By Andrew Shemella
Weather reports for days ahead of the regatta gave early warning that this year’s Off Soundings Club Spring Series was going to be a drifter. I was a little nervous not being available to transport the boat to Stonington, CT on Thursday. I was pretty sure that when the skipper saw the conditions Friday morning he would leave my 250 pounds on the dock, so I took the ferry Thursday after work and secured a place on board. I didn’t even get off to have breakfast! The weather folks had it about right.
The outbound leg of this year’s Spring Off Soundings, from Watch Hill to Block Island, was a drifter. © Andrew Shemella
On Friday, June 12, the fleet awoke to an oily smooth harbor and some light fog. We all motored out towards Watch Hill Passage, knowing that we would be on Block Island that evening but wondering whether we would have an annoying motorboat trip, a grueling light wind sail, or something else. We rooted for “else.”
To no one’s surprise, the AP pennant went up at the designated start time. There were brief times of sailing wind but they would inevitably fizzle out, leaving us at times too far from the committee boat for comfort. The race committee announced that they felt a breeze would come up and give us a nice ride to Great Salt Pond. Sadly, that didn’t happen.
Eventually the starts had to begin. Time was working against the sailors since we were approaching – or maybe past – the time in which we could make the time limit, especially for the slower divisions. So off we went into eternity. At least it seemed like an eternity. Most of the fleets were split between the “Hug the shore” – along the coast strategy, and the “Get clear air” – go the other way strategy. Aboard Chip Puccio’s J/34C Zeus, my ride for the regatta, we tacked after the start and headed south - the other way. The tack was to clear our air rather than some brilliant strategy. The first “This sucks” came from our skipper at 1140. There were many more to come.
We kept heading south, mostly, because we were already going that way and still liked the streaks of wind. Besides, if a breeze came up we expected it to come from the right, despite knowing full well that dogma dictates to stay close to shore in light wind. But pretty soon we couldn’t have gotten back to the shore anyway. So we sailed mostly south, working the boat as best as we could until we were approaching the layline for “1BI”, the first and only mark of the course. Since we were averaging maybe two knots, we began to think, at about 1400 with six miles left to the mark, that we had a time limit problem. Fortunately word came down the course that it was going to be shortened.
The last mile or so may go down in the annals of OSC infamy – a crowded place. A breeze finally came from the right and the boats furthest right got blown right to the leaders. Out came the spinnakers, since now the boats to the right could sail downwind to the finish. We were all going to finish in one large blob – a race committee nightmare. We finished at the buoy blanketed by 50 boats. On Zeus, we took our own finish time and submitted it to the RC.
On Saturday night in our cottage, we were awakened by wind as the front went through. Sailors throughout the island were dreaming of sugarplums and spinnaker runs, as the tempest outside surely awakened many. In the morning the breeze was on for early risers but there was a disturbing trend towards lightening. By the time we got to the boat there was little doubt. The wind was going toes up. We motored out with trepidation and approached the start. The wind wasn’t just dying; it was autopsied, embalmed, cremated and buried by the first gun. We were the last group before a postponement, and we drifted across the line, nearly hitting the pin with no rudder control. Skipper wasn’t happy. We drifted up the first leg to 1BI just trying to keep going. The first “This sucks” uttered by the skipper was a full hour earlier than Friday. But as happens in sailing, up by the mark there was a wind line. Yes, a northeast breeze was on its way.
Now it was a race to the wind line. Our principal competition made it there first, but our longer waterline prevailed on the long reach that followed. Sailing down the island wasn’t very tactical, but boat speed was rewarded. It was drag racing for TOT seconds. As we turned away from the wind at the Mohegan bluff we started to feel some of the impressive swells which were coming from the south, it was more difficult to keep the sails drawing due to the rolling.
It was a slow leg mostly against the current, as is usually the case there. Wing on wing, jibe, deep reach with the pole, jibe, wing on wing…sound familiar? Those swells made a sporty sail from the Lewis Point N “2” buoy to R “4” and north towards the finish. Whoever got to the Bell Buoy first was only going to extend their leads. We were surfing down wavefronts, with the lucky helmsman getting the plum assignment for the whole series. If you weren’t having a good time on that leg you should take up golf…not that there’s anything wrong with that. In the end, the race was largely decided on the first leg – when there was no wind. That’s yachting.
Spring 2015 Off Soundings results are posted.
What a well-written exposé of the excitement of sailing! I can hardly imagine the scintillating conversation during the calm moments. Golf may burn calories, but sailing bakes friendships.
Schuyler Winter, via email