Frostbiting: The Most Wonderful Time of the Year

Tim Zimmermann goes for a couple of a dips and gets in the frostbiting spirit of the season.

Sailing World

Laser Frostbiting

When the temperature drops, the real Laser fun begins.

"It's the most wonderful time of the year."

That chorus keeps running through my head because it's the holiday season. Cold weather is settling over the mid-Atlantic, the leaves are gone from the trees, and there is talk of snow and freeze warnings from weather forecasters. It's my favorite time of the year, so of course I am excited. But my enthusiasm and anticipation has little to do with a fat, bearded, old guy in a red suit, or mistletoe, or presents. Instead, for me (and a small minority of Lasering oddballs) this is a joyous time of year because the arrival of winter means the arrival of the Laser frostbiting season. And that means drysuits, short-course racing, blustery winds, and Sundays well-spent.

As I have admitted before, the "frost" in Washington DC-area frostbiting is a bit of an exaggeration. While the Potomac River Sailing Association Laser fleet operates by a code that dictates that we don't sail if the wind speed exceeds the air temperature, that code is almost never involved. Usually we are sailing in temps that are in the 40s and 50s, and often very pleasant. But there is still something special, and slightly deviant, about going sailboat racing in January or February, when most normal human beings are sitting around watching football or tending their woodstoves.

In fact, life being what it is, frostbite sailing is increasingly the only real Laser sailing I do anymore. A proper summer Laser regatta is a full day commitment. A series takes an entire weekend. And the casual Friday night summer Laser racing I used to do on the Chesapeake Bay often turned out just a handful of boats which would, often enough, be tooling around a course in desultory fashion in the muggy, nearly windless, climate bubble that can suffocate the Chesapeake Bay. Not very thrilling.

PRSA frostbite racing, in contrast, is always fun, and very frequently delivers exciting, tense racing. Before this season started last month, Erich Hesse, our excellent fleet captain, sent around some fleet statistics. Last year, he said, 47 different sailors showed up to race on one Sunday or another. More than a quarter of those qualified for the series championship, which requires sailing at least half the races. Last year that meant sailing at least 41 of 82 total races, since we managed to race 14 Sundays (very rarely is there too much or too little wind to sail), and an average Race Committee usually manages up to seven races. On ten of those Sundays there were at least 15 Lasers on the start line, and on five Sundays there were more than 20. Sailing in a fleet of 20-plus Lasers is always a kick, no matter what the temperature of the air (and water, if it comes to that).

Apart from the camraderie, and the friendly chatter that goes with it, knowing there will be a decent turnout makes it a lot easier to start packing your drysuit and cold-weather sailing gear on a chilly Sunday morning, when there is still hot coffee in the pot. There is, however, a minor flaw in my new Laser sailing routine, with its almost exclusive attention to frostbiting. My lack of practice and tuning can have some interesting consequences when I jump into the boat for the first frostbite day, and there are 20 Lasers swirling all around me. I didn't detect this flaw in its fullest implications until the second upwind of the first race, when I gybed to round the leeward mark, threw myself across the boat to hike the boat flat … and completely missed the hiking strap. Ah, my first day out and my first swim. The Potomac River, thankfully, was still in the 50s, so it wasn't too painful. And the old missed-hiking strap-reverse somersault is funny enough that you have to laugh, even if you are the one performing it.

The following Sunday, I apparently hadn't quite exhausted my practice of ways to fall out of the boat. While overtrimming and hiking super-hard to pinch my way above a large log (a hazard of river sailing) and fighting for the race lead, I managed to let the mainsheet slip out of my hand. Another somersault, followed by a splash. I was less amused with that one, particularly since my secret frostbite trick is to sail without gloves unless the temps are well down into the 30s, for the express purpose of having better line grip and feel than my competitors.

Photo: Janice Rathjen

Apart from some continued fine-tuning, that was the last of my early-season disasters (so far). If the PRSA laser fleet is lucky, we will have another winter that is as warm as last year. Temperatures were regularly in the 50s, and it was as if we suddenly lived in Charleston. But if not, who cares? Fighting a fleet of 15-20 Lasers around a short course is enough to keep anyone warm. If that keeps up, why would anyone spend time over the summer racing Lasers? Winter is where the real Lasering fun is.

For more information on frostbiting gear, click here.