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Common Knowledge

On one Tuesday night 24 years ago, two budding legends were reminded that shiny watches and fancy awards are nice, but no match for local knowledge and a little common sense. "Gaining Bearing" from our July/August 2010 issue

July 20, 2010
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Sailing World

Common Knowledge

Bob Read (at wheel) and a few of his regulars guide Nepenthe into the right corner, just like always. Robert Migliaccio

The Barrington YC started its Tuesday Night Racing series when I was about 8 years old. It immediately became a fixture on the family summer calendar. Sometimes it was just the four of us—parents Bob and Peggy, younger brother Brad and myself—on our 30-foot Pearson Wanderer. Other times the boat would be crawling with kids; we could invite whomever we wanted.

My parents always brought a case of cold Lite Beer from Miller and a bunch of Italian subs—cut in half in case a maneuver came up quickly and you had to spring into action.

The Wanderer remained the family racer until my mid-teens, when we upgraded to a Pearson 39 yawl, which my Dad is still sailing today. There is a popular myth in Barrington that the keel is hollow, and, instead of lead, beer is stored in the keel shell as ballast. This way, Nepenthe never runs out of refreshment and, in light air, the ballast can be consumed to make the boat more competitive. I can neither confirm nor deny whether that’s actually the case.

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Instead, let me tell you about my favorite beer-can moment.

The year was 1986. Mom had retired from Tuesday nights and, as I had moved to Newport and Brad was attending Boston University, Dad was getting more of his buddies aboard. For one of the first Tuesday nights of the year, however, he asked if Brad and I would like to come along. We both accepted.

That spring had been a pretty special one for the Read family. A day or so before that particular Tuesday night, Brad had been awarded the Inter-Collegiate Yacht Racing Association’s Sailor of the Year Award. And a few months before, I had won my first Rolex Yachtsman of the Year Award. Not a bad year for a couple of hockey players from Seekonk, Mass. So, my proud Dad had his two all-star sons aboard for the Barrington YC’s Tuesday-night race. The boat felt pretty stiff that night. A clear sign that there was plenty of Lite Beer from Miller aboard.

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The half-hour motor brought us to the mouth of the Barrington River, where we found a fairly standard southwesterly seabreeze. This breeze typically dies as twilight progresses, benefiting the faster boats in each class.

As it is now, the starting line for the Tuesday Night Series is always just north of Ohio Ledge and Colt State Park. As any good sailors would, Brad and I began discussing options with approximately 15 minutes to go to the Class A start.

“Brad, what do you see up the track?” I asked, playing the respectful big brother.

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“Well,” he said, “the breeze has just a touch more east in it than usual.” While we were discussing tactics, the rest of the crew busied themselves by cracking open the second round of Lite Beers from Miller.

I totally agreed with my brother—one of exactly three times that had happened up to that point in our lives. “And with this left angle,” I said, “it looks like there are good puffs up the left side, off of Colt State Park.”

Interestingly, as we hemmed and hawed, there was very little input from Dad or his weekly team. I noticed a faint nod from time to time from a few of them, but I wasn’t sure whether it was nod of approval or simply part of taking a drink of beer.

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Brad and I finally came to a consensus: mid-line start, hit the left beach one time, and take that first shift back to the middle of the course out to the ebbing current.

After the 5-minute gun sounded, I delivered our final decision to the skipper.

“Dad, we think that you should…”

I never got any further.

“Would you two shut the [email protected]& up and sit down?” he barked. “We are barging at the start, tacking 5 seconds after the start, and hitting the right corner to the point of about a quarter-mile overstand. We’re reaching into the mark, going wing and wing downwind [Tuesday night Beer Can Racing was non-spinnaker in those days] and we will be fine. So crack a beer, sit back, and enjoy.”

Another local Barrington legend says that Bob Read has employed these tactics in every single beer-can race that Ohio Ledge has ever seen, whether the tide is ebbing or flooding, whether the breeze is right or left. That he has barged at every start and never fouled anyone or been forced to tack away. Nepenthe starts right and goes right. Even as far back as that Tuesday night in 1986, everyone knew it. Well, everyone except for his know-it-all kids.

And of course the story isn’t complete without the results: First in class. The right side was absolutely the place to be. Sit at the BYC bar long enough and you’re bound to hear the story of Bob Read dropping the f-bomb on his famous kids.

After that night I spent a lot of time assessing that first beat. How can that tactic work so consistently? The breeze varies on a night-to-night basis. The current flow is a huge issue at the mouth of the river.

After 20-plus years, it finally dawned on me.

In a true beer-can series, one of the universal strategies of doing well is limiting maneuvers. The fewer maneuvers, the less opportunity to spill beer. A one-tack beat is the perfect scenario no matter what; one that the fine yacht Nepenthe has perfected.

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