Yarn 1

Smith Point Race

"Okay, there’s five minutes to go, let’s get the jib down and get the spinnaker ready." The year is 1990, just a few short months since my first coming to the Hampton Roads area of Virginia. My job transfer had allowed me to take my 2 boats, a Celebrity and a Cal 2-24, with me to the Lower Chesapeake. The Celebrity was a perfect boat for all the thin water, with a centerboard and Cape Cod style horizontal rudder. Made of African mahogeny by the Dutch, it was a constant maintenance headache, so I frequently opted to sail the one that I was about to race, the Cal named Roué.

The Cal 2-24 is a Bill Lapworth design, one of the last to conform to the CCA rule in 1968. Intended as a smaller, racing version of the Cal 25, she was a real pleasure to sail. I purchased it in Seattle in an estate sale. I cleaned it up as much as I could given the old gelcoat and ugly fiberglass patches that someone had pasted indiscriminently around the deck. Its spartan interior was handy to get around in, and since the boat had some experience along the barren Pacific coast it had a large sail inventory. Over the next few years of ownership I added to the sail inventory which helped her performance. Sailing Roué was so wonderful. Most of my outings were by myself, even going through the Ballard locks. Despite carrying some weather helm, she was so well balanced that I could tie off the helm and she would sail herself for up to 20 minutes at a time. Having experienced everything from zephyrs to a pummeling 35 knots, I was comfortable with what we could do together. But one of my goals after making the big move to Norfolk was to officially enter Roué in a race.

So armed with a PHRF certificate fresh off the presses, and an enthusiastic-but-short-on-experience high-schooler named Ned, I was now prowling the starting area of the Smith Point race. As I expected I was the smallest boat in my class, but undeterred I stated my lofty expectation. "I want to beat one boat on elapsed time and one boat on corrected time." I guess realism was more prevalent than optimism on this day.

After observing the start line my game plan is obvious. The Smith Point race is a point-to-point distance race where the smaller classes observe only one mark—a lighthouse at Windmill Point 36 nm off in the distance. So the start line was set perpendicular to the course irrespective of wind direction. With the breeze from the SW, the pin was to windward and quite attractive for the aggressive racer. But as I look over my shoulder with the sequence counting down, I am quite mystified why I am all alone and the rest of my class are huddled around the committee boat. No matter. I am not one to cave into peer pressure. My plan is simple. Sail bare headed about 10 boatlengths to windward of the line, at 45 seconds hoist the spinnaker, hitting the line at the gun and at full speed, full sail, full of evil laughter.

"Go ahead and get the spinnaker pole ready and everything clipped up." All of the lines lead back to the cockpit, so making things happen is easy. I look around at the 8 – 12 knot breeze. Still pretty steady, no signs of shifts or puffs. A quick glance at my watch. I always love starts. My heart increases in pace, I am more alert than at any other time of the race, except during those rare moments when I’m in the lead. I feel like getting buzzed by 15 cups of sweetened ice tea.

"45 seconds. Okay, Ned, hoist it up!" I am now focused on the combined task of watching the big orange chute go up, pulling on the tiller to get the boat pointed towards the starting pin, simultaneously pulling both the guy and the sheet for the rapidly filling sail. The whole process takes 10 seconds. Roué picks up speed in response to the vast increase in sail area. Minor adjustments to the main, sheet, double check the spin halyard all the way up. 15 seconds. We won’t be early, thankfully, but it will be close. Being early over the line with the spinnaker up would be a minor disaster since it would mean taking the spinnaker down to crawl back to restart.

"Where is everybody else?" Both Ned and I peer under the mainsail boom to check on our competition. Still way down by the committee boat, lounging around. Some even look like they are headed for the line.

A dull gunshot goes off. We are half a boat length from the line, going full speed. I am jubilant. We’ve beaten everybody across the line, and even 10 seconds after the start I don’t see any spinnakers hoisted on the competition.

Since the start was at 3:30 in the afternoon, this is an all night affair. I settled back a bit and steered lightly on the helm and kept an eye on the spinnaker. Ned alternated playing the mainsheet and the spinnaker sheet. 30 minutes after the start, most of my compatriots had slowly passed me, all having longer waterlines to take advantage of the breeze. Still, it took more time than they would have liked, I thought to myself.

Despite having the wind coming from aft of the port beam, the boat was going fast enough to pull the apparent wind forward. The spinnaker pole rested against the forestay, its guy tight as a piano string. A slight increase in wind, combined with a few puffs threatened to broach Roué. A broach can be quite an experience, depending on the boat. A quick lesson was in store.

"Ned, if we go over, I want you to let out the main as far as it will go." A friend’s advice echoed through my head. An experienced dinghy sailor, he said, "If you broach, don’t let the chute go. Let out the main and the spinnaker will pull the boat around." This flew in the face of traditional wisdom learned while crewing on a number of boats in Puget Sound. Most skippers preferred to let the spinnaker go when the boat rounds up, thus preventing the spinnaker from filling with water and keeping the boat on its side. The typical drill was to listen for the helmsman to start cussing as they lose control, hang on for dear life as the boat’s deck goes vertical, blow the spinnaker sheet, guy, whatever’s handy, then the boat returns upright pointed straight into the wind with 8000 sq. meters of nylon, dacron, mylar, kevlar and docksiders shaking the rig with an utmost roar. Once everyone had returned the boat towards the original heading, it would take 15 minutes for the adrenaline to slow, the screamed instructions over the din to be forgotten, and the skipper to ease the white-knuckled deathgrip on the helm. But what my friend had to say made sense, at least on the relatively small boats that I’ve had. So, no time like the present to put it to the test, if it should happen.

