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One Awesome Day

When a race lead seems sure and the horizon is clear, it’s easy to be lulled into a lull.

April 2, 2020
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Sailboat racers pulling small dinghy up onto a dock in Newport, Rhode Island.
Fiona MacKechnie, Susan Besse and Paul Fleming assist in the haul out after racing is cancelled on account of too much wind.

I’m the guy every Sunday who sounds like a broken record. As I do every week, I step outside to escape the boisterous pre-race clamor inside the yacht club. On the porch, facing south into the low winter sun, I close my eyes, tilt my head back, and exhale, soaking every damn bit of awesomeness of this early March gift. It’s a tease of spring before St. Patrick’s Day.

“Man. What a beautiful day,” I say to Susan Besse, standing to my left and already dressed for racing. From behind her round wire-rimmed spectacles, my diminutive fellow frostbiter is scanning the harbor, no doubt analyzing the puff patterns fanning from the west. The salt-and-pepper-haired professor of Latin American studies, whom I’ve chatted with from time to time over the course of the season, is a newcomer to Newport YC’s Turnabout Frostbite fleet, just like me. I’ve sailed and raced a lot over the past 40 years, but Besse has been away from it for a long, long time. She hadn’t raced a dingy in 44 years, or even really sailed at all. Having semi-retired in Newport recently, however, she has immersed herself in the sport she only practiced as a kid. Her intelligence is obvious to all; she’s articulate and scholarly inquisitive, speaks and listens softly. Her steady rise into the crème-de-la-A fleet confirms she’s good. Very good.

She agrees with me, with slight smile. A sun ray twinkles her eye. Today is indeed a fine day for sailing and our blessed season continues: no deep freezes and we’ve already booked more races than the previous year. Five Sundays remain still.

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I don’t recognize it at the time, but this fleeting moment on the porch with Ms. Besse before the morning’s first race is telling. Readers of this space know well my struggles and inconsistent finishes in the early days of the season, but after some introspection (“Tunnel Vision”), on this fine day I’m feeling far more at ease with my expectations. My results of late are on the up and up. Also, on this particular day, my chief rival—FJ Ritt—is out of town, so I have one less thing to stress about. When fleet champion and Turnabout ace Rick Nebiolo draws an “X” from the brown boat-draw satchel (meaning he would sit this one out), I’m disappointed, but kind of relieved…if you know what I’m saying. The sun is blazing, the harbor is a flat and sparkling playground. It’s a great day to be alive. This is my day.

I hoist the sail on my boat and skedaddle. No loitering, no chit-chat. Time to go win a race.

The starting line is only a couple hundred feet off the club, so I’m out there quick and sail a lap of the course. The weak westerly is a notoriously tricky wind direction in this part of the harbor because it either flows up and over Goat Island to the west or shifts northwest and funnels through a few structures. If it goes left, it’s practically a sea breeze, and the shifts swing big until the breeze settles and gets cranking. I’ve seen this film a few times, and I remind myself before the first start when I sense dark water lurking down yonder in Brenton Cove.

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My strategy is to start near the pin, control the left in case the sea breeze strolls in and see what happens. When I’m on my final starboard approach, running the line—a few seconds early—visions of a pin end launch materialize in the wishful thinking part of my brain.

I ease my sail, and as I downshift into a slow gear to burn a few seconds, guess who comes in with pace and tucks her bow to leeward?

Yes, Ms. Besse. This open pin start ain’t so easy anymore.

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But as she positions herself beneath me, with 10 seconds remaining, the wind suddenly shifts left. She’s pinned and both of us are barely fetching the buoy. Tick. Tock. Alarm bells are ringing in my head. I look over my shoulder and identify a potential port-tack-cross-the-fleet exit. Oh, baby. But if I tack too soon, I’ll definitely be poked and OCS. Like a deer in headlights, I wait one beat and throw the helm over. As I do, I swear I’ve broken the line, but when I hear the all-clear, I let out a deep exhale. Unbelievable.

Sayonara, Susan!

“Nice start, Dave!” shouts Bill Kneller. I recognize his booming voice from the scrum of white boats fighting to get off the line in the big header, but I don’t dare take my attention away from my boat, my trim, my heel, the red woolies on the shroud, the breeze on my neck.

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With a start like that, I can’t possibly screw this one.

The wind shifts a few more times as it grows lighter and softer in the span of only a few minutes. The first leg is barely a hundred yards, but the shifts are coming fast and random. I tack on as many as I dare, trying to not get too carried away with my extending my lead. I round first, with plenty of wake strung between me and the fleet. I cruise down the run, all nice and easy, and as I jibe and round the orange buoy at the bottom of the course, I remind myself to protect the left. With a parade of white sails coming down the run, though, I hold off and wait for clear air to tack. I just need to stay between the fleet and the mark. That’s 101 stuff.

So, for the moment, I focus on my boatspeed; ease the sheet, foot off a bit to build speed to get through the lull I’m in. I’ll wait for the next puff ahead to tack. It’ll be the header I need to sail to victory. I recall the advice of Pam Grant, a dear friend and First Lady of past Newport YC Commodore Jack Grant, who recently advised me on how to be fast in a Turnabout.

“Sail it like you did when you were a kid,” she said.

So, I do as Mama Grant said, and slide down off the gunnel and onto the boat’s scratchy fiberglass floor. From here, I can feel the heel. It feels goofy to be sitting so low, to be craning my neck over the foredeck, but I’m immediately sucked into a trance-like state. The boat starts to heel as the sail suddenly fills with a new wind over my back. I find myself subtly pushing the tiller away and my view arcing left—from the bow of the fishing boat to the buildings over on Goat Island.

Holy shift.

I pop up onto the gunwale and look over my left shoulder. A parade of white boats is strung bow-to-stern like ducks, little frothy wakes in their bows. They’re practically sailing right over the top of me.

Oh, no, no, no, no!

It’s not an outright panic, but I do recognize I’ve coughed up my big easy win. It’s just a matter of how bad it will be: Hero to Zero or Hero to Chump? With all the patience I can muster, I ride the lift as long as I can toward the mark before tacking and taking my lumps. Luckily, there’s only one boat ahead of me, and guess who it is? Ms. Besse, of course. Inconceivable!

Try as I may to pass her on the run to the finish, there’s no way. She’s plenty quick and this race is all hers to savor. It’s her first A-fleet win, and how awesome it is.

Postscript: In the week following this race, the yacht club closed its facilities because of Coronaviros concerns. As the Covid-19 pandemic worsened, fleet handler Winkle Kelly delivered the inevitable news: Frostbiting was over. After 20 races, the final scores have Rick Nebiolo first overall, followed Ritt and yours truly. I’m happy with the result, but even happier for having rekindled my love for frostbite sailing, for learning to be a better sailor and a better person, and mostly for making new friends and connections. I am indeed frostbitten.

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