Racing in Slow Motion

Wednesday May 23, 2012

Since you’ve probably gathered from previous posts that I have a lot to learn in the way of sailing still before we leave on our trip I though racing would be a great way to take in some of that knowledge.  It would help me to learn all of the lines, what they’re for and how to use them without having Matt be the one to teach me and without having to worry about what’s happening at the helm where I’m normally cemented.  After working in the boatyard weekend after weekend and talking to some of the other boat owners I mentioned to one that I wanted to get into the races at Muskegon Yacht Club but didn’t know how to go about it.  Do I have to call the yacht club?, get in touch with one of the helmsmen?, put a want ad online?  (I actually did in Sailnet forums but had no response).  This guy’s answer was ‘Just show up, they’ll find a boat to put you on’.  Seemed logical enough and I waited for the next available Wednesday to come up so I could make my way out to the water after work.

After making a mad dash out to the lake from work which was over an hour drive away I was panicking thinking that by the time I pulled in all the boats would already be on the water and I’d be out of luck.  The races start at 6:15 and I had images in my head of them getting on the water an hour before the start as also in my head I thought the races were on Lake Michigan and that can take a little travel time.  After parking my car on the street I walked around back by the docks where dozens of people were standing around.  I didn’t know who to approach as everyone looked very busy getting set up but there was one guy off to the side so I walked up to him with a smile and said it was my first time there but I’d really like to get on a boat and does he know who I could talk to.  He admitted he was a first timer as well but pointed me to a woman he thought could help me out.  After hearing that I was a newbie but wanted to crew she started scrambling around to different helmsmen asking of they could take me on.  After a few responses of ‘we’re all full’ she set off down the docks as I sat at a picnic table feeling like a kid in their first day at a new school.  Having made this joke with a friend at work she suggested I walk up to someone and say, “I’m new, will you be my friend?” which we got a very good laugh out of but I was starting to feel like it may be my only way onto a boat.

Walking back toward me the woman said she found a boat that was looking for crew and pointed me in the direction she had just come from at the very end of the docks and gave me the helmsman’s name.  Getting to the boat I introduced myself to the helmsman, Tom, and another woman with him, Shannon, who was coming out for her first time sailing ever.  Right away I was able to get to work helping Tom fold a sail which felt like a piece of cake having two people work on it instead of it being like when I fight the tarps on my own.  After getting that sail rolled up and taking the cover off the mainsail there wasn’t much for me to do and I stood there as Tom ran the lines for the headsail and him and Shannon hanked it on.  As we continued to get the boat ready more and more people started walking up the dock to the boat.  There was a guy around my age, Mark, and his dad Bill.  There was also another guy Matt that joined us who was new to sailing sailing as well, and then a couple Rob and Julie and their niece Jess.  We were becoming quite a full crew!

Just 15 minutes before the race was to start (what was I worried about?, I had plenty of time!) we threw off the lines and made for the starting area on Muskegon Lake.  There were four different divisions to race that night and we would be in the last group to start along with 7 other boats.  Winds were very light around 5 knots so it didn’t look like it was going to be a thrilling ‘hold on for your life’ kind of race but I was still expecting a good laid back time.  While still making sure to pay attention to how all the lines are handled of course. After the first three divisions started and we were making our way to the start all the other boats in the division were on their way as well, tacking and jibing so they could be in the best position possible when the horn blew.  It’s amazing how close some of these boats will get to each other and it doesn’t even phase anyone.  There were a few times I could have hopped from our boat onto another one.  Once the horn blew though we all began to spread out and make our way for the first marker near shore.  Which is actually kind of funny because I had passed this buoy a million times on our way out to the channel and wondered why it was sitting in the middle of nowhere but was actually used for races.  On the way to the first marker the wind wasn’t strong but we were pushing our way forward enough that the progress over water was easy to see.  Trying to get the most out of that little bit of wind and to put ourselves on the best course for the first marker there were many tacks and jibes.  I still didn’t have a job handling any of the lines so I was positioned to sit on the low side and give us a little heel.  Then when we’d swing the other direction I’d slide under the boom while trying not to let myself get hit by it and then I could go back to hugging the low side.  That’s not an area I’d normally let myself switch from Port to Starboard because the boom could do some real damage if it were swinging fast or hard, but on this night winds were so low that it wasn’t even an issue.

Coming up to the marker we were going to need to change direction as soon as we passed it and raise the spinnaker.  I was still line-less but I made sure to keep a close eye on all the people that were pulling and moving and attaching so I would know exactly what to do when it was me on my boat.  The lines to the foot of the sail had already been attached so when the halyard was clipped on the head and we rounded the marker Shannon pulled on the halyard to raise the giant sail.  The wind caught it for just a moment but then any wind we did have almost completely died.  The spinnaker stayed up for a few minutes but began luffing so much we decided we were better off without it and lowered it.  Although we did have one boat behind us already there were two boats not too far ahead that we were working hard to catch but moves had to be planned well in advance since once you picked an option in such light conditions you were kind of stuck with it.  While coming up on the second marker we easily passed one of the boats and just squeezed past the other and instead of turning sharply back to the original marker we stayed our course for a minute trying to head for a few small ripples in the water ahead of us which meant we might be able to find some wind in that spot.

