Poor Young Dave

My Newport YC Frostbite A-Fleet debut is ignominious, but there are two simple lessons to be learned.

Sailors rescue a capsized and sunken sailing dinghy from a powerboat.
Members of the race committee right and recover a capsized Turnabout before towing it to a nearby dock.Dave Reed

There’s one bit of advice I’ve never seen in any sail-tuning guide: “One’s leech tension is directly proportional to one’s stress level.”

You know what I’m talking about, right? Well, I do.

My first appearance in Newport YC’s Frostbite A Fleet isn’t going so well. The one guy I want (or need?) to be ahead of is way out in front, gobbling up all the clean air. Yes, that’s Mr. Ritt, the nine-time fleet champion. I’m scrapping for moldy morsels; my blood pressure is spiking. I grunt and curse to myself, aloud and under my breath. I pull the mainsheet even tighter, as if that last tug is going to magically boost me back into the hunt. But, it does the opposite.

I’m too busy looking for a way off my little Alcatraz that I don’t see my leech is stalled. The red ribbon up high is hanging limp behind the sail. I sure feel slow, and I am because I’ve blindly tacked into a gaping, windless hole. Bea Grimmitt, who only seconds ago was a few feet to leeward, is now one hundred feet ahead. I can’t even make out the tail on her piggly-wiggly wool hat.

“Relax, man. Relax,” I think to myself with a big exhale.

I lean my torso inboard, ease the sheet, and get the clear, frigid water flowing past my metal centerboard again. But it’s too late. The damage is done. My fifth position in this race is solid. I’ve done it to myself.

It happens back at the start, when Ritt nails the pin and shoots out to the left side, tacks and crosses the fleet on his way to his first runaway win of the season. He knew the pin would be favored and said as much during the morning skippers’ meeting, when he told everyone the race committee would favor the pin—to keep us from smashing into the race committee barge.

Anticipating a pile up at the pin, I start at the opposite end. The weather mark is barely 500 feet upwind, so my strategy, which seemed to work on the first day, is to keep my options open off the start, to not get pinned on the left. Where I start, though, is where I round the weather mark, fifth or so.

With a sharp turn downwind, I grab the inside lane from Grimmitt and barely beat her to the leeward mark, but as I jibe in a big gust, the tiller slips right through my grippy gloves. Or maybe I just drop it…It all happens so fast, right in the middle of the turn. The boat spins on a dime and into the wind, mainsail flapping. I almost hit the leeward mark, but as I sit flailing head to wind, tangled in the mainsheet hanging off the boom, Grimmitt cruises round the outside.

I’m sure she was thinking to herself, “Poor young, Dave.”

Well that, my friends, is just plain sloppy boathandling. Certainly not A-Fleet material. But I do salvage a fifth in a race that is barely seven-minutes long. It could have been much worse.

On this particular Sunday afternoon, as the Chiefs pummel the Packers, 36 people sign in to race, which means A, B, and C fleets. After my race, as is required, I rotate out of boat No. 9 and step onto the race committee boat, an ungainly beast of a vessel that’s always been called “The Barge.” It’s been in service at the club since I was kid.

A brisk northwesterly, which occasionally swings right to the north, is laying down some meaty gusts on the left side of the course. High dark-bottomed clouds bring more breeze for the B-Fleeters, and literally, as they round their first weather mark, Rick Nebiolo, who’s alongside me in the boat, mutters aloud… “Uh, oh. Better get your weight back.”

Get your weight back!” he then yells to the skipper far away, who can’t possibly hear him over the roar of the gust and the rush of sea water flushing into the Turnabout as its bow submarines. The boat immediately capsizes to weather and sinks.

“Get your weight back!” he then yells to the skipper far away, who can’t possibly hear him over the roar of the gust and the rush of sea water flushing into the Turnabout as its bow submarines. The boat immediately capsizes to weather and sinks. The skipper is promptly hauled from the 35-degree harbor and whisked to shore for warm soup inside the clubhouse.

As a side note, the rescue incident brings back a memory of something that happens earlier in the day. While comparing drysuits with a guy named Anthony Iocono, I observe a leather belt around his waist, on the outside of his suit. It strikes me as odd, but he explains that it’s to give the rescuer something to grab on to when pulling him from the water. That’s a good tip.

Now back to this episode of Frostbite Rescue 911.

We wrestle with the boat to get it upright, strip the sail, and then tow it (submerged to the gunnels) ever slowly back to the dock, where an army of suited sailors await to receive the victim. It’s hauled up on the dock, drained, re-rigged and readied for racing.

In the meantime, we’re sent back out to retrieve a second boat that is floating, turtled, amongst the moorings and winter sticks. For this mission, Jonathan Thurston joins us and brings along a grappling-hook type of device with a long rope tether. I watch him and others hook it onto the submerged gunnel and then use the other crash boat to pull the boat right-side up. It’s obvious this is not Thurston’s first Turnabout recovery. This one, too, is hauled back to the dock, emptied and readied for racing.

Man standing on dock with a flag to finish a sailboat racer off in the distance.
Fiona MacKechnie leaves the B Fleet in her wake as she wins her second race of the day while Peter d’Anjou takes her finish from the dock.Dave Reed

The ordeal cuts about 40 minutes or so from the afternoon’s sailing, and the breeze is now a steady 15 to 20, so we’re advised to move the mark closer to shore, where the wind is squirrely, but more protected. We drop the anchor and orange buoy right off the bow of a big white commercial fishing vessel, and all goes well for B-Fleet on their second try.

The C-Fleeters then have their turn, without incident, and it’s the As again. I’m the last boat off the rotation dock, so I’m already tense and feeling late. There’s no time to do my pre-race routine—a couple of tacks and jibes, a bit of upwind work—but I’m determined to go for the pin this time. I time it, nearly perfectly (so I think…), but over the loud hailer, I hear my sail number.

Dang it. Not again.

They also nab Grimmitt, who is to leeward of me. I’m able to dive down, just missing Grimmitt’s transom, on the outside of the pin to jibe around and clear myself.

[Allow me to pause here for a minute and share that, not long before I make this sharp turn to restart, I’d been with Mr. Ritt on the race committee boat watching the C Fleet get around the course. Unknowingly, he’d provided me with the most important tip of the day: “We’re at that temperature where the boats become slippery as hell. Like sheets of ice. You gotta to be careful…”]

Obviously, his wisdom doesn’t register at the time, but as I turn the boat, duck beneath the flying boom, and plant my right foot, it slips right out from under me, and in an instant, I’m on my keister, arms and legs flailing like a capsized turtle. Again, the Turnabout spins into the wind, sail flapping. And there’s Ms. Grimmitt, sailing past me to leeward and surely thinking to herself, “Poor young Dave. He’s done it again.”

By the time I get out of irons and sort myself out, the rest of the fleet is long gone. Mr. Ritt is a speck on the horizon. I do claw my back from last to seventh, but holy smokes, was that humiliating. I knew some humble pie was coming my way, but I didn’t expect it to be self-served.

Before driving home, I add two notes to my notebook for next week: “Don’t drop the tiller,” and “watch out for black ice.”