From our Fabulous Forums…
Came across the following in a 2003 email to a pal…
Last week on Sailing Anarchy, I saw a crew-wanted post seeking someone with local knowledge to join a team for Long Beach Race Week. The boat was Dr. No, a J120 out of San Diego.
I responded to the post, even though my J120 experience was limited. Surprisingly, the boat captain called a couple of days later. My job would be to advise on local conditions and do sewer at the bottom mark. But it turned out the tactician wasn’t impressed with my experience racing Cal 25s and didn’t really want my advice.
So I did sewer, and almost single-handedly lost the whole regatta. This is what happened.
We kicked butt on Friday in winds that held steady in the 20-knot range. But a fair showing in light breeze the next day knocked us on our ass, and back into second place. To win the regatta, we needed to beat our main rival, Caper in the final two races.
Sunday morning brought more light air and a heavy dose of June gloom. Since Caper scored three bullets in similar conditions Saturday, the atmosphere on Dr. No was pretty somber. But the mood went from bad-to-worse after a second-row start positioned us in the back half of the fleet at the beginning of our first must-win race of the day.
Still, we fought on and passed a couple of boats before rounding the weather mark, a long ten boat-lengths behind Caper. Nothing changed on the run, but we split with the leaders on the next beat to play the left side of the course and crossed ahead of Caper for the first time since Friday. We finished second, and regained a share of first place.
Now it all came down to the last race of the regatta. Winner take all.
By mid afternoon, it was blowing a solid 20 knots. So the R/C signaled the long course for the final race: three times around with a downwind finish.
For me, the douses aren’t bad. It’s a lot of work hauling down the giant kite, but sort of exciting. The hard part comes as we turn upwind, bashing into the waves, with me in the bow surrounded by wet spinnaker cloth, huffing and puffing. It’s my job to untangle the chute and prep it for the next set. If the douse goes well, I can run the tapes and get topside in a few minutes. But when things go bad… well there’s a reason they call it the sewer.
During sets, I stand on the foredeck, sort of a utility man, watching as the chute spews from the hatch, praying it comes out straight. This is the nerve-wracking part, because so much is riding on the launch and because this is when mistakes made in the sewer are exposed. I just stand there with my heart pounding, waiting for the trimmer to call out, “I have a kite!”
So, it’s one race for all the marbles.
We get a good start and lead by a couple of boat-lengths at the first mark. We hold station on the downwind leg. But a tacking duel on leg three brings Caper to within a boat at the second windward mark. Downwind we duke it out. They pass. We pass. Caper attacks. We parry.
The wind’s howling as we near the bottom mark. But after three days of racing, with the trophy on the line, and our nemesis sailing up our ass, there’s no way it’s gonna be a conservative take down. The tactician calls for a jibe at the two-boat circle followed by a Mexican take down. And we’re doing over 10 knots. Zero margin of error.
Things get pretty dicey. How dicey, I can’t exactly say. All I saw was sailcloth and salt water. Then the hatch closes, and my little triangular room starts to buck like a bronco with his balls in a vice. I’m soaked, wrapped in a nylon straitjacket, gasping for breath and holding on for dear life. That’s when things turn bad.
I notice about ten yards of spinnaker sheet have been sucked down and woven into the spinnaker. This is ugly. I go to work. Start at the head. Pull, feed, follow the tape. Shit, dead end. Reverse it out. Where’s the fucking tack? Pull, yank, dig. There it is. Follow the tape. Think. Work it out. Fuck! It’s getting worse. Take a deep breath. Then a wave breaks over the bow, forces its way through the hatch and whacks me in the face. Great. We tack. A few times. The boat’s on its ear. Things aren’t getting better. I keep working.
Did someone call, LAYLINE? Oh fuck.
Exhausted, I scurry aft to get help. Once in the sunlight, the first thing I notice is Caper’s bowman doing his thing just yards off our transom.
I tell the tactician, “It’s all fucked up. I can’t fix it.”
“What the fuck do you mean, ‘It’s all fucked up’? The mark’s right there, Goddamnit!”
“It’s all fucked up. I don’t know what else to do.”
“Then get on the fucking rail! Ben, get the spare kite.”
As I climb across the steeply pitched deck I hear, “Mark’s on the bow! Start your turn.”
At this point, I’m living my worst nightmare. After finally getting the chance to be part of a competitive program, and after three days of mistake-free sailing, on the verge of winning the biggest regatta of my career, I’m unable to handle my relatively easy job and lose the whole enchilada.
The next thirty seconds last about two hours. We round the mark under main and jib.
Caper’s on our leeward hip. Their kite snaps open and they quickly surge forward, sailing deep, almost directly at the committee boat.
We stay a little high to keep the jib drawing. A spare chute is passed forward. Then sheets. We’re separating from Caper, but our hotter angle minimizes the VMG difference.
Then in an amazing bit of crew work, our bowman has the new A sail rigged before we’ve sailed a hundred yards from the mark. I mainly stay out of the way.
Seconds later, the mast-man jumps the kite and we turn toward the finish line.
My ninth inning throwing error has just been mitigated by a teammate’s homer.
We’re still in it! So we race on. Harder than ever. Trimming with every wave. Hiking like a bitch. And just plain willing her forward. As we near the finish line, it’s still hard to say who’s ahead. Both boats jibe. Our courses converge. Still too close to call. I’m standing on the cabin top, holding the boom forward and calling incoming puffs. Then I see it. Just like a hanging curve. I call out, “Wave in three… two, one. PUMP!”
What a feeling! The stern rose several feet. Next it was pure acceleration as we surfed down the wave’s face. In a heartbeat we’re ahead. Then, BAM. The gun on the committee boat signals first to finish. It’s Dr. No by half a boat. We won!
There were whoops and hollers all around. Everyone shook hands and congratulated each other. But the celebration was a little subdued.
We came that close to losing it all. I came that close to losing it all. For me, it wasn’t about the thrill of victory. It was more a feeling of relief. A tragedy averted. I’d been pulled back from the edge, rescued by the bowman. At least that’s how I felt at the time.
Over beers on the motor back to the marina we talked about the spinnaker snafu. Apparently, it had happened before. The tactician told me that sometimes during a particularly chaotic drop, the kite comes down so tangled that it’s almost impossible to fix before the next hoist. Maybe he was BSing, but I felt a little better. Still, I’ve got to think that a more experienced person could have untangled it in time.
Oh well. You live and you learn. I’ll force that one bad leg from my memory and hold onto the twenty or so good launches. I can’t be too hard on myself.
After all, we did win the regatta.