Numbers: 20.28 knots

In sailing, numbers are ephemeral. One second, VMG is up; the next it’s down. Crews battle for gains that are won and lost in heartbeats: The New York Stock Exchange can be more stable (now) than the parade of numbers dancing across “the truth display” situated under the boom. But it’s these cycles of feast or famine that make sailing an intellectual game, and that’s why so many people are drawn to the mind-boggling thrills of moving crisply at 12 miles per hour. When you’re hot you’re hot, and boy does it ever feel sweet.

But. While some numbers constantly fluctuate, others hold strong, at least for a while. Example: 562.96 nautical miles (world crewed 24-hour sailing record set by a monohull, Seb Josse and “the kids” on the Volvo Open 70, ABN Amro Two); example: 794 nautical miles (world crewed 24-hour sailing record set by a maxi trimaran, Franck Cammas and crew on Groupama 3); example: breaking the 50-knot barrier (may this happen soon, and preferably by a sailboat – even if it has to be a multihull — rather than by a windsurfer). And on a personal level: 20 knots, the elusive barrier that I’ve been chasing since I first signed on as a bowman on an old PHRF warhorse back in 1993 at the tender age of 16. Sure, my contemporaries may have been chasing other numbers (insert agenda for a typical 16-year-old virulent male), but for me, joining the 20+-knot club was the real deal.

So, when an opportunity came to join Dan Meyers and his friends aboard Meyers’s immaculate new weapon, the Judel/Vrolijk-designed IRC 66, Numbers, for a day at the Acura Key West race week I leapt at the oppurtunity. Perhaps my elusive number quest and Numbers could generate some sweet math. And Mother Nature did not disappoint: consistent winds of 20+ knots laid down a choppy sea, but as we sailed out of the harbor under main alone, easily cresting 10 knots, I knew that the good times were about to roll.

Flash forward—

The first windward mark of the second race is two boat lengths away. Winches groan. The linked-pedestal system fires Herculean power to the halyard hoisting the massive masthead-Asymmetric spinnaker. The bowman rifles off hand signals. The trimmers start easing sheets. And Dan Meyers gracefully bears off, carving a perfect wide-and-tight arch in the turquoise waters as we round the mark and the yarns holding the kite explode. WHOMP! The A-sail fills, the racing blade drops to the deck, and the rudder returns to neutral. A puff hits and the boat surges, practically tossing crewmembers backwards as the bow lifts. The truth display flickers, its fast processing chips barely able to keep pace with Numbers’s raw power: 12.3, 14.7, 16.8, 18.3, 19.5. I hold my breath, my eyes glued to the fun-meter. Then, in a moment of pure magic, a puff coincides with a big stern wave and the boat takes off and the truth display flickers—20.28—before sliding south, vanishing in the spray, froth and wake as so many other numbers have done before it.

The moment is fleeting, but sweet.

Posted: January 23, 2008

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