By David Schmidt
I’ll admit it: I’m terrible at learning foreign languages. I can learn a particular word in, say, Spanish, only to forget it five minutes later. This doesn’t bode well for international travel, but I can usually scrape by. So when I was invited to sail on a Swan 601 for the final day of the Swan American regatta, it never crossed my mind that I might be taking on a bit more than I could chew. Hey, it’s Newport, Rhode Island – how much Spanish would I need? None. Italian was the language du jour—del giorno—but sadly, my skills in that particular romance language are nonexistent.
I arrived at the dock and was promptly shown to the boat, Leonardo Ferragamo’s Pioneer Investments by Cuordileon, a magnificent Swan 601 that was rigged with all the go-fast goodies one could hope for: PBO rigging, a full carbon rig, powerful winches, coffee grinders, awesome carbon 3DL sails. I nearly salivated as I eyed all the tech gear, but then it dawned on me: I couldn’t understand a word that the crew was saying. I listened closely and picked out one word: bella — “beautiful”. The only reason that I caught the meaning of that word was because of Hap Fouth’s Bella Mente, the boat that took line honors in the 2006 Newport to Bermuda Race.
Minutes later I found myself fully kitted-out in a Pioneer Investments by Cuordileon team uniform. Soon I was aboard, “listening” to the crew meeting, trying to pick out any words I might know. Unfortunately for me, they weren’t talking about “bella” things anymore, but (presumably) tactics, specifically against our chief competition, Jim Swartz’s equally tricked-out Swan 601, Moneypenny. That word, I could get. I quietly resigned myself to a day of linguistic confusion and fantastic sailing, especially as the still-rising sun was burning off the remnants of a rainstorm, and Newport’s fabled wind was slowly filling in.
Motoring out past Fort Adams provided a fantastic opportunity to check out the collection of Swans that had assembled in Newport. Carbon sails and matching crew shirts were in full effect as the warships started circling the race committee boat, checking wind angles, the line’s squareness, and their jib leads. Luckily for me, a few of Cuordileon‘s crew spoke broken English, so, with the help of several “translators” I was able to discern that I was going to earn my team colors that day by dedicating horsepower to the mainsail grinding pedestal. (Only later did I piece together that there are several words for “trim” in Italian.)
The race committee smartly set several long-distance courses, allowing the big boats the opportunity to stretch out their sea legs and cover some distance without making the smaller boats race until sunset. We nabbed a flawless start (Moneypenny earned a penalty and performed a 360 near the starting line) and we were off, canning it down Narraganset Bay towards the windward mark, a buoy a few miles south of Jamestown Island’s southern end. The winds continued to build, now blowing a steady 15 – 18 knots; the opposing current kicked up waves that felt small compared to Cuordileon’s long waterline and powerful rig, but still large enough to wet down the decks and occasionally cool off the crew on the windward rail. Our navigator smartly hugged the Newport side of the course to avoid the worst of the current, and we held our lead as the smaller boats slipped farther and farther astern.
A series of roughly 20 tacks brought us to the weather mark. While my Italian might be nonexistent, I know when a crew is working fluidly, and when there is friction in the works—irrespective of language—as the volume increases the closer to disaster a crew teeters. On Cuordileon there was no volume, only cool heads, smart sailing, and solid, polite teamwork (there’s a term that’s often foreign in American sailing circles). Our kite set was flawless, and I soon found myself on the pedestal, standing opposed to a muscular bloke with slightly shorter arms than myself. As we approached a gybe, we frantically spun the handles, hauling in on the massive mainsail so as not to completely shock-load the system when the wind passed astern. This was exhausting, and I was happy to see that my Italian co patriot was also breathing hard by the time the gybe was completed. After two gybes I started to get the gist of things, as my partner on the handles was courteous enough to give me a heads up that my brawn was about to be tested.
Things got progressively more interesting as we sailed back past the starting area, hauling the mail at 10.5 – 12 knots. By this time the crew figured that I had learned the game and could fend for myself. What they grossly overestimated, however, were my language “skills”. This was exacerbated by the fact that the other grinder stopped giving me the heads-up and the crew used multiple words to signal that they needed trim on the main. Then, all hell would break loose as we would go from a “relaxed” state (hands on the handles, body in a relaxed, upright position) to full-on spinning (hands on the handles, body leaning over, shoulders fully engaged, spinning furiously) … in a matter of two seconds. Since my partner had shorter arms than myself, his throw on the handles was shorter and initially faster than mine, so I would spend a few seconds furiously trying to catch up. Inevitably, this was achieved just as he stopped spinning and the gybe was almost completed.
While I had my hands full on the handles, I was lucky to be positioned facing forwards, allowing me an unobstructed view of the foredeck and bow. Again, not a single voice was raised, even during difficult gybes. Never before had I seen such calm on such a big and powerful boat. Dialogue flowed freely from the crew boss to the foredeck, and from the braintrust to the trimmers, but, unfortunately, these educational moments were lost on me. Glancing astern, I could see that Moneypenny was still a good ways back, but they were definitely catching us on the downhill leg, thanks largely to a staysail that added horsepower to the inventory.
Cuordileon rounded our next mark in first place, and we spent the ensuing hour and a half tacking furiously, covering Moneypenny’s every course change. While this created a lot of work for the trimmers and grinders, this was of little consequence as the tactic of simply covering-at-all-cost paid off in spades: we sailed under the Newport Bridge still in first place and took the bullet a few boatlengths later. Success! High fives were exchanged all around, and soon the word “bella” began floating around the boat again. Even I understood the significance of this. Winning, irrespective of language, is always beautiful.