Won One, Lost One

The goal of every race is to win, but we don't need to win them all. Often the ones we lose provides the wisdom we need.
Reed with family on their boat, Another Opinion
Another Opinion served many purposes for its many keepers over the decades, including countless introductory sunset sails with friends and family. Dave Reed

in this same space, one year ago, I shared an epiphany that I’d had after tanking my frostbite season on the final day of racing, on account of a few avoidable mistakes. “Dumb is as dumb does,” I posited. I would not let that happen again, I promised. 

The offseason is long, however, and it’s during this time and space that we forget the commitments we make to ourselves and our teammates as we debrief over a beer, sky the halyards, wash the sheets, and put away the boat until next time. There’s always a ­better season next year. So, in my offseason, I thought long and hard about why I’d been prone to high-risk, low-reward ­tactics and aggressive starts. I was always trying too hard to win races without regard to the length of the season, which starts on New Year’s Day and rolls through mid-April. There are a lot of races, and a lot of points to be saved between A and B, so stop trying to win races. See how it goes.

With this mantra in mind, I arrive early on opening day, eager to get the new season underway. My arch rival and the perennial fleet champ, FJ Ritt, is already at the club. He’s busy getting the club’s fleet of N10s (aka Turnabouts) ready. There’s a special vibe on opening day, and I’m sure he sensed it too: a rebirth, a new beginning, uncertainty and anticipation. Corny, I know. But it’s true.

I step to the water’s edge, look across the slate-gray ­harbor littered with winter sticks and mooring balls. There’s a light northeasterly—the one direction I dread. I have flashbacks of that one dumb season-crushing race that ended my last season.

Race 1 then goes something like this: I get a good start, and I’m in a close second place on the downwind leg. And what do I do? Immediately split at the leeward mark and sail into a hole. It’s my knee-jerk reaction to go the other way and go for the pass. I don’t even bother looking over my shoulder before tacking into a tar pit. I deserve the 11 I get as the first score on my card. Thankfully, there’s only one drifter raced that day, and with that 11th, I’m sent packing to the B fleet for the following weekend.

I’ve learned my lesson, again, however, and over the following race days, I focus on ­climbing into the top five. I win a few races along the way, but more importantly, I’m getting ­better at not doing dumb things. Whenever I’m immediately behind, next to or near the lead boat, I am patient. If the opportunity to make a pass comes my way, I take it. I stop forcing the win. I’m good with second (or third or fourth), I say to myself when following FJ, or speedy Missy Hudspeth across the ­finish. I accept this.

On the Sunday of Week 6, I finally find myself at the top of the standings with a 1-2 on my birthday. What a gift. The season is no longer mine to win; it is indeed mine to lose. From then on, Ritt and I battle with an unspoken vigor—two old men going at it in tubby little white boats. It’s our Sunday afternoon raison d’être, and for the remainder of the season, I’m true to my rule: Keep it cool; keep the points. Nothing crazy. Nothing fancy.

It’s working for me, and on the 23rd and final race of the season, I somehow nail a dream start; full speed, on the line, giant hole to leeward, and launched to a season-ending high. Hallelujah. 

That’s my win to report, but I also have a loss worth sharing with longtime, and the most astute, readers of this magazine. Those of you in this group might recall a series of stories back in the day written by Sailing World’s previous staffers about a 26-foot fractional sloop named AO.

This particular pocket yacht is an Albin Express 26 One-Design, drawn by Peter Norlin and built in the mid-1980s. It’s kind of like a J/24 but different. Past senior editor and de facto historian Herb McCormick was around when the magazine’s owners procured the boat and added it to the employee ­benefits package.

The Another Opinion origin story goes back to the early 1980s, when Murray Davis, the publisher of Cruising World, acquired it as a perk for the magazine’s staff to sail and enjoy, McCormick says. “It was actually a bit of a spiteful ­gesture. Davis had wanted to trade out advertising pages with J/Boats to score the hot new J/24. When he was rebuffed by the Johnstones, he ­pivoted to Swedish builder Albin, and ­suddenly Cruising World was the steward of a new Albin Express, a popular one-design on lakes in Sweden. The idea was to crush the J/24 whenever the opportunity arose.”

