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Finding magic in the strangest of places - USA Newsletter


Finding magic in the strangest of places

North Sails 2021 LEADERBOARD


Dark Star sails off of Bainbridge Island under a full main and a big A sail - photo © David Schmidt

Dear Recipient Name

While I came clean in my last newsletter about my not-so-hot feelings towards Guns 'n Roses, like many, many sailors of my generation, my feelings towards the Grateful Dead likely lean towards the word "obsessive". That's an entirely different article (opus?), but since we dealt with quotable lyrics last time, here's one straight from the always-brilliant pen of the late Robert Hunter: "Once in a while you get shown the light, in the strangest of places if you look at it right."

Mind you, I've never found sailboats strange places to learn or gain greater appreciation of - and understanding about - life, however weather forecasts sometimes have a way of dampening spirits.

Case-in-point: I received an email last week from my good friend and skipper (and fellow deadhead) Jonathan McKee, asking if I wanted to go sailing on his Paul Bieker-designed Riptide 44, Dark Star when I was in town. Of course, I immediately and excitedly said yes, but then a quick look at my different weather apps (I'm specifically not naming names here) began dashing my hopes: 3-5 knots, out of the south, that would build only by the time we would have to be remaking our dock lines fast.

OK, maybe the sailing wouldn't be great, but any chance to muck around aboard cool boats with great friends beats working, so I happily spun the wheels of my trusty VW south on I-5. Walking down the dock, I couldn't help but notice that there was more air stirring the halyards at Seattle's Shilshole Bay Marina than I'd been expecting. But rather than getting too excited, I tried to tell myself that this could just be a very localized shore breeze and that the weather apps are (almost) always right.

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JM and I spent the first little bit inserting battens into batten pockets, adjusting batten tension and connecting bat cars to his cruising main, which we bent onto Dark Star's rig as JM's faithful dog kept a steady watch on us from her perch in the shade by the dock box.

We made short work of the mainsail, and soon we were motoring out of Shilshole, two men, a dog, and 44 feet of water-ballasted carbon-fiber waterline, our bow headed towards Magnolia's Discovery Park, where we hoisted the main in the shadow of some high bluffs. The weather models were correct that the breeze was blowing in from the south, but 5 knots was gloriously manifesting itself as a very steady 14-18 knots.

Given that JM had mentioned cruising to nearby Port Madison, which is across Puget Sound and slightly to the north of Seattle (on the northern flank of Bainbridge Island), I figured that we were in for a leisurely mainsail cruise. JM, of course, had different ideas.

"David, I'm afraid that the fastest way to Port Madison is to fly the spinnaker," he said with a smile. I couldn't have agreed more.

Spinnaker sheets and a tack line quickly appeared on deck, and I steered Dark Star towards Bainbridge as JM scurried about, getting everything sorted, before I headed to the mast to work the halyard. The kite luckily had a snuffer, making the hoist super easy, and JM carefully blanketed the spinnaker sausage with the mainsail as I prepared to hoist the sock.


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Jonathan McKee enjoying a magical day of playing hooky on Puget Sound - photo © David Schmidt
Jonathan McKee enjoying a magical day of playing hooky on Puget Sound - photo © David Schmidt

The kite inflated, and Dark Star's entire attitude changed as its rig, sails and appendages all lit up. Boat speed spiked from 5 knots to 11 in a matter of boat lengths.

"Once in a while you can get shown the light, in the strangest of places if you look at it right."

I cruised back to the cockpit and started to settle into trimming the kite sheet when JM's true generosity shone through: "Wanna drive?" he asked with a knowing smile.

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The author, finding the light - photo © Jonathan McKee
The author, finding the light - photo © Jonathan McKee

I'm not sure the soles of my Sperry's even found the deck, but my hands sure found the port wheel in a hurry. While I've sailed and raced with JM on Dark Star for over a decade, this was a special moment: a perfect day on Puget Sound, amazing breeze, a wonderfully wrong weather forecast, and a chance to drive one of the coolest boats on the West Coast with someone of Jonathan's sailing mastery making sure I didn't bungle things too badly.

