Why race? Well, since you ask

By Kimball Livingston

There was a time in my life when I couldn’t look away from the race I was sailing and see another race going on without feeling ripped off. I wanted to do that one too. That’s how much I loved racing sailboats.

I still do. But love can’t burn that hot forever, and the relationship has finally settled down. I’ve been at this long enough now to be at ease with races missed and with all the many moods of the game, from the tactical chessboard of a slow, stuck-in-the-water leg to the nonstop emergency of racing dinghies in a building gale. I know the challenges (mostly personal) of crouching motionless in light air as well as the challenges of crawling out of bed on a stormy night on the ocean when any person of any intelligence would rather be home watching reruns of The Brady Bunch. I’ve even made peace with the part of me that rapidly forgets those nights.

No matter how good sailing may be, you can never get past the fact that cowpies happen. And no matter how bad it gets, there is always a chance that beauty will erupt. What I love about racing is the way it condenses so many of the elements that I love in sailing, period. I like to look at boats. I like to watch them sail. In that context you can’t beat coming off a starting line with a tight pack of boats surrounding you on all sides…spray flying…sails carving wind…beady eyes staring back at you from rival cockpits. I’ve done most of my own sailing on San Francisco Bay, a breezy place, and I’ve probably sailed my inshore miles at an average lifetime windspeed of better than 14 knots, with lots of 25 plus. Did I mention that I like an adrenaline high?

For years, every one of my friends raced boats, which was just as well because I couldn’t carry on a dialogue with civilians anyway. It was satisfying to be part of a team and to take pride in knowing, as we set the sails, that every member of the crew had spent time since the last race prepping for this one. Physically. Mentally. Rehearsing mistakes and corrections. In the heat of the moment, we didn’t need to talk much, and if the breeze was up and we had to take a thrashing to get the job done, well, you gotta love a good round of Last Man Standing.

Obviously, it takes a competitive streak. I’ve even heard pros say things like, “I don’t like sailing all that much; I just like to compete.” So, would they be just as happy at table tennis? No, and they know it.

The fascination of racing under sail is much grander than any of its elements. Once, I sat becalmed halfway through a Transpacific Race, scarfing coffee at dawn under a cloudless sky and laughing in stitches as a crewmate shouted, “Arriba! Arriba!” at darting seabirds. Not that I expect you to laugh about it now. You had to be there, and that’s the point. Sailing is an altered state. Racing at sea is a highly altered state. Approaching the finish of a different Transpac I found myself wandering belowdecks as we surfed down the Molokai Channel past Diamond Head. The radio was tuned to a Honolulu station that was inviting people to the Ala Wai docks to cheer us in. From the deck above came the shouts and stomping of my crewmates each time they caught a wave, and I could feel the boat lift and surge. It was time to get up there and compete for a crack at the helm, but for just a few more moments I wandered the dimmed interior, watching the gauges and thinking that I was really happy and another week of this would be just fine.

Why do I like racing? Because, even though I love all sorts of boats—rowboats, speedboats, some but not all motorboats, and sailboats of every persuasion—and even though I can be perfectly happy on a boat with garbage sails if the company is right, there is something special about handling The Perfect Sail. And most often, the place to find a perfect sail is on a racing boat.

The art of sailing is a sensory experience. We talk about “the feel” of a boat, and raceboats by nature yield the highest sensory return. Looking up at the curves of a sail, manipulating, seeing the telltales lift and feeling the helm respond, life is good. Wrapping that physical package into an intellectual game against earnest, wily, and sometimes beloved opponents is an ultimate.

I went through a period of not sailing much. For many of us there’s a time in life when it’s more important to help with the homework that to practice gybing. They say there’s a time and a place for everything, and so be it. But that was then, and this is now, and I’m back. Writing about the sport takes me to the glamour events, but I get just as much pleasure, sometimes more, sailing low-key races with my friends at home. For example—

A while back I crewed for my neighbor down the street, Mike Bonner, on his classic Golden Gate sloop, Fledgling. Golden Gates are an indigenous breed, 25 feet long, stout, and wet.
Fledgling was built circa 1934 as hull number 6 of 19.

On this evening we were out for one of the casual, end-of-the-day races that abound on San Francisco Bay in the summertime, and we were running late, so we set the outboard to full speed ahead and made for the starting line. We could see the Sausalito Yacht Club’s committee boat anchored with flags flying, and we could hear our mental clock ticking, and we had a spellbinding view of our competitors as they started without us very, very far ahead. Their sails reflected the brilliant light of the late sun, and we watched as they worked their way to weather of a deep fog bank covering central San Francisco Bay.

Suddenly we had a problem. We could of course turn around and just go home. (Naw.) We could elect to take a little cruise. (Worth considering.) Or we could sail on to the starting line, chase the fleet around in our own private race—taking care to do no harm—and then go home, which meant that we had a mission of sorts. (Done.)

We motored until we were just short of the line, shut down the motor, and sheeted in to chase those small white triangles in the distance. In the hour that followed there were moments of great beauty, of rolling mists and whitecaps and views of distant mountains. There were moments of mental acuity as we studied the variations of wind and current and worked to make crisp tacks on just the right shift in just the right patch of water and—oops—we passed two boats.

Of course we were trying to. We just hadn’t thought we’d succeed. Now we were actually mixing with the fleet, and the dishonesty of our position assumed significance even in the context of a “casual” race.

So, going up the final beat, we kept our distance from other boats. We passed the committee boat outside the line, told them we wanted to disqualify ourselves for using the motor after the five-minute gun, and shouted, “Thank you, race committee. Have a great night!”

Sunset was chilling but vivid, backlighting the hills behind a bank of rich, chewy Pacific fog. I was feeling the effects of several significant soakings as we folded the sails and coiled the sheets. When I got home the conversation went like this:

“Hi honey.”

“My god. You’re blue. How’d it go?”

“We won.”

Adapted from “Last Man Standing,” as originally published in SAIL





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