The modern-day bowman’s description encompasses three basic duties: Call the starting line, make the headsail changes, and do all the climbing. But the simple description doesn’t convey either the action or complexity of the work at hand. Done well, it’s a job that takes speed, strength, and balance, as well as the ability to keep track of a dozen lines and parts that are constantly bending around turns and overlapping each other. It takes a personality that enjoys a certain amount of chaos and mayhem, and further enjoys salvaging order from it…
In broad daylight, a car comes to a stop about halfway up the easterly rise of the Newport Bridge. A man gets out of the car, walks to the guardrail, and stares down at the sailboats dotting Narragansett Bay. After a few moments of consideration he climbs onto the guardrail, steps off, and plummets roughly 10 stories into the water.
Down below, Mike Toppa is heading up the bay, trying to get his boat to the start of a race in time. He’s late because his bowman, Jerry Kirby, never arrived at the dock. Toppa looks up and sees the human missile hurtling down from the bridge. The body hits the water nearby, and Toppa makes a short detour to where the swimmer has now popped up out of the water. It’s Kirby, typical Kirby, and Toppa is unperturbed. “At least you didn’t miss the race,” he says, as Kirby climbs aboard unscathed.
Now in his late 30s, veteran bowman Kirby started sailing as a kid in dinghies, and got aboard 12-Meters when he was 14, with Bill Ficker on Intrepid. “With the America’s Cup coming to town every four years, it was like having Fenway Park in your backyard,” says Newport, R.I., native Kirby. “Some kids go to the beach or the ballpark; we drifted down to the docks, and they said, ‘Hey look, if you kids are going to hang around and be pests, you might as well work.'”
Kirby left Newport when he was 20 as captain of the 55-foot S&S sloop, Yankee Girl. His stint on that boat, including a transatlantic passage, gave him an all-around education as helmsman, navigator, sailtrimmer, and tactician, but it was his skills before the mast that drew attention, and before long he was handling the bow on top offshore boats around the world.
“As the sport started to change and get more specialized,” says Kirby, “the crews got more professional from the early ’70s on. The afterguard needed people on the foredeck who could anticipate what was going to happen at the next mark. The races turned from offshore races, where you do everything, to around-the-buoys. When it came to that, they didn’t want to have to send a telegram to the bowman to explain the four scenarios they’d like to be ready for. If you were good at the mechanics of the position, and they didn’t have to explain the tactics, you had a job. And people would recommend you because they’d sailed offshore with you. After you go and have some successes with good guys, it’s almost like you’re branded.”
Since those days, Kirby has handled the bow for Rod Davis, Chris Dickson, John Bertrand, Tom Blackaller, Dave Dellenbaugh, Buddy Melges, Bill Koch, Lorenzo Bortellotti, and a host of others. In the world of big-boat bowmen, he has a reputation as a daredevil among daredevils. He’s not entirely comfortable with that reputation, but admits that the shoe has fit often enough.
There was the time, for example, in the early days of the 1987 America’s Cup campaign, when Kirby was sailing aboard the 12-Meter, Eagle, with Davis, Toppa, and Kimo Worthington, among others. They were scrimmaging the Italians off Long Beach, and testing people in different crew positions. In one race Davis was trying out a new man on the bow; Kirby was at the grinders. Moments before the start, Kirby saw that the bowman’s wave-through to Davis was over-optimistic — the committee boat was anchored in deep water with lots of scope, and Eagle was going to foul the rode. With a wing keel and 14 knots of air in the sails, this was an unpleasant thing to contemplate, and Kirby started pulling off his seaboots. Eagle hit the rode a second or two later. Davis tried to tack away from it, and the rode looped over one wing; he then turned downwind, and the rode looped over the other wing as well. Now Davis had no steering, and Eagle was reeling in the committee boat at high speed. Kirby grabbed his knife, ran forward, and dove off the bow. He followed the leading edge of the keel down, took a good thump as the rest of the keel hit him, hung on with one hand, and cut the rode when the committee boat was a few feet from Eagle’s transom. At that point, Eagle took off again.
Peter Stalkus, a former major-league bowman who would later become Tom Blackaller’s navigator on Defender was on board Eagle at the time. “Stalkus knew I’d pop up somewhere,” said Kirby. By the time he hit the surface, Stalkus had a line trailing in Eagle’s wake; Kirby grabbed it and Stalkus hauled him aboard. Eagle restarted, chased the Italians, and lost by only 20 seconds.
Kirby sailed at the bow of America3 with Koch and Melges in the ’92 America’s Cup. At a buttonhook turn during Race 4 of the Cup, grinder Peter Finnelly got caught in the jib sheet during a gennaker douse and jib-trim maneuver, and started getting winched overboard. Pitman Wally Henry had Finnelly in a headlock, trying to keep him on board, while Kirby zipped aft with his knife, calling for a big ease on the jib. In the tangle underneath the gennaker, Kirby told Finnelly that if he heard him scream, he’d cut the sheet. But the jib got eased — by Toppa.