It happened. The afternoon breeze started becoming unpredictable as the sun got lower. Strong puffs came followed by a comparative lull. I caught most of them from tripping the boat, but it was only a matter of time before that ol’ familiar feeling of being pasted came to fruition. Ned had the mainsheet, I had the tiller and spin sheet. Ned let out the main as we had done several times before, but Roué still continued happily into serious broach mode. "I’ve got it all the way out," said Ned, as I was now standing on the leeward cockpit coaming. Doing anything with the tiller was useless, since the rudder was no longer in the water. "Just hang on," came my reply, as I looked briefly down into the cabin. Roué’s windows are cut into the side of the flush deck above the sheerline. The flat green view they now had indicated that they were below the waterline. Steadfastly like Cap’n Courageous I gripped the spinnaker sheet, not letting it slip away. In the blink of an eye, but seeming much slower, Roué staggered, spun slightly downwind, got back on her feet and continued on as if nothing happened. No fuss, no muss. After Ned and I trimmed for a slightly more downwind course, I didn’t have much time to think about changing my shorts when we got hit by another. This time, though, the spinnaker halyard had had enough abuse and pulled partly through its cleat, preventing us from a repeat performance. I figured that this was a sign from above, so I calmly said, "Ned, let’s put up the old #1 genoa."

The slight shift in wind also signaled the end of the day as the sun started to set. As we not-as-bravely continued, a fellow competitor came up from astern, crossed our wake and passed us heading more inshore. It was a San Juan 28, bigger, more powerful, flying a yacht club officer burgee to signify the owner’s pedigree. I was frankly surprised to see anyone behind me, as I figured that 5 hours of sailing would be enough for everyone to leave me in the dust. It did give me some hope for the first part of my goal, to beat one boat on elapsed time. A few puffs later found us totally becalmed with the SJ 28 a mile inshore of us but still visible in the fading light.

"Time to don the life harnesses." I had bought one just before the race for Ned, as I had one for myself already. It was the kind that was full-body, requiring the agility of a orangatan to adjust it all. Ned repeatedly complained about it pinching here, there, but he knew the rules. I am a safety hound, and I don’t want to be combing the ocean for a man overboard at night. Especially a teenager, one whose life is just starting to get good. Bobbing gently, we wolfed a sandwich while listening to a muffled conversation on the SJ 28.

Suddenly I felt a puff of breeze on the back of my neck. SW again. Good for spinnakers. Cognizant of how easily sound travels across water, I told Ned that we’ll douse the jib and put up the small spinnaker without making any noise. No winches, no major conversation. I didn’t want the SJ 28 to catch what we were doing; they could mirror our actions and pass us. Quietly, with the spinnaker up overhead in the darkness, I watched as the SJ 28’s running lights slowly fell astern never to be seen again.

Anybody approaching an unknown lighthouse in the dark knows that many things can be around the structure. Sections of old lighthouses, parts of boats carelessly run aground. Crab pots to catch unsuspecting spade rudders. It was this in mind that I gave a wide berth to Windmill Point Lighthouse, its red light piercing the blackness. I looked at my watch. 11:30 pm.

With a light 5 knot SW breeze, we were now hard on the wind. I was glad I had lots of experience with Roué. Without a light to show the trim of the sails, I could tell when she was in the groove, sailing her best. A look around showed other running lights, the characteristics giving away that they were sailboats also. But the darkness obscured any hope of finding what kind of boats they were, whether they were in my class, whether they were the bigger boats that have already gone around Smith Point, another 20 nm distant.

Having been at sea as a deck officer, I was familiar with what the night looked like on the ocean. Well out of the traffic lanes, we had virtually nothing to be concerned about save other sailboats in the race. The normal clutter of beeping machines, radars, radios cackling, and hushed concentration that you find on a ship’s bridge are gone. Only the wind, a hand on the tiller, the rush of water as the hull slips through the water. Aside from the occasional tugboat or coastal freighter, there is no distinction between the water, the horizon, or the sky. All one big black ink well.

The wind steadily picked up until we were overpowered by the big genoa. Ned volunteered to change to the 135% jib, known as the lapper. A flatter sail, it’s well adapted to 15 – 20 kn of breeze. My boat is not the custom racing machine found today. The jibs are all hanked on, requiring the boat to be sailed without any headsail while the jib is changed. This severely reduces the speed and handling until the next jib is hoisted and pulling. By the time Ned has successfully hoisted the lapper, the increase in breeze still overpowers us. I carried on, hoping that the wind will diminish some so we won’t have to change again. Roué labored through the famous Chesapeake chop that was quickly building. Similar to an earlier cousin, the Cal 40, Roué has rounded, bluff bow sections that don’t cut through choppy waves. Roué would blast to a complete stop, heal, pick up speed before being pounded to another stop. The complete darkness prevented me from feeling the bigger waves and possibly steering through them easier.

