There are people around so in need of a hand with their boats that they will invite a stranger for a glorious sunset sail, then wine (well, beer) him, cheese-and-cracker him and invite him back.
Such a pleasant circumstance did I find myself in last week at the Wednesday-night races of the Annapolis Yacht Club. My host was Bruce Johnson (not the one on the evening TV news), and if truth be told, as it must, I did have an intermediary in Joe Salsich.
Salsich is one of those characters you meet if you're lucky enough to be invited to an Annapolis cocktail party. He knows heaps about the local yacht-racing scene. As a naval architect he's thoroughly up-to-date on the latest Mylar sails, carbon-fiber spars and who's who at the favored end of the starting line.
Salsich said he might be able to get me aboard Johnson's Catalina 27 Pussycat, for the first day of the second half of the famous Wednesday-night series. True to his word, he called early in the week and said, "Come on."
Pussycat had done well in the first half of the racing season, though Johnson was troubled by the addition of sleek J-30 sloops to his class. The "Js" had a little too much natural speed, he said, and Salsich mentioned that their inclusion in the Catalina 27's class might have been a mistake by the race committee.
But even yacht racers learn to live with outrageous fortune. "We're really out for fun," said Johnson, "and to drink a little beer." He quickly added that beer didn't come until after a race, a longstanding rule aboard Pussycat.
That suited me, since it was already 6 p.m. and I hadn't had supper. Things are tipsy enough on a sailboat without a couple of beers on an empty stomach.
We had quite an evening in store, anyway. A cool front had passed and the Chesapeake Bay was being buffeted by brisk northwest winds. "Spinnaker start," said Johnson.
First we watched the bigger boats. Johnson picked out one skipper and watched his start tactics. When they worked out, he said, "We'll do the same. We'll pass the committee boat a minute before the gun, run the line on starboard tack and pop the chute (spinnaker) at the gun."
Even the best plans go awry. Somehow we were a half-minute late and pretty much stuck behind the committee boat when the gun sounded. But the chute came out perfectly, like a giant carnival balloon, and we were off.
Johnson got excited. "Good job," he said, making us feel great. "Good job!"
Salsich's wife Mary took the helm and we bounded along in the chop, chasing after some of our classmates and leaving others behind.
It was fine, shooting out into the Bay in a good wind with plenty of sail, until hell broke loose about halfway to the spot where we were to turn for home.
The wind was about 20 knots, marginally acceptable, but then a great puff came and the boat yawed off course. "Death roll," said Johnson.
The spinnaker bellied and stretched, the nose dived into a swell and suddenly Pussycat took a violent left turn. Mary Salsich fought the helm; she had the tiller hard over to bring the boat downwind, but nothing happened.
"Roundup," said Johnson with a trace of horror.
My little job tending the spinnaker guy, a controlling line, became a nightmare when it popped out of its cleat. That sent part of the rigging crashing into the forestay, which holds the mast up. Johnson grabbed the tiller and started barking orders.
"If at all possible," he said with marvelous self-control, "I'd rather not lose the rig."
It was brief but dreadful. In time, the boat came back on course with the rig intact and we set out again after our opponents, far ahead and no doubt laughing at our misfortune. But they didn't laugh long, because before it was over we'd passed a few of them.
The finish at the Annapolis Yacht Club is a treat as the racers pick their way through yachts moored in the city's anchorage, the setting sun burning fire-orange behind the State House. Crowds line the balcony of the clubhouse and each boat gets a little cheer when the race officials call its number.
Almost simultaneously you hear the "pop- fizzzzz" of beer cans opening below, the reward for taking the time to sail around at magnificent dusk on somebody else's yacht.