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Reflections on a life afloat: Some impressive light-air driving

by David Schmidt 8 Apr 08:00 PDT April 8, 2020
Racecourse action during the Marblehead to Halifax Ocean Race © Images courtesy of Craig Davis

This past weekend, my wife and I escaped our domicile with our dog for a still-sanctioned walk amid the rapidly-unfurling novel coronavirus pandemic. While the sun was shining (rare in Washington State), the afternoon temps were warm (ditto first parenthetical comment), and the spring flowers were blooming, my attention kept getting drawn to the light zephyrs that were playing out on Puget Sound. And this, of course, made me think back on some of the most impressive light-air driving that I've ever seen from a Corinthian-level big-boat sailor.

The 2005 Marblehead to Halifax Ocean Race started as a relatively light, off-the-breeze ride that saw Southern Cross, my dad's J/44, flying a gennaker off of her spinnaker pole. We soon traded the kite for our J1, occasionally jumping to the J2 or J3 as we sailed through small squalls pregnant with pockets of breeze over the next several days. While I have great memories of some night-fight driving sessions, locking onto stars for guidance, the most impressive bits of sailing unfurled during our race's final miles.

Brothers "Peter" and "Dan" (the names of the guilty have been changed to feign their innocence) were seasoned offshore sailors who were quick with much-appreciated salty humor and with impressive sailing skills earned through many Bermuda Races aboard various monohulls. And while both sailors fell in nicely with the rest of our crew, it was obvious that they were a team-within-a-team that could be counted on to perform when things got serious.

And serious it became as we were sailing uphill in light airs during the final afternoon-to-evening off of the Chebucto Peninsula. We could see a mast ahead, but it was unclear if the boat was bigger than our 44 feet of waterline or if it was a smaller ride that had somehow gotten ahead of us during the preceding several hundred miles of racing. Regardless, our crew, led by Peter and Dan, engaged and gave chase.

Trouble is, J/44s are sticky in the light stuff. The boat's designer, Rod Johnstone, once told me that they fail the six-knot test (namely, if one empties a beer can and then jettisons it overboard, the J/44 will not be able to sail away from the flotsam in less than six knots of air). Worse still, the anemometer was reporting metrics that were persistently between five and eight knots, with the mean edging towards the thinner side of this spectrum.

This didn't stop Peter and Dan.

Instead of succumbing to the reality that the other boat seemed to be the quicker whip in thin airs, Peter settled into driving duties using his feet to grip the boat's destroyer-style wheel - so as to eliminate any unnecessary helm movement - while Dan sat a few feet away (ah, the for the days before social distancing), manning the traveler and mainsheet.

Conversation, which had been light and jovial, dissolved, and focus became the defining operating mode. Perhaps it was the bond of brotherhood forged with an extra layer of having spent thousands of miles sailing offshore together, but Peter and Dan quickly entered a non-verbal communication mode where the sheet would ease in exact unison with the wheel's movements.

Slowly, Southern Cross's fun-meter started reporting better metrics. A half-hour later it was obvious that sticking with our typical 30-minute driving rotation schedule would mean abandoning all the hard work and great results that the brothers were delivering. After two hours I began to wonder how much concentration Peter could muster, only to discover that this well was far deeper than I ever imagined.

Focus eventually gave way to momentary bits of frustration as the tell tales went slack, but that's when Peter, a non-smoker, called for the Camels. Against my dad's longstanding rule about cigarette smoking anywhere near his boat, Dan produced a pack of smokes and a lighter. The brothers took turns lighting up and mouthing smoke, which they slowly released as a three-dimension tell tale of sorts (and possibly as a small nicotine high, but we'll leave that part buried in the proverbial sea chest). While I was skeptical at first, Peter made darn good use out of the smoke by making incremental helm adjustments that saw us linking small zephyrs.

Impressively, the other rig, which was now punctuated by its tricolor in the fading evening light, started looking larger and larger.

We eventually made the turn by Sambro Channel, our bow now aimed at Halifax and the finishing line of this classic 363-nautical-mile offshore contest, the other boat just off of our hip. One minute they would be the lead dog, the next minute they would be hunting our miniscule lead. Neither crew backed off a bit, and while our crew was silent as we moved bodies around the deck to help keep the hull properly trimmed, a testy moment came when Dan handed Peter the last cigarette. Yes, the finishing line was now within Frisbee range, but - given the dwindling airs - I had a bad feeling that our committed crew efforts could dissolve if our Popeye downed his last can of spinach.

This thinking was clearly not lost on Peter, who lit his final smoke and proceeded to somehow coax an extra quarter of a knot out of Southern Cross. The finishing gun sounded as our crew exchanged high-fives: We had somehow beaten a brand-new J/133 in conditions that were far more suited to her polars than to ours.

To this day, when I think of light-air battles and of the power of intense concentration, not to mention non-verbal onboard communication, I remember this fight and two brothers - and their buddy Joe Camel - who simply refused to give up, irrespective of the fact that ours was the slower horse for those particular racecourse conditions.

May the four winds blow you safely home,

David Schmidt North American Editor

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