I’m training in San Francisco in the 49erFX with my new teammate, Lucy Wilmot, when the phone rings. On the other end is Charlie Enright. Yeah, that Charlie Enright, and as if asking to pass the salt at the dinner table, he starts the conversation by casually asking me if I have any interest in coming to tryout with the 11th Hour Racing Team on their IMOCA 60, the one they’re using to train for the Ocean Race, which starts in 2022. My heart likely skipped a beat. Why me? An Olympic dinghy hopeful from Fort Lauderdale, someone who’s never been at sea past sunset.
Well, of course, I’m interested, I tell him. Tell me more.
Three weeks later, I board a flight to Newport, Rhode Island, excited to take on an opportunity of a lifetime.
Having never slept overnight on a boat, and knowing close to nothing about offshore racing, I did my research: pouring through videos and articles about the IMOCA 60. But what I read online does not do justice to the boat. When I step over the lifelines and onto the black-and-white honeycomb deck for the first time, I feel like I’m stepping onto a spacecraft. It must look like a ghost ship as foils across the ocean in the dead of night.
The cockpit is tiny and lines spill into the pit like a waterfall. Below is crammed with gear, sails, food, equipment and Fat Boy beanbags. It’s meant for a coed crew of four, plus an onboard reporter, to race around the world, with a few stops along the way.
After two days of getting to know the team and the boat’s systems, we set out for an overnight training session. With no clue what to bring, and having a dinghy sailor mentality, I’ve packed my wetsuit. When I confide in one of the crew, Kyle Langford, on my gear selection, he jokingly replies that I don’t need a wetsuit and hints that I should probably keep it to myself that I brought one. He grabs me a proper offshore kit from a plastic tub, and before I can find my bearings, we are flying downwind into the night.
The crew shifts are four hours on and four hours off for 48 hours. To my surprise, the shifts are not so bad. It reminds me of the workouts I’ve done during my Olympic campaign where the work time and rest time are equivalent, always allowing adequate recovery time. When I’m on watch, I try my best to soak in everything, learn, and work efficiently. I also take time to sleep and eat when I’m off. Each crew member will cycle through this schedule like clockwork to constantly keep the boat ripping along on its foils.
My shift is 10 p.m. to 2 a.m., and when I wake up, I’m sprawled out over the bean bag. I put on my foul weather gear, and make myself instant coffee in the galley. Sticking my head out into the cockpit, I feel like a deer in the headlights. The sky is immaculate with stars shining clearer to my naked eye. I’ve never seen anything like it. The moon is beaming, the water kissing the hull, the wind rushing across our sails. There’s not another boat, or a hint of land, in sight.
Up until this point, our practice and my experience is glamour. Everything seems too good to be true. Just too perfect. It’s around 1 a.m. and Charlie and I are on watch. Charlie climbs down into the galley to put on a few more layers, leaving me at the tiller. Trying to find my mug for a few more sips of coffee, I put the boat on autopilot for a brief moment while I reach into a sheet pocket in the cockpit. When I grab the tiller again and disengage the autopilot, the tiller feels light. I look out the window above me and up at the sail. Sure enough, the boat is in irons. Totally embarrassed, I try sculling the rudder to one side, as if it were a dinghy, and to try to get the boat back onto a close-hauled course.
My efforts fail.
The two of us try to the boat out of irons, but even we can’t do it alone. Charlie has to wake-up the rest of the crew. I am mortified. Here I am, a decent sailor, and I drive the IMOCA 60 into irons in the middle of the night. After the incident, I learn the autopilot can get “lost” when the hull gets a little too flat because it gauges its steering angle off the load in the keel. When the load goes light, the boat can spin up into irons. Knowing this, of course, makes me feel a bit better, but I still can’t remember the last time I was stuck in irons. All I could think was “tiller towards trouble.”
Over the next two weeks, we continue offshore training sessions and a few day sailing sessions. I am well past my comfort zone now and amazed at all the things I didn’t know about the sport. Every day, I’m eager to be more involved on the boat. I want to put my hands on everything so I could learn faster and help the team where I can. Often, I find my hands gripping the grinding pedestal because I know—physically—I can push hard and I’m unwilling to quit.
Our “off days” consists primarily of team meetings. At one, ideas bounce back and forth between the sailors and the engineers about hull manufacturing and foil shape. The language is so foreign to me, and not just because of all the different accents in the room. But sitting in on these meetings, I’m eager to understand foil designs and why one shape would outplay another. Each night, I type up pages of notes to absorb the material and follow up with questions. Surrounded by such experience and talent, I’d be crazy to waste a second of schooling. Sure enough, my learning curve accelerates upward at a rapid rate.
The experience and the exposure to offshore sailing opens my eyes to the greater areas of sailboat racing that I have been missing. Sailing the Laser Radial for 11 years of my life, I have forgotten what it feels like to reach higher levels of comprehension in the sport. I’m reminded that the feeling is exhilarating, the same rush that made me fall in love with sailing.
Thank you for the call Charlie. Sign me up.
Ed.’s Note: US Sailing Team member Erika Reineke recently launched an 49erFX campaign with skipper Lucy Wilmot; follow their campaign at www.wilmotreinekefx.com and on their social channels.