On the opposing point during the defender trials for that Cup were Scott Vogel and Greg Prussia, sailing with Dennis Conner. “Jerry Kirby,” says Prussia, “Nobody knew what the hell he was up to. He was pretty entertaining to watch.” And Kirby on Prussia: “Oh, he’s a totally unstable individual, perfect for the bowman job.” The ultimate jab-compliment to someone known for his phenomenal balance.
With the huge sails and lack of lifelines on the IACC boats, the foredeck man is basically an intermediary between bow and mast; in his case Prussia made all the spinnaker hook-ups, guided sails out of the hatch, helped jump halyards, and joined on the douses. He was the only crewmember on Stars & Stripes who had neither competed in the Cup or sailed with Dennis Conner before — but he had his background, starting in Lasers in his native San Francisco Bay area, and getting into big-boat campaigns early on. He’s “just young enough but just old enough” to have worked the heyday of the intensive grand-prix programs, “when the SORC was really an event, when the Big Boat Series was really the Big Boat Series.” Among many other postings, he sailed the IOR 50s with Kolius and Cayard, notably on Mandrake and Abracadabra , and won the 50-Foot Class worlds four times.
“I’ve always been a bowman, and always will be a bowman,” says Prussia, and, like Kirby, he’ll have plenty of point stories for his grandchildren. One of his favorites:
“I was sailing as an Italian on Mandrake in the Admiral’s Cup in ’92 with John Kolius. In the Fastnet Race it was between us and an English 50-footer, and we were more or less match racing them to Fastnet Rock. It was really blowing, with maybe 15-foot swells, and we’re out there bashing around with our No. 2s up — but it was one of those deals where it’s so close that you don’t want to change your headsail unless the other guy does. So we got ready, and the next thing you know the other guy’s jib just rips in half. So I run up to change our jib, with the halyard in my right hand and the new jib in my left, and all of a sudden we come off a wave and crash down to the bottom. The bow’s dropping faster than I am, so I’m kind of up in the air for a while, and when I land on deck my hand just touches the No. 2, and it explodes. I go flying out through the shreds, still with the jib and halyard, and I figure, ‘Well, better leave the jib on the boat.’ So I let go of that, reach up and grab the halyard with my other hand, swing back, drag through the water, and just unzip the rest of the jib all the way back. Now I’m hanging there like Tarzan, thinking ‘Oh shit, here comes the transom.’ So I let go and catch the stern pulpit with both hands, and all of a sudden I’m just standing on the stern, outside the lifelines. Up on the rail, everybody’s eyes are all over the place, trying to see where I am. Kolius turns around and sees me and says, ‘Prussia, what the hell are you doing there? Get back on the bow and put that jib up.'”
Is there some sort of pattern here, with flashing blades and derring-do? Sure. On modern racing boats the bowman is the equivalent of the foretopman in the old square-riggers, the Sterling Hayden character high in the rigging on a Gloucester fishing schooner, hanging on for dear life with one hand and loosing topsails with the other. It’s a position far more glamorous, to many, than any other job on the boat. It also tends to be more dangerous and physically punishing. As Kolius says, if you’re going to make the bow your home for long, “…you’ve got to be able to play hurt — they always are. I’ve seen a lot of bowmen not look so good after the race, but during the race you’d never notice it. The best ones have that quality.”
However, it’s a job by no means restricted by pure physical power. At 6’0″ and 180 weight-trained pounds, and with many years of ice hockey under his belt, Kirby is a big presence and an aggressive operator. At the other end of the scale is Martha McKechnie, 5’2″ and 110 pounds. McKechnie, who calls herself a “bowman” not in spite of the push toward gender-leveling in language, but “just because it’s easier,” has had a long and successful career in top boats herself.
From an active family of sailors, McKechnie trained in junior programs on Long Island Sound. Then she left sailing for four years and went to college on a diving scholarship, where she concentrated on one- and three-meter springboard competition, and on gymnastics and dance. When she came back, she became the first woman head instructor at the racing-intensive Seawanhaka YC. With her dinghy background and athletic abilities she moved naturally toward the bow on bigger boats, from J/24s to IOR 50s.
In 1984 McKechnie sailed on African Warrior, a custom C&C 41 with Kolius at the helm. Kolius was impressed enough with her abilities to ask her to take the bow position on his new J/41, Road Warrior. “So from there,” says McKechnie, “I got exposure and experience, and started to learn a lot more. The next year I sailed some on Springbok, the IOR 50 that Scotty Vogel was running.” Then there was more sailing with Kolius on IOR 50s, often with Prussia at the bow, and with Kolius on Ultimate 30s.
“I love climbing out to the end of the pole. I don’t have any fear of heights,” McKechnie says. “The bow is physical, but it’s more agility; it has more to do with making things work without the muscle. That’s one of the points behind the all-women America’s Cup effort: you can manage it if you know what you’re doing, and you can gain the experience to see a problem before it occurs.”
Certainly one of the biggest management seminars for bowmen occurred during the ’87 America’s Cup in Australia, when a lot of people in the U.S. set their alarms for the middle of the night not only to watch the overall competition, but to focus on what could only be called near-survival conditions at the points of those 12s.
