A Primer on Small Boat Racing
By Vladimir Kagan Copyright July 29, 2012
There is sailing and there is racing and the twain do seldom meet!
The common denominator is a boat with sails. That's about where the similarity ends.
People who "cruise," a loose term associated with social sailing, do so solely for pleasure on a nice sunny day, not too windy and no waves. There are two directions these sailors go. Out from the dock or mooring and after a pleasant hour or two, return. For these sailors "reaching" is the only civilized tack to be on. The saying "Gentlemen never Beat, they only Reach"...Very true! Boats that Beat often heel at an alarming angle and everyone can get uncomfortably wet... Besides it is much too strenuous and uncomfortable not to mention: risky. Though recreational sailors seldom know this: on the return trip, going dead before the wind should be avoided: it can be blisteringly hot and airless: it is also extremely dangerous, risking an un-intentional Jibe. This maneuver can easily take someone's head off, toss crews rudely into the water and worse, risk a capsize… It is unfortunate that in recreational sailing some people must sit in the shade, which was not their intention after lathering themselves with suntan lotion.
Racing is a sport of a different color. Tepid winds are de rigueur; to be good competition, the wind should blow 15 knots or more - twenty knots are even better. For the casual onlooker, the start of a race is a friendly gathering of many boats. (In our fleet, usually forty or more, milling about in all directions.) If they look as though they are just playing about in the water - It's an illusion. It is the most chaotic moment in racing.
One Design racing on Nantucket consists of five classes of boats. (We are an old-fashioned Island, proud of our traditional heritage – (you won’t find a modern house anywhere). In sailing, we are attracted to classic boats. Philip Rhodes designed the only post-war “modern” boat in the fleet, over 50 years ago: the Rhodes 19 - originally built by the O’Day Company – (Indian sailors refer to them as “plastic bathtubs”.)
Then there are the Alerions: beautiful cold molded mahogany reproductions of a classic 1912 Herreshoff design… They were custom built on Nantucket back in the 70s by the Sanford Boat Company… , At $160,000 replacement cost, you avoids colliding with these expensive toys.
Indians: (the boat I sail is 21.5 feet long) It was designed in 1927 by John Alden as a wooden hulled round-bottomed centerboard boat. When our antique boats started to disintegrate, the fleet reproduced them in Fiberglas without modifications to their cumbersome rigging… (There are still a few original wooden hulls in the water that are far superior to the plastic!)
Cat Boats: traditional shallow-bottomed boats that have been the subject of so many paintings including Winslow Homer’s famous “Sailing the Cat Boat” Our fleet sails Marshal 18’… commodious and sturdy, these boats are considered an old man’s boat for their comfortable seating configuration, but are far from it when you have to control the tiller and “barn door’ rudder in a stiff breeze.
Cat Boats maneuvering for a good position on the starting line
Bringing up the rear is the adorable gaff-rigged Beetle Cats: a 12’ sailboat designed by the Beetle Boat Yard back in the ‘20s… In Nantucket, they are affectionately called the Rainbow Fleet for their colorful sails as immortalized by Marshal Gardiner in his famous photo.
Marshal Gardiner's classic Photo of the Rainbow Fleet rounding Brand Poin in Nantucket
Each class is given its own five-minute start separated by a short interval. Shouting is permitted and is a valuable tool for the racing skipper (expletives are avoided in this gentlemanly sport). Skippers fiercely maneuver for the start. Avoiding collisions is the basic rule, but it is not apparent as they shout "Right of way," "Port – Starboard," "Luffing rights," "Leeward boat," "Barging." And then there is the issue of tides, favorite starting position; the danger of hugging the committee Boat or deciding the pin-end is favorite - and God Forbid: a Port start. All this plays out in the first five minutes before the starting gun. (We have the blast of a horn). If you are not in the first gaggle, fighting for clean air, you might just as well quit the race as you have only a "Chinaman's" chance of making up for your mistake.
