6-Jul 13-Jul 20-Jul 27-Jul 3-Aug 17-Aug 24-Aug TOTAL POSITION
  IHP VRX x3  WLW x3 ADA WLW x2 PBH  θπH    
Blue Bayou 1 1 1 2 1 1 1 6 1
Blue Jean 5 3 5 5 3 6 7 27 4
Ragwagon 6   2   4        
Scup       3   2 3    
Luciole 4 6 7 1 5 3 2 21 3
Jolami 3 5 4 6 6 4 5 27 4
Hecate 2 2 3 4 2 5 4 17 2
Rumblefish   4 6   7 8   25  


At the Top of Our Game

July 6, 2014

By David Epstein

They are called harbors because they are places of refuge. The etymology indicates here plus beorg, for “troop” plus “shelter,” thus, an enclave, which is a safe place surrounded by hostile territory. The harbor in this case being our own dear Great Harbor, Woods Hole, and the surrounding hostility being the rest of the race course. There are clichés of sailing, and they are all soft light and varnished wood, Pa-pa’s steady hand on the helm, while we urchins cavort on the teak planks in our sailor-suits, and the hemp lines creak sweetly as our white bows gently plash the wavelets. Not this time. The harbor was windy enough, thank you, and Knockabout crews had only small inkling of that which peopled the Vineyard Sound: steeps and deeps, gusts and green water over the combing. Still, charming in our ignorance, we pooh-poohed the stern countenance of the Race Committee, set a long course, and paddled off to rig.

Marks I, H, P, all left to port. The crew chortled in manic glee: “Pancake course,” and made puns on the I-HOP theme all through the day. Mark I is the far southwest shore of Lackeys Bay, which is obtained by close-tacking the shore of Nonamesset against the foul current. That gear-testing, shroud-straining slam-fest lasts about three days. Thence a twenty-second run in fair tide back to mark H under the bluff by the Nonamesset house just north of Lackeys Bay. A chance to let the waterfall between your eyebrows slow to an autumnal trickle while the crew pumps the bilge. Comes next another beat, this one shorter, to mark P, the near end of Lackeys Bay. And, finally, a geographically long, chronologically brief run in fair current wee-wee-wee all the way back to finish in Great Harbor.

The wind camouflaged itself as congenial before the start. That is, six boats careered all ‘round the harbor, smiling as they flashed past one another at warp speed. On the far side of Nonamesset (our beneficial buttress against the True Breeze), truth would out. So crews waved merrily at one another, the previous few races having been cancelled while Uncle Arthur toddled past Cape Cod. And then the gun, and Bang! they were off. Jolami was first out of the box, taking off as she rounded Can Nine and headed across the flooding Woods Hole Passage. Hecate flew hard on Jolami’s transom, with Blue Jean just to lee. Behind was Blue Bayou, high and inside, while Luciole and Ragwagon tried to break through leeward and to the rear.

In the Hole, the current plumes make for deceptive perceptions, as one moment a boat looks to be sailing in pudding, and the next moment takes on the velocity of an ice-boat. Jolami footed off through the slop and lengthened her lead. Blue Bayou took short port tacks up in the eddies, which would help her, while the fleet plunged past the east end of Nonamesset. Remember that east tide? Here is where it came into play. On a west current (see last week’s account), the game is to be first into the fair tide. On the east current, the opposite: be last into it. The strategy is as old as the hills: stay high, take tacks in at certain places so often sailed we’ve worn tracks in the water.

Blue Bayou took every tack up toward the island, while the rest of the fleet seemed to ignore the necessity. And why? It’s not as though we haven’t learned these lessons off before. Every skipper out there has sailed this very challenge time and time again. The short answer is that we’re not very smart. The excuse-filled rebuttal is that the fleet was rounding the end of the island and entering the unsheltered seas. And that’s what preoccupied those otherwise sage skippers. Sheeting out, sheeting in, messing with the traveler, ignoring the crew’s shrieks of dismay as the bow plunged off the top of the latest wave. And the noise: from above the roaring in the piano-wire-tight rigging; the wind pennant pleading for its life. From below, every last pig of lead bouncing like ball bearings in the bilge, and the stray things like spinnakers and their poles, whisker poles, life jackets, dropped screws and nuts, bronze washers not seen since ‘sixty-seven, detritus and orts, someone’s “lucky” coin, all cavorting like toddlers on an inflatable. Yes, it’s possible that there were distractions.

