I’ve been crewing on other people’s race boats for years, but for the first time, I got to take the helm and run my own race: time to find out if I’d learned anything.
The traditional first race of the season for the Windjammers Sailing Club is the practice race, and this year it was in a pursuit format. Since we’re all sailing different types of boats, there’s a handicap to make up for inherent speed differences. Ordinarily all of the boats start at the same time and then race against the clock—finishing first doesn’t necessarily mean that you win—but in a pursuit format, the handicap is applied at the start. The slowest boat leaves first, and then boats are allowed to start at intervals according to their handicap, which should theoretically make for a more exciting finish.
We could have raced our 22 with the Windjammers, but 22s are ridiculously slow, and weird things happen when boats with wildly different handicaps race against each other. There may have been times when we could have won (like in very light air), but winning on an anomaly in the handicapping system never sounded very satisfying. The 27 is at least in the ballpark, with most boats in our club falling in between 28-35ft. We were still the slowest boat, and therefore the first to start, but only had about a 15 second advantage on Tiki, the Sabre 28 (all of which I squandered by not being exactly near the starting line at the appointed time).
The course was a windward-leeward, and with the wind routinely gusting into the low 20s, we started the race with one reef in the main and the full 135. We were lucky to have Sailor Steve crewing with us. He’s the skipper of Revolution, my Tuesday night race boat, so we had a bit of a role reversal. He manned the jib sheets, and got a workout in those conditions, especially since we haven’t yet removed the second set of lifelines that prevent the winch handle from actually rotating all the way around the winches. The original plan was to have Jen on the main sheet, but with that much wind I thought it would be best to have her stay up on the rail to help keep us upright. This started a cascade of poor management decisions on my part which probably made the race less than fun for her.
Despite that, we were sailing really fast. We started on port tack, which is usually not the preferred way to start a race since boats on port tack must give way to boats on starboard tack, but given the staggered start it wasn’t an issue, and sailing in that direction took us to the favored side of the course. We were able to sail nearly straight to the mark, and after a couple quick tacks, we were well ahead.
Sailing downwind, we were right on that annoying point of sail where it’s a little too much of a reach to go wing and wing and it’s a little too dead downwind to keep the jib powered up behind the main. Sailor Steve struggled with the borrowed whisker pole that we’d acquired just prior to leaving the dock, which was too short, unable to be adjusted, and didn’t lock properly on the mast ring. I was stressed out about boat speed and not jibing Sailor Steve off the foredeck and was unable to effectively communicate with my navigatrix regarding finding the mark on her telephone—2/3 of the club’s “real” buoys had apparently become holed over the winter, so we were using a fender for the leeward mark, which was, of course, invisible from 1.5nm away.
We found it though, and as we jibed around the fender, the end stop of our traveler broke and the car exited the track, leaving the main sheet dangling in space. I eventually got it back on with Jen’s help, but this would prove to be a problem. We held off the fleet on the second upwind leg, but on the final downwind the scratch boat, a Hunter 35.5, was right on our heels. When we rounded the leeward mark, the traveler car came off again and Jen simultaneously fell down the companionway stairs. I didn’t even see it happen, but given how much I felt it, it was clear that she hit hard. While I was holding the sheet by hand [poorly] and trying to figure out if Jen was ok, we got passed by the Hunter. Jen assured us that she was alright—she’d done the same thing that both of us have been doing constantly on the new boat: misjudged the size and placement of things based on our muscle memory of crawling around the old boat. We were sailing slowly as I tried to enact repairs and think of emergency plans for Jen while steering, but we had built up enough of a lead that we still came in second.
Second place is better than I would have hoped for in a first race, but I would have liked to have done a few things better. At some point, the cringle had come out of the reefing hook on the boom, so we had no luff tension for most of the race and were unable to fix it en route. The broken traveler certainly cost us time, and I should have figured out a better way to lash it after the first incident (the traveler controls are held in place with clam cleats, which I hate and aren’t even the right size for the line). I let the stress of wanting to win get to me and wasn’t patient with Jen, and then to add injury to insult, she fell down the companionway. The crew did great and the boat performed well overall despite the equipment mishaps, which showed in our respectable finish, but there are definite areas for improvement. There’s more to being a good skipper than knowing where to point the boat.