November 29, 2011

On coming last

CAN THERE BE ANYTHING WORSE than coming stone last in a sailboat race?

I had finished way down the list before in all sorts of boats from 30-Square Meters to sliding seat canoes,  but never, ever, had I come last.

But there we were on a perfectly normal day, a nice warm northeasterly blowing 10 to 15, no tide to speak of, flat water in the protected bay and a decent start at the windward end of the line — and everybody started to come past us.

It was the brutal simplicity that attracted me to the Mirror class. My boat weighed a little over 100 pounds, and there were hardly any strings to pull, just a gunter-rigged mainsail and a tiny jib with fixed fairleads.

What it boils down to in international one-design classes like this is the skill of the helmsman and crew — basic  human cunning, strategy, and experience.  It's like a cross between chess and poker on water.

We had always done well before. Won the offshore series outright, in fact. Came second in the nationals. Now this.

A boat skippered by a man we all called The Bumbling Idiot came up astern, then pointed up unbelievably high and promptly started to overtake us to windward.  I luffed him immediately, of course. Pure reflex.  He didn't respond. I hit the moron amidships and shouted "Go home!"   He smiled and shouted, "It's OK, John, don't worry about it. Carry on. I won't protest." 

HE wouldn't protest. For God's sake, HE wouldn't protest! I couldn't believe my ears.  I couldn't believe my eyes, either. He was disappearing ahead of us.

They all came past us on that first leg to windward, singly and in groups, going faster and pointing higher. The last one to overtake us was manned by two very large men, 250-pounders at least. Their jib was sheeted so tight it couldn't possibly contribute to forward drive. Their mainsail was backwinding at the mast and flopping all over the place at the leech. And still they came past, foot-by-foot they came past to leeward , two fat men laughing and chatting to each other and drinking beer out of tall cans, and when they hit our lee they simply bore off, gained speed, got ahead of us, and luffed up again to show us their transom.

By now, things were pretty desperate. "Sheet in the jib," I cried to my wide-eye crew. I slacked the mainsail until it, too, was flogging uselessly like the one ahead of us.  But nothing helped. We fell farther back. We finished last, five minutes behind the boat ahead, when the committee boat was already weighing anchor.

To my dismay, I never found out what went wrong that day. We checked the daggerboard and centerboard for plastic bags and seaweed. Nothing. The sails looked the same as they always did.  We weren't carrying any excess weight. It was a total mystery.  For a long time I  suspected the intervention of some supernatural power. Maybe someone like The Bumbling Idiot had consulted a witchdoctor and put a spell on us.

But it never happened again, I'm happy to say. We eventually won the nationals, and The Bumbling Idiot became the Class Secretary and learned some of the basic rules about overtaking to windward, and best of all we never had to luff him again because he was always behind us.

Today's Thought
If you go directly at the heart of a mystery, it ceases to be a mystery, and becomes only a question of drainage.
— Christopher Morley, Where the Blue Begins.

“I see your husband finally gave up smoking.”
“That’s correct.”
“It must have taken a lot of willpower.”
“Yes, I have a lot of willpower.”

(Drop by every Monday, Wednesday, Friday for a new Mainly about Boats column.)


Micky-T said...

I beg to differ.

One of my proudest moments was at the trophy celebration party after a two day race around the island of Antigua.
"Caprifol"(30ft varnished mahogany hull) and I, along with three ladies as crew were the last boat to arrive at the Crabs Marina party halfway around the island. We enjoyed the party no less than any boat.

In the morning after a harrowing start among the big boats and numerous reefs and two extra male crew members who needed a ride (needed?) back to English Harbour we sailed hard all that afternoon (right) and finished just behind my personal boat for boat race pal in "Spica"
In the courtyard of the Admirals Inn that evening with hundreds present the MC stood to the microphone, held up a bottle of Mount Gay Rum and spoke. "The first prize of the evening, is awarded to the boat with the longest elapsed time which as I'm sure we can all agree was the prettiest little boat out there, Caprifol! And the crowd roared!!!!

Samuel said...

There is a long running fleet in Boston on the Charles river racing a small open catboat, the Tech dinghy. Just once I got a great start, was third at the weather mark and on the downwind leg I know I was going to place for once.

Not one but TWO 12 man racing shells were approaching the gate at speed, the first to boats flew past their bow but I lost my nerve and luffed up and watch as they crossed and the fleet breezed past me.