We come now to the range marks. This line of three red floats marks an artificial shore that boats must obey. It is perhaps two hundred yards in length and functions to keep boats from tacking up the real, more boulder-appointed shore. It forces boats to sail off into the foul current, the compensation being a starboard tack that gives one invulnerability like a shield. The port tacks are exposed, without right-of-way, with the compensation that one is sailing directly up-current, achieving real course-made-good. Give it away on starboard, get it back on port. Carefully planned, the range marks can be passed in four tacks. One shortie out, one up, another shortie out, and the fourth tack, clearing. Otherwise, too long out in the first tack, which is O-so-tempting, to think that one can sail off long enough to clear the third range mark on one tack. Reality-check: if a boat sails out on starboard in foul current far enough to fetch the last range mark, the fleet will scoot by on the inside in those four short tacks. Jolami tried it anyhow. And Blue Bayou said “thank-you!” and took over the lead. Jolami said “oops,” and came back in just ahead of the flying Hecate.

Boats four-through-six in this still-tight race jockeyed off the range marks, trading tacks. Luciole was just ahead of Blue Jean, and then, she wasn’t. And then Blue Jean was just ahead of Luciole. And then, she wasn’t. Ragwagon surged gamely behind them, having a superb view of the contest. It became apparent, while the boats sailed from the range marks up to the house-on-the-bluff, that this was more than just a race. The breeze was strong. The crews struggled to get the jibs in. Water was coming over the bow in regular draughts. Skippers kept the mainsheets cleated only when necessity of flexing the fingers required it. And then it was back to burning the palm on the big puffs. Paths through the water were hardly sailed straight. It was lull and gust the whole way, heading up and bearing off, sheeting in and sheeting out. This was like a step-class for the arms. Simon Says, only Simon was the breeze. Simon Says hike her flat. Simon Says sheet in. Sheet out!

And all the while, Blue Bayou climbed to weather in clear air. While she was still within sight of the fleet, she was trimmed and flat in the water, seemingly impervious to the gusts. In second place, Jolami footed off along the north corner of Lackeys Bay. The water was flat behind the headland, and she thought she might be gaining on the leader. And all at once, disaster: a rock popped her rudder off its pintles. She luffed and yawed, while the skipper exerted himself to reattach the steering gear. Further up the bay, the boats behind saw the mishap and all three changed lanes. We’ll go up the deeper parts, now that you’ve marked the shallows.

So Hecate slipped ahead of Jolami. And Blue Bayou sailed on, lengthening her lead, clarion guide for the merely mortal rest of the fleet, a pure white innocence blessed and anointed, the Favorite One of Aeolus. And when you are the Favored One, all puffs are lifting puffs, all waves flatten before you, all currents are fair currents, all tacks are starboard. She was so far ahead that Hecate, in second place, was only dimly aware of the prior transiting of the course by some preternatural craft.

The reachy run was a constant battle to keep the stern facing upwind. The gusts grabbed the disproportionate Knockabout main and tried to turn her. Crews wrestled the jibs to keep them full on the weather side, wing and wing. And all remaining hands bailed. Coming in to the jibe mark was no small adventure. The jibe tried to put the boat on its side, and hardening up only put the shroud-bases in the water. Survive that, and there only seconds ahead, was the boulderous shore. Hard-a lee! Now the waves are on the nose. It was a moment between resignation and terror. the rigging howled like banshees, the waves climbed in over the bow. The boat tried sailing with its mast horizontal. And the same thought in every crewmember’s mind: “Oh, this again.” And you keep going, because behind you is a sailor whose competence brings to mind Mencken’s phrase on the matter: “People who are competent are worth the oil it will take to fry them in Hell.” To let up for even a moment is to throw in the towel. Never mind that the towel is sodden, and the only dry spots are imaginary. The crisis is existential: give up now, and you might as well sell the boat.

So you sailor on, slamming through the seas, telling yourself it’s not so bad, that somewhere on this earth there’s a trawler crew that would give their eye teeth to be where you are and not where they are. Thankfully, mark P is only half a dozen rock-hopping tacks away, and then, bearing away, the apparent wind drops, and it’s like the sun coming out after a thunderstorm. The crew bails again, the jib is full and pulling and rattling the forestay, but there is a moment to look around. A water bottle rinses the several layers of congealed salt from the glasses, and the world, while not quite rose-colored, is at least not quite so veiled. And the competition? Boats ahead are far, far ahead. Boats behind are far enough behind that the big decision—whether or not to fly the spinnaker—is at least tabled. And as the minutes wear on, no one else puts up a spinnaker, so, by unspoken agreement, there is detente behind the Dacron curtain. And with the fair current, it was a quick trip home: home to the mooring, to comparative peace, to the pleasures of the harbor.


