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Jobson Report: Always A Roller Coaster

Sailing is a succession of high and low moments. Learning from each one—and laughing about many—is the secret to a successful lifetime in the sport.

September 18, 2013
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Sailing Mishap

Sailing Mishap

John Payne

During a celebration for an elderly sailor who was retiring from racing, I noticed a silver brick on his fireplace mantel. On it was an inscription that read, “Yacht Racing 1946-2009.” He’d taken every silver trophy he’d won during his racing career and melted them down to form the brick. It made me laugh, as I thought about all the emotions of a lifetime of racing, the many highs and lows, metaphorically encapsulated in this one curious rectangular keepsake.

There’s no refuting that sailboat racing is an emotional roller coaster. In one moment, everything is calculated and right, and the next moment the tables turn. We make mistakes, but sometimes fortune arrives out of nowhere. We think we can control events on the water, but shifting winds, changing currents, erratic wave patterns, faulty equipment, and the unpredictable actions of our competitors present unexpected challenges. When we experience such surprises, however, it’s important to temper our emotions.

I have experienced many incredibly emotional highs and lows during the heat of battle, but with the benefit of time, these events have helped me understand how to handle extremes while racing, and in life.

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In one notable race I was competing in a 50-boat Etchells fleet, approaching the port end of the starting line. In the final seconds the wind swung left and it was impossible to even cross the line on starboard tack. By some miracle we were able to tack to port and cross the fleet. Others around us were trapped by starboard-tack boats, and the entire fleet continued in the big header while we enjoyed a huge lift. About 2 minutes later, the wind shifted back to its original direction, we tacked, and were now on the new starboard-tack lift. The rest of the fleet, which had finally maneuvered on to the port tack, was stuck sailing in another header. Needless to say, we were launched, 2 minutes ahead at the first mark, and easily won the race. That one still makes me smile.

In contrast to that moment of glory, however, is a race in Antigua, this time on a 54-foot yacht. With a left shift immediately after the start we had a nice lead, but an 80-foot maxi that had started late was building speed off the line. We tacked to port, crossing most of the fleet, but we were closing quickly with the maxi. The skipper of the maxi luffed just as we crossed its bow, which missed our stern by more than 10 feet. “No problem,” we thought. But the maxi’s skipper protested. We won the race on the water, but the jury later disqualified us. As the port-tack party to a questionable starboard crossing, the onus was on us. A few of the maxi’s crew later told us they thought the protest was a cheap shot. We lost the regatta by a single point, and it took a long time to recover from the disappointment of that disqualification.

Another tough loss came during an America’s Cup trials race. Our 12-Metre was sailing evenly with our rival as we approached the finish line. Two hundred yards from the finish, a lobster boat suddenly stopped right in front of us. We were forced to bear off to avoid a collision and lost the race by 2 seconds. It took years to shake off that heartbreaker of a loss.
Then there was the time racing off the coast of Maine. Just as we crossed the start line the boat came to an abrupt stop when we snagged a lobster pot. A courageous, young crewmember dove into the frigid water to cut away the line (as a commendable courtesy, though, he re-tied it). The fleet took off for the east side of the course. We were so far behind that our best option to catch up was to go west. It was a slow 5-mile beat, but halfway to the mark the wind swung 30 degrees to the west, and we went from zero to hero. Of course, the big shift was pure luck, but it sure did change the mood onboard that day.

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Last summer I was sailing in a spirited cat boat race on the Jersey Shore. Our start was fine, but the wind was dying at an agonizingly slow rate. On the final run to the finish of a shortened course the wind died completely. We stopped dead, only to hear the sounds of water gurgling off the bows of the trailing boats as they caught up, riding in on a new breeze. They sailed right past in a private puff of wind. The final indignity was missing the time limit by a minute. Back at the dock I was pounded with questions like, “What happened to you guys?” or “Didn’t you see the new wind?” No . . . no we didn’t.

In all of these incidents there were elements of luck, but whether things went extremely well, or frustratingly wrong, I still chalk them up to learning experiences. Getting a miracle start in that Etchells race was lucky, but taking big chances can be devastating in the long term. Regattas can be won with a good average score. That race off Antigua taught me to avoid potential protest situations at all costs. Why even risk crossing a larger boat on port? A minute later the maxi would have been long gone anyway. Looking back, it’s hard to figure out what to do better about a lobster boat stopping in our path. There’s probably nothing we could have done, so I suppose the best rationalization is to believe that the bad breaks tend to even out over time. The other 12-Metre that beat us in that race later had an incident with a spectator boat that cost them a race.

I am a believer in the notion that you make your luck, which means situational awareness is key on the racecourse. Have one crewmember always looking up the course for trends or opportunities to gain if you’re the trailing boat. Avoid getting stuck in a pack of boats, and work to be the boat that stays clear of the pack, sailing where the wind is cleaner and the waves less confused.

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Most of the great moments and lowlights I’ve experienced have been softened by the passage of time. There is always hope that the next race will be better. Enjoy the good moments, but don’t allow yourself to expect miracles whenever things are not going your way. For the bad moments, try to find the silver lining or the lesson. If you can’t find it, then just chalk it up to yacht racing, one silver brick at a time.

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