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C’mon, join the fun, be cold, wet and tired on the rail

2015 August 17

The shapes arrayed on the windward rail are rounded mounds. In the dark they look a bit like a row of igloos.

The simile is apt. It’s a cold night. The 15-knot northeasterly wind is heavy with vapors rising from 48-degree water. The sailors are padded in layers of fleece or down under foul-weather suits and inflatable life vests, with boots on their feet, wool caps on their heads. Shoulder to shoulder, hip to hip, they ride high above the choppy water as the heeling boat close-reaches toward a distant waypoint.

No stars or moon are visible. We sail in a world of gray, charcoal water and iron sky separated by a stripe of lighter gray at the horizon. 

The boat is cranky, defying the efforts of the helmsman and sail trimmers to find a smooth, fast groove.

What’s more, we are being hosed by the competition. The stern lights of boats we should be pacing are getting progressively dimmer.

Only a hopeless sailing romantic, or a delusional one, would describe this as a pleasant night at sea. But, boy, are we having fun!

Seriously. This is sailboat racing, and it’s what the 12 people on my boat, and the hundreds more on other boats in this night’s race, do to derive enjoyment from sailing, no matter that it includes a night without sleep and a fair amount of discomfort.

I heartily recommend this activity to all who sail. Hence, my top five reasons to love sailboat racing:

5. It’s competition, and that’s fun. You might be a pipe-smoking, dyed-in-the-baggywrinkle old salt whose idea of an exciting day on the water is to tuck into a corner of the cockpit and work on an eye splice in three-strand rope while steering with your foot on the tiller, but admit it, you love it when you can overtake or sail away from another boat.

Winning isn’t everything—perish the thought—but it sure is satisfying, and in sailboat racing you get to do a lot of it because competitive sailing defines winning more generously than most other sports. Athletes covet “podium finishes.” In sailboat racing, the podium is huge. In many long-distance races, three or more trophies, or flags, are awarded for each class of boats, and there are numerous classes. Few endeavors offers as many opportunities to say you are a winner as sailing.

4. It’s a skill check. Sailing well demands a range of skills, and they all come into play in racing. Your race finishes amount to a report card on your mastery of sailing skills. Let’s amend that to say the average of your finishes—we all have a clunker of a race now and then, and we shouldn’t be judged by a DFL (dead expletive last) or two.

3. It introduces you to kindred spirits. The common bond among members of a racing crew is the love of sailing. In sailboat racing I’ve crossed paths with scores of interesting people I would never have otherwise met. Enduring friendships have resulted. 

However, a disclaimer: There is no guarantee that every sailing mate will be an absolutely fabulous person. My list of people I’d rather not have sailed with includes a man oblivious to the impossible-to-miss truth that his seaboots emitted odors so incredibly rank the rest of the crew was on the verge of throwing them overboard with him in them, a few who were sailing legends in their own minds but incompetents elsewhere and a fellow who insisted on announcing every change in the instrument read-outs as though he were reporting breaking news to blind people.

I’m sure they’re fine people on shore.

2. It makes you face the music, meaning the weather. When you’re cruising or sailing just for the fun of it, you can stay in the harbor when nasty conditions are expected. Not so when you’re racing. Whatever happens out there, you have to deal with it. That explains why some of the best seamen and seawomen I know are racers. 

1. It builds character. Much of what happens in sailboat racing is not in the control of the sailors but of Mother Nature. Take it from someone who has the psychic scars to prove it—she is sometimes not a kind mother.

You’ve done a horizon job on the fleet. In a short time you are going to cross the finish line and win the race. The podium awaits. Glory will be yours. But then your wind sputters and dies. Just yours. The boats you left behind still have theirs, and you endure the excruciating torture of having to watch them rise over the horizon, grow ever larger and then sail around your personal parking lot.

Many worse things can happen in life, but at the moment this cruel twist of fate, this wicked perversion of karma, may seem like the utter nadir of the human experience. On the bright side, it usually doesn’t kill you, and if you survive it, you’re stronger.

As for that race the other night, it was a fast, easy passage, a point-and-shoot affair with only one sail change and no tactical or strategic decisions to make. It was a fine night of sailing, capped by crew camaraderie over a breakfast of fermented malt beverages at the dock. 

Oh, by the way, our finish time was mediocre. Worse than that actually.

I’m filing this one under Reason No. 1 to love sailboat racing.