The Day Sailer really moves on the race course. It has all the right sails and strings, and it’s comfortable and it’s responsive. What I cherish even more than George O’Day and Uffa Fox’s timeless design, however, is the experience of stepping on board and instantly feeling connected to other chapters of my life.
I realize this recently at the annual Day Sailer Crab Pot Regatta at the Severn Sailing Association in Annapolis, Maryland, in October 2016. This non-club-sanctioned tradition has taken different formats through the years, but it always includes something adventurous late in the season, an opportunity to switch boats and crews, and a bowl of chili afterward. On this occasion, our generous fleet captain Robin Richards has rigged Kanaka and Bail Out so we can do a little match racing right off SSA’s docks. It’s gusting, so staying close to the club is a smart idea, especially without crash boats at the ready. Short races right where the Severn River and Spa Creek meet means navigating the irrationality of landmasses and competing winds. Big puffs and even bigger lulls make for a fine quadriceps workout.
Eight of us suit up to race while a group of friends watches from the dock. We complete a half-dozen races — quick sprints between mooring balls and government cans, changing out skippers and crews after every race, with just enough time between to take a sip of water, wipe the sweat off our brows, and laugh.
Standing on the dock, swaddled in my spray top and PFD, and waiting to rotate into the next race, I feel the present mash into the past, for it is right on this very dock (or an older, skinnier, wobblier version of it), that I can see Mom and Dad climbing onto Seamonster for the day’s racing. I can’t recall who was babysitting me at the time, or what I was doing while they were out racing. I just remember wanting to go.
I can also picture racing Staccato right off this dock — my new wooden Opti my dad had just finished making. I recall the horror of being on the wrong side of a port-starboard collision, hoping that someday I’d figure out how to push the tiller “the other way!” Quite vividly, I also have a flash memory of sailing with Jim Fisher during a Crab Pot Regatta of days gone by, and fondly recalled learning some very grown-up and sophisticated vocabulary words that day after a Navy launch failed to cede right-of-way.
Standing here I can see the Naval Academy, and picture the dorms we stayed in during the 1993 Day Sailer Nationals. It was that regatta when we got purple hats that are now faded to a light pink, cool T-shirts with Val Lewton art, a puppet show from Frank Robb and family that was Broadway quality, and my first chance to skipper a major Day Sailer regatta.
I can see flashes of a lifetime of maneuvering out of this basin, with the anticipation of what a day on the water would bring. I can also feel in my bones every return to this dock — salty, exhausted, frustrated, thrilled, beat up, sunburned, cold, wet and happy.
“Who’s up next?” Tony calls out as the boats cross the finish line and return to the basin. There’s a flurry of activity on the dock, gloved hands reach for bowlines and outstretched arms, followed by a quick cleanup of guys and sheets, and the exchange of tips and at-a-girls, as we push off, in new pairs. On the starting line we reach back and forth, pull in our main and jib sheets, listen for the magical “all clear,” and target our windward mark.
It’s here where I really feel the past and the present collide. I’m perched on the rail with my feet tucked under the straps, my legs stretched out almost straight, my stomach muscles grateful for the short course. We’re on port tack coming into the mark, with just enough room (probably) to make it around first. With just enough doubt to make it risky.
Our sparring partner comes steaming in on starboard, and we debate our options: “Press down, stay flat, take their stern and catch them downwind, or hope the pressure holds, stay fast, keep our height, and get in there a moment before they arrive? Eek! Don’t be that boat … come on don’t wimp out … gosh this is fun … man this is close … do we have this?”
I’ve been here a million times before, never with the exact circumstances, of course (this is sailboat racing), but always with the exact same questions, same feeling of exhilaration, same sense that everything else in the world has melted away. Oddly, it is being in this moment, truly present in this single mark rounding, that I feel connected to so many moments on the water, intense in competition, feeling the burn, the thrill, the challenge. No matter how old we get, or how mean and unforgiving our knees and backs become, these are the moments that have no age.
As we derig and debrief what we’ve learned and how we’ve fared, someone pronounces me the winner of the 2016 Day Sailer Crab Pot Regatta. I’m not sure what advanced formula the powers-that-be use to make such a determination, except that I am surely a contender for having the most fun. When they hand me the trophy — a black pot for steaming crabs, littered with brass rectangles with names of people I had known my whole life — I feel like I’m being reunited with an old friend.
Sure enough, as we scan the brass plates, I find my name listed as the winner way back in 1984. It could have been, and most likely was, my first trophy. I was 12 then.
And even though the math wizards say that I am now — ahem, cough-cough, sputter-sputter — 44, in the ways that count in life, I am 12 again. Turns out the little boats we race around in circles are little time machines, connecting us to the people, places, and feelings of excitement and anticipation that thread through various chapters in our lives. No wonder we love them so.
It’s the people and the stories that make each class unique. I invite you to share your story, your class. Write me at [email protected] so I can share it and make old new again.
To read more stories about sailors who love their one-design classes, new and old, click here.
Dr. Erika B. Seamon, of Washington, D.C., is a professor at Georgetown University. She was part of the first Optimist class at Severn Sailing Association, raced Vanguard 15s in Chicago for many years, and currently races with Ken Seamon on the Day Sailer, with her husband on a J/35, and with friends on the Snipe and Interclub.