Hold your couse and don't flinch!
Copyright Vladimir Kagan August 27, 2011
“Don’t do it Vladi…. Don’t go there” Professional Race Officer Mark Beal uttered tensely as he watched a showdown unfold between Vladi Kagan on his Indian and the enormous 133 Ft. charter catamaran, during the Long Distance Race of the 19th Annual Constable Cup Race
There is a cardinal rule of the sea: Sail over Power. This is sidelined when a commercial vessel is in a channel and hasn’t room to maneuver… Then sail better stay clear of this boat. Racing my Indian Class Sail Boat in our One Design race series every Saturday, we encounter this dilemma frequently as ferries ply the narrow channel to and fro from their town docks. Then there are also barges to watch out for and not mess with and finally, over-sized yachts that don’t know the rules of the road.
This is the saga of an Immovable Object meeting an Irresistible Force….. Me in my 21” Sailboat vs. a 133’ power catamaran called Silver Cloud: …. It was a classic stand-down of Sail over Power.
If you are not interested in sea sagas, skip this Blog and enjoy the photos… For all the others, this article may go down in the annals of sea stories like Horatio Hornblower!
It was as a windless mid-summer day in Nantucket’s inner harbor. Our Fleet of 12 boats were assembled to start the vaunted Constable Cup Race… a 15 mile challenge of sailing to the “head of the harbor” circumnavigating a series of prescribed marks and then dashing out of the safety of Nantucket’s snug harbor into the roiling seas outside of the protective jetties. A race that can take up to four hours in our little boats. Crews consist of a skipper (me), a strong hand on the main sail and an agile buck on the spinnaker. My crew was Jotham Tausig and Allan Breed, two seasoned sailors half my age: both practiced sea lawyers ready to scream down anyone who got in our way.
This race is a “must” in the three-day series and our diligent Race Committee patiently waited for the wind to come up to set us on our way. Drifting for about an hour, we had no idea of what was to happen…. Fog banks in Nantucket are no strangers; they usually hang off the land until evening, when the island cools, then they sweep in with vengeance…. Winds usually fill in with the change of the tide…. This time the start was a Lulu… the wind shifted 180% and came in on our nose, together with a blinding pea-soup fog that literally obliterated the bow of the boat from the steering end. I know the harbor well, but, so do all the other guys… In a blinding fog no one knows where they are going. One reassuring fact: the wind was on our nose and if we assiduously tacked, we’d finally end up in Wauwinet at the head of the harbor, (providing we succeeded in missing five shoals that lay squarely in our way!) Some clever skippers honed in on the sound of an engine somewhere out in front and followed it into a dead-end inlet not on our racecourse… (The guy driving this boat was the new PRO (Professional Race Officer) who didn’t know the harbor!
As suddenly as the fog rolled in, it dissipated an hour later and there we were on course, having navigating around the sand spits, sight-unseen…. But this was only the first leg with 10 miles to go. The course back had it’s own nuance. The tide was flooding and to make any headway with our spinnakers in full bloom, we had to inch our way up through shoal waters. I managed to stay up with the forerunners, but kept loosing ground as the opposition took our wind from behind. Here is where I made my fatal mistake: The smart “money” went to the other side of the course, I held my ground and theoretically kept out of the tide until the bitter end…. This meant threading our way through the anchorage with hundreds of yacht at their moorings. I finally emerged into clear water only to be confronted by a slow-moving behemoth bearing down on me. The 135-foot Silver Cloud. I had three options: Jibe and sail behind them, (loosing my advantage against the competition) harden-up and sail into the advancing tide at the mouth of the harbor, or hold my course… Of course, this was what I chose (with the strong encouragement of my trustworthy crew). The frustrated captain of the behemoth blew his whistle 5 times (a last ditch emergency warning, translating into get – out – of – my – way!) I blithely crossed his bow. He had to stop and back off! To punish me, he “sat” on my wind all the way out of the harbor. By that time I was DFL (dead f---king last). Under those circumstances, there is a last desperate step seasoned sailors can take: At your peril, sail through a narrow cut in the stone jetties and get out of the tide… No problem, I’ve done this before in my fifty years of sailing on the island. We headed for the cut as the waves were crashing against us like a waterfall. They come in predictable sequence; I managed to sail through the first three and cleared the boat through the cut, but the fourth wave hit us broadside and was about to crash me into the barnacled rocks just feet away. Resourceful Alan, saw the impending horror and jumped overboard. Using his body as a bumper we avoided certain disaster. He held us off long enough for the next wave to drive us back though the cut and into the channel. Remorsefully, we did what every other boat ahead of us did… hug the jetties and claw our way against the tide out of the harbor. Once clear of the jetties, wind and waves take over for the next half mile till we reached the last mark on our course, appropriately called X. Miraculously, we managed to beat one boat on a technicality, finished the race with great honor and headed for the bar.
Lucinda Ballard wrote in the Nantucket Yacht Club’s August magazine SOUNDINGS:
“Meanwhile, drama erupted off Brant Point. Vladi Kagan found himself on a collision course with the enormous catamaran, Silver Cloud. Think Hy-line fast ferry. The vessel blew five horns, meaning, “Get the hell out of the way… imminent collision!” From Maushope (the race committee boat) we looked on in amazement and no small amount of concern. It wasn’t pretty. Images of a splintered Indian came to mind. But Kagan was undaunted by Silver Cloud’s warning. “I thought they were absolutely wrong. I thought we should make them stop! They had no rights and we did!” And so Silver Cloud was forced to brake until Vladi proudly crossed her bow in a spectacular invocation of the almighty Sail over Power rule.
And finally, a wonderful fan letter arrived from an acquaintance back in 1967… she wrote in part, “….you were always so congenial, relaxed, and supportive and I was inspired by your poise and calm under pressure. So when I read in “Soundings” the thrilling account of your challenge to Silver Cloud, it was easy to imagine you at the helm and never flinching…. This insuring that “right” can and will triumph over might!”….. That says it all!