The Longest Starting Sequence
On Memorial Day weekend in 1972, four sailing buddies came up with a great idea. “Let’s sail from Hyannis to Nantucket, spend the long weekend there, then sail back—and let’s race.”
It was so much fun they decided to do it again, inviting other friends to join in. By 1978, there were more than 75 boats on the starting line, and the newly established race committee added a lay-day in Nantucket. Next came the addition of Mount Gay tent parties and a race back to Hyannis, as the idea transformed from a race between friends to a full-blown event. Year after year, it grew in fame and popularity, until non-sailors began flocking to Nantucket to take part in the festivities as well.
This past May, 39 years after the race’s inception, 230 boats came to Hyannis, Massachusetts to be a part of what has now become a New England tradition: Figawi. From my perch in the pit of Synergy, a Beneteau First 40.7, I could feel the fleet chomping at the bit as we paraded from Hyannis Harbor to the starting line. Spectators lined the shore and cheered for the hundreds of sailors that passed by. It was overcast and cool, and the breeze was already showing 15 knots out of the southwest.
The first starting gun sounded at 1000. Over the next three hours, a pursuit-style start (start order is determined by a boat’s rating with the slower boats starting first) ushered a varied fleet onto the racecourse, many under shortened sail. Heads turned at the sight of Denali, a 67-foot speedster out of Marblehead, Massachusetts. Sailors swooned at the site of Mya, the elegant 50-foot Concordia schooner formerly owned by the late Sen. Edward Kennedy. There were racers, cruisers and even 28 powerboats.
As we milled around the starting area waiting our turn, the anticipation was palpable. Figawi was finally here! It may not be the toughest race in New England. At roughly 25 miles, it may not be the longest, the most competitive, or the most intense. But it is certainly among the most legendary. It started as a casual sailboat race, and evolved into a sailing pilgrimage to welcome summer to the waters of the East Coast.
For the crew of Synergy, the race couldn’t have come soon enough. This was the boat’s first year sailing in the racing, as opposed to cruising, class and Figawi had been on everyone’s mind for months. With new electronics, new sails and a newly formed crew, ours was a story of learning how to construct a racing program from the ground up, and Figawi was to be our debut. For Synergy, the “starting sequence,” began far before the first starting gun.
217 days to the start: The crew of Synergy begins receiving emails from our captain, Tom, about Figawi. The event is nine months away, but the prospect of spring’s first race helps us through the bleak New England winter.
91 days to the start: Synergy’s crew attends one of Bill Gladstone’s North U seminars on sail trim. We corner Gladstone afterward and pick his brain on spinnaker sets and douses. Tom begins to sort out crew positions and talk tactics, incorporating the trim advice we’d just learned. Watching Tom plan for the upcoming Figawi is like watching a child anticipate Christmas morning. He begins writing us lengthy emails so that we may share in his excitement.
45 days to the start: Tom’s emails are now weekly. He divvies up specific onboard duties to crewmembers; he methodically talks through every maneuver and specifies who will do what; he discusses prerace timing and sail changes, and the logistics of food and lodging.
18 days to the start: Tom brings the crew together at his office in Boston. Using North U’s videos, he presents a review session. We spend the evening discussing sail trim, talking strategy and reviewing who will do what on board. The crew is a collection of Boston-area sailors, and as Tom learns our strengths, he positions the 10 of us according to our particular skills. Dave is at the helm, Mike is at the mast, Patty is trimming spinnaker, Dre is on foredeck, and so on. Tom helps us understand the chain of command and the importance of working together as a team.
12 days to the start: Synergy is in the water. The new Raymarine electronics arrive just in time. The sailmaker and the rigger come aboard for a test sail to tweak and perfect the boat; the electronics are recalibrated.
7 days to the start: The crew gathers aboard Synergy down in Mattapoisset, Massachusetts, for a two-day intensive practice. We familiarize ourselves with the new equipment, play around with the new sails and practice every possible takedown in the book. Excitement builds to an all-time high.