Now tactics take over. Where is the best wind? Is the tide with you or against you? Will there be a wind-shift? If you had a good start on Starboard, when can you kick over to Port and not get clobbered by the oncoming competition? It is critical to get to the first mark first, (which is set directly to windward); you claw your way up with frequent tacks. Speed and agility are its tools; crew coordination is a must. This first leg can be extremely wet; water splashing you repeatedly in the face as the boat hits every wave - square on. You are heeled over and holding on for dear life. (It is a favorite pose for accompanying photographers). If you wear glasses, there are no windshield-wipers... you try to keep your eyes on the streaming telltales between the salt-water drips on the lens. By the first mark you are thoroughly drenched. (This is OK at the beginning of the season while the water and weather is temperate, but not so great toward the end when it gets chilly and blustery.) Reaching the first mark first is vital: there is no one in your way and you perform a perfect rounding. Not so for the ten or twelve other boats maneuvering for their chance to round. Here screaming is essential: “You have no room" - "Don't even think of going in there" - "Starboard boat" – “You hit the mark” – “You hit me - do your 360s" Best of land friends-become mortal enemies at this point…. The rounding completed, it becomes the photographer’s second photo-op as the spinnakers unfurl and show their splendid colors. It is a tricky maneuver; a crewmember must stand on the foredeck with an unwieldy eight-foot spinnaker pole trying to thread a line through one end and securing it to the mast with the other. You do not want to have extra weight on the foredeck - the spinnaker person is selected for his or her lightness. This means he may not always be the strongest member of the crew. On my boat I am blessed with Tara Vittone, (beautiful, agile, light weight and a magnificent sailor). Her position is foredeck crew; this agile crewmember must maintain her footing against the billowing spinnaker, which is exerting its full force against her while the after-deck crew does everything to make her task more perilous. This is a life and death moment; a struggle until the pole is secured against the mast... But things may not have settled down; the skipper may call for an immediate Jibe. This means starting the dangerous procedure all over while the crew in the cockpit must release recalcitrant backstays, swing the huge mainsail to the other side and avoid an imminent capsize in the process. At this point, a momentary peace prevails... you are sailing before the wind (it is reminiscent of recreational sailing) but not for long! If you are fortunate to be in the lead, the hounds behind you are maneuvering to take your wind… that's called covering. To avoid this disaster, you must head up, steering you off your course. Under no circumstances can you allow the leeward (rear) boat to overtake you... but it can happen... Having completed these tricky tasks it is now time to enjoy the respite because within five minutes you are once again in the battle of the Mark. The screaming can get even more intense as crews must take down the spinnaker, lower the centerboard, trim the boat for the next tack, avoid collisions, take the mark wide and narrow and do battle all over again. A good rounding can help you overtake two or three boats... a bad one makes you loose an equal amount.
All of this becomes personal. I am the oldest relic sailing an Indian at nearly 85 years. This gives me no kudos. The competition is merciless and Indian sailors are the fiercest! I sail with my son Illya. He is my tactician and mainsail hauler. A fierce competitor, he screams with the best of them and mercilessly cracks the whip over me the entire length of the race. "Dad, you are light" - "You're not watching your telltale" - "Can't you see where the wind is coming from?" - "Didn't you see him?" "You're not paying attention" - "The tack was too slow." The attacks are relentless, but they keep me on my toes. I forget my decrepit state and sail like a kid. The race over, he relents and compliments me on my endurance. We rejoice if we find ourselves in the top percentile of the fleet; first second or third is out of our reach, though we try weekly to get there.
It's all a part of good racing... and the reward: “Kagan's Corner", delectable grilled cheese sandwiches provided by our club’s manager, Peter McMeachum as a result of my complaining that the snack-bar grill is closed when we return from sailing...(there is a reward for being an old curmudgeon!)
P.S. in spite of the aggressive nature of the sport, it is still SPORT and a family affair. More and more skippers take their young aboard as crew; many of my granddaughters from age eight to twenty-five are indispensable members of my racing team… when available.