  1. Blue Bayou (Tom Chase) 0:00
  2. Hecate (Rick Whidden) 2:03
  3. Jolami (Andy Ellis) 4:33
  4. Luciole (David Epstein) 5:00
  5. Blue Jean (Jobie Chase) 6:05
  6. Ragwagon (Peter Ochs) 6:38


Sunday Funnies

July 13, 2014

By David Epstein

The wind can make a laughing sound. You notice it most when your sails are luffing. Luffing at you. It’s making fun of your efforts to keep a sailboat heading in one direction. Remember being a kid, and Uncle Morty holds his hand out for you to slap? And when you do, he pulls his hand away, or moves it left, or moves it right? It starts out as a game, and you’re giggling and laughing. Then it becomes a challenge, and you start really trying, and your face changes, and so does Morty’s face. And then it moves past being a challenge and straight into nuclear war jeopardy. You almost catch his pinky, and his face is getting more red, and you’re about to kick him in the shins, just to distract him a little. Aunt Malevella is already out in the car, and your parents are sacked out on the couch, and you and Morty are playing Slap for the future of the free world. That’s what it’s like in puffy winds with a sailboat. Head up and the wind falls off. Bear away, and she lifts. Sheet out and the wind drops. Sheet in and you get slammed with a gust. Instead of sailing a nice smooth track through the water, your path is a series of esses, punctuated by places where the wind stood the boat on its rail, and whirlpools where you had to pull so hard on the tiller that the rudder made swirling maelstroms that would have made Odysseus soil himself.

Last year I got demoted from crew to skipper. It is difficult, therefore, to be able to report on the contests en l’eau, because I’m supposed to be watching the telltales. And the more I concentrate, the less I see of the race. And when I’m really concentrating, I should be sailing well, and, therefore, winning. Right? And when I finish poorly, that’s a sign that I was gathering in race details like a squirrel gathers acorns. Right. On Sunday, July 13th, the Knockabouts sailed three races stern to stern to stern between Hadley Rock and Hadley Harbor entrance. Seven boats came out in the twenty-something knot air. We decided that Vineyard Sound was too crowded (with short, steep waves), and so we’d race in the flat waters of Woods Hole Passage West. The waters were flat, and the current was ripping to the west. The winds were sometimes lighter, but only when you were looking. Relax your concentration for a nanosecond and bing! you were flipping the mainsheet free, sitting comfortably on the outside of the hull, screaming for your mommy.

The first race was V,R,X. From a start by R (Hadley Rock), there was a beat to the entrance of Hadley Harbor, a run back to the start, and another beat, this one to X, which is a short distance east of V. Thence a run to finish in the strong tide by Hadley Rock. It was an interesting start, with the whole fleet riding the current down on port tack. Luciole tried to starboard tack the fleet, but didn’t account for the rapid motion of the waters, and so managed to have exceptionally clear air at the far end of the starting line. Hecate and Blue Bayou took a quick lead, and then there was a gap, and Blue Jean and Jolami came along. There was marvelous tacking as boats tested the course for the best of the favorable current, and looked for the best lifts going toward shore. Rumblefish, Scup, and Luciole sailed sweep-up. Luciole thought she was besting R-fish, but the R-fish kept coming on. On the second beat, the leaders continued leading, which is what they do. The followers kept following with two significant variations. First, too-lightly-crewed Scup handed over the tiller to the Junior helmswoman and headed for home. Second, Luciole got far ahead of Rumblefish on the way to mark V. Which was beautiful, save for the course being to mark X.

Race 1 Results:

  1. Hecate (Rick Whidden) 0:00
  2. Blue Bayou (Tom Chase) 0:09
  3. Blue Jean (Jobie Chase) 1:13
  4. Jolami (Andy Ellis) 1:57
  5. Rumblefish (Greg Polanik) 2:16
  6. Luciole (David Epstein) 3:14
  7. Scup (Chris Warner) DNF

In the second race, the course was simplified, for the sake of Luciole’s skipper. It was reduced from three letters to two: X,R,X. At the start, Luciole tried her starboard tack again, which, done right, managed to send those port tackers scurrying around both fore and aft. Except for one boat, which had no options in the tight pack by the buoy, and so Luciole had to tack to avoid physicalities with Jolami. The J-boat turned her penalty and raced on up the course. She looked good for a while, but took a flier away from the fleet (heading for V, my good man?). Again the leaders led, and the followers followed, but this time Rumblefish didn’t have quite so many of Luciole’s egregious errors to cash in on.

A third race of the slamfest was completed, giving Blue Bayou a chance to consolidate her position at the top. Luciole had another fine start, with only her foremost bow portion extending across the starting line early, and thus had to return in the foul current to restart. In each race, the fleet stayed quite close, and there were plenty of contested tacks. Despite the heavy, puffy conditions, it was a Grand Day Out.

