It’s been said golf is a good walk spoiled—and if ever the same could be said for a sailboat race’s effect on an otherwise enjoyable offshore passage, it would have been aboard the J/130 Saga at the end of the 2017 Marblehead to Halifax Race.
The eight of us comprising the crew, including our intrepid skipper, Marblehead sailor Kris Kristiansen, gave it our best, the boat was well prepared, we’d shown good boatspeed early on and had been happy with our plan of attack. But when it came time for the fleet to converge again off Nova Scotia’s southern shore, what should we see but our closest competition in PHR-2 a mile or so ahead of us in the haze—close enough that we might still hope, but in vain.
A funny thing happened, though, on our way to maritime misery—a good passage well-sailed, compounded by what can only be described as a kind of meteorological magic carpet ride across the Gulf of Maine, so that the next thing everyone knew, we really couldn’t have given a damn.
Crossing the finish line off McNabs Island, we cheered the race committee, the beer came out and everyone high-fived and shook hands like we’d been first to finish. Despite ending up toward the bottom half of our section, I can honestly say it was one of the most enjoyable races I’ve ever taken part in.
The Human Factor
It all began a week or so earlier on my introduction to the crew during a couple of practice sails out of Marblehead. Different ships, different splices—and different personalities as well. Although this would be Kris’s fourth trip to Halifax and much of the crew, including Davy Crowell, John McMahon and Brian Schwartztrauber, were race veterans as well, he still wanted to put the crew as a whole through its paces to make sure we all knew our jobs. Of course, as is inevitably the case, while we did a lot of things right, we also did more than a few things wrong. Whenever that happened, though, I was immediately struck by how everybody seemed far more concerned with learning from whatever mistakes we may have made as opposed to pointing fingers. As I’m sure any number of readers out there can attest, this is most definitely not the way people roll aboard all too many sailboats!
I was also a little shocked by Kris’s behavior at the helm: specifically, making sure that everybody—and I mean everybody, even yours truly, who Kris barely knew from, well, Adam—had a turn. Again, if anyone made any mistakes—like when I steered Saga too quickly through a gybe not once, but twice, so that both times the chute ended up wrapping around the forestay—Kris just offered a quiet observation or two on how things might be improved, adding he was sure next time it would be better. That was it.
Crewmembers Davy Crowell and John McMahon also revealed a penchant for bursting into song from time to time, apropos of absolutely nothing. Country, classics from the ’80s, it seemed anything and everything was on the playlist. Heavens, I couldn’t help thinking to myself, what kind of a Zen-like crowd have I gotten myself mixed up with?
And then there was the weather.
Marblehead is by any measure one of the most beautiful sailing venues on the planet. And sunny skies combined with a fair wind in the low teens out of the west-southwest only made it all the more gorgeous as we motored our way out to the start off Marblehead Neck. Milling about with 72 other boats taking part in the 37th running of this biennial classic we saw everything from the Class 40s Dragon and Toothface2 lining up in PHR-1 to the five J/120s and two other J/130s in our own section, the red-hot Mills 68 Prospector in IRC-1, the 72ft L. Francis Herreshoff-design ketch Ticonderoga, and the Freedom 40 Snow Cat and Stanley Paris’s Kiwi Spirit II sailing in the PHRF-Cruising Division.
If there’s one thing I love about sailing, it’s the variety of sailboats out there, and in my mind, the mark of a great regatta is seeing plenty of examples of the different types. New England, of course, is home to countless different designs representing a full spectrum of the state of naval architecture over the years, and it shows in the Marblehead-Halifax.
After that, it was buckle up and start racing as we hardened up for the short dogleg in toward the neck to do a flyby of the spectator fleet. Not surprisingly, things were a bit fluky with the wind swirling off the land around the first mark. But bearing away toward the offset took care of all that, and soon we had our A2 up (affectionately known as “Bubba”) and the bow pointed toward Brazil Rock, off the tip of Nova Scotia, on a bearing of 93 degrees magnetic, roughly 240 nautical miles away.
Again, it would be hard to overemphasize just how perfect the weather was. (Prospector would go on to set a new course record of 28 hours, 28 minutes: see A Flurry of Broken Records in SAIL’s September 2017 issue.) And all that afternoon, that evening and the following day, we pretty much just let Saga do her thing as the breeze bounced between 7 and 14 knots, and she kept chugging along at 9, 10, 11 knots.
As she did so, the crew also rapidly got into its groove, with Davy, Kris, Jason Maloney and Brian on one watch, and Amanda Higgins, John McMahon, Jon McClain and me in the other. Despite it being their first-ever offshore race, Jason and Amanda took to the lifelike they’d been born to it. As for my watch mates “Homeless” Jon McClain (the explanation of this nickname will have to wait for another time) and John McMahon, they are both guys you can’t help but enjoy sailing with, no matter what the weather. Everyone worked together, and everyone was eager to lend a hand, no matter what the time of day or night. You would have thought this bunch had been sailing offshore together since forever.
