The Sound of Silence

Dave Reed and a fellow journalist sort out the sounds of sailing. From the "Editor's Letter" in our June 2007 issue

sailing sounds 368

Michael Lovett

Each year, my fellow SW editors and I make the rounds at our nine NOOD regattas, "doing time" on press boats while watching the rest of you have all the fun. From this vantage point, I've seen it all: the good, the bad, and most definitely the ugly. But while I'm busily snapping away with my camera or explaining the sport to the nonsailing reporter from the local paper, I'm only paying half attention to what's going on.

This occurred to me recently while operating the press boat for the Sperry Top-Sider NOOD Regatta in Annapolis. On board for the day was a reporter for National Public Radio. She had no cameras or video equipment, just a handheld microphone and an audio recorder tucked into a plastic sandwich baggie.

As we putted along inside the harbor, she held the microphone overboard to record the rhythmic splashing of the bow wave. Once we got out to the racecourse, she caught on to the race committee's chatter and put the microphone up to the VHF speaker.

As a nearby Melges 32 warmed up, we motored alongside, and she captured the swishing of its crisp masthead spinnaker as it filled and refilled in the intermittent puffs. Each time she pressed the record button, I found myself searching for exactly what sound she was hearing. I began to see how she was piecing together the audio behind her story, and I went along with it.

For the first start, I put her just off the bow of the race-committee boat, and what follows was a cacophony of shotgun recalls, air horns, jibs luffing and then smacking against masts, bowmen calling out starboard-tack boats and time and distance to the line, and more race-committee chatter on the radio. Then comes the numerical countdown over the VHF in concert with the luffing jibs and a chorus of exhortation:

"Up! Up! Up!" shouted the rail riders, not just one of them, but sometimes three on the same boat. "Go! Go! Go!"
For the next start, I move her down to the pin. This end of the line is no less crowded, but without the committee boat to barge against, it's much, much quieter. I hear the clicking of ratchets as boats turn upwind and the hushed chatter of those in the cockpit.

To get my rider the sound bites she sought I had to get her to the racecourse's busiest intersection, and we arrive at the weather and offset marks just as a fleet of J/30s rolls in on the starboard layline. The first few round in virtual silence: a little creaking of the jib as it's eased, water rushing past the hull, the spinnaker dragging up the backside of the genoa, and a thwap! as the spinnaker fills. It goes this way for the next boat, and the next, and then we're with the stressed-out tail-enders.

Halyard! Halyard! Halyard!
The jib! The jib! Damnit!
Come on you guys! Hurry up.

After the last boat passes, the reporter turns and asks if everyone on a boat has a specific job. I tell her they do. She says, "Then why is everyone telling everyone else what to do?"

Exactly, I assure her. If they'd each focus on their own jobs, the silence would be there, and so, too, would the better rounding.

We next find ourselves at the leeward mark, watching 45 J/105s squeeze through a funnel toward the favored gate mark. "Oh, this'll be good," I think to myself, and purposely turn off the outboard engine. "This one you've got to hear," I tell her.

The first boats quietly round, and then it erupts.

Don't go in there!
Six-four-nine, I need room!
No way! No way!
Protest, protest, pr-oh-test!

The dull thudding of hull-against-hull goes on for at least two minutes as the pinwheel spins itself out. The last boat rounds alone, well behind the pack, and I can see our guest is still recording. I think how nice it will sound at the end of that tape: no shouting matches, only lapping water, ratchet blocks, and a crew savoring the silence.

-Dave Reed