Race 2 results:

  1. Blue Bayou (Tom Chase) 0:00
  2. Hecate (Rick Whidden) 0:31
  3. Blue Jean (Jobie Chase) 0:40
  4. Luciole (David Epstein) 0:49
  5. Rumblefish (Greg Polanik) 0:54
  6. Jolami (Andy Ellis) 4:45

Race 3 Results:

  1. Blue Bayou (Tom Chase) 0:00
  2. Blue Jean (Jobie Chase) 0:37
  3. Hecate (Rick Whidden) 0:39
  4. Rumblefish (Greg Polanik) 1:48
  5. Jolami (Andy Ellis) 2:07
  6. Luciole (David Epstein) 2:27


Weather or Not

July 20, 2014

By David Epstein

After last Wednesday’s weather wimp-out (it was waining), the Knockabout fleet would have sailed in almost anything. It wasn’t a gale on Sunday, but it was blowing over two knots, and the race chair decided on calm waters. Three races were sailed in Great Harbor. On one hand, the water was calm. The winds, however, were puffy, mercurial, moody, and sometimes schizoid. When a light north and east breeze comes in over land, there are wind shifts aplenty, and lulls and something less: lullier? It might have been like lake sailing, except the current was running to the east, flowing out of Great Harbor. Seven boats came out for the contests.

All three races were on the same course. It was windward-leeward, twice around. The start was in the middle of the course, with a weather mark placed off the town dock, and a leeward mark down by Devils Foot island. This is where Mirror Dinghies shine. Too bad we were in Cape Cod Knockabouts. A port tack start was favored in the first race, and the boats went flying up the course to weather. Then the weather asserted. In the lee of the Fisheries complex, the wind variously sheered, headed, dropped utterly, and sometimes sought out single boats on which to blow. So it was well that three races were sailed, so the idea of consistency might appear. As it was, the conditions were consistently changing, the sailors were consistently frustrated, and the afternoon was consistently lovely.

In the first race Blue Bayou set up a charcoal grill on the foredeck and sacrificed a crewmember to Aeolus. This gave her an advantage; a smoker to detect wind direction. There was a predictable pile-up at the first weather mark, and as the boats ghosted around it, the wind disappeared. On the run, one or another boat tried raising a spinnaker, but it was a lot of work for what was, in actuality, a short run. Imagine if Olympic divers had to dive and race up the ladders to the top of the three meter platform. That was the spinnaker setting on a short course: a flurry of activity, a brief transit, and the next flurry. The second race was sailed in equally fluky conditions. For the third race the wind came more from the ease, and it was reach-reach all the way ‘round.

Old Salt was crewing in the boat that had a perfect record: three lasts. This is because Old Salt had tendered the tiller to Old Saltina, in order that she might gain experience in this pastime. As such, not much of the actual race was observed. There was one superb start, one good weather leg, and then much driftery. At one point or another, most boats were in contention for the lead. But, as sail-racing is the maritime version of golf, most boats eventually surrendered the lead. The legs were short, and minor errors were magnified. Blue Bayou won the first race. Hecate won the second race, and Ragwagon won the third. So, there was no consistent winner. However, Blue Bayou managed a first and two seconds, while Ragwagon pulled off second, third, and first. Aside from those two, the only consistency was at the back of the pack.

When the wind huffs and puddles, the race course gets messy, and the truly good sailors emerge. Only that’s inaccurate. There were wonderful sailors on all the boats. And the changing airs made for an element that was the most consistent of all: injustice.


  1. Blue Bayou (Tom Chase) 1,2,2
  2. Ragwagon (Peter Ochs) 2,3,1
  3. Hecate (Rick Whidden) 5,1,3
  4. Jolami (Andy Ellis) 3,5,5
  5. Blue Jean (Jobie Chase) 4,4,6
  6. Rumblefish (Greg Polanik) 6,6,4
  7. Luciole (Sari Friedman) 7,7,7


How’s the Eclipse?

Sunday, August 3, 2014

By David Epstein

Those of you old enough to have read the complete works of Charles M. Shulz, recognize that headline. After weeks of build-up before a solar eclipse, the day of the event arrives. Linus stands out in a downpour. His needling sister Lucy arrives under her umbrella and charitably inquires after her brother’s enjoyment of the obscured event. Sunday last was day two of the weekend-long rains. There was enough of a lull in the showers for seven Knockabouts to rig up. There wasn’t enough wind to send them out contesting among the currents, so, in the mercurial winds, two races were sailed in the harbor. In fact, there was barely enough wind to leave the moorings. Boats ghosted along the starting lines, often preferring jibes to the stall-out of tacking in light air.

