After yesterday’s post about saving up for a sailboat, I took advantage of the fact that our weekly fight practice has been put on hold for the next three weeks (due to Pennsic) and went down to the yacht club to see if I could get a crewing seat during their Wednesday night race. It was a beautiful, clear day with lots of wind, so I figured I’d have a good chance.

I was right, and it ended up being an evening of firsts. I was invited aboard Bahala Na, an old wooden sloop of about 28 feet; I’d never been on a wood-hulled boat before, nor one with a wooden mast and boom, so that was fascinating, especially when her skipper explained that the creaks and groans were “perfectly natural” and “nothing to worry about… much.” I learned pretty quickly that wooden boats “talk” constantly, especially in the kinds of conditions that waited for us outside the harbour mouth.

I’d also never raced before, or at least in a serious, organized way. A couple of times back on Lake Erie we’d been travelling to the same direction as friends on other boats, so we ended up “racing” each other, (because it appears to be a law of nature that any time you get two sailboats going in roughly the same direction, they race) but I’d never had the opportunity to see how sailors who officially race set things up.

It was an education, to put it mildly.

The club’s race course is about half a mile south of the harbour mouth, and consists of five buoys in a circle, each about a mile apart from the next. I arrived just as the “skippers’ meeting” was going on, where the skippers found out what the course would be and which side of the buoys they’ve have to pass on. Last night’s course wasn’t around the circle of buoys, but back and forth across the circle in a complicated pattern, further complicated by alternating requirements to pass port or starboard of various buoys as one made the turns. The course meant that every boat would, at some point, be sailing on every point of sail — fun and challenging for all participants… and almost impossible to describe coherently. There were about a dozen boats of various sizes and types in the race, so the pack was pretty spread out; at times the lead boats would be crossing the path of the trailing ones.

Fortunately, sail conditions were amazing — it was crystal clear, the wind was blowing hard and steady at about Force 6 from due north, although the waves were steep and tall from the southwest, which made for some rough seas. It was wild enough to be exhilarating without being (too) dangerous; life jackets were a definite requirement, although I’m happy to report that none were actually needed during the two or three hours were were out on the lake.

Pre-race we set out on the course, got ourselves sorted out, worked out who would be doing what (one of the challenges when a new crewing member — myself — is invited to join an experienced crew) and got used to the sea conditions. Bahala Na is a very old racing sloop, so she has a quaint rig wherein the boom clears the cockpit by less than a couple of feet — which placed the boom at head height for me. She also lacks preventer or boom brake, which meant that every time we tacked or jibed, the boom would cross over the cockpit at high speed and with skull-crushing force. I spent the entire race (especially on the downwind runs) keeping one wary eye on the varnished bludgeon of face-level death. On a jibe we would bend nearly double to get under it… while simultaneously hauling on (or letting out) various sheets or cranking winches as quickly as possible so as not to lose way.

All of this was challenging, athletic sailing. All of my sailing experience has been relatively leisurely — more cruising than racing. I’m used to cautious, carefully-planned manoeuvres with lots of sea room and time to think. Racing is not like that: bowling along at seven knots, five feet from a competitor’s windward rail, trying to pass a bobbing buoy as close as possible (without hitting it!) before coming around on the opposite tack while getting inside the other boat half a boat-length ahead of our bow (the bastard!), without fouling (or worse, hitting) your opponents… leisurely isn’t a word which applies. Exhilarating, yes, but definitely not leisurely!

Fortunately, we had an experienced skipper and a crew who knew what they were doing… and I didn’t get too badly in the way. It was an education to see the clear, concise orders that the skipper gave — and whenever possible he let the crew know what he planned to do ahead of time (if and when I ever have my own boat, I’m definitely going to follow his example.) He was also patient and kind to me, as the rookie crewman, and I did my best to do as I was told with a smile. I suspect I did that reasonably well, since when we returned to the club at sunset he told me that I was welcome to sail with them any time.

All in all, it was a fantastic evening: I had a hell of a lot of fun, made some new friends, and learned a great deal about sailing all in one go. I even remembered to put on sunscreen this time. My only regret about the whole experience is that I left my cellphone in the car. I really wish I’d gotten some photos or video of the race… but then again, maybe that’s not such a bad thing. Memories are always superior to photos.