There was  just enough blowing behind us to carry us to that spot where we would have an advantage over everyone else.  Looking at all the other boats on the water it was amazing how still everything was.  It looked like a real life photo where someone had snapped an action picture where for that moment everything appeared frozen, except it was that way in real life too.  Off to our side there were 4-5 boats that had their sails raised and spinnakers up and were dead still in the water.  When our boat had gotten far enough out to feel a little breeze on our bare skin and we had turned enough to be heading back to the next marker we raised the spinnaker once again.  Elated as it filled right away we thought we had the race in the bag and we’d start flying along the water while everyone else remained still, but again the giant sail began to luff in certain areas and would have to be pulled at the ends to catch the wind yet again.  I tried acting as a spinnaker pole by grabbing one end and holding it out as far from the boat as possible to allow any possible air to flow into it.  This helped only a little bit but in this race every second, every bit of forward motion counted.  Due to that little bit of luck we were now far ahead of the two boats from the second marker and becoming even with two more boats that had been ahead of us although they were far off to our Port side as they had decided to made a sharp turn earlier like everyone else.  From what I heard before this boat tended to finish near the end of the pack but things were looking up tonight and we might actually place if we could keep our position.  It would also help if none of the other boats were able to find the spot of wind we had, just to let us cross the finish waaaay before them.

Imagine this was a 30 second video.  The image would not have changed at all.

I was thinking once we passed the marker where we had started the race would be over but the finish line was actually the first maker we passed after the start.  Many boats were getting bored from the lack of wind and thrill and a few actually dropped out before the finish, motoring back to the yacht club to have a little more time for a few extra cocktails.  I don’t blame them as when Matt and I are cruising around at this pace I would beg and plead to put the motor on because we weren’t actually going anywhere.  Somehow my view changed tonight and this was actually exciting!  I had a mission to complete and I wanted to do it weather it was at 6 knots of speed or 1.  The thrill was in trying to keep ahead of the boats behind you while catching up to the ones in front, wondering if any of those boats you passed will come up on you from behind and watching their every move.

After making the last turn and  heading for the finish we had long passed the other boats and now had 5 people behind us.  The spinnaker was dropped and once more we had only the headsail and mainsail while all the boats behind us still had their spinnakers raised hoping one last gust of wind would push through before the end of the race.  The wind did begin to pick up just ever so slightly and these followers began to gain on us just a little.  To give Island Dream everything she had I took my position again as a human spinnaker pole at the clew while Shannon and Mark worked the middle and front.  This was just enough to keep us in place and although I could not see past the sail to tell how close we were to the finish I did hear that sweet little horn blow while all five boats were still behind us.  Which meant that in our division we placed third!  Everyone on board cheered as the motor was turned on to head back to the yacht club and celebrate the victory.

The view from our stern when we crossed the finish

Before the main sail could even be lowered the cooler was opened and I was intoduced to one of the best things in the world as far as canned drinks go.  It’s made by Bud Light and is called Lime-A-Rita, which taste a lot like a margarita packaged inside a cute little 8 oz beer can.  That is awesome.  Realizing before a full blown celebration could break out there was still a little work to be done before we got to the docks I tried to help fold the mainsail as it came down which is a very hard task to do with only one hand so I had to put my adorable blue beer can down to get the job done.  Reaching the dock and cleating ourselves off we all sat around the cockpit with our cold drinks and then the food became to come out.  Crackers, cheese with cranberries, strawberries, red peppers and sausage drenched in a sweet tangy bbq sauce.  See, this is always what I imagined the posh world of sailing is.  Or at least how most other people perceive us.  Sitting on a boat at the yacht club after a regatta while eating fancy cheese and meats.  Why did I wait so long to take up racing?

After finishing all the food on board we though they may be holding ceremonies soon and began to make our way to the picnic tables and awnings of the yacht club.  Racers and watchers were all mingling while talking about the night or the prep they had just finished to get their boats ready for the season.  This was something I could relate to.  Finally I was able to explain my sanding woes to people that could sympathise with my pain instead of all my coworkers that would just look at me and think, ‘Oh poor you….you own a boat.  I feel so sorry for you’.  After meeting many other fellow sailors and discussing all things boating I was ushered inside for a fresh beer and to wait for the ceremonies to begin.  Team Island Dream took a large round table by the door and all got to know each other a little better as there were so many new faces that night.  I discussed our trip which everyone was very interested in hearing about….how long we’ll be gone for….what exactly we’ll be doing.  I had to keep assuring Jules that those plans did not include making a baby.

As darkness grew on the water more and more people were making their way inside the club and it was becoming crowded and noisy but in a good way.  We could hear someone starting to make announcements and strained to make out our boat name when they got to our division.  As soon as we heard Island Dream our table cheered and applauded as Tom got up to collect his prize.  Disappearing through the crowd and coming back he had a frosted glass in his hand, something to display for our victory.  The entire night was a success even if the winds had decided not to tag along. For my first time out in a non-cruising fashion I had a great time.  Everyone was incredibly friendly and helpful and there is a bonding that takes place over people even if you’ve just met.  We were all a team now, including me.  I was extended an invitation to come back every week which I am definitley planning on doing.  Maybe next week I’ll introduce everyone to the Lienenkugel summer pack to celebrate what I’m sure will be another victory.  Or to console us for not placing.  Either way I’m sure we’ll have a great time.

Team Island Dream

Our 3rd place prize (my phone does not take good low-light photos)

* Team racing results for 5/23/12:

Average wind speed –   4 knots                   Time Elapsed –  1:49:39                     Average speed – 0.996 knots

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