Sailing races are like golf. Except for the green fairways and the little ball and the clubs and the sails and the…okay: it’s nothing like golf. Except perhaps in the constant battle to integrate a lifetime of experience into a few moments of execution.
On Wednesday, August 14, winter was coming. The wind was from the north. And we all know what that means: scientists packing up Subarus. And a lee shore. And fickle breezes coming over the land. Fickle light breezes. The course was FEFJ, which, in more normative language translates to a start and finish in Great Harbor, with the following track through the water: First, a reach out to Coffin Rock on the far side of Great Ledge; then a reachy close-beat up to Nobska Beach, a runny reach (no, not like a nose) back to Coffin Rock (leaving it to starboard this time), a close reach up to Little Harbor, a loose reach up to Juniper Point, whereupon boats had to leave the current-shelter of Juniper and jibe around the Juniper Point nun, then a close reach to the finish.
The tide turned east in Woods Hole Passage about an hour before the start, so there was a building and significant easterly current throughout the race. Thus, unlike golf, the entire course was a water-hazard. And add to that the Steamship hazard. We all know that, in Woods Hole, the ferries have right-of-way over everything. A big boat in a narrow area with limited ability to maneuver and concomitant consternation of powerful currents is rather a risk. But, sometimes we push it.
I am now going to let you in to the pre-race meeting that occurs every week between the Fleet Captain (a humble stooge who, like a sacrificial penguin, has been pushed to the edge of the ice-floe to test for Leopard Seals) and the Race Committee (See Blake’s painting of God judging Adam).
When William Blake went out to the Thames in his spare time, he witnessed many a pre-race planning session, and used this as his model for his painting, which, really, is the Fleet Captain begging the Race Committee for a course.
This is the nerve-center, the SAC post for the nuclear planning division of the Cape Cod Knockabout race. It is in this conference where the debate rages: given the wind (rising or falling; how much, and can we get there and back in the allotted time?), and our sailorly desire for both upwind and downwind legs; given the ferry schedule (every fifteen minutes); given the marks that we have in existence, plus navigable buoys: where can we go? Also, too, in Woods Hole, given the current. The current makes things interesting, in the way that the dullness or sharpness of a blade can make a tomato interesting.
“Oh Captain, my Captain, may we please have a course including the Woods Hole Entrance gong, Little Harbor, the gong again, and home?”
“And have you paid your tithes?”
“Have you noticed that this course takes the fleet across the ferry channel four times in one hour?”
“Well yes, but—”
“And have you noticed that some among you have a habit of gathering daisies in the ferry channel?”
“Now that’s not fair—”
“That’s the eleventh commandment: Honor thy Ferry—”
“No, it’s not! There’s no such thing. You’re just afraid we’ll catch flack from the Steamship Authority, the Coast Guard, the Environmental Police, the Sheriff’s boat, and Falmouth Harbormaster…”
“In truth,” sayeth the Race Committee, “I am not so feared of the Harbormaster. Nor any ship afloat. But there is Safety to be considered. Plus, the Eleventh Commandment, which is Thou Shalt Not Irk the Steamship Authority, lest they build out on to navigable waters an extra hundred feet, continually shatter village life with truck traffic, and obscure the aesthetics of the view from the Woods Hole Public Library.”
“But all that’s happening already.”
“See? What did I tell you? Never, but never foul a ferry.”
In the end, the Fleet Captain exited the conference backwards, scuffing along on his ancient knees, singing number 219 from the Hymnal, “Oh Now Let Us Praise the Wisdom of the Race Committee,” and accepting a lesser course, with no beat, no run, maybe one tack, and some pretty streamers, and the promise of an entrée to be named later for a tailgate party sometime next summer.
At the start, it was Ragwagon at the leeward end of the line, by the Committee Boat (hmmm), with Hecate and Scup nearby. At the weather end of the line, Luciole was busy playing loop-de-loop with Luna Nova and Raja, and all three started very late. In the middle it was Escargot, Windbag, Rumblefish and Xiphias. And Salty Dog, who we’ll have to keep an eye on. The wind blew, the wind waned. The fleet sailed into a bass drum off Parker Flats. A bass drum is like a doldrum, only much more profound. Raja, Windbag, Luna Nova, and Luciole put on their starboard turn-signals and tried to sail around the stalled fleet by going south, more into the channel, for the better air that was undoubtedly there offshore. Just as things were starting to look good, the fleet drifted out from the lee of Juniper Point and found a delightful breeze and set off cantering for Coffin Rock.
In Woods Hole, much as we try to sail in places where the current doesn’t affect the races…I’m sorry, there’s just nowhere to go from that. The current was cooking along to the east, which means that going north and south is like riding sidesaddle on a waterfall. Coriolis effect, whatever: the current adds an aspect of vertigo to the whole course. It’s like those dreams where you can’t stand up. You keep on bearing away for the mark and the mark keeps driving sideways in the other direction.
