Final Notes on a First Impression

The Melges 32 is all it's cracked up to be: fast, fun, and extremely challenging.

Even though I’m a words-first journalist, I’ve never questioned the 1:1,000 ratio colloquially applied to words and pictures. If anything, it might be a touch low. Sometimes, however, it’s hard to know exactly which words apply. Such is the case with the rather ordinary photo at right, which I took on Sunday, the final day of the 2010 Melges 32 Gold Cup in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. It actually says a lot about the event and the class.

Stuart Streuli| |**Separation was hard to find at the Melges 32 Gold Cup, even after an hour of racing in light and shifty conditions. **|

  1. The weather was that nice. Winter sailing in Florida is always a treat. But last weekend, the water and the air off Fort Lauderdale were a perfect 70 degrees. Winter in Newport means Laser Frostbiting, where every drop of spray hits your face like a windblown shard of glass. There’s a lot to be said for getting wet and finding there’s no reason to flinch. Every now and then I briefly dragged my feet in the water just to remind myself how lucky I was.

  2. This photo was taken right after we crossed the line to finish the second race of the day. It was a light and shifty race with plenty of holes and passing lanes. Yet after an hour of sailing, we crossed the line overlapped with no fewer than four boats. In fact, as we charged toward the pin end of the line, a trio of boats blanketed the committee boat from view. We were fairly sure we finished ahead of at least one of the boats finishing at the other end. With the race committee’s view completely obscured by spinnakers, however, we were just as confident that we would end up behind all of them in the results. How can you score a boat you can’t see? Had we been two boatlengths further advanced, a disappointing 16th would’ve instead been a moderately satisfying 10th. The Melges 32 class is nail-bitingly close. In another race on the final day we arrived at the mark probably in the top third of the 21-boat fleet, but we were on port and had to duck five or more starboard tackers on the layline before we found a hole on the into which we could tack. For veterans of the Farr 40 circuit, this is nothing new. Still until you’re there, sailing on a broad reach on port waiting for a hole to open up, it’s hard to appreciate the true value of a half boatlength.

  3. Finally, this was the only picture I took all weekend. I carried Sailing World‘s small waterproof camera in my lifejacket pocket most of the weekend, figuring I had ample opportunity to snap a few photos. Fat chance. The Melges 32 is among the most intense big boats I have ever sailed. Even on the downwind legs, when I was responsible for little more than calling the puffs, I didn’t have a spare second to think about pulling out the camera. In fact, mental aspect of the boat is more taxing than the physical. Sure it’s a demanding boat, and my forearms were plenty sore after pulling in the jib for five days. But that was nothing compared to how my brain hurt at the end of each day. After three races on Day 1, I could barely find the concentration to focus on the post-race debrief. In fact, I found it necessary to zone out a bit when our coach wasn’t talking about something that directly related to my tasks on the boat so that when he did mention something I should know I would be able to remember it. In many classes you might get a funny look if, after a race, you asked: “So what happened in that race?” No so in the Melges 32. I spent so much time focused on my specific jobs that I rarely had much of an idea where we stood in the race, let along how we got there. Some of this is surely due to my unfamiliarity with the class. A little more time to get down the basics of my position would allow me more freedom to take in the race. But even then, it’s a boat that demands a lot of its crew. And if you’re not giving it everything you have, you can be sure the teams that are will cross the finish line ahead of you.

A few other notes from my foray into the Melges 32 class

  1. It’s definitely not a good sign that the highlight of the final day of the regatta for our team was a rather remarkable backdown where were spun the boat around, pushing the leech of the main through the wind and then peeled away on the same tack we’d been on before backing down. Sort of like James Rockford, but on the water (and yes I realize I’m dating myself). The onboard camera captured this interesting pirouette. Something to try the next time you need to get some kelp off your keel and the normal back down just doesn’t have enough style.

  2. You can also find a great, boom-end view of one of our races here. I’m the guy in the middle who shuffles across the boat before each tack.

  3. The line of the regatta came during one the pre-starts on the final day. We had a lot of them with no fewer than four general recalls through three races (and one Black Flag, which ended up catching two of the regatta leaders and having a major impact on the final results.) With a minute to go, we found ourselves to windward of a boat that was stalled and slightly bow forward. Below it was a tempting hole. Too tempting to leave alone. So we swung the bow down and slid past their transom. They tried in vain to defend by bearing away.
    “Keep it up, guys. Keep it up.”
    “Room and opportunity,” said the baby-faced professional sailor, clutching the stern pulpit. “You’ve got to give us room and opportunity.”
    He had plenty of both and a few of the people on the rail of our boat decided to let him know.
    “I’m not talking to you,” he snarled, apparently more than a little perturbed that anyone from forward of the jib winches (i.e. Category 1 land) would deign to converse with him, a bona fide day-rate-earning professional sailor, about the nuances of starting on a crowded line. The caste system may be falling out of favor in India, but apparently it’s alive and well in the Melges 32 class.

  4. Before this event, I would’ve thought that a belly-cord takedown system was overkill for a 32-foot boat. But no more. My informal survey found that most of the boats at the Gold Cup were using this system, more commonly found on TP 52 or Mini Maxi boats, to suck the kite into the boat at leeward marks. It’s not an easy thing to design or install. Perfecting it can take a while. But one that works is a thing of beauty and allows teams to hold their drop until they are a few lengths from the mark. A few years ago, a professional sailor described the Melges 32 fleet as the “Wild West” when it came to boathandling. No one had yet figured out how to handle the monster spinnaker consistently, which resulted in a lot of different methods and a lot of carnage at the leeward marks. The takedown lines have gone a long way toward solving that problem and I wouldn’t be surprised to see them on other mid-range keelboats in the future. It’s just that effective.

  5. So where did we end up? Well, there are many routes to the middle of the fleet. Ours was perhaps the most frustrating. We started with a second, then a fourth, then spent most of next six races trying desperately to avoid the high teens. The end result was a 12th of 21 boats. We learned a lot about what to do and what not to do. We got a pretty good dressing down from our coach on Saturday afternoon for our lollygagging prior to the first race. Had their been a shower nearby, he might well have herded us all into it and tossed in a bucket of winch handles for effect. We had a lot of fun. Finishing mid-fleet in this group is no small achievement, though there’s plenty of room for improvement, as always. As for me, I’m back in the minors with Crash. It was a short trip to The Show. I was an injury substitution and the starter will be back for the next regatta. But it was well worth it to get a brief glimpse of life at the top. Hopefully I’ll be back someday. In the meantime, I’ll work on my interview skills.