Cruising

Windshifts: Spinnakers Come, Spinnakers Go

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The first time I saw a spinnaker I was only a few years old. It was flying on the bow of a 35ft foot cruiser off the coast of Maine. The hull was black and the sail was white with a ruby red stripe across its belly. A few years later, my father agreed to set the kite on our 50ft Hinckley, a rare concession. I watched the sail swell and fill with the breeze as we slowly drifted home.

As I grew up I left cruising behind and focused on racing. I found a spot crewing on the J/46 Vanish in Boston and spent my Wednesday nights racing from the head of the harbor out to a green can and back again. I joined the sailing team at American University and found a J/105 to crew aboard in Annapolis on the weekends. The Storm Trysail Intercollegiate Regatta in Larchmont became the highlight of my sailing season.

Last year, as a junior in college, I made my third trip to the Larchmont regatta. Our first year, we finished last. The second year, we were second to last, and now we were itching to do even better. In the weeks before the regatta we practiced extensively and were still reviewing race tactics on the car ride up. I was the most excited of all—after two years of trimming main, I was finally getting my chance to fly the spinnaker. 

The first day of the regatta, sailing on the J/105 SunnySide Up, our sets were great, our gybes were strong, our takedowns were clean, and I could not wipe the smile off my face. I loved the tension of the sheet in my hand as I eased and trimmed the fickle sail. I could feel each puff as it brushed against the sail’s fabric. My muscles fell into a rhythm with the curling and breaking of its luff. Our performance steadily improved. In the first race we finished 11th. In the second race we took seventh. By the start of the third and final race of the day we were ready for a big comeback.

On the second to last leg, we rounded the downwind mark and the pit crew sent the pole shooting out from the bow and then pre-fed the tack. As I reached to take the sheet, I glanced behind us and noticed that another J/105, also on starboard tack, was now bearing down on us, clearly oblivious to our existence. 

“Head up!” I shouted, as I watched their bow close in on our stern. My skipper, Bryan, thought I was yelling at him, and started turning our boat up into the wind, so that our stern was now out of the way, but our midships was square in the other boat’s crosshairs. Desperate, I began frantically waving my arms and shouting at both Bryan and the skipper of the other boat, until Bryan turned around to see what has happening and, eyes wide with alarm, guided us back off the wind.

Finally, when their bow and our stern were nearly close enough to kiss, the bowman on the overtaking boat realized what was happening and began waving and yelling as well. At the same moment, Sam, our mast man, started jumping the spinnaker halyard as we rounded the offset mark. The sail snapped and filled as Bryan turned our bow downwind, and we set out on the final downwind leg, leaving the other boat wallowing astern. 

As our pulse rates returned to normal, I began again to feel the rhythm of the sail, the gentle pull of its sheet against the palms of my hands. The white and red sail filled and swelled as we raced down toward the finish line. 

We finished the race and the regatta mid-fleet, not bad for a club team up against powerhouses like Bowdoin and the U.S. Naval Academy. Next year will be my last regatta at Larchmont. I know I have years of spinnakers ahead of me, but I’ll always remember these exciting races, and appreciate the spinnakers that powered me through them.

Photos courtesy of Lisa Gabrielson

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