The gun sounded and the race was on. However, I’m not talking about the competition between our boat and the rest of the fleet. I’m talking about the race between our position in the fleet and my mental state. The finish line was rock bottom. The winner, so to speak: whoever got their first.
Expectations can be dangerous things. In some respect they’re essential. People will always tell you that unless you can picture yourself doing well in a race, unless you can expect it, it’s highly unlikely it will happen. But when the real world falls short of expectations, or looks like it will most likely fall short, they can quickly become toxic. Like fruit left too long on the vine.
In my case, it wasn’t simply the fault of my delusions of grandeur. I’m usually able to temper those. In this case the cocktail also included: a potential third-place finish in the summer series, a frustrating day at the office, a breeze that was quickly fading, the weight of the final race, and finally, like a cherry on top, a stunningly fabulous start.
Shaken, stirred, and served over ice. It was too potent to resist.
As we surged off the line—“You WON the start,” said the skipper of the fastest boat in the fleet later that evening—I could see it all coming together. We had the boats behind us in our hip pocket and were bow-even with and a boatlength to windward of the closest boat to leeward. And we were headed toward the favored side. It seemed like the entire race was a lemon sitting there in the palm of my hand. All I had to do was squeeze.
A minute after the start, however, we were the ones getting the squeeze. The boat that was well to leeward of us was now tucked in on our leebow and giving us bad air. The boats behind us that we could’ve easily tacked and crossed off the line were bow up and even.
“We can’t live here,” said the jib trimmer. “We need to tack.” But we couldn’t. We were riding a 20-degree lift and didn’t have a clear lane back through the fleet.
What the hell is going on, I thought to myself. “Guys,” I said. “We have a serious speed issue. I don’t know what’s going on…”
At that moment, I had a very strange experience. It was as if my ego and my mouth were momentarily directly connected, my brain taken out of the loop. My brain was saying: “Uh oh. I know where you’re going with this. You’re about to say something really stupid here. Don’t do it. Negativity isn’t going to help anything. Be positive. Look for a solution. Inspire the team to solve the problem before this race gets any worse.” But my mouth paid no mind and instead grabbed a heaping handful of despair and lobbed it onto the rest of the boat.
“…we were in first off the line, and now, we’re [expletive deleted] like 50th.”
For many, this particularly venomous slab of hyperbole (there were only 20 boats on the course, and we were still ahead of at least half of them) would’ve been the bottom. But I’ve always been an overachiever. And whatever was plaguing us off the line followed us around the course. I complained about our boatspeed for most of the downwind leg. Then on the second beat, as a last-chance right shift appeared then gradually feel apart, I alternated between banging my head on the deck and swearing loudly.
By the time we rounded the final mark, and the wind dwindled to nothing, it was all I could do to not march down below and drag out the motor.
“This sucks,” I said, as yet another boat sailed right around us. “I hate this sport.”
Mercifully, the race came to an end. A lifetime of being overwrought over athletic performance (or lack thereof) has given me both some better control over my emotions (in most situations) and an ability to quickly bring them back in check. By the time I took my first sip of beer, I’d somewhat moved on. I apologized to the rest of the crew for being such a jerk. And we discussed, in more civil tones, our lack of speed, and height, and the potential causes.
We didn’t really come to any solid conclusion. I remain convinced that we got something stuck on our keel. Weeds, a plastic bag, a pair of dirty sweatpants [that actually happened to me in a Laser regatta]. A quick back down after the finish would’ve been worthwhile simply to see whether anything floated off.
It’s also possible that we ran into some bad luck. As good as our start was, the final turn to closehauled was a little abrupt, and we scrubbed some speed there. The wind was very light and very streaky. We could’ve come off the line in a few knots less breeze than the rest of the fleet, which would’ve caused a significant loss of speed and height. Once our lane fell apart, we were in bad air the rest of the leg. That and a loss of confidence—inspired, just perhaps, by a toxic-tongued tactician—can easily feel like an external issue sapping your boatspeed.
On the first beat, once we realized we had a problem, we should’ve gone for a full re-set. Ease the sails, bear off, get the speed going again and then try to point. If that didn’t work, maybe a mid-race backdown was in order.
And it’s entirely possible neither of those things would’ve worked and we were destined to sail the race a few tenths slower than everyone else.
It’s a horribly un-fun way to race, watching everyone in the fleet either slowly grind you down or sail away from you, even when you seem to make the right moves. But it happens. And the only thing that can make it worse is wasting a lot of breath and energy screaming about it.