But there were problems with Murray’s plan, McCormick says. “First, of course, the J/24 was also a one-design that rarely sailed in PHRF fleets. But more importantly, as we discovered at Block Island Race Week, the Albin’s blade jib was a serious liability upwind versus a J/24’s overlapping genoa. Someone got crushed all right. It was us.”

For more than three decades, AO served its purpose as the ultimate perk: Corporate paid the yard bills and gave great joy to employees—harbor cruises, first dates, music festivals, race weeks, and PHRF beer canning. It was an editorial project boat to test out new gear and DIY stories, a Frankenstein’s monster of half-finished projects.

The Cruising World staff would lay claim to it and pile their crap on board: piles of anchors and useless boating gadgets. Rolling sails wasn’t their thing. Sailing World editors Dan Dickison and Tim Robinson once whipped AO into proper Wednesday-night shape. It was stripped to bare bones and lost its luster at the hands of neglect. With company X, Y or Z’s name on the registration, no one was ever willing to put their own money into it. Sweat equity, sure, because there was bottom sanding and seasonal cleaning, but that’s about it. Simple boats don’t need much, and this was the beauty of AO. Ugly in her old age but a fine sailing yacht in all conditions.

As Cruising World and Sailing World’s editorial staff dwindled over the years and corporate eventually closed the Newport office, I became the sole and final caretaker of the company yacht. And over the past few years, I’ve taught a lot of newbies and friends the finer points of sailing through the harbor. I’ve cruised the lower bay with the family and sailed its stretches solo. My wife eventually started her own ladies’ night, a cockpit full of school teachers on summer break, lapping the harbor while they lapped up cocktails. It served its purpose and we did right by AO, but like other ­staffers before me, I never sank an extra dime into it.

By last summer, AO was ­certainly showing its age: its gray topsides faded and scuffed, the white deck stained and chalky. I’m ashamed to admit that I used an entire roll of double-wide Dacron sticky back to hold the jib together. The interior was no better—salty and dank. No bilge pump, no battery or working lights, and a Home Depot bucket for the ladies. My 13-year-old refused my every sleep-aboard offer because the interior was “gross.”

Last fall, while preparing the boat for a looming hurricane, I tugged on the jib halyard and it wouldn’t budge. The top swivel was jammed. I pulled hard at the luff again, and it came down, all right—the entire rig along with it. The forestay had parted at the tang swage. Dismasted at the mooring. Now that was a new low for AO, which we towed north a few weeks later and hauled out for the season at the Safe Harbor New England Boatworks.

The yard guys must have sensed AO’s fate, backing its transom into the scrub bushes in the dumpiest corner of the yard, where it now sits, likely home to Safe Harbor’s resident raccoons. At the time, I had intentions of ordering new standing rigging and buying a jib. But the Frostbite racing ­season came, along with winter regatta travel, and the wellness visits stopped. 

The magazines were sold to our current owners this past fall, and in the due diligence, it became known that “we” own a company yacht, and that it too must be divested. I offered $1. They declined, so I figured that was the end of it until another email came much later, from our previous company’s legal department. They’d read the storage contract, and it was their intent to default on the late fees and allow Safe Harbor to auction it off.

The thought of losing AO weighed on me as I considered buying it off the block. It’s a piece of my Newport identity, a ship of memories and comic adventures, a vessel good of times. My daughter half-pleaded for me not to give AO away, and I hemmed and hawed for days, but I’d already decided: time to move on. I can’t afford to maintain it properly, and Safe Harbor has outpriced my paycheck.

Which brings us back the boat’s original name and to our historian, Mr. McCormick, who informs us that Another Opinion was the title of a Cruising World column where boat owners would share info with interested parties about their boat. “Most casual observers who hailed us always asked if we were ­doctors,” McCormick says. “Hence, the handle (and eventually the two giant letters on its topsides) was soon shortened to just AO. It was easier for everyone that way.”

While we’re disappointed about losing the company yacht, we’ll take this loss as a win. It’s an opportunity to find an AO-worthy replacement for new adventures.