Ode to a Terrible Regatta

The District 11 Laser Championship was fantastic; I was anything but.

Don't get me wrong. The regatta itself, the District 11 Laser Championships, was not terrible. In fact, it was fantastic. Hosted by the smoothly-run, beautifully-situated, Fishing Bay Yacht Club down in Deltaville, Va., on the southern Chesapeake Bay, the regatta was blessed with excellent winds, a great crowd of sailors, and a Laser-loving chef, Alain Vincey, who cooked up a spectacular Saturday-evening dinner. Even the camping was nice.

So what I mean by terrible is that I was terrible. In fact, it was one of the worst regatta performances I can remember. I was molasses-slow upwind, and had to endure the misery of watching boats just foot out and lift above me. I had no hiking mojo—which was no doubt a big part of my speed problem—and sailed the long beats in thigh-trembling agony. I hit a mark, I death-rolled, I never figured out the wind shifts, or the unholy short chop, or the course.

Of course, when it’s all going wrong and there are no apparent solutions in sight, it's easy to let yourself have a bad time, and easy to wish you were elsewhere. Yet, I had an excellent time, and the sobering experience of facing down my own mediocrity was a powerful reminder of a few items of critical importance to enjoying the experience of racing sailboats.

The first is, any day sailing—even a bad day—is better than a day doing something else. The Chesapeake is always a beautiful place to sail if there's wind, and I had never been to Fishing Bay before. And even though there were just some 36 entrants, I met a lot of great people (and sailors) I had never had the pleasure of knowing. John MacCausland and Mike Hecky, who have turned Laser road-tripping (and Masters racing) into an art form, showed up in their van, driving down from New Jersey. And they were so friendly, and free with advice and encouragement, that no one minded that an out-of-state contingent was kicking our local asses (MacCausland won the regatta easily, and Hecky came 6th; and to really motivate the locals for next year, their fellow New Jersey-ite Eric Reitinger came second).

And it was a pleasure to meet and hang out with (and get good nutrition advice) from Finn Hassing, who came from North Carolina and is still campaigning his Laser across the U.S. (and running road races) well into his 60s. You’ve heard of a golfer’s tan? Here’s Finn’s version of a Laser-sailor’s tan (now I have a new goal in life):

The second is that, no matter where you are in the fleet (or where you THINK you are), it's always good to get bitch-slapped every once in a while by a regatta, to remind you that you can always be better. I started racing Lasers a few years ago because I wanted a new one-design class with a learning curve I could climb. Getting better and improving is a rewarding experience—and the screaming, firehose reaches we had during one race weren’t bad, either. But we all get complacent at times. And the District 11 Championships showed me I'd better work harder if I'm going to keep moving up that learning curve. I need to get into shape to hike harder. I need to figure out how to set up the boat for breeze AND chop, where you want to depower enough to keep the boat flat, but not so much you can’t punch through the waves and accelerate quickly. And I better work on improving all the little boathandling things that in any one-design boat can add up to boatlengths over the course of a race (and in my case a -20).

Here’s regatta chair John Deutsch, who came in 8th and managed to win a (well-deserved) race, showing how he got around:

So, yes, it was a "terrible" regatta. But it's a strange truth of racing sailboats that I nevertheless came away refreshed, invigorated, and eager for more practice and racing. And if I can break free to return to Fishing Bay this fall for its epic, annual, Chesapeake Bay Laser Masters regatta, then perhaps I can redeem myself. Yes, the fact that Vincey outdoes himself at that event every year with a 5-star, 3-course, gourmet dinner has something to do with my motivation. But more than anything I want to get back to hang out with a great group of sailors and see if I can sail my boat just that much faster. Because that's what sport is all about.