SAILING WITH STRANGERS
By Kimball Livingston
I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve walked onto the deck of a raceboat full of strangers and walked off with a new set of friends. It tells me something about the game. Or about the people who play the game. Or something.
Of course it’s easy to make friends when you share an interest, but there’s more here than you get out of birding with strangers, perhaps even—let’s go to the wall—bowling with strangers.
This sailing thing is pretty darned committed. It takes a bit of learning to do it tolerably well. It takes a bit of character to do it as part of a team. It can be a walk in the park. Other days, you can kill somebody or yourself.
I spend a lot of time sailing with strangers, and lately, flying home from the King’s Cup regatta in Thailand—working for Bam Bam, but that’s a story for another time—I fell to musing from seat 19A (day flight over Laos, Viet Nam, and on) about how it’s never really gone wrong for me. There’s always that awkward getting-to-know you time, and occasionally there’s the regular crew guy who’s territorial, so I just give him his territory, work quietly, and wait to grow into a role.
Usually, sailing with strangers is not complicated, if you have emotional intelligence to wait out the awkwardness. And you never know what can happen. There was the time that I jumped aboard a Cal 40 at Los Angeles Yacht Club’s annual Opening Day race, and they didn’t need me to get the boat around the course, but we had a few laughs, and a year and change later I found myself invited back aboard Radiant to sail the centennial Transpac. Add a bit more time, and I’m spinnaker flying at Catalina Island at the two-day wedding of skipper Finn Bevin’s daughter, Cole, and what could be finer than allowing life to unfold and blossom?
When I dropped into Lake Michigan to sail a Mackinac Race, I was set up with a boatload of strangers from Waukegan who happened to be friends with a fellow I had met in Mississippi at Bay Waveland Yacht Club. One thing leads to another. The poet Theodore Roethke wrote, “I learn by going where I have to go.” We sailed Jim Helquist’s and Larry Warter’s One Tonner, Spitfire, through light air, medium air, extreme heat, considerable cold, 30-knot gusts over the shoulder on a pitch-black night (I got spanked, and I learned some lessons about steering in close-together lake waves), and it was raining sideways at dawn and I sat there rain-blind in my foul-weather shorts, grinning like a fool and thinking, “I love this. Why do I love this? This is nuts. This is nonsense but I do love it, I do, and I’m getting it all, and there is no sensible reason for any of us to be here sleep deprived and soaked in a sunrise that we can’t even see, and yacht racing makes no sense but it’s grand (grand, I tell you) nonsense and somehow that’s the beauty of it and the reason for it and dang but your knees are turning blue, fool.”
We finished that Mackinac Race in the afternoon under spinnaker in a flood of warm sunshine. We drenched three of us including me in the ritual Mackinac rookies’ dunking in the harbor and then rallied together for the night as new sailing friends do. Nothing original. It’s a formula tried and true. Here’s Matt as we approached the bridge to Mackanac . . .
What about four people confined to a 30-foot boat for the better part of a week, and we met yesterday and as we leave the dock I’ve never sailed with any of these guys before? And this is freakin’ Alaska, and who knows what comes next.
Early on, I did nothing aboard McKie Campbell’s Cal 3/30 but creep gently from low side to low side as we tacked through light air at the start of Juneau Yacht Club’s annual race around Admiralty Island. Well before midnight, however, in an inevitable evolution of events and need, I had become a full-functioning member of a driving, trimming, tactical team working Surprise through the inland passages of Alaska. Instead of being tested by roaring winds and frigid breakers, we were tested by the light winds of a major high pressure system (we did leg two in 49 hours at a VMG of 2.13 knots) and we brought it off without any tension or barking, because that’s the way it’s supposed to be. Strangers no more. We shared a common, concentrated, cooperative effort to accomplish something meaningless to anyone but ourselves, and in the doing we lived through the discomforts, fatigue and exhilarations of midnight twilight, the breaking of dawn, whales blowing, eagles on the wing, and the wild vast beauty of an Alaska so big that most of the mountains don’t even have names. Few things that humans do together can compare.
Below is a picture I snapped of former stranger Gary Smith at the helm, working uptide to clear some floating ice that put up a darned good race against us. As I wrote from a different race, different time, different body of water but similar circumstance:
We had an afternoon of frequently slatting sail, followed by a night of frequently slatting sails (competitors’ running lights reflecting off the water; that sort of thing), followed by a morning of same. Experienced hands will recognize that beneath this narrative runs a subtext of sail changes to the drifter, back to the number one genny, to the asymmetric spinnaker, to the drifter—leading to that wondrous infestation of spaghetti-deck that greets the dawn watch following many an ad hoc decision over how to string things together. Light air sailing is fraught with challenges, most of them personal, opening a window into the character of a man whereby one might judge whether his potty training went well or ill.”
What It Is
I’ve been at this game long enough, usually as crew, to gather a few observations. Among them, that I feel for the club racer who needs crew, when the crew who show up week after week have to be retrained in the same jobs week after week. I’ll assume that anyone reading this is considerably more motivated, so here are a few thoughts for would-be crew at the bottom of the food chain, moving up.
Whatever your job is, do it do it do it.
Many years ago I was a member of a crew who took a 13-year-old on his first keelboat race. We gave him a couple of dumb jobs, and he was all over those jobs. Stand in that kid’s way at The Moment, and you could get hurt.
We looked knowingly at each other.
The “kid” was Tommy Ducharme, who has since grown up, burned out on the game, and gone to raising a family, but in the interim he became a crack foredeck man, won a Fastnet and crewed an America’s Cup, for example, all with the same non-stop energy that was there at the beginning.
In my youth, my inroad into racing on Maxis briefly turned me into a foreguy specialist. It didn’t last long (I had to move on), but I made my 151 pounds valuable in the land of giants because I was all over my dumb job. Tending foreguy is just a following job, right? Wrong. You need to be as alert as anyone else. If you go dreamy and your mind is off watching the other boats and listening to the water rush by and . . . and . . . the next sound you hear is FOREGUY! EASE THE FOREGUY FOR #!%&*!! SAKE! You have just slowed the boat and failed the team. But if that never happens, well then, my friend, you’re a star in your own mudhole, and that’s a beginning.
If you care, show that you care by bringing back an improved self, every time you walk aboard. Between events, think about the boat, the sailing, the moves.
If you make a mistake, get on with the race, but be the first one after the race to take ownership of the mistake and talk it through.
I advise beginning sailors that they have a lot to learn from crewing on race boats, even if cruising is the goal. Racing helps you learn about all the factors, beginning with sail trim, that keep a boat moving rather than (if you’re cruising), giving up two knots here or there or resorting to the diesel when you ought to still be sailing. There are a jillion keelboat skippers eager to take on crew who don’t know a lot but have a desire to learn. Helping new people learn, sharing the game—this is gratifying. But, again, some people have only enough interest to show up, so week after week they relearn the basics. If you are one of those, you will never be one of us. But if you are not that, if you just have to sail, if it eats at you when you’re away from the water, if you walk off a boat bruised and tired and grateful for the comforts of the shore and just as quickly long to be back aboard
—if you become one of us—you will never be a stranger for long, my friend.