You know the outcome of a race if the tactician spastically strips his baseball cap from his head and heaves it to the ground: "Thwap!" goes the hat as it smacks the cockpit sole.
Thus was the scene moments after two hastily executed down-speed jibes mere boatlengths from the finish line. Pieter Heerema's RC44 No Way Back had maneuvered its way to the near bottom of the 11-boat pile during first day of fleet racing at the Oracle RC44 Cup San Diego in March.
"F$*!" cursed the team's veteran Kiwi tactician tactician Rod Dawson upon finishing.
After 30 minutes or so of tooth-and-nail fighting up the course on San Diego Bay, the difference between being in the "house" or in the "outhouse" came down to this one disastrous series of jibes: there were only two boats in the rear view mirror, and a big plateful of hindsight.
I observed the downward spiral as the "ninth" man, riding shotgun on the stern scoop of No Way Back, where I was told to sit low, move from side to side, and keep my opinions to myself. Strictly forbidden to speak, I was hoping to step off the boat at the conclusion of the race with pictures or video to share, but when I fired up the camera to capture the pre-start moves, the dreaded words flash across the screen: MEMORY CARD FULL.
Rats. Oh well. The pictures wouldn't have been all that interesting anyway: unless you enjoy Dawson's backside as he danced from side to side, peaking under the boom and then hiking out with the boat's PBO backstay firmly in hand. So I tucked away the camera and resorted to make mental pictures, to listen to master Dawson talk his charges around the course.
I sure couldn't help feeling like a backseat tactician as this race played out _(my own tactical musings herewith in italics)_.
We had a clean start, with Larry Ellison's _Oracle Racing_ on our weather hip and a pack of boats piled up to leeward.
"We're holding gauge," said Dawson confidently.
_(That's not what I'm seeing…)_
Then we were not.
"Let's go…Tack in two, one…"
Then we were headed. Big time.
We hard ducked one boat and then tacked again onto starboard. _(Why didn't we lead them back with a good leebow? There was a freeway-size lane we could have merged into.)_
The boats on the left were extending all the while. That side was massively favored. _(Just as it was the race before, and the two others before that . . . )_
We were already two tacks to none against the lead boats.
We picked our way through the back markers of the fleet, crossing a boat or two by mere inches, the pleasure of which is privy only to the ninth man, who gets to witness the bow of the opposing boat slice past the transom at fully powered ducking speed, mere inches away. _("Man, that was close.") _
We eventually rounded in the melee of a weather mark that was placed within spitting distance of the sea wall of Harbor Island . . . there wasn't a whole 'lotta starboard layline built into this racecourse, which meant only one thing—a crash-defying port-tack parade.
"It's going to be bear-away and quick jibe," barked Dawson as we safely threaded through in front of Spaniards on Puerto Calero. I was sure I'd be hearing the crunching sound of carbon fiber. We promptly jibed at the offset, worked the left side in frightening isolation—separated from the herd _(I thought the pros know better than to split off alone. OK, so maybe it's a calculated move . . .)_. The wind did eventually come our way, with big puffs spilling over the towering Sheraton Hotel. (Hmm. Now he's looking pretty smart.)
We came in hot from the bottom-left corner (looking downwind), sliding into an inside overlap on a multiple-boat pile up, and we were right back in it. Well, sort of. We'd rounded the left, downwind gate _(Doesn't this send us out to the wrong side of the course?)_ smack in the bad air of the Austrians on _AEZ_.
"OK. Tacking in three…one!"
Over we went in a crash-bang of a tack.
"This is good lane. We'll take it all the way across," said Dawson confidently.
As mentioned earlier, the left corner had been paying all day long (this is the third race of the day) with boats short-tacking "the wall," which was actually a series of connected U.S. Naval keep-off buoys protecting the government assets on Coronado Island.
Then came the incoming Naval Destroyer from around the corner.
We tack well short of the island's passing lanes, and give the ship a wide berth to weather.
Off to the far, far, far right side we go _(Did we really just switch sides?)_—the side buried in the lee of the hotels, palm trees, and parking lots. The wind was up. The wind was down. There were headers, lifts, sometimes simultaneously. There were more tacks and fewer and fewer lanes as the fleet came storming in from the left. _(Why are we over here again?)_
We came in too thin on the starboard layline, however, and a port-tack approach was the call. Heerema bravely threaded the needle through two boats and planted a tack that left spare feet between his stern scoop and the Spaniards on Puerto Calero.
We passed the offset and held starboard jibe until mid-course. Dawson felt there would be better breeze and a header in the bottom left corner.
_(I'm not so convinced…)_
Off we go again, alone.
But clean air sometimes gets you out of jail, and the NWB boys and Heerema made the most of it. Soon, when the jibing angle lined up, it was "one and in."
Closer, and closer we drew to the finish, chipping away at the distance afforded the other boats coming out of the right side (looking downwind). A pack of six boats or so were glued at the hips and slowing each other to a crawl. All of them were on port-jibe _(We own these guys!)._
We jibe. _(Huh? We jibe?! We're on starboard, on layline to the committee boat!)_
And what a slow jibe it was. Then there was another to avoid a starboard-tacker that we'd dusted off earlier in the run. The boat wouldn't—and couldn't—accelerate.
The crew was shell-shocked and exasperated.
"Awwww! Come on guys! Keep fighting!" Dawson commands in Kiwi frustration.
It's too late. The damage is done. They've lost the battle as four boats glide past us and cross the finish ahead.
"Thwap!" Goes the hat.
No Way Back will live to fight another race, but I won't get to see it firsthand. I was extracted from my ninth man position, replaced by a V.I.P. guest of Oracle Racing. I wondered what would happen if I'd offered some backseat amateur tactical advice, but it was against the ninth-man protocol to speak at all, so I kept my mouth shut. And, besides, what do I know? These guys are pros. And like everyone else, they have their days.
Instead, I thanked the boys for a wonderful experience, stepped off into the transfer RIB, and then took my place among the spectators ashore where I could be just another backseat tactician, where it's easy to make the calls.