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Reflections on a life afloat: Foredeck work done right

by David Schmidt 14 Apr 2020 09:00 PDT April 14, 2020
On the foredeck of Fifteen on day 5 of the 2018 Etchells World Championship © Mitchell Pearson / SurfSailKite

Looking on the bright side, the nationwide lockdown to combat the novel coronavirus affords ample time to reflect on great sailing adventures of yore. One of my favorite memories comes from the 2007 Culebra International Heineken Regatta, which unfurled on the waters off of the small island of Culebra, some 17 nautical miles to the east of Puerto Rico.

I was working as a staff editor at SAIL Magazine at the time, and I was lucky enough to be invited by my soon-to-be friend Quino Sanchez to sail with him and his crew aboard Jose Sanchez's C&C 37 Balaju II! for the three-day regatta. While the motor-boat ride from Fajardo, on Puerto Rico's eastern flank, was memorable, the regatta gave me an opportunity to witness some of the most impressive foredeck work that I've ever seen executed by a Corinthian crew.

While this memory is somewhat faded by the 13 years worth of sand that has passed through life's metaphorical hourglass since then, many facts still strongly resonate, and a quick perusal of my notes from the event and the ensuing article in SAIL bring the regatta back to life. That said, two basic facts that needed no reinforcing are that Quino and his crew are damn fine sailors who regularly punch well above their weight on the racecourse (in full disclosure, I rejoined Quino and the gang for at least one other regatta, and we have maintained our friendship over the years), and that the wind machine was delivering serious dividends that spring weekend. Twenty to twenty-five knots of true windspeed were common, as were big, square-shaped waves, which were remnants of a strong northeasterly system that had recently passed through, and which were undergirded by two currents that collide off of Culebra's eastern shores. White caps frothed and were offset by big holes in the ocean on either side of these walls of saline.

One other fact needs to be laundered, much to your editor's chagrin. While I've been sailing offshore since I was a small boy, I have long struggled with mal de mer, especially after long periods away from the windward rail (say, a long New England winter). And given that this regatta unfurled in March, it's fair to say that it had been several long months between this spring regatta and my last sailing adventure.

Balaju II!'s crew was raring to race hard right out of the gate, despite the big waves and strong airs, and it was immediately obvious that these guys knew how to make the boat jump. It was also immediately obvious that the crew had every intention of pushing the boat hard, especially off the breeze, as evidenced by the numerous kites that were packed and ready to go in the cabin belowdecks.

We started the first day's race with a reef in the main and a #2 headsail, but these boys were keen to pile on the canvas as soon as the angles deepened, and with each nautical pothole that we "found" on the course (read: nearly every other boatlength), I felt my gills greening.

We approached the windward mark and crewmembers scrambled to their respective battle positions. I took up grinding duties on the soon-to-be-live spinnaker sheet as our bowman, Arturo Quiñones, called out waves and the distance to our hoist.

"Three, two, one - falling off. Let's get the kite up now!" called Quino over the wind.

Crew work was tight, and the kite's head reached it sheave in near record speed before the nylon cloth inflated and the sleigh ride commenced.

While my parents used to own a nearly identical C&C 37, I never once experienced speeds or a ride as wild as what went down en route to the leeward mark. Balaju II!'s rig and hull started vibrating (think Laser sailing) as the fun-meter displayed speeds approaching 12 knots.

Glancing around the boat and searching for a stomach-easing horizon to stare at in between calls to grind the now-active spin sheet, I noticed that the pole was set up for end-to-end gybes, rather than dip gybes. While I've personally executed hundreds, perhaps thousands, of the former sometimes-athletic maneuvers on boats ranging from Blue Jays and Lightnings to J/24s, we always opted to dip the pole aboard my dad's old C&C 37.

And just like that, a lazy jib sheet tangled the pole's inboard trip line, freeing the pole's inboard fitting from the mast ring, releasing a beast of a spinnaker pole that threatened to shave the foredeck clean of sailors.

My eyes widened in fear as Balaju II!'s wild ride got a lot crazier.

Fortunately, Quiñones, Gabriel "Gabystrong" Ayala and Ivan Barrasoda all kept their heads (and their stomachs) in check and attacked the pole, wrestling the aluminum spar into submission as Quino and Sanchez bore off and carpeted the kite with our now-full mainsail. Balaju II! rolled hard to weather, her windward rail submerging, as I clung to the still-active winch handle. Time ground to a screeching halt as the foredeck crew battled the pole before a single triumphant word rang out.


Even my shamefully poor Spanish vocabulary translated this to "made" as Balaju II! rocked back onto her normal downwind trim and the sleigh ride recommenced.

Two minutes later I earned my crew moniker, "El Dragon", the fire breather, from Barrasoda as I took up temporary residence at the leeward quarter. Despite bumps and bruises from his victorious battle with the lashing pole, Barrasoda covered my grinding duties as I lost my personal war with mal de mer.

The jib was hoisted a few boatlengths before we rounded the leeward mark, the kite came down uneventfully, and another bout of body-shaking potholes commenced as we pointed our bow towards the finishing line. While time has largely eclipsed sharp details of the windward leg, I clearly remember our second-place finish, an impressive report-card result given our struggles with the formerly free-swinging spinnaker pole.

A few more races ensued before we flaked our racing sails and headed in, perhaps a bit bruised but none the worse for wear. Yet.

"We sail hard, but we party harder," said Sanchez, obviously looking forward to an evening of cerveza, rum and perhaps some dancing. "Just be ready to go at 0800!"

And while the details of the evening festivities will safety remain sealed with your scribe, few memories from that great weekend of racing ring clearer - 13 years ex post facto - than the amazing job that the Balaju II! crew pulled off when things mattered most.

May the four winds blow you safely home,

David Schmidt North American Editor

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