The first race went from being beats and runs to being agglomerations of reaches, due to a wind shift to the north just after the start. It was good fun pretending to be tiny dinghies in the harbor. It was less fun hoisting spinnakers for the run, only to find they were untenable on the close reaches of light air. In the first race, Blue Bayou caught a puff at the pin-end of the starting line and then rocketed, figuratively, into the lead. Luicole managed to round the weather mark second, but in the final beat, neglected to cover Hecate.

In the second race, the course was re-structured for the more northerly wind.   Just after the start, the wind died. No, that’s not quite correct. It suffered a slow death, with fickle and periodic agonal breaths distributed unequally about the race-course. On the first run, a hapless last-place Luciole hoisted her chute for pride, only to find there was no breeze whatsoever. The drift-fest featured several zephyrs privately seeking out individual boats, just to enforce the quality of injustice that peculiarly haunts these light air contests. And speaking of great moments in literature and film, can you place this quotation from the immortal Marty Feldman? “Could be worse: could be raining.”   And down it came. And really, it’s a sort of beauty. The rain settling across the top of the harbor, flattening the ripples. There is the hiss of the fresh water entering the salt. Moored craft swing accountable to the gentle harbor currents. And it is lovely: if you’re on the porch.

Jolami and Ragwagon ghosted around the final weather mark and followed the fleet toward the finish. Luciole bobbed in the rain off the Fisheries dock. The Race Committee came off station and collected the buoys, and then returned, waiting for Luciole to finish. The places below are the combination of boats’ finishes in both races.


  1. Blue Bayou (Tom Chase)
  2. Hecate (Davey Graham)
  3. Blue Jean (Jobie Chase)
  4. Ragwagon (Peter Ochs)
  5. Luciole (David Epstein)
  6. Jolami (Andy Ellis)
  7. Rumblefish (Greg Polanik)


Spin on a Win

Sunday July 27, 2014

By David Epstein

After a rain delay, the tarp was rolled off the Hole, and six boats went out in twelve-to-eighteen knots of southerly breeze. The current ran to the west all afternoon. The course was a familiar one, but with the wind direction a true south, instead of our usual summer southwest, this race was a twist on the old course. From a start and finish in Great harbor, the marks were A,D,A. No, despite what anyone thinks about the Woods Hole Yacht Club, this does not stand for “Americans with Disabilities Act.” Mark A is in Vineyard Sound, near the east end of Nonamesset Island. D is green buoy number five, across from Juniper Point. The first beat was complicated by a strong foul current that worked against the fleet tacking up out of the Hole. Convention says to pass inside Buoy Five—and our club rules agree with this so that we’ll stay out of the way of boat traffic—and then try to be the first boat to catch the Vineyard Sound Current down to mark A.

At the start all six boats had their noses on the line. Hecate was middle-high on the line, Luciole in the middle-low, and Blue Bayou down by the pin-end, ahead and leeward. Boats that were high on the line had more foul tide than those in the “current shadow” of Juniper Point. Hecate, Blue Bayou, and Luciole traded tacks and first place on the beat up under Juniper. Scup followed, not far behind, closing all the time. Jolami and Blue Jean took tacks across to clear their respective air, and suffered more in the foul tide.

Crossing the east end of Woods Hole Passage, Blue Bayou and Hecate pulled ahead of Luciole. And onward came the Fog. There were a number of close port-starboard encounters among the lead three boats. One of them was a little too close, and Hecate exonerated herself with a costly penalty turn. Blue Bayou kept working toward the Sound current, while Luciole tried to stay ahead of Scup. The port tacks in toward Nonamesset made for long periods wallowing in foul tide. The starboard tacks out felt slow, with the current on the nose, but were, evidently, an improvement over the port tacks. Scup kept on closing on Luciole, while Blue Bayou opened a small lead. When The Porgy really closed on the Firefly, the Firefly tacked in front of her, just as both were trying to make it past the last rocks in the first fair tide off Nonamesset. Neither made the rocks, but Scup had had to bear off under Luciole, so Luciole opened up a little more of a lead.

The first run was uneventful. On the return beat to A, Luciole caught up to Blue Bayou. Scup stayed close, but couldn’t narrow the gap. On the final run, there was a question: to hoist or not to hoist? Spinnakers, that is. Blue Bayou ran before the wind, which seemed to have lessened a little. Then a crew-member was observed putting the spinnaker pole on. Luciole, too, started rigging the spinnaker. She sent her chute up the mast, broke it out, and voila! A magnificent hourglass shape. Anyone who’s had this happen understands. The spinnaker is all the way up, and that hourglass shape is made by the tangled knot of nylon in the middle, and there is the perfect metaphor: time is running out while you have to deal with this mess. Strangulation. Tug the sheet, tug the guy, tug the sheet again. Consider the ignominy of dousing the whole thing. As it went, the sail uncurled, opened, and whump! She filled.