One slight hiccup: just before sunset on the first day I was at the wheel when we ran into something so large I thought at first we had run aground. At the same time, there was something oddly yielding about this “rock,” and as the rig was finishing up its rattling, I could have sworn I felt something large and fin-like brush up against the bottom of the hull.
Our first thought was that we had just hit a whale. Looking aft, though, all we could see was a light-colored smudge and a strange bit of turbulence. Nothing actually broke the surface, and we decided it must have been an especially large ocean sunfish, which made me feel a little better, though not much. Immediately afterward, the off-watch, which had just been settling down for a few hour’s rest, made a quick check for any leaks. Fortunately, Saga was fine, and we got ourselves back into race mode again.
Suffice it to say, it was one of the stranger and more disconcerting things I’ve ever experienced afloat. I still feel kind of lousy about running into whatever it was that we ran into, and sincerely hope he or she is OK.
There’s a Hole — in my race
And so it went, straight through that night and all the following day—a fair breeze, sunny skies and a full moon so bright I swear you could have read by it. It never even got that cold.
If there was any kind of a fly in the ointment, it was the fact that the wind was far enough aft that we found ourselves sailing a touch higher off the rhumb than we might have otherwise liked. However, it was never anything we didn’t think we could handle—at least until late the second evening when we finally ran out of breeze.
They say offshore sailboat races are won or lost at night, and we definitely lost ours then. I’d like to say we were just unlucky, and maybe we were. But then again, maybe we weren’t. Maybe we just didn’t do a good job of keeping the boat moving. It’s hard to say for sure. I, for one, was a bit sleepy at the time and not necessarily at my best.
One thing’s certain—we sure as hell never gave up. Nor was there any of the sniping or recriminations I’ve witnessed aboard some of the other boats I’ve sailed on. Kudos, especially, to Kris. It’s not easy watching your carefully laid plans all go sideways after Neptune decides to throw you a curve. But hey, that’s sailboat racing. Someday it’ll be our turn.
After that—well, you know how things went from there. With the dawn, the wind also returned—albeit with a good deal less intensity than before—and we continued reaching along through a thin haze. Every now and then we’d see a pod of whales in the distance, that or have to alter course to dodge another sunfish. More and more boats began popping up on the horizon as the fleet zeroed in on Halifax, and it quickly became apparent that these were not the boats we still wanted to be sailing with at this point—especially not Jeffrey Eberle’s J/130 Cilista, which we espied a mile or so ahead.
Just to keep things fun, we threw in a series of gybes in the hopes of creating a bit of separation and maybe catching a favorable shift. But it was not to be, as the Cilista crew clearly knew what it was doing and covered us gybe for gybe every step of the way.
Afte that, coming into Halifax’s outer harbor, things got interesting again, as the wind went forward, and we watched the XP 38 Amadeus V first round up into the wind and then drop its chute, prompting us to do the same. Props to Brian for immediately rigging up the A2 so that it would be ready to hoist again if necessary: because that’s exactly what we did when the wind went aft a few minutes after that.
At this point, I was at the helm again, and though having the time of my life, thought it might be best to relinquish the wheel, assuming Kris would want to take us across the finish. This was Saga, though, and I was sailing with Kris Kristiansen and that ain’t Kris’s way. “Are you sure,” he said in his usual friendly, gravelly voice from where he was standing alongside the bow pulpit.
“Yeah, I don’t want to hog all the fun,” I said.
“OK,” Kris said, and the next thing I know it wasn’t Kris standing by the helm, but Amanda: on her very first offshore race...taking the wheel...straight toward the finish. Suffice it to say, it was one of the coolest and most generous things I’ve ever seen on a raceboat—all the more so because you could tell that as far as Kris was concerned it was no big deal. It’s just what you do when you’re out sailing with friends.
It’s often been said it isn’t whether you win or lose it’s how you play the game. And while I don’t know if I entirely agree (there is, after all, something to be said for winning!) I do wholeheartedly subscribe to the notion that how you play the game is vital, especially when things don’t end up turning out as planned.
In recent years, the sport of sailboat racing has begun to be taken awfully seriously by an awful lot of people—to the point where I seriously question whether it isn’t jeopardizing their ability to just have fun. Thank goodness there are still plenty of programs out there like Saga’s: programs where, win or lose, the crew not only plays the game the way it should be played, but where sailing remains the wonderful experience it is; programs where being a part of the crew not only makes you feel proud of what you’re doing but lucky to have had the good fortune to become a sailor in the first place.
Ed Note: For more on the Biennial Marblehead-to-Halifax Ocean Race, including complete results from this year’s race and information on the next race in 2019, go to marbleheadtohalifax.com