The sudden presence of the moon through high cloud cover around 2:00 am brought a slight increase in breeze that forced another sail change. Ned didn’t volunteer this time, as the bow was pitching pretty good. Not having the fortitude of Bligh, I wisely told Ned to keep the course as best he could and I’ll take care of it. So I fought a pitching bronco deck, unhanking the lapper off the forestay, and hanking on the 100% working jib, while getting slapped with 20 – 25 kn spray. You know, what foredeck guys have to deal with every day. As I crabbed across the deck with sails and with salt taste on my lips, I suddenly thought about what I was wearing. Under my life jacket and harness was a very thin cotton buttoned shirt and a cheap pair of shorts. Though slightly wet, I was not cold. I was astounded. Having spent all my sailing life in the Pacific Northwest, such an outfit would have meant hypothermia during the hottest day of the year. The fact that it was May, 2:30 in the morning, blowing 20 – 25 kn, encroaching spray, well, it was beyond my imagination.

The 100% jib was still too much sail, so it was time to take a reef in the main. Having done that a few times in Seattle, I was able to accomplish that fairly quickly. Ned and I settled in for a long slog to windward, with a tack thrown in every hour or so to keep us on the west side of the bay.

Soon the light of the moon gave way to morning twilight, and now the sea could be easily distinguished. Flat grey waves were broken by white foam. Clearly a 25 kn gear buster if I ever saw one. Unfortunately, smaller boats don’t do well on their ratings in such stuff, so I was becoming more resigned to not reaching my racing goal. These thoughts loomed more stronger each time another big boat would appear from astern, obviously returning from the longer course, and pass me quickly.

But before long we were able to make out the finish line, a point off of Fort Monroe. Both Ned and I felt the competitive juices flowing now that the end was near. The breeze let off some, so it was time pull out the reef in the main. All right, we’re in it now! We started tacking frequently now that our options were constricted by Buckroe Beach on the right, and Thimble Shoal channel on the left. "Can you make that next buoy?" Ned asked excitedly. I pinch up a little. "Nope." Nosing closer to a channel marker gave us some valuable information. It looked like the buoy was motoring to windward judging from its wake. This was a bad sign. "We’ve got to get out of this current!"

"Jeez, the finish line is only right there!" Ned might not be the salty sailor, but he knew that the shortest route to the finish line also meant that we would be stemming the worst of the current. Hmmm. Longer course, less current. More current, shorter distance. A tough call. We watched a MacGregor 65 zoom by us at over twice our speed. They stayed to the right, out of the current all the way to the farther side of the finish line. Okay, time for compromises.

"We’ll stay to right until we think we can make the offshore side, then tack." We almost make it, watching the finish marker fade off to starboard.

"Two more tacks and we’re there!" Ned is moving quicker than on a high performance dinghy. I frown. Nothing worse than killing a small boat rating than wind on the nose and current to boot. Thankfully the government structure buoy marking the finish slides by to port. We hear a small bullhorned voice from the shore, "Nine eight over." That’s it! At 10:30 am it’s time to head for home.

Ned and I shared congratulations. He was a bit too young to toast with libations, besides I had nothing stronger on board than Dr. Pepper. Oh, well, that’ll do. The best part was that "home" meant a fast reach to Little Creek. With the outhaul loose, lots of boomvang, and the jib powered up, Roué leapt for the barn. We watched the channel markers that crawled along slowly before suddenly zip by. Roué’s bow wave would occasionally reach the same height as the deck. A prominent rooster tail appeared from under the stern. Despite being tired, Ned and I were grinning from ear to ear. I dipped below quickly to check the LORAN. "This thing says that we’re doing 8.5 knots over the ground," I told Ned. Considering about 2 knots of current in our favor, that’s still exceeding the boat’s theoretical hull speed just a tad.

I scanned the horizon for signs of any remaining boats. It was disappointingly empty. Farther out I noticed a smaller boat sailing towards Fort Monroe, but it was too far away to really discern clearly whether it belonged to our class. All too soon we were tied up, things packed away, and headed for Newport News to drop off Ned at his parents, then on to my house in Chesapeake. In mid-afternoon I crawled into bed with the minor thought that I’ve been up for 36 hours straight.

I didn’t get to the sponsoring yacht club until Wednesday afternoon, when I crewed on another boat there for the evening "beer-can" race. I ran in to the clubhouse and hunted down the posted results. After weeding through all the other alphabet soup classes (IMS1, IMS2, NON-SPIN) I finally get to my class at the bottom. Roué is posted as 5th…in a class of 6! I beat one boat! Checking the list more carefully revealed that I beat the same boat on both corrected and elapsed time, since it finished almost 45 minutes after me. Interestingly enough it was the San Juan 28.

Ah, yes, such feelings of accomplishment are but short lived…

That was my one and only official race with Roué. I sold her to a young and eager couple several years later.