Over on Blue Bayou, they too attempted to hoist the spinnaker. All three cell phones on board beeped at the same time. Cheery emoticon: “You’ve got mail!” Alas, the message read: “Due to Technical Difficulties, your spinnaker can not be hoisted right now. Please try again later.” The halyard had run up the mast like a squirrel—without the sail—and sat in the sheave, mocking the sailors. Blue Bayou could only watch as Luciole moved past, and stole her victory. Scup arrived shortly after Blue Bayou, and Hecate and Blue Jean came charging in together for a very close finish.


  1. Luciole (David Epstein) 0:00
  2. Blue Bayou (Tom Chase) 0:24
  3. Scup (Chris Warner) 0:45
  4. Hecate (Rick Whidden) 1:20
  5. Blue Jean (Jobie Chase) 1:28
  6. Jolami (Andy Ellis) 5:28


High Tide and Consequences

August 17, 2014

By David Epstein

The Wednesday Knockabout series continues to suffer under the Curse of the Wednesday Thunderstorms. The Sunday series continued, after a break for last weekend’s Knockabout World Regatta in West Yarmouth. It was a classic summer day, and seven boats came out for the contest. The wind blew nicely from the southwest, around ten to fifteen knots, with occasional higher gusts. The current was flowing strongly to the east in both Woods Hole passage and Vineyard Sound. After a discussion of the possibility of finishing on a beat, the fleet, tickled with themselves for even considering departure from the Code of the Southwest Course, relented: P, B, H. From a start in Great Harbor, the first mark was in Lackeys Bay, necessitating a beat against the current. This beat lasts approximately twenty minutes. Next, mark B, is the third “range mark,” our artificial shore on the southeast corner of Nonamesset Island. This meant a run from Lackeys Bay, with the current, from mark P to mark B. With the current, this leg lasts approximately twenty seconds. Mark H, which is halfway between marks P and B, is a beat against the current, which takes, thus, an hour. Okay, not really: more like four minutes. And then the last leg is a run back to Great Harbor, which takes about twelve minutes. So, add that all up and you get…hmm, let’s see, that’s seven, and nine, carry the two, divide by sixty: well, you add it up, and that’s what you get. Then subtract twenty-three seconds, and that’s how fast Blue Bayou sailed the course.

How many times must one make the same mistake? When Luciole heard a whistle, they started their stopwatch. Five minutes to the start, right? Never mind that the skipper has been sailing Knockabouts for forty years. And never mind that he witnessed the Race Committee trotting along the dock with a fresh box of shotgun shells. And forget about the fact that a whistle has always meant either four minutes or one minute, and that it’s easy, quite easy on a windy day, not to hear a gun. Said skipper was convinced that the gun must be broken, and the whistle meant five minutes to the start, and nothing else was possible. Now look into the DSM-IV, and you find out that mistaking a whistle for a gun is a definitive sign of Alzheimers Disease, Senility, and PBB (Pathetic Beyond Belief) and AK (Alta Kackahood).   Instead of a medic-alert bracelet, if Old Salt would just start wearing the Racing Instructions around his neck, these things might stop happening.

The fleet strung out nicely on the top half of the starting line, with six boats on starboard tack, and one ,Luciole, on a port tack reach, trying to get back to the correct side of the starting line. Blue Bayou and Scup were high, followed closely by Hecate. Rumblefish was a little down the line, and I don’t remember the rest. too busy tacking and sheeting in, taking stock of all the transoms ahead. Now it’s time for the same geography lesson that boats learn over and over again all summer. Boats have to obey a rule that keeps us between green buoy five and Nonamesset Island. Draw a triangle, with # 5 on the left, the green can on the east end of Broadway below and to the right, and mark A, the first range mark, on the right up high. From Broadway to A is almost all “uphill,” against the Vineyard Sound current that spills toward the Hole along the east end of Nonamesset.   Boats that tack up toward that island suffer doubly: first, there’s the foul tide on the nose on Port tack, and then the other foul current on the nose on starboard, compounded by the likelihood of lighter air under the island. Boats that the take the starboard tack out further past # 5 get a speed boost on the transom (and a little set from the Sound current), but spend less time with foul current on the nose, and certainly have better and clearer air.

