Even in the moonless night, we can see the dark squall cloud approaching. We can also feel it: The air gets moist and dense, and the puffs pack more punch. Should we peel to the A4, or stick with the workhorse A2.5? There are only three of us on the deck of our J/125, and it’s the middle of the night. Our off-watch mates would appreciate us getting through this squall without an all-hands call.
As watch leader, I make the call to ride it out. We shift the sail stack aft by moving one of the spinnakers from the front of the stack to the stern. The tension is palpable as the breeze starts creeping up — first 23 knots, then 25 knots, then 27. The boat is flying, but the steering is still manageable, and Fritz is maintaining a steady heel angle despite the darkness.
As a way of validating my decision, I tell myself that as long as the squall doesn’t get stronger, and we don’t wipe out, the kite should be OK. There are tense moments as we smash through waves, and the boat momentarily loads up, but then we feel the release as Greg eases the spinnaker sheet and we rocket into the blackness of the next swell. After about 30 minutes of white knuckles and full concentration, the squall passes, and the breeze backs off to a manageable 20 knots again. We all breathe a sigh of relief, but the adrenaline is still coursing through our veins. The experience was scary but super cool.
I’m often asked what my favorite type of sailing is. I invariably mumble something about variety and liking all kinds of boats, but the right answer is ocean racing. No other aspect of our sport offers the same mix of pleasures. There’s the strong sense of connection to the natural world, the immensity of the oceans, and sometimes the awesome wildlife. There is the teamwork and the trust in crewmembers. There is the satisfaction of good preparation and planning. And, of course, there is the pure pleasure of being able to sail for day after day, uninterrupted by the “real world.”
Sure, it gets cold sometimes. Your bum gets a little itchy, you get frustrated with the conditions, or you have a breakdown to deal with. But the satisfaction I get from a well-sailed ocean race is worth all this and more. I’m reminded of my place in the world, and I feel a connection with a maritime tradition going back millennia. I feel like a “real” sailor.
Sitting in my warm office as I write this, I can’t wait for the next squall on a dark downwind night.