Ragwagon led the rounding and boats hardened up for Nobska Beach. This was intended to be a beat, with tacking and choices. Keep in mind the east tide was pushing boats off toward the Nobska nun, so it was a simple matter of footing off in order to keep on the mark. The parade continued: Ragwagon, Hecate, Scup, Xiphias, Windbag, Escargot, Rumblefish, Luciole, Luna Nova, Salty Dog, Raja, or something to that effect. Looping back around Coffin Rock, Luciole moved on Escargot and then Rumblefish. Salty Dog began scheming.
Getting around Juniper Point in a foul current and light air (from the north, no less, thus making the wind itself a player) can be one of the great pleasures of current-play in Woods Hole. Without enough wind, it can make for eleven boats stretching backwards in a line from the Juniper Point nun, rather like a tentacle of frustration. On this night, however, there was just enough breeze for the fleet to get around. The tactic is to sail up toward Juniper point on the east side, wait for the crew to shriek in terror about the submerged boulders, turn left and creep out from behind the land where the Juniper rocks more or less shield one from the worst of the current. At the nun, a quick jibe, and off you go gathering-nuts-in-May toward Parker Flats, splitting the difference between less current inshore and more wind (in theory) further away.
Racing can be rather black and white. In this case, the white boat, Salty Dog, seemed to find her private wind and caught up half the fleet. The black boat, Windbag, well, we owe her a word of apology. In the annals of Famous Curses, there is the Sports Illustrated Cover Curse. Wherein: good press and your picture on the cover means you will lose. Last week Windbag came in for praise for their progress in the Woods Hole fleet. Curse effected: this week, poor Windbag, who was moving well on the first leg, couldn’t seem to find her foils with both hands. Was it the Juniper rounding? Was it being blanketed by the fleet? Old Salt apologizes for the cover picture, for the praise, for the death of Mama Cass. There’s always next week.
East tide, light air. Ragwagon moved northwest toward Great Harbor. The wind grew fluky on the west side of Juniper. Hecate climbed on her. Scup and Xiphias moved up. Even Luciole, who, for a delirious moment looked to be scooting along toward the ferry docks on the inside, where, in theory, there should be no wind whatsoever, even Luciole was moving. And then, a blast of a horn. The Ferry. She was waiting in her slip like a panther on a branch, just watching the Knockabouts sauntering before her like baby gazelles on the savanna. Her propwash growled around her bows, looking like nothing so much as salivating. She started out of the slip. Eleven Knockabouts began to cross the channel.
Ragwagon and Hecate were up toward Grassy Island, almost out of range. Xiphias was gliding along, also offshore, slowly, looking more and more like a collision waiting for a place to happen (it is worth referencing a Most Gross Foul award garnered by Xiphias several decades ago for ending up IN the ferry slip with the ferry coming in). Scup was starting to move, if nothing else, out of raw fear. And here, dawdling by Parker Flats, came wittle Luciole, skippered by none other than that sacrificial penguin from earlier in this account. That same penguin who had gone to each of the skippers on land and admonished them to stay out of the way of the Great White Boat. And Luciole held her course. The tower of ivory steel, loaded to the gills with tourists and traffic, with trucks and the startlingly entitled tax-base of Dukes County, the ship itself trembled and giggled and moved ahead. Luciole and the Ferry. David and Goliath. Four boats crossed the channel while the ship deliberated on what part of Luciole to eat first. She eased ahead. Luciole stood out, sails curved like scimitars, calling for the behemoth to stand down. Six more Knockabouts came around the Juniper nun: it was Gulliver all over. And then, the Ferry blinked. She threw it in reverse and her prop-wash bubbled out from under her bows: Luciole would live.
The concession was short, however, and no sooner had Luciole’s transom cleared the channel than the Ferry regained her selfsense of mission and powered out of the slip, splitting the fleet in two, letting the back half drift in its eddies and windwash, dazed survivors of a battle fought to a draw. The fleet staggered in, Luna Nova, Raja, and Escargot screaming in abreast with the terror of the ferry crossing driving them hard toward the barn. And it was Luna Nova who soothed, calmed, and fed us all chili in the parking lot. The fleet has held serve.
1. Ragwagon, Peter Ochs 0:00
2. Hecate, Rick Whidden 0:05
3. Scup, Ava Warner 0:54
4. Xiphias, Michael Dvorak 1:16
5. Luciole, David Epstein 1:27
6. Salty Dog, Art Dirienzo 2:31
7. Rumblefish, Greg Polanik 2:53
8. Luna Nova, Fran Elder 3:05
9. Raja, Matt Sutherland 3:06
10. Escargot, Brett Longworth 3:07
11. Windbag, Jake Fricke 3:20