2 days before the start: Tom, Mike, Patty and I deliver the boat from Mattapoisset to Hyannis. The sun is warm, the breeze is pleasant and we meet several other boats making the same pilgrimage.
1 day before the start: Racers flock to the Hyannis Yacht Club where the tent party kicks off Memorial Day Weekend with a bang. Race organizers hand out skipper’s bags and sell Figawi apparel. You can tell they’ve done this before.
3 hours to the start: We cast off lines and motor out to the starting area. From the pit, I peer back to see the look on Tom’s face. He’s intense, focused, probably a bit nervous. But he also can’t stop grinning. Figawi is finally here.
The start: At 1259, our designated start time, Synergy crosses the line with good speed. The winds are strong out of the southwest—20-plus knots—and we barrel to windward, hiking as hard as we can. Though the pursuit start spreads out the fleet considerably, we are still sailing in heavy traffic. With this much breeze and a long beat to the first mark, Tom decides to place a premium on speed and clean air. We hold out on port tack longer than most, then eventually tack back and aim for the mark. The rounding is loud and crowded and the shouts are peppered by the sound of boat-to-boat contact.
The wind drops slightly, giving the boats around us enough confidence that a third of them join us in flying spinnakers. Crisp crew work makes for a clean hoist of our half-ounce kite, which we enjoy for all of six minutes before the breeze builds back to the mid-20s and backs slightly south, turning our broad reach into a close one. We douse the kite and raise the new #1 genoa, which instantly makes Synergy feel overpowered in wind now gusting to 30 knots. Tom calls for the genoa to be replaced with the blade. The second half of the leg feels fast and controlled. The next mark rounding is considerably less crowded than the first; two boats are battling for room, and sensing an opportunity, Synergy sneaks in tight at the mark and locks into a powerful close reach aimed straight at Nantucket.
The final leg is fast and relatively uneventful. The breeze stays up, the boat stays heeled and the sun peaks through as if to assure us we’ve almost made it. We cross the finish line, exchange a few high fives and enter the second boat parade of the day, this time headed for the docks of the Nantucket Boat Basin. The course has been simple enough, but everyone agrees that the conditions were some of the roughest the Figawi has seen in years.
The good news, though, is that there are nearly 365 days left to the start of next year’s Figawi. We’d better start counting down.
Not a moment after we coil the last line, crews from surrounding boats and spectators from the island begin to pour onto the docks. Yarns from the race emerge: A J/109 lost its mast before the start. A Pearson 36 got caught in the pin buoy at the start and sent it soaring in a 20-knot gust. A J/46 shredded its spinnaker shortly after the first mark, forcing a crewmember up the mast to retrieve the halyard. The banter and excitement on the docks makes it clear that the race is over, but Figawi has just begun.
That evening, the tent party is the place to be on Nantucket. Live music and $2 Mount Gay drinks create the perfect atmosphere for swapping race stories and catching up with friends that tend to disappear during the winter months. The rest of the weekend is packed with activities for sailors and non-sailors alike: a legendary joke-telling session, a delicious clambake, an area high school regatta and a laughter-filled awards ceremony.
On the afternoon of Memorial Day, 41 boats race back to the mainland in light easterlies that reach 12-14 knots. The rest of the Figawi mob slowly evacuates Nantucket either by boat or by ferry. At 1600, I drag my feet to the ferry that will shuttle me back to the mainland. No one is ready for Figawi to be over. We’ve all spent a year looking forward to the race. We’ve planned, practiced and prepared for it; we’ve even dreamed about it. The crew of Synergy, like hundreds of others, caught the Figawi bug, and with it, we welcomed another summer of warm-weather sailing. It’s tough to stomach the fact that it’s over.
The Pacific Northwest Swiftsure Yacht Race makes ups the other half of SAIL Magazine's Tale of 2 Races