Blue Bayou went out past # 5, pursued by Scup, and at a distance, by Luciole. Everyone else went on that fateful port tack back toward Nonamesset. When the boats met up again, Blue Bayou was still ahead, Scup was hot on BB’s transom, and Jolami was closing on Scup. Blue Jay and Hecate were well ahead of Luciole, but somehow, with the tacking along the shore coming up, it still seemed like anyone’s race. Coming around the corner of Nonamesset, the wind was stronger. Rumblefish decided that it would be better to see the finish from the club porch, and turned for home.

Here’s the game when the current is running foul: stay close to shore. Traditionally, boats have what one might call a conflict of interest. Boats need to float, and the shore is very rocky along there. On the tack in close to shore, there’s less current, but more boulders. On the safer tack away from shore, in the southwest, one has rights, but the boat is sideways to the current. Imagine climbing a ladder by skipping a rung with the left foot, then lowering down to the skipped rung with the right foot. And there are several other people on the ladder at the same time, and if someone’s right foot is in your way, you can’t stand there.

Everyone took the long port tack into the beach before mark A. Then, on the way out to the artificial shore—the “range marks”—two boats didn’t notice mark A. After it was pointed out to them, Blue J and Hecate came back to obey the mark. Luciole slipped ahead of them and started dueling with Jolami. Speeds were about even, but Jolami was pointing better than the Firefly. Luciole momentarily got ahead of Jolami, but on the next tack, Jolami sailed past to lee. Up ahead, Blue Bayou and Scup were galloping along, lengthening their lead on the rest of the fleet. Tacking around the headland by the house on the bluff, Blue J closed on Luciole.

The short run from P down to B was nearly uneventful. Blue J hoisted her spinnaker, but the run wasn’t long enough for her to catch up much. On the short beat back to H, the order remained the same, except somewhere, Hecate closed on or passed Blue J.   After rounding H, Blue Bayou maintained her lead, but with very few boat-lengths between her and the relentlessly pursuing Scup. And remember, the breath of the second-place hound is hottest on the neck of the first-place rabbit. Neither boat flew a spinnaker. It was windy, and that run back from Nonamesset on a southwest wind can often be a beam reach. Jolami was in third place, but then Luciole put up her chute, and Jolami could only watch while Luciole passed her. Yes, it’s possible to defend one’s position without a spinnaker, but around boulders, it can be scary. Still, Luciole was glad not to have faced such a challenge from the competently managed Jolami.

Blue J also hoisted her spinnaker on the run, and flew it nigh unto the finish line, but Hecate was not to be overtaken by her. Looking at the Sunday fleet, one is impressed by the sheer excellence of the people sailing the boats. The wind was strong and the sailing was superb. It was difficult to better one’s position. Boats well sailed are hard to catch. Boats ahead with clear air, even harder. We’re nearing the end of the summer series. This race has been less well attended than Wednesdays, but has grown steadily. And the attraction has been the keen competition. The Sunday “Spinnaker” series (as opposed to the Wednesday “chicken fleet”) does not always require the use of the chutes. And skippers are judicious in their decisions, especially in this heavy-air summer. But one makes the best decisions one can make at the time and lives with the Results:

  1. Blue Bayou (Tom Chase) 0:00
  2. Scup (Chris Warner) 0:23
  3. Luciole (David Epstein) 1:22
  4. Jolami (Andy Ellis) 1:54
  5. Hecate (Rick Whidden) 2:31
  6. Blue J (Jobie Chase)               2:56
  7. Rumblefish (Greg Polanik) DNF


Chutes and Ladders

Sunday, August 24, 2014

by David Epstein

As the season was winding up, there was a Sunday race that was memorable. The wind was northeast in Great Harbor. The Fleet captain and others reported more easterly out in Vineyard Sound. The breeze was variable, five to ten knots. The current was not variable: it was ebbing hard to the west. After considerable debate, the course was decided upon. Since the wind was northerly in the harbor, there was a weather mark placed just off the yacht club dock. The next mark was to leave the starting pin to port, like Charlie Chaplin rounding a lamppost, then a long reachy-run to mark H, on the south side of Nonamesset Island. The final leg would be a long beat back to finish in Great Harbor.

