Sitting in the cockpit of Ron Zarella’s custom-built Taylor 49 Blackfish, the crew waits for a tender to take everyone ashore. We’ve just completed the first day of the 2019 St. Thomas International Regatta, and we’re ready for some shade and a round of Painkillers.
“You’re supposed to sound a horn three times to get the tender to come,” Zarella says. He’s standing behind the helm, relaxed, but growing impatient. His boat captain, David Abramski, descends through the companionway and returns with a foghorn, walks to the stern, and blows three sounds across Cowpet Bay toward St. Thomas YC.
Soon after, a beat-up RIB comes skidding alongside us, its motor stalling as it nearly crashes into the boat’s gleaming black topside.
“Can you send the other one?” Zarella asks, eyeing the RIB’s deflated tubes. “I don’t think we’ll stay afloat in that thing.”
The driver smiles, shoves off, and tells us he’ll be right back. As the tender drifts away downwind, we watch its driver struggle to pull-start the outboard.
“This could take a while,” Zarella says, sitting down behind the helm. He’s a big man with a big personality—but at this moment, he’s just another skipper waiting for a ride, on island time. He accepts his fate and rests his palm on the boat’s varnished wooden wheel. From beneath his sun hat flapping in the breeze, he admires the teak deck of his Spirit of Tradition masterpiece and a smile stretches from cheek to bearded cheek.
Meanwhile, over his shoulder, the RIB in distress drifts toward the reef, forcing the driver to throw out an anchor.
“I’d much rather be stranded on this boat,” Zarella says.
Our waiting time has increased exponentially, yet no one complains. The trade winds are whistling through the rigging and whitecaps curl in from the southeast. Across the bay, the Caribbean Sea stretches out on the horizon, its blue and green hues reflecting the tropical sky. All in all, there are far worse places to be stuck on a mooring.
To pass the time, we extract a handful of beers from the cooler and debrief on the day’s racing. Only three years have passed since Blackfish was launched, and Zarella’s sailing team is as new as the boat itself. As with any new crew, dividing responsibilities is a process of trial and error. In this regard, there is much to discuss: “It seems like the tactics-by-committee concept is working well,” trimmer Pat O’Conner says.
Until this moment I’d never heard the phrase, “tactics by committee” and thought it to be odd.
“What happens when you’re in a situation that requires a quick decision?” I ask. “Who makes the final call?”
“That would be Carolyn,” Zarella declares, nodding toward Carolyn Grant, his wife of three years. “She’s the one who ultimately calls the shots.”
“The only problem is that Ron has his head so far up Pat O’Conner’s ass that he’s developed hearing issues,” she responds.
The crew pauses, and then a round of laughter erupts. Zarella brushes off the remark, but beneath Grant’s zinc-covered face is a hint of frustration, and I understand why. There was a point in the second race when the course took us through St. James Cut, a tight little strait southeast of St. Thomas.
The water in this section of the course is shallow enough to see stingrays darting through coral heads. O’Conner, trimming the spinnaker, was telling Zarella to head up to keep the spinnaker filled. Zarella followed orders and turned the wheel ever so slightly until Carolyn spoke out. Her eyes were glued to the depth sounder and she knew we were approaching dangerously close to shallow water.
Blackfish was headed toward rocks and only after a moment’s hesitation, Zarella heeded his wife’s advice and changed course to pass safely through the cut. A moment such as this is inevitable when a Nantucket-based power couple runs the show themselves. Grant says they didn’t want a boat captain calling all the shots: “Between Ron and I, we have more than enough confidence in our experience to manage whatever comes our way.”
Zarella takes pride in his ability to gather information from the people around him and choose the best course of action onboard, a style of leadership he’s honed through years of corporate management. Grant, on the other hand, has enjoyed a long career in the sailing industry. Her accomplishments include three IOD World Championships and a circumnavigation. She was once the head coach of the Hampton University Sailing Team and is the retired Director of Sailing at Nantucket’s exclusive Great Harbor YC. Zarella and Grant come from differing management backgrounds, but Grant’s sailing knowledge dwarfs that of her husband, a fact he readily admits.
“Carolyn has forgotten more about sailing than I’ll ever know,” Zarella confesses. “She’s great at crew training in specific positions, and that’s part of the reason we fit so well together. The most important part of owning this boat has been understanding our relationship as husband and wife.”
“People kept asking us who was going to be the skipper,” Grant says. “Ron is so type‑A that he needs to be on the helm, and I hadn’t steered in such a long time that I didn’t mind running the crew.”
Grant, who spent so many years coaching, now coaches Zarella, “When he manages to listen, that is.”
And there were plenty of coachable moments in St. Thomas. The regatta’s courses require teams to navigate islands, shoals and channel markers rather than windward-leeward buoys. The racing is close-quarters combat at times as competitors fight for favorable windshifts and current relief. When boats get close to shore and tacticians start hollering for “water,” someone inevitably gets ping-ponged to the back of the fleet, particularly in the legs when boats are overlapped. Throughout this first day, Blackfish had a number of quick decisions to make, and based on the day’s results, Zarella might’ve been wiser to listen to his wife more often.
“It’s a constant battle,” Grant says, taking a sip of chardonnay as the wait for a tender continues. “But we’re working on it.”
Before tying the knot, the couple had known each other for years at Great Harbor, where Zarella serves as Commodore. His interest in Spirit of Tradition yachts was piqued a decade ago when he bought a Herreshoff Alerion 26, a retro classic now popular on Nantucket. He missed his days of Farr 40 sailing, however, and decided he needed more waterline.
“My design vision for this boat was the Ferrari 550 Maranello,” Zarella says. “To me, it’s the most beautiful car ever designed, but it can still blow anyone off the road.”
With Blackfish, he got the nautical Ferrari he was looking for. With its traditional teak overlay and Alaskan cedar deck boards and the warm off-white and varnished brightwork interior, the boat is 50 feet of pure craftsmanship. The modern-shaped hull is built of cold-molded, tongue and groove Alaskan cedar planking nestled between western red cedar veneers. The boat’s sleek black lines resemble an orca, from which it takes its name—but it’s more like a grand piano on water, a true work of art.
“The designer kept asking me if I wanted a pretty boat or a fast boat,” Zarella says. “And I repeatedly told him I wanted both.”
When Blackfish‘s construction began, Zarella and Grant were mere acquaintances. Zarella leaned on Grant’s expertise to guide him through the boatbuilding process. After a year and a half of interviews, he and Grant chose Jim Taylor as its designer, and Main’s Brooklin Boatyard as its builder. Working so close together, one thing led to another and Zarella found himself a partner in Grant, both on the water and off. By May of 2017, a year and a half after their wedding, they commissioned their one and only child.
“When we were sailing the last windward leg, I had a moment to myself,” Grant confides. “Just being here, realizing that all the hard work has paid off, and that we’re finally doing what we set out to do. It’s been a great experience, and I couldn’t have found anyone better to make the adventure with than Ron.”
After sharing so many stories and rambling on, the cold beer is depleted and the crew grows restless. We start blasting the signals toward shore again, and after a few more minutes, a bigger and better tender finally arrives, gliding smoothly up to our beam. Zarella takes Grant’s hand and helps her transfer. It’s a long step down and the tender is twisting in the waves.
As we shove off, the couple fires glances at their baby, tucked in for the evening, its dark hull shining against the bright blue water. In the glow of another Caribbean afternoon, Zarella wraps his burly arm around Grant and pulls her close as we weave our way through the mooring field.
The three of them are good together.