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On the Brink of a Wipeout

May 1, 2002

Long Island Sound is notorious for its lousy summer sailing. Wind is a rare commodity from June through September; the thousands of sailors who race there every summer learn to make use of what little wind they have. But once October rolls around, all bets are off. Before the start of the J/24 Northeast Regionals at Noroton YC, I could hear the race committee on the radio discussing wind: “We’ve got 22 knots at the starting line with lulls around 18 at the windward mark.” Well, on a race committee boat, 6 feet off the water, the wind probably was only 18 to 22 knots. For those of us on sailboats, however, it was much windier. It was gusting well into the 30s at the top of our masts. It was full-on survival sailing for J/24s. Forty boats were registered for the regatta, but less than half of them actually made it to the starting line for the fifth and final race. Those who didn’t show up missed out; it was pure sport.

Andy Horton and I were tied for the lead going into the windiest and final race. Our boats were in good condition, our crews were experienced, and we were using sails from the same sailmaker–neither of us could find a speed advantage. I chose to start the last race at the boat. Andy started a few lengths down the line. We both had good starts. I tried to take advantage of a quick left shift, but in hindsight it was a bad move–it was too windy to tack well. By the time we arrived at the first mark Andy had saved three tacks on us and rounded a boatlength and a half ahead. We set our kites and exploded away from the offset mark. I was able to maintain an angle slightly to leeward of Andy’s as we blasted through the steep chop. Both crews were in their pushpits. Sea spray was everywhere. When it seemed it couldn’t possibly get any windier, a windblast punched the sails and pressed the rudder beyond what I’d previously thought was the limit of control. Occasionally, we could see boats in our path still sailing upwind, but luckily, they all managed to avoid us. There was only one safe angle; evasive maneuvering was out of the question. After a short time, we started approaching the port layline. I knew that eventually Andy was going to have to jibe. We were still on starboard, and I wasn’t sure if he could cross us or not. I also figured there was less than a 50 percent chance that either of us could survive a jibe in that much wind. It’s hard to be accurate in your calculations when you’re living moment to moment, never quite sure if your bow will resurface after each spectacular plunge.

Andy and his team slammed into their jibe … well, sort of. They managed to get onto port jibe without going horizontal, but the mainsheet shackle ripped off the end of their boom and their spinnaker was flogging violently. As we converged, we screamed, “Starboard” as loud as we could, but I doubt that they heard us. They weren’t in any position to evade us anyway. That’s when it got really windy. The next blast that hit us actually hurt. I’m not sure if it was the impact of wind molecules on the back of my head, or if it was the shock that it could actually get windier, but I must have closed my eyes for a moment. When I opened them Andy was surfing across our bow; he was on a much closer angle to the mark than we were. The blast had narrowed the jibe angles so much that we were now both overstanding the leeward mark. Worse, we still had to jibe. Andy was struggling to get his spinnaker filled without blowing it to pieces, and we were tearing away from the mark faster than I cared to go. “Jibing,” I screamed as I let the bow slide down a steep wave. If I was going to wipe out, I wanted to make sure that we had at least jibed onto the proper jibe. I wasn’t up for more than one attempt. The bow carved nicely into the turn but the spinnaker was slow to follow. Suddenly, there was an enormous amount of weather heel. “Throw the main over now,” I croaked. It came across half way and hesitated. The boat kept heeling and we kept barreling down the wave. We were heeled so far to weather that the starboard stanchion bases were submerged and kicking up huge rooster tails. The main started to go back the way it had come. My crew understood the gravity of the situation and gave a tug on the sheet. The main finally came over and the boom smacked the water on our starboard side. I remember thinking, “This is going to be one hell of a crash, but it sure is taking a long time,” but we leveled out and the rudder kept its grip.

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“The mark. Where’s the mark?” Now our problem was that the mark was at an angle way too high to carry the spinnaker. Easing the pole forward and heading up wasn’t an option. Andy was to weather getting his spinnaker filled. He’d overstood too, but we’d surged well forward of him. I held off for another blast and then asked my foredeck if he would move from the pushpit and go “smoke” the spin halyard. As he stepped behind the mainsail to get to the halyard cleat I though to myself, ” I’ll bet that halyard is fetched up hard.” Sure enough, it took a chorus of foul language before the cleat let loose the spinnaker halyard. We apologized to our foredeck later when he showed us the rope burn across his fingers. As we gathered in the spinnaker, I headed towards the mark. Andy was surfing fast and low with his kite filled, but as we converged, he started his douse. They were still struggling with their makeshift repair on their mainsheet as we headed up to cross their transom; they couldn’t sail high enough to defend against us. We rolled them on the crest of a breaking wave and surfed to the leeward mark. We were winning the regatta, but they were on our tail and had somehow fixed their mainsheet system.

We had a clean rounding and sailed high enough to force Andy to tack onto port. We covered him loosely, the idea being to force him out to the left layline. But the puffs and shifts were fierce, and the boat handling so demanding, that it was difficult to cover effectively. During the most severe blasts, it was better to preserve what little control we had rather than tack. It seemed to work. After a dozen tacks we still led. As we approached the port layline, we only had to hold on until they ran out of options. His team was on to our strategy. The closer we came to the layline the more furious the tacking duel. They were like a caged animal fighting to escape. Then, the unthinkable happened. As we tacked onto port, directly onto Andy’s air, our jib sheet snagged the compass mount. We cleared it as quickly as possible, but the delay gave Andy enough room to foot out underneath us. There was a long, tense period of full-grunt sailing as we tried to stay on top of him. But it was no use; he’d gotten his bow out just enough. The next shift was a header so we were forced to tack away. It was Andy’s turn to give us a little of the same. There wasn’t enough starboard remaining for us to have a chance so we ended up in a long port-tack grind to the finish with Andy trying to foot over the top. There was only one option left for us: As we approached the finish, Andy was unable to cross a starboard tacker, and as he ducked, we were able to split tacks. It was a last ditch effort and Andy would have the starboard-tack advantage at the finish. In the end, however, he didn’t need it. He crossed the line a boatlength ahead of us.

There weren’t any spectators to cheer the fighting finish, just a friendly salute from the race committee, and a slightly delayed, “Nice race,” from our boat. That was it. No fanfare, no helicopters, no photographers, just a bunch of nutty sailors enjoying a magnificent Sunday afternoon on Long Island Sound in mid-October. There’s nothing better–just ask the locals.

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