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Reflections on a life afloat: Piling on the downwind canvas - USA Newsletter


Reflections on a life afloat: Piling on the downwind canvas

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Dear Recipient Name

As we enter the fifth week of lockdowns here in Washington State, I've been finding myself with plenty of time to reflect back on the activity that we all love and should normally be doing in these still-early days of spring. One of my favorite non-racing memories stems from a cloudy and brooding day in July of 2008 when my good friend (and former boss at SAIL Magazine) Peter, our mutual good friend Scott, and the late and very nice Jerry Twomey loaded a Parasailor spinnaker aboard Ostara, Peter's old Norlin 34, and headed out for a sail-cum-joyride on the waters off of Marblehead, Massachusetts.

For readers who aren't familiar with Parasailors, the kites are traditional-looking symmetrical cruising spinnakers, save for the large aperture and horizontal airfoil wing that provides lift. Unlike regular spinnakers, Parasailors are designed so that pressure from unexpected puffs can escape the sail, rather than causing a roundup or pressing the spreaders into the brine. Better still, Parasailor sails exert significantly less load on the bow, which in turns makes steering easier. Moreover, the tester kite that Jerry brought along that day was cut for a 40-something footer, not a 30-something footer, but, given that Ostara carries a tall stick for her LOA, we knew that we could carry the kite without dragging its foot in the salt water.

As we motored out of Salem Harbor and prepared to hoist the mainsail, I noticed that we were one of the only sailboats heading out on a humid New England summer day that just felt rife for producing a thunderstorm. But, given that I was out sailing with my friends (and boss) on a Wednesday, rather than sitting under the fluorescent glow of my office lights in nearby Boston, the onboard atmosphere was far more tilted towards stealing cookies from the jar, rather than studying GRIB files.

Scott and I hoisted the mainsail and jib as Peter drove Ostara upwind towards Bakers Island. This would give us a great downhill ride towards Misery Islands and Little Misery Island and, as the puffs built out of the south southeast, would also allow us to test the Parasailor's ability to handle downwind airs punctuated by gathering puffs.

Standing by the mast, preparing to hoist the kite, Scott and I exchanged a giddy look. We knew that Ostara's mast was up for the challenge, we knew that Peter could drive his steed through any conditions, and we also believed that between Scott, Jerry and myself that we had the muscle to tame any unexpected shrews.

What could possibly go wrong?

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Parasailor on Boingo Alive - photo © James Mitchell / ARC Rally http:/
Parasailor on Boingo Alive - photo © James Mitchell / ARC Rally http:/

The kite inflated, Ostara's boastspeed rocketed up, and my hands quickly found the windward rail's lifelines. The Parasailor's aperture allowed the sail to automatically depressurize in the strong puffs, and, glancing astern at Peter, at the helm, it was obvious from his seemingly face-splitting grin that we were establishing new speed records for Ostara.

We reached the end of our slalom course and Jerry and I used the Parasailor's snuffer to quickly reduce canvas as Scott jumped the jib halyard. Soon, we were hard on the breeze, our minds all excited for another downwind ride. Still, I couldn't help but notice that the airs were continuing to gather. Jerry seemed to read my mind and offered assurances that the funky kite was up to the task. And having sailed many a mile with Peter and Scott aboard Ostara, I knew that the vessel and crew were as keen to continue the fun as I was.

We repeated the same performance as the skies darkened and the clouds seemed to get denser. But try as smarter people might to call it a day, our merry crew was having way too much fun sailing double-digit numbers to head ashore. (N.B. if this sounds a bit like kids trying to coax a few more runs down the sledding hill as night falls on a sleepy New England town in January, you're on the right tack.)

The first rain drops started falling as we lined up for our last (of many) downhill runs. Up went the kite, down went the jib, and immediately Ostara launched off onto what proved to be the wildest run that I ever savored aboard the boat. Being an IOR warhorse, her hull was pinched at the stern, making her bit squirrelly in the big puffs. But, as advertised, the Parasailor kept the load light on the bow, allowing Peter to keep the boat under the kite, even though the wind was now blowing hard.

Things got interesting as the wind clicked up another notch, and as Ostara's gentle rocking transitioned to a gunwale-to-gunwale affair that was punctuated by some funky groaning noises emanating out of the boat's new rig. Looking astern, I spied a small rooster tail pluming behind Ostara's tidy transom; glancing ahead, Misery Islands was filling our (metaphorical) windshield far faster than expected. And this, of course, meant that Jerry, Scott and I had to wrestle the snuffer down and over the oversized kite in significantly more air than we had previously experienced.

Still, the psyche factor was high, and as the soles of my sailing sneakers found the grip of the rocking deck, Peter gave the call to snuff-out the joy ride.

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ParaSailor flying at the ARC start - photo © James Mitchell / WCC
ParaSailor flying at the ARC start - photo © James Mitchell / WCC

I went forward to the snuffer line, bracing myself with the toe rails and the lifelines, as Scott and Jerry moved forward and reinforced my efforts. As expected, the maneuver provided the day's substitution for a trip to the gym, but, fortunately, all went smoothly, despite the now-rainy skies.

Once the turbocharger was safely stowed in its sail bag, we all took a deep breath, exchanged high-fives and (possibly) cracked an adult beverage or two as we sailed back to the mooring, knowing full well that we just pulled off a potentially risky endeavor.

The first streaks of lightning arrived on the launch ride ashore, and my drive back to my once-upon-a-time home in Cambridge was easily one of the wettest, stormiest rides that I experienced all summer. But, as the residents of Boston cowered in offices, apartments and homes during the now-ferocious thunderstorm, my mind was happily content reliving those downwind runs and the impressive "release-valve" action that the Parasailor delivered.

May the four winds blow you safely home,

David Schmidt North American Editor

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