I'm honestly surprised that my grin didn't crack my face in half. But Dark Star is good at producing those sorts of reactions, especially when perfect breeze and fast angles align with the right sailplan and a carefree afternoon.

I'll admit that my heart rate quickened (OK, significantly) when it came time for our first gybe. JM took the helm and I worked the lazy-but-soon-to-be-employed spinnaker sheet, and all went smoothly. (Deep sigh of relief.) Our second gybe was even smoother, and as I played the shifts with the wheel afterwards, I immediately began seeing why double-handed sailing has become so popular.

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The author, hoping his grin doesn't split his face - photo © Jonathan McKee
The author, hoping his grin doesn't split his face - photo © Jonathan McKee

Dark Star had no trouble charging along at 11-12 knots, maybe a click or two faster in the puffs, and the only crewmember to not visibly demonstrate their elation was the dog, who obediently lay curled up in a little circle belowdecks. Her master and his buddy might be doing something super cool with the boat, but odds were good that her thoughts involved chasing tennis balls on the beach.

We spied a nice-looking set of carbon sails flying from what appeared to be a new J/99 on the horizon as we approached Port Madison. While it didn't take long to show them our transom (a fair fight this certainly was not), we were soon confronted with the reality of our upcoming takedown (re-queue my quickened heart rate). JM drove a deep course as I snuffed the kite. Minutes later the kite was in the bag and JM and I were exchanging high-fives.

While I've never robbed a bank (and I aim to keep it that way), I can only imagine that the feeling of pulling off a big heist is somewhat similar to what we were experiencing: It was a Wednesday, we should have been working, but instead we rolled the dice on what looked to be a marginal day of ghost-sailing and instead came up with one of the best kite rides that I've experienced in a good long while.

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Jonathan McKee works the strings as Dark Star charges north on Puget Sound towards Port Madison - photo © David Schmidt
Jonathan McKee works the strings as Dark Star charges north on Puget Sound towards Port Madison - photo © David Schmidt

Granted, JM is one of the best sailing coaches (and sailors) on the planet, and granted he regularly flies kites in similar conditions aboard Dark Star alone, but there was no question that my confidence levels jumped several levels. In fact, the day marked the first time that I felt unhindered by my artificial shoulder since it was "installed" in 2012, as well as the first time that I really felt capable of pushing it hard on a high-performance boat in a semi-committed situation. (Editor's note: thank you, Concept2 and TRX!)

"Once in a while you can get shown the light, in the strangest of places if you look at it right."

We pulled into Port Madison, dropped the hook and enjoyed lunch and post kite-flying bliss as we watched a group of Opti and ILCA (née Laser) sailors practicing their tacks and gybes. I can only imagine the impression that a boat like Dark Star had on these young minds, and I can only hope that they stick with sailing long enough to have a few of their own truly magical moments with their good friends and boats. If so, they'll be hooked for life. (Sound familiar?)

The breeze was still flowing from the south as we motored back into Puget Sound, so we kept the mainsail flaked and enjoyed some cruising tunes en route to Shilshole Bay Marina. We spotted a few other kites out on the water that day, and - much like the Port Madison junior sailors - I had my fingers crossed that their days were as perfect as ours.

While I've been fortunate enough to have sailed again since last Wednesday, my smile hasn't faded, nor has my newly-boosted confidence in my bionic wing. Still, I've pondered the "teachable moments" from the day, and my emerging thesis is simple: Sail every chance you get, irrespective of the weather. Roll with everything that happens on the boat, especially when sailing with people who are exponentially better and more experienced than you, and accept the challenges of unexpected adventures. Approach everything with an open and learning-centered mindset, and always work your hardest to help ensure that everything comes off smoothly.

But, most importantly, be ready and receptive to finding pure magic in moments that the forecasts call marginal.

"Once in a while you can get shown the light, in the strangest of places if you look at it right."

May the four winds blow you safely home,

David Schmidt North American Editor

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