The Heartbeats

WHAT’S YOUR YOUR PASSION?

I found mine sixty miles west of Cuba in the Yucatan Channel.  

The wind is gusting in the high twenties.  The wind is coming over our left shoulder and the current is against us so the boat is pitching and rolling (and yawing too).  We are flying ten knots through the water.

It’s day four of the 48th Regata Del Sol Al Sol, a sailboat race from Tampa, Florida to Isla Mujeres, Mexico.  We’ve had twelve hours of fresh wind and hard sailing.  Night is coming so Russ wants to take down the whisker pole.  Leaving it up would be risky:  if the boat were to broach, we’d have a mess of lines and sails in the water.  Not a good prospect at any time – but worse in the dark.  

Russ is owner and captain of Blue Heron, the Catalina 380 we are sailing.  

Russ and I go forward to the mast while Bob steers.  It’s a good thing that Bob Hoadley, Russ’s nephew, has owned boats and sailed for decades.  It takes a good eye and sense of timing to steer in these waves.  I know because I was just doing it.   

I’m not here looking for risk for its own sake.  Russ is one of the smartest, safest skippers I know.  But the risk is there and along with it the thrill.  

Russ stands at the mast, I’m just to his right.  The pole, hooked to the mast on one end and the jib sail on the other, is twelve feet long and weighs about thirty pounds.  Taking it down in this weather is an ungainly ballet — a combination of strenuous maneuvers.  

The boat charges forward, crashing over waves, heaving to and fro.  Bob tries to steer right in the peaks, left into the valleys.  The pole could become a battering ram so we have to handle it carefully when we release it.

Finally we are in position.  We’re wearing offshore life vests, hooked to sturdy jacklines on the deck.  Russ pulls a thin line, retracting the keeper inside the jaw on the pole’s outboard end.  Wind pressure holds the thick blue jib sheets tight so we have to wrestle the pole free.  Meanwhile I’m grabbing and holding down the halyard which keeps the whole contraption from crashing to the deck.  

Now the pole is free — good but dicey.  We have to keep it under control.  

Next: pull, turn and lift the pole vertical alongside the mast.  We’ll latch it onto the mast, storing it out of the way.  With so many moving parts (upper hook twelve feet up, lower hook near the deck but adjustable, heaving boat, flogging sails) it’s like threading a big clumsy needle.   

First we get it wrong.  The lower ring is too high so the top end won’t fit.  

Hold the pole.  Untie the halyard.  Raise the pole.  Steady.  Heave.  Steady.  Pull the pin, lower the ring.  

Whoa!  Too much slack on my rope and the pole is falling and swinging.  It nicks Russ in the chin, a spot of blood.  Thankfully not serious.  Quick!  Pull the halyard – HARD!  

We’re hooked back on.  It’s not perfect, but the pole is secure against the mast.  We’re done for now.  Unhook tethers and scramble, crouching low, back to the cockpit.

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Hiking

(Feature photo:  Flying Juniors in the Austin Yacht Club Centerboard Regatta, Sept 12.  Photo credit:  Steve Ward)

The white Hobie 16 catamaran is flipped over on its side, one hull floating the other seven feet off the water.  The righting line is supposed to help us flip it back over.  So I’m holding the rope and hanging with all my weight.  It’s not working.

The Hobie Cat 16 is the classic beach catamaran designed by Hobie Alter in California and first sold in 1969.  It’s a rocket ship of a boat, fast and light.  More than 100,000 were sold, bringing fast, fun sailing to the masses (source: hobiecat.com).

Without gloves the rope is biting into my fingers.   I can bear it for two minutes before I have to let go and drop into the lake.  We climb back on the overturned hull and try again.

I’m here because I offered to crew this morning at the end-of-summer AYC Centerboard Regatta.

The second floor clubhouse was electric when I arrived at 9:30 on the breezy, sunny Saturday morning (I’m keen on logging racing hours to meet the club’s 15-event minimum for new members).  Kids are running around in life vests, rash guards and flip-flops.  Hot coffee and donuts are being consumed by all.  The emcee has to call for quiet over the mic more than once to settle the crowd of sailors eager to get on the water.

The commodore and race committee talk us through the rules for the day.  They talk about the floating race markers, which direction to round them (left or right), fleet starting sequences, penalties and more.

On the water Evan and I get a rocky start.  We’re both new to this type of racing, so we have a lot to learn.

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A Nacra Catamaran in the AYC Centerboard Regatta.

Minutes into the first race we have two problems:  the mainsheet* traveler is binding and the sail’s not up all the way.  We unhook the block and sheet and try to figure out what’s wrong.  After struggling around the course, we sail back to the dock to work on the problem.  This is Evan’s very first time sailing the boat, so he doesn’t have a hang of the rigging yet.  When we haul on the main the traveler should slide smoothly – but it won’t.  It’s binding and making a mess of our sailing.

On my iPhone we find a groovy 80s video on “Rigging a Hobie 16.”  I watch while searching for water and a snack.  About two-thirds into the grainy video the host demonstrates rigging the mainsheet through blocks, fairlead cam cleat, traveler and finally a padeye on deck.

Back on the boat we follow the instructions and the sheet works smoothly now.  We sail back out and instead of re-entering the race we spend the rest of the afternoon learning the boat.

Evan’s Hobie 16 started as a Hobie Mexico Worlds Race boat in 2004.  He bought it on the secondary market for a great deal.  The hull and sails are covered with big name sponsors (e.g., Dell, Coca-Cola).

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A foiling Moth, rumored to sail over 20 knots.

With the boat properly rigged we gradually improve our tacks and other maneuvering.  Evan’s on helm and main, I’m on jib sheets.  Hobie Cats are notoriously hard to tack, so we spend several rounds trying to perfect the move.

Finally, we start to get the hang of things.  As the wind puffs we get more confident and start pointing higher which makes the boat lean way over.  We have to hike out to windward, using our weight to counter the boat’s desire to dunk us again.  Now the speed is really coming on.  We slice through the water, passing other boats now (we’re not racing, just cruising around the lake).  We’re catching power boats and gaining on much larger sailboats with ease.

“This is why I got this boat,” Evan yells with a big grin.  It’s my turn to grin and yell when I hike out over the water from the trapeze for the first time.  It’s like dangling in a child’s bucket swing, skittering a foot above the water, nearly spinning out of control.

≈≈≈

The secret to righting the boat was:  climb on the floating hull, stand, pull the righting rope down, clip onto our body harnesses and lean back.  In that position our weight is most effective and the sails slowly peel away and rise out of the water.  “Watch your head!  Unclip!” I said as the boat flopped over and stood upright.

I can’t wait to do it all again.

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* A rope that controls the bottom of a sail is called a “sheet”

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Sunfish and FJs competing in the Austin Yacht Club Centerboard Regatta.