“People didn’t think 12-Meters would survive those conditions,” says Vogel, who was on Conner’s Stars & Stripes. “In one of the later races of the challenger finals between us and the Kiwis, they were a few boatlengths behind at the last leeward mark. They did a big crash jibe around the mark and got the boom stuck on the permanent backstay. That broke the masthead crane, and when they jibed around, the headboard of the sail was basically pinned by the crane sticking out to weather. That kind of broke, and their sail was flapping, and when they crossed the finish line the whole mainsail blew up. They bore off and headed downwind, and they couldn’t pull their bowman up because of the broken crane. So he had to freehand from the jumpers to the masthead and knock the pin out of the mainsail to get it down. This is Gage Roads now, and I’m saying, ‘Thank God that’s not me.’ The guys on the boat are saying, ‘Aw, you could do that,’ and I said ‘I don’t even want to find out.’ It was definitely rugged sailing.”
Vogel, now 36, started sailing Sunfish in his home town of Shoreham, Long Island, at age 10. He went on to New York Maritime College, where he raced 420s and steered an IOR Two-Tonner “about every day for four years.” He started his America’s Cup career as a sophomore, when he was recruited by Conner for the 1980 Cup effort, and ended up working the pit on Conner’s B-boat, Enterprise.
He was back with Conner in ’83, initially as a trimmer. “We were having trouble finding a guy to do the bow. There were a couple of mistakes up front one day, and Dennis leaned over the wheel and said, ‘Tomorrow, you’re going to try it.’ That was the beginning of the end. Unfortunately, I got too good at it, and he wouldn’t let me try anything else.”
“Scott Vogel is without a doubt one of the best bowmen in the world,” says Prussia. “He’s so quiet; he just does his job.”
“Some people go up there and can’t wait to find their way to the back of the boat,” says Kirby. “I’ve known a lot of bowmen who were good for a year or two and then moved back, sometimes because they got beaten up physically. In terms of longevity in that position, Scotty Vogel has seen them come and seen them go. When you talk about bowmen over the last 20 years, Scotty is one of the best who ever sailed.”
“Yeah, Jerry and I are maybe the last surviving ancient ones,” says Vogel, who most likely saw his last America’s Cup action in 1992. Kirby, too, is out of the Cup running these days, with commitments to family, career, and “…Extra Strength Tylenol — the motor-oil of old bowmen.”
WISDOM FROM BEFORE THE MAST:
Timing is Everything
“The true art of doing the bow is to never be on the bow. Obviously you have to go up there, but you plan it out: On a take-down you throw everything down the hatch — kite, sheets, guys, and halyard, everything attached. You put the pole down on the deck, wherever it may be. No clean-up until later on, when you’re out of the trauma of the bottom mark. You sit on the rail, wait a couple minutes, look up the course and see if there are light spots up there, or less chop on the course. You absolutely never stand up and go to the bow unless the boat is going full speed
“The pitman should also be a good bowman; he needs to know what the moves are up on the bow, so that he can help you. When you run forward to put a halyard on, or bring it around the jib, and the pit isn’t staying with you enough to have the jammer open and have slack in the halyard, that’ll slow you down big-time.”
_ — Greg Prussia_
“Anybody can do the mechanics of putting sails up and down, but the best guys in the front of the boat have come from the back of the boat. On bigger boats it gets a little more athletic, but the tough part is anticipating the next move. You’re saying to yourself, ‘You know what — it’s not straight in; we’re going to do a jibe and a float drop.’ So you start preparing for that halfway down the leg. You set the boat up so you have all your options open. You only get that from racing around the buoys and looking down the course tactically — not waiting for the back of the boat to tell you.”
_ — Jerry Kirby_
The Power of Teamwork
“Every single bowman has different techniques. You can watch everybody and create your own. [But] the only way a bowman is going to look good is if the whole back-up is looking good. You’re only part of a team. That’s one thing John Kolius taught me — there’s only one ego on the boat, and that’s the team ego. You don’t have to be into a macho thing; we’re out there to win together. Most important, we’re there to have fun. You’re not going to win if you’re not having fun.”
— Martha McKechnie
Practice, Practice, Practice
“[In America’s Cup training] … if we were concentrating on crew practice, we’d set up a windward-leeward course and just go around and around, mixing up the approaches and roundings, until everybody dropped dead. You keep it short enough so you don’t get bored waiting for things to happen, but long enough so that the guys in the front can have a few minutes to discuss what went wrong or right on the last maneuver. You have to use a set mark, like a government mark, or you can’t really develop your timing — otherwise the guy in the back will see you’re not ready, and he’ll stretch what should be a minute out to a minute and 20 seconds. That doesn’t help you figure out when to start setting up.
“Just pretend you’re driving the boat yourself. If you can do that, you’ll know what might happen at the weather mark. If you fall asleep on the beat and try to wake up two minutes before you get to the weather mark, you’re going to be way behind.”
— Scott Vogel