When there’s 13 sailors in the Newport YC’s Turnabout A fleet and only 12 boats to race, someone draws an “X.”
The X is an absolute buzzkill. I’m all amped up to go sailing on this Sunday afternoon. I’ve escaped the cooped-up chaos of my house of five, the wind is light offshore, grooming the empty harbor with long black wind veins that fade as they’re eaten up by the hillside of Brenton Cove. From the south facing porch of the Newport YC, the low winter sun hits me right in the face. Such a happy place.
It’s race day Number 3 and I’m eager to race. After suiting up—in order: long johns, drysuit, sneakers, PFD, mask, hat and battery-powered heated gloves and my trusty old Ronstan ClearStart Watch. I then check in on my assignments with fleet mother Ms. Winkle.
Mm-hmm. Boat 2, Race 1. Nice. Aw. Dang it. I got an X for Race 2.
So be it. Rather than stand around on shore, I snatch a post on the Boston Whaler safety boat, It’s be a good chance to do some recon on Amanda and FJ.
I grab the whaler’s steering wheel and dust off my photo boat driving mental manual. With an iPhone I gotta get in there if you want anything decent (apologies, friends, for the wake). As the A-fleet lines up for its start, I keyed in on FJ. He has an orange and purple Kokatat drysuit that stands right out. Amanda is harder to spot; her telltale pink life jacket suspiciously missing or hidden under her black jacket. Clever. But her oversized yellow dishwashing gloves are a giveaway.
FJ carves himself a big hole further down the line when the horn blast signals the start. He sheets his mainsail sharply, sits on the rail and rockets forward. He learned that in college, long ago. Over his shoulder is Amanda, a good length late but already on the wind and going fast.
Now, FJ is straddling the Turnabout’s gunnel. Amanda is seated on the floor, her hand resting on the tiller’s end, the extension standing up. The first thing that comes to mind is how comfortable she looks and how the boat is lightly laying on its chine as it glides through the ripples.
I leave her be and fall back into the middle of the fleet to observe how others are sailing their boats. The breeze is just strong enough to power the sails and it’s shifty as northerly should be, which makes today a feel kind of day. By feel, I mean, wind across your cheek: weight in if you’re not feeling it. Weight out, if you feel too much.
The true challenge in these conditions is the constant weight shifting, which is hard to do when you’re on your knees, or one knee, or contorted into a Twister-worthy position. The solution, if you watch ol’ fleet legend Bob Morton, is to just take a seat.
This guy wins races—a lot—and he’s not roll tacking or whipping his boat around marks like FJ and the rest of us. He’s most comfortable on the floor and his boat trim is perfecto: fore-and-aft and heel angle. I record a video to prove it. He’s got his hand gently on the tiller tip, his bearded gaze beneath the dark blue American Magic baseball cap is straight ahead to the next puff. When he tacks, he nimbly shifts to the other side of the boat and is just as fast going into the tack as he is out. Incredible!
I eventually reconnect with FJ and Amanda at the final weather-mark rounding (a starboard one). I’m motoring to leeward of FJ, who’s on a shy port layline. Amanda is up there on his hip. The closer FJ gets to his layline, I can tell he’s hit the panic button. He starts getting jittery and moving a lot—he’s on a knee, he stands, he kneels, his telltales droop. Over his shoulder, Amanda is sitting, just like Morton, and she’s hooked into a skinny dark puff. There’s a little bone in her Turnabout’s old tooth and she’s eating into FJ’s lead. I note again how the boat just glides through the water.
There’s something to this sitting thing.
For what it’s worth, FJ goes on to beat Amanda, but not by much.
With the B Fleet up next, I keep my post on the Whaler. I prefer to be on the water all day. It’s colder, but it’s a better way to stay in phase with what the wind is doing. As B-Fleet makes its way around the course I check in with the last-placed boat to offer some tips…like, “maybe pull your mainsheet a bit?” But here among the Bs I notice some pretty wild techniques: quite a few sailors on both knees, facing forward and holding the tiller awkwardly behind their back, spinning out through tacks.
That’s not fast. What’s fast is the Morton Way. “Take a seat,” I suggest one sailor.
I believe in Morton’s Way, not just because I’ve witnessed its magic, but because I remind myself of it all the time, and I do on this very day when it’s finally my turn to race. It’s the last race of the day, and I’ve been watching people all afternoon. I rotate boats with my Friend Thurston, who slaps me on the back and tells me to go out there and kill it. Yes sir.
I use my trusty starting approach—time and distance and all that—and zip off the line at full speed with no one around me (I do love it when the race committee later congratulates you on a perfect start…rare in my world!) Out to the shift. Voila. There is. Tack. Mark on the bow. Fleet behind. All is good.
So, I sit.
Low and forward by the centerboard trunk. I can feel the little tugs of wind in the mainsheet coming straight off the boom, and I can feel the heel of the boat in pointy arse cheeks. Making small adjustments, I keep my speed all the way to the mark.
It’s easy-peasy down the run, but there’s Amanda getting closer in a filling breeze from behind. I round the leeward mark to port, take a seat and settle to cover her loosely. But man, she’s fast, and as soon as she’s in my head, I’m slow. I’m itchy, I start moving. I’m FJ, now. My telltales are drooping. The death spiral, indeed.
But I channel my inner Morton, calm my nerves and sit back down. I exhale deeply and return to feeling the boat and being patient for the next puff to come my way.
Of course, it works. It’s the Morton Way, all the way to the finish.