On Sundays we use spinnakers on the downwind legs. Or, at least we have the option to use them. In days of yore, the Sunday race was the big event, the one sailed by “real” sailors whose commitment and skills were evinced by the use of the chutes.   Then, for many years, the downwind skills atrophied. The Wednesday evening “Chicken-fleet” membership soared. On Wednesdays the races were “no spinnakers,” and were, especially during the Bush Presidencies, “kinder and gentler.” While Wednesday races were—and are—more well attended, Sundays are again well attended. But for a few years, flying the spinnaker was becoming a lost art. It was up there with astrology, Voodoo, and card tricks. Only oddball cretins had the knowledge. And there is a lot to know. It’s not just a hoist and drop affair. It’s knowing how to reach with the spinnaker, how to recover from tangles, sudden drops into water, and what to do when a sheet goes under the boat. Spinnaker skills, like everything else in sailboat racing, is only acquired by rite of passage. You have to have seen your spinnaker fully inflated behind the boat under the surface of the water at least once before you can be regarded as truly skilled. And once a year the wingnuts all gather for a regatta to show off these skills. It’s all the same people who show up those medieval dress-up gatherings; there’s a high nerd-quotient.

Five boats came out for the race. Blue Bayou led around the first weather mark, followed closely by Hecate, Luciole, Scup, and Jolami. In other words, the first leg was so short that the weather mark was just a harmonic convergence before the comets flung themselves off toward the Oort cloud. Blue Bayou led going to leeward, with Luciole just behind her. Then Luciole put up her spinnaker and reached along between the turning mark and can nine, on the way out of Great Harbor. This more or less forced Blue Bayou to rummage under the bonnet for her spinnaker and gear. Out came a barrel of nails, some Waska clears, a half-bundle of GAF architectural 30-years, three roof brackets, and ah: there she is: the chute. Just to make it more interesting still, Hecate also hoisted, although she was a little further back. The wind wasn’t steady. It blew in little teasing puffs. And, as the boats crossed Woods Hole Passage and ran along the eastern shore of Nonamesset, the wind direction kept veering from the northeast to east. This meant that a reach never quite became a run, and it was a struggle to keep the spinnakers pulling.

Approaching the leeward mark, the under-crewed Blue Bayou dropped her chute first, and Luciole managed to squeak ahead. For all that spinnakering, Scup hadn’t lost much in the fluky air, and was very close by in third place, ahead of Hecate and Jolami. Long downwind legs tend to keep the fleet bunched up, as the stragglers get the clear air first. The beat back along the shore of Nonamesset proved to be one of the best in recent memory. Four boats rounded the mark within seconds of each other. Luciole was ahead of Blue Bayou, but only barely. Scup and Hecate were in close pursuit. The tacking game was to go as close in to the rocky shore as a skipper dared, while the crew scanned the shallows for weed-clad boulders and offered prayers up for safe deliverance. Who would blink first? It took boards of steel to joust in those waters. Luciole and Blue Bayou ticked and tacked, with the Firefly keeping just ahead. Then came the range marks. The artificial shore might spare boats the specter of physical damage, but every tack out into foul tide stole a little more of each sailor’s soul. And each boat’s margin.

Tight tacking duels are what racers live for. Each tack has a “run for your life” feeling. Remember being six years old and turning off the light in the cellar and trying to close the door on the darkness while running away? That’s the tension in the tacking duel. Every tack has a live-or-die sense to it. Bang the jib over, but not too tightly, let the sails fill, get the boat moving; a mistake costs a boat-length. And every crossing with another boat is a measuring: Have we caught up? Have we lost a little? And while you’re trying to catch up to a boat ahead, someone else is trying to catch up to you! There is a freneticism to a tacking contest that is both excruciating and exhilarating. Four boats flipped and flopped close together: Luciole, Blue Bayou, Scup, and Hecate. Jolami, slightly farther back, had a good view, but wasn’t quite close enough to play in this one.

Luciole tacked out away from the range marks. Blue Bayou tacked in, and pinched up to get around the final mark. The two boats sailed close hauled, side by side. Luciole was to weather, Blue Bayou on the inside. And there are rocks that lurk off the east end of Nonamesset. Crews scanned ahead, looking for the telltale brown tinge under the blue surface of the water. Blue Bayou was inching ahead, but closer to the rocks. Both boats made it through to deeper waters and started across Woods Hole Passage. Then, just off Broadway, the wind, which had been more steady from the east, suddenly went completely west. Blue Bayou bore off, desperate to keep her sails filled.

Luciole bore away as well, scarcely able to believe her luck. Aeolus had served her up a miracle. Blue Bayou tacked, and Luciole was there, just about to tack in front of her. But the moment went on too long, and Luciole did too, and by the time the Firefly tacked, BB had snuck by her again. The wind backed to the east as suddenly as it has gone west, and the forty-second shift was over. Luciole followed Blue Bayou home.


  1. Blue Bayou (Tom Chase) 0:00
  2. Luciole (Olwen Huxley) 0:14
  3. Scup (Chris Warner) 0:49
  4. Hecate (Rick Whidden) 1:14
  5. Jolami (Andy Ellis) 6:14