Annapolis. First day of the last regatta of the season.
November whitecaps sweep the fleet of 29 yachts toward the center of the bay. They are Soling-class racers, 27-foot-long keelboats for the yachting olympics. From Zenda, Wis., and Milwaukee and chilly Ontario they have come, and from Boston and New Rochelle and Solomon's Island, hauled on trailers through the long night. Now the bleary three-man crews, middle-class warriors windborne at last, struggle into their hiking harnesses. Ahead, a committee boat sets orange marks in a triangle two miles long. It is cold in the thin morning light. Spray, wind. A line of plunging, converging names: "Crusader," "Light Brigade," "Excalibur," "Shen," "First Wave." Splashing, jockeying, bullying toward the starting line. Cannon fire!
The yachts start neck and neck, crews hiking and shouting for room. Only a few boats get away clean, and soon the rest must tack to avoid the turbulence of the leaders. Ready about, and hard a'lee. Close crossings honor the cardinal rule: port tack gives way to starboard. We're starboard tack, give way! give way! Zigging and zagging. "Compass call!" the helmsman shouts. The tactician: "Three -- four -- Oh!" The foredeck man is hiking hard,And the wave tops strike him low.
At the windward mark spinnakers hoist and fill, or hoist and flap thunderously as the yachts peel off onto the second leg of the course, barely under control. Some heel and broach, bucking their white-knuckled crews. Gusts knock them down like tenpins, but the best struggle up again. "Ease the vang!" the helmsman cries. "Too late! We've lost control!" The yacht rounds up, the sails explode, And foredeck dunks in the roll.
At the jibing mark, one man climbs the lurching foredeck on each yacht to wrestle the spinnaker pole from one side of the mast to the other. Feet shackled together by hiking gear, they do a mincing dance under the truculent sail. One of the yachts, her boom broken, abandons the course. Limping toward shore
Flying with the whitecaps now, a dentist, a naval architect, a retired lobbyist, a college administrator, and a professional sailmaker battle closely. At war with $15,000 toys. These are prideful men (no longer young) who would be otherwise raking leaves but today find their knuckles skinned and their molars grinding flat. The last regatta of the season. Serious business, with an accounting beyond the scores. Gosh, we had him beat and then we blew it. Ten years ago that woulda never happened. At the bottom of the triangle the spinnakers are hauled down, flapping. The boats turn upwind again. One hits the mark, dragging another with it. During their entanglement, four other boats slip by, gear clanging. Zigging and zagging, panting and cursing. Yeah, we were going great until the halyard stuck until Jimmie's harness broke until the boom cracked until the jib sheet split until until until. Yeah we were going great, until.
Saltwater in the eyes, tacking on wind shifts. The foredeck man calls the compass headings, waiting for the change that marks the shift. "Steady on 340, 340, 340, 340, still steady on 340 WE'RE DOWN FIVE DEGREES TO 345! Ready about, hard a'lee.
The yachts snap from tack to tack, crossing closely, working the five-degree shifts. Crews hang in their harnesses, bound by the feet, bound by the chest, shackled to the cockpit floor. At each tack they spring up, hurl themselves across the cockpit, lurch out over the other side. Fingers numb and legs cramp. Then ready about, let's do it again. Boy I wish I had a cigarette. "Tack her now!" the tactician yells. "Not yet!" comes the helmsman's shout. They argue while the foredeck man Waits to hear "ready about".
Approaching the top of the triangle for the second time, the yachts fall unwillingly into line. The margin of the leading boats has grown greater. Through some magic of tactics or exquisite strategem they have got ahead. Now their sails send back eddies in the airflow, disrupting the wind for those behind. The followers try to climb higher to windward, into clear air. But the leaders climb too, cruelly exploiting their advantage. The rich get richer.
Spinnakers again. An ecstasy of fumbling. Like parachutes, they stream for a second, then open suddenly. The leader's fills with a bang as he turns back directly into the teeth of the fleet. The leader is on the starboard tack, and the fleet is all on port. The leader descends on them like a runaway locomotive, bow wave roaring in a 20-knot gust. Crew grinning and howling for right of way. Starboard! Staaaaarboooooard taaaack!
US 663 is directly in his way. Gonna be a close one, but these are all good sailors and if they weren't they wouldn't be out here, far from their offices in Ontario and Milwaukee, pounding their brains out over a glassware trophy. Besides, the helmsman of US 663 is a former Air Force fighter pilot. Impeccable physical reflexes. Staaaarbooooard there, Six Sixty-Three! "Do you see him?" "I see him!" "Do you see him?" "I see him, I see him!"
The 20-knot gust strikes US 663 like a punch in the face. To the leader, roaring downwind, it is a new surge of power, but it knocks US 663 flat on her side. She broaches; veers suddenly head to wind; and in a ghastly happenstance collides at full speed with the spinnaker-borne leader. KABOOM!
Her bow pierces the leader's sail and slices it neatly in two. Holy cow didja see that? Silence. Whitecaps. Wind. New waves of chargers charging.
Live in fame or go down in flames, Tommy baby. "Confusion is nice," the tactician says. "We'll profit," speaks the skipper. But foredeck keeps mouth closed tight, as if it had a zipper.
(He is thinking that although the sport rewards the ability to capitalize on the mistakes of others, they are now in 14th place. And when you're 14th out of 29 on the last leg of the course, you haven't got a chicken's chance of catching up no matter what the exemplary helmsman or the intrepid tactician say about it. But then a foredeck man's job is to set the pole and hoist the chute and do his dance on the foredeck, and in between those tasks his job is to hang over the side by his heels like a lobotomized opossum and absorb the first force of the waves so the tactician, who has to think, and the helmsman, who has to steer, don't get too wet. And melt.) They round, sloppily. The spinnaker goes up, but not all the way. Elbow in the face. "Get the damned thing all the way up." "I might be able to if you hadn't trimmed it too early." "Shut up and trim the twings, we're jibing onto port." "Shut up yourself and look where you're going." Teamwork, lads. Staaarboard! Staaaaarboooard tack! "Look out, look out!" the helmsman spouts. "You've done it now!" the tactician shouts. But foredeck leaps to his station fast, And jibes her back, and saves their posteriors. For posterity.
The panic jibe (port tack gives way!) drops them to 15th place. But running before the wind, it is warmer, as always. Far ahead is the finish line. The leaders are almost there. In a new puff the big dinghy shoots forward, planing down a wave like a motorboat. Shouting, hollering, rushing through the spray. They have done something right. They have caught a wave. Surfing.
Ahead, a puff of cannon smoke. The winning yacht's salute.
They gain a boat. Surfing.
They gain a second boat. (The winner has his sail down already.) Surfing. Cheering.
They cross the line 13th out of 29. It could be worse. They look back over their shoulders at the line of boats still behind. They they pull the spinnaker down, slowly, because they are tired. And wet. And cold. And defeated. The helmsman says, "It was all my fault." actician: "It was I, not you." The foredeck man says nothing at all. (He's cold; he's wet; he's bruised and beat; He unties the shackles that bind his feet; He lights a butt and flicks the match, and pulls the brandy out of the hatch.) Then he wipes his nose and finds something to do.
Because that's what you want in a foredeck crew.
The fleet reforms. From Zenda, and Ontario, and New Rochelle, and Milwaukee and Westport. One of them has won and one of them has come in 13th and one of them 29th. One of them will turn out to be the best in the last regatta of the season, but none of them knows which one just yet.
That will take six more races, and two more days. It is not like the office. Here on the bay they keep score with a pencil, and if you do not win it is always your own fault.
There will not be any spectators. But the wind is rising.