Disclaimer: The opinions, observations, and snarky asides in this blog post are the author’s and do not (necessarily) represent the views of the other regatta participants. So now that that’s out of the way…
Until about two months ago, I had never crewed a racing sailboat in my life. My sailing skills are marginal at best, nonexistent in times of crisis and/or when it really counts (such as when racing.) So imagine my surprise when I found myself on Vitesse, a 27’ Santa Cruz, participating in the Banderas Bay Regatta.
I had been out on Vitesse a few times before. It’s owner, Bart, had put up an advert on the community bulletin board looking for crew for the Wednesday Night Beer Can races out of La Cruz and the Captain had jumped all over the opportunity because there are few things he loves more than racing sailboats and beer. I went out with them a couple of times when they were light on crew but even though there was sailing, tacking, gybing, and going around buoys, it never really felt like racing. Probably because it’s loosely organized, everyone waves when you pass each other, and you’re drinking beer the whole time. So it’s more like a fun day sailing. But the Regatta was a real race and not just because we weren’t allowed to drink the beer till after we crossed the finish line, but because everyone took it so very seriously. Some boats used special racing sails, some rerigged, others came from outside the area to participate, and some would only bring on experienced, semi-professional crew.
The Regatta officially kicked off with the Skipper’s Meeting. Held at the sponsoring yacht club, it’s not so much a skipper’s meeting as a cocktail party where they make some announcements, give a quick rundown of events, and promote the swag in between which there is as much mingling, schmoozing, and smooth jazz as you can handle. I was only half-way paying attention because I found myself standing directly behind the “Where’s your pass?” lady and was trying hard not to “accidentally” spill my beer on her head. Two days previous I had arrived at the gate at the top of the docks and was searching for my key fob. I had a big bag of groceries, a very large dog, and an old lady in tow when this woman and her husband pushed past us to the gate. “Great!” I said, “Can we get in with you?” to which she replied, “I don’t know. Where’s your pass?” At first I thought she was kidding. I mean, I get that as marina tenants we have to be vigilant about letting people onto the docks that don’t belong there, but “woman with groceries, large dog, and old lady desperately rummaging for a key fob” doesn’t really scream “I’ve come to steal your dinghy.” But she wasn’t kidding. As I’m fumbling around for my key fob, she’s blocking the gate with her body and going on and on about “I need to see your pass. You’ve got to have a pass. Pass, pass, pass.” And I tell her as I’m searching that I’m on Raven in Slip B-31 and she says, “That’s just a number. That doesn’t mean anything to me.” And I finally find my key fob and marina id card and shove it under her nose and only then does she very begrudgingly let me through. I’ve been worked up about it ever since. Editor’s Note: I know she’s not on our docks so I figure she must be on C and D docks so I’ve taken to walking Otter around looking for her boat so I can let him pee on her dock box. And if she complains I can show her the pass that’s now hanging around his neck in lieu of his collar because apparently having a pass gives you carte blanche to be an asshole.
But I digress.
The first day on the water was “Start Your Heart Out” Practice Day. As in a day to practice your starts. The start is very important because it’s not like all the boats can line up in a row and start sailing at the sound of a horn. You have to time a running start at the line without crossing early (or else you have to turn back and go through again) or crossing too late (in which case you’ve probably already lost because every second counts.) So the race committee boat put out a couple of buoys and we practiced our starts by going around and around and around and around. It was bad enough at the stern where I was, but even worse at the bow where the Captain was. He was so dizzy after 18 starts that we were half way back to the marina before he opened his first beer. Unfortunately, he didn’t get to finish it because on the way back, we decided to practice a spinnaker set and the wind kicked up, caught it, and blew it so far out that we started tipping over…way over. Brian was at the helm and immediately starting yelling to “Douse! Douse! Douse!” and I’m thinking, “I don’t want to douse! I want to be upright again and not clinging to the side as we’re doing a big old Titanic into the water. It was only later after we were upright again that I learned that “douse” meant to bring in the sails and that what we were doing was actually “capsizing”.
The next three days were race days. Now Vitesse is a 27-foot boat and there were six people on board--everyone with a job to do. Neil ran the foredeck—working the jib, preparing the spinnaker sets, etc. Scott assisted Neil, skirted the jib, and manned the halyards and lines. Richelle trimmed sails and released on the tacks and jibes, Brian and Bart each in turn manned the helm and tailing winches. My job was to time the starts, top and drop the spinnaker pole, and help douse the spinnaker (douse as in bring it in, not capsize the boat.) When not working, we were all rail meat. In the racing world, rail meat describes the people that scramble from one side of the boat to the other to put as much weight on the high side so as not to capsize the boat (as in tipping over, not bringing in the sail.)
Now the challenging thing about a 27' boat is that winches, lines, halyards, cleats, travelers, and doused sails (the ones on the boat, not in the water) are squeezed into not a whole lot of room. There is all manner of things to hit, bump, scrape, rack, stumble over, and uncomfortably sit on. Add six people all doing their various jobs on top of one another and your chances of hitting, bumping, scraping, racking, stumbling over, and uncomfortably sitting on something increases tenfold. The race itself consists of intensely chaotic moments of tacking and jibing when everyone is moving at breakneck speed, frantically doing their jobs, and barking at one another punctuated with very long stretches of hanging out on the rails watching the scenery go by, musing about what cocktails that mega yacht in the distance is serving, and wondering what the hell you’re sitting on and do you really want to know.
After each race, you get points for how you finished based on the time it took to complete the course (1 for first, 2 for second, 3 for third, etc.) and after the third race the points are totaled and whoever gets the lowest score, wins. Vitesse came in third on the first day, fourth on the second day, and last on that awesome day when the wind totally died on our last leg and then the heavens opened up and rained on us while we were desperately trying to bob toward the finish line. But here’s the thing…regattas are open to all boats (so instead of apples racing apples, it’s apples racing apples, oranges, kumquats, and watermelons) so each boat is given a PHRF “rating” number. The rating is based on make, model, age, weight, height, breadth, depth, paint color, zodiac sign, and number of beers on board. Long story short, the J-Boats that we raced against had to give us 30 seconds per mile which is how we came in 2nd overall in our class. Not too shabby for a beer can crew.
So I guess I’d have to say that sailboat racing is equal parts adrenaline, anxiety, awkwardness, and complete bedlam but not without a bit of fun thrown in. The Captain would do it again in a heartbeat. I don’t think I will unless the boat is bigger, fully automated, and has comfy cushions. Oh…and the only thing in danger of capsizing is the cocktail shaker.
A special thank you to Bart for the opportunity to be part of the Vitesse crew. I learned a lot—mainly that I’m not really cut out for real racing. I’m more of a beer can girl.
Pictured: Sailboats hovering around the start line during practice day. Only a fraction showed up so you can imagine what it was like when all 23 boats were present. It was hectic, confused, and a little stressful. And that was just inside my head.