On the East Coast, West Coast, and Gulf Coast…on the Great Lakes and all the little lakes and rivers, too—most American sailors have been wooed at one point or another by the siren call of an occasional low-stress, mid-week race. (OK, perhaps it was the skipper’s promise of beer and burgers afterwards.) These informal “beer-can chases” are a great way to break up the work week and inject some on-the-water activity into an otherwise dry weeknight.
We assigned two writers the burdensome task of sailing in weeknight races to see how two hotbed sailing towns, San Francisco, California, and Marblehead, Massachusetts, might differ. Editor-at-large Kimball Livingston tackled a casual Friday night race on the West Coast, while Senior Editor David Schmidt stepped aboard a J/105 for a majestic evening of racing on Massachusetts Bay. We figured this story would yield “tales of two cities,” but the longer our guys were on the case, the more we realized that sailors are sailors, irrespective of place.
Make sure you ease the pole-extension sheet slowly,” advised Matt Contorchick. “The pole’s on a bungy cord and the sheet’s loaded, so if you release it quickly it can take the head off the guy who’s down below gathering the chute.”
I nod, shuddering at the thought of a carbon-fiber torpedo thrusting at somebody’s head as they grapple with a kite in the tidy V-berth of Shooting Star, Laurie Willard’s trusty J/105. All around us are the usual suspects and sometime heroes of Wednesday night beer-can racing off Marblehead, Massachusetts. The racing, which is run by the Boston Yacht Club, is open to all boats hailing from the five Marblehead YCs (Dolphin, Corinthian, Boston, Eastern, and Marblehead) and other area clubs, and the bullet can go to any one of numerous boats on any given week. Despite the constantly gloomy economic forecast, 35 to 40 boats—ranging from spinnaker-class competitors like the J/105 class to a Colgate 26, a C&C 32, assorted cruising boats of varying age and speed, and an IMX 40—populate our racecourse. Judging from conversations during and before the race, there’s little reason to think that the grand tradition of beer-can racing—informal, relaxed, in-the-middle-of-the-week-instead-of-working-late regattas—is in jeopardy in Marblehead.
Corporate bankers might be robbing the country blind elsewhere, but here in sleepy Marblehead, sitting on the rail of a well-sailed boat on a tranquil evening, with Boston’s shimmering skyline just barely in view, those real-world worries feel a continent away.
Right here, right now, our biggest concern is Merlin, Charlie Garrard’s equally well-sailed J/105, which, despite our best efforts, remains tantalizingly close, yet elusively out of reach as we near the windward mark. The 10-15 knot southwest breeze is laying down cat paws on Massachusetts Bay’s still-chilly water, and the pressure is on to dispel the sorcerer’s magic, quickly.
“Stand by to tack,” announces Bill Lynn, our tactician/mainsail trimmer. Ten seconds later our bow swings through the breeze as Christian Gianinni and I hustle to get the jib trimmed on and the barberhauler (the lazy sheet) tweaked so that the jib’s clew flies directly above the coachroof handrail. Once the boat is up to speed, I quickly find my spot on the rail. The windward mark is about 10 boatlengths away, but the wizards still hold a convincing lead.
“OK, get ready to ease the jib. Once we get around the mark, we can go pole out and we’ll be close-reaching for a few boatlengths to the offset. Then, we’ll want the kite up, quick,” says Lynn. Gianinni eases the sheet as Willard moves the tiller to port a few degrees. Wordlessly, we slip into our given positions for the hoist.
I slide over to starboard, assuming my position by the starboard coachroof winch. Having extended the sprit pole at the windward mark, my next task is to tail the spinnaker halyard as Ben Willard (Laurie’s son) bounces it at the mast.
“Two boatlengths, one boatlength! Bow’s at the mark! Hoist!” Sure, the racing is mellow compared to when these guys take things seriously, but the message is clear: We’re sailing to win.
The halyard jumps and our kite inflates. Merlin clears the mark ahead of us and immediately gybes, hoping to play the course’s port flank. Willard and Lynn stick to the starboard side and our boatspeed quickly climbs.
“What do they see over there?” Gianinni asks the windward-rail council. “Is there better current on that side of the course?”
“Not really. Might be better over here, actually,” quips Lynn. Spinnaker trimmer Rick Meyers agrees.
The saga plays out for a few more minutes before Lynn announces a gybe. Flawlessly, the crew organizes, the tiller moves, the boom swings over, and Matt Contorchick and Ben Willard run the now-active spin sheet around the forestay and shrouds as the big A-sail re-inflates. I glance over to see if the magicians have also gybed: affirmative. Our courses converge, but Merlin crosses our bow, still clear ahead.
“Ok, let’s gybe here!” Lynn announces. Our stern passes through the breeze, and again we nail a perfect gybe. We’re rapidly approaching the leeward mark, with Merlin off our port bow, as another J/105, Circe’s Cup, noses her way in between Merlin and ourselves. A messy spinnaker takedown (my fault—sorry guys!) is quickly dealt with thanks to some excellent crew work all around. Meanwhile, the compression at the mark gets interesting as Circe’s Cup comes a bit too close and their kite brushes Merlin’s rig. The onboard thermometer ratchets up a few degrees, but Willard and Lynn negotiate through the could-be/maybe-should-be pile-up without incident. We’ve gained a bit on Merlin and Circe’s Cup drops back after doing a couple of penalty spins.
Again the boats climb to weather, fighting for position as the sun slouches westward, rendering the sky a beautiful grayish blue. A low cloud ceiling with scattered holes sends shafts of light playing upon the water and upon the white mainsails and Kevlar jibs of the J/105s. The wind holds steady as we tuck into a few tacks. We’re to leeward of Merlin, but it’s obvious that we’re sailing higher and slightly faster.