naturally hadn’t thought to get the permission of the harbormaster to hold this race.

And so, four minutes before the starting time, mental stress caused my finger to twitch and I pulled the trigger. It was a blank, of course, and the gun was facing down. There was a loud BOOM! A large hole appeared in the sand an inch from my right foot. And half the fleet started. The other half wandered around in circles looking puzzled, shaking their watches, and watching me hopping around on the sandbank. Confusion reigned.

I waved them on as best I could, and eventually everybody started. By some miracle no big ship came through the fleet, and everybody finished. There was no point in trying to list the finishers in order, of course, and there were no results, just a lot of recrimination in the yacht club that evening. And a lot of laughs and a lot of beers, both at my expense.

Today’s Thought
The price one pays for pursuing any profession or calling is an intimate knowledge of its ugly side.
James Baldwin, Nobody Knows My Name

A limerick packs laughs anatomical
Into space that is quite economical.
But the good ones I’ve seen
So seldom are clean,
And the clean ones so seldom are comical.

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