WHYC Knockabout

On Wednesday, August 16, the Woods Hole Knockabout sailors were milling around, willing some wind to rise. It came up about an hour before dinghy-time, and by 5:30, had built to a nice 6-10 knots from the southwest. “It won’t last” was the thinking, so a rather shorter course was announced: A, Theta, Pi, Theta. For the uninitiated, Mark A is off the southeast shore of Nonamesset Island. The other marks were set in the harbor, requiring an extra loop-de-loop before the finish. Shorthand is this: beat to weather, round Mark A, run to Great Harbor and mark Theta; short beat back into the harbor to Pi; run to Theta, reach across the face of the Yacht Club docks to finish. About half the boats went out short-staffed, sailing with only two people aboard. See the chart for the Osprey-eye’s view.

The current was running to the east in Woods Hole passage, which made for inshore tacking up Nonamesset, which is our usual racing-in-a-hallway in Woods Hole. What does this mean? It means that going offshore too far results in losing to other boats while one struggles against foul current. Going inshore means grinding a new edge on one’s centerboard on the many rocks. So boats have to sail in the narrow corridor between oblivions. This is what is meant by “local knowledge.” Realize that, elsewhere, most sail racing occurs in broad, open bays, often in lakes where there is no current whatsoever. Boats have actual choices about where to sail; that is, whether to go off on a port tack or a starboard tack. There is the cheery prospect of searching out favorable variations in the wind direction. There is the possibility of clear air without any other boats above one. Woods Hole racing frequently features courses and conditions that dictate one’s path, with few choices, lots of tactical tacking, and ever-present hazards. Imagine a golf course that is a series of sand traps with a narrow corridor of fairway between tee and green—and several times a day the layout changes! That is racing in Woods Hole. Or imagine a tightrope-walker on a windy day; well, you get the idea: There is often a single best course, and boats that stray from that line find themselves behind.

At the start, Hecate was halfway down the line. Below her was a cluster of Knockabouts, eight of which were over the line early. The pin-end, all the way to lee, was heavily favored. Luciole had a superb start at the pin, at the gun, with Xiphias immediately above her. Since there was no recall, the entire fleet sailed over the hapless Firefly, and she had to fight her way back to the middle of the pack for the rest of the race. Two boats that were over early did return and restart, but Old Salt didn’t see which ones. What happened was a race committee wardrobe malfunction. The restart signal flag was not located quickly enough, and so, with only a semblance of fairness, the fleet went off and raced.

Rather than give an account of which boats were where (which I don’t exactly remember, since I was mostly looking at the yarns), and rather than giving an account of Victorious Tactical Decisions (which gained Luciole a couple positions at the expense of other boats’ Regrettable Tactical Blunders), Old Salt will give an outline of the Most Desired Tactics in this sort of a race. To wit: at the start, have clear air, and only clear air, with no boats above thee. If off to leeward, attempt to point up in front of one’s nearest competitors, while avoiding the same fate being imposed upon one from below. The starts uniformly being in Great Harbor, the first mark to obey is Can Nine, just north of Grassy Island. At Grassy, harden up as much as you can without totally losing your forward speed. The next mark to respect is Red Nun number 2, on the north side of the current plume known as “The Strait.” It is possible, on many common southwest wind days, to point up higher than number 2. This will get a boat disqualified, as it is a mark that Woods Hole Knockabouts respect, by rule. The buoy’s partner, green can number one, does not have to be respected, but, on the way out, it sits too far to the west to get above. Entering the current plume is a catch-22: boats need to maintain their pointing high into the wind, but to do so means spending more time in the foul current (on an east tide; on a west tide it’s a lee-bow and everybody wins). Not to point up, or to “foot off” might get one across the current more quickly, but at the expense of hard-fought yards “to weather.”

After crossing the Strait, if one has given away too much by footing off and trying to cross the plume quickly, a boat can take a tack up toward Red Ledge. This is a bunch of rocks, some of which are visible above the surface, that preside over the middle of Woods Hole Passage. On the southwest wind, if you tack up behind the Red Ledge, it’s usually a concessionary action: the fleet has passed you by and you want to get more upwind before crossing the next current plume, which spills out of “Broadway,” between Red Ledge and Nonamesset. Since this will also put one in Very Strong Foul Current for a longer while, tacking up behind Red Ledge is sometimes known as “the Death Tack,” and signals Desperation more than Ingenious Tactic.

The next mark that has to be respected, really, is number 5, which we agree, again by rule, to leave to port on the way out, which keeps boats mostly out of the ferry channel. On the chart, number 5 is about halfway between Juniper Point and Nonamesset Island. Depending on conditions, meaning the exact angle of the wind, plus the velocity of the current, obeying number 5 means it’s time to take a tack toward Nonamesset. Here boats generally get a lee bow on the east tide. You want to go up under the island, but not so far that (a) you lose wind in the lee of the land, or (b) your subsequent starboard tack takes you into the Sneaky Rocks at the easternmost shore of Nonamesset Island. We’ll deal with a west-running current some other time. It was east on this night.

Now comes practically the only place where there is anything like a tacking field. Since there’s foul current in Vineyard Sound, boats need to tack closely up the shore of Nonamesset. See the chart where there are zig-zags along the shore, leading up to mark A. At each slight westerly indentation in the shore, it’s advisable to tack in. This will keep a boat closest to the shore, and out of the foul current. It will also give one that exquisite sensation of chewing tinfoil in one’s gonads, as the shore here has many rocks. How close in to shore a boat will go depends mostly on three things: a skipper’s knowledge of the area; someone on board having polarized sunglasses; and the boat owner’s facility with repairing a centerboard. But it is just plain true that the closer to shore one dares to sail, the more one gains on boats farther out. That port tack in toward shore is two things: it’s sailing into the setting sun (#happyplace), and for crews, it’s terrifying, as the skipper seems hell-bent to scuttle a perfectly sound hull on an inhospitable shore where the natives are known for things like inbreeding, cannibalism and hedge funds. Not to mention the tick infestation.

There is one outcrop of rocks that sits off the southeasternmost “corner” of Nonamesset. In order to get around it, boats have to take a starboard tack out in foul current until they can make it around these rocks. Another catch-22: Go out only far enough to pinch up above the rocks, and one will sail slowly, in foul current. Go out far enough to “foot off” past the rocks, and one might be spending too much time, again, in foul current. Where is the sweet spot? There isn’t one. You have to look at other boats, and try to do just a little better than them. That rock outcrop can be sailed inside of—downwind on a southwest. But not upwind. The downwind passage is called “Carl’s Canal,” for Carl Beverly, who regularly took his Knockabout, Windward, through its narrow confines. Old Salt once tried to follow Carl through, only to find himself blanketing Beverly and, with rocks both left and right, earned a penalty for clunking directly into Windward’s transom.

After Carl’s rocks, boats sail up the beach until they can fetch mark A. Usually it’s a parade by this point, the boats having sorted themselves into some rankings. Occasionally, there are still close tacking duels. In this race, Luciole, watching Ragwagon just ahead of her, forgot to hail Elf, sailing just behind and above her, of her intention to tack away from the bouldery shore. The Firefly’s skipper had to iron his hands. Since A sits in foul current, it is customary to overstand, or sail a healthy distance upwind of the mark. No boat wants to have to take two extra tacks to round a mark out in foul current. It’s ignominious, to say the least. After rounding Mark A, the fleet generally sails close in to shore, which is no longer a tradeoff between wind and current. Now it’s a tradeoff between wind and position. The latter is important because boats on a downwind run defend their position by not letting other boats sail above them and pass them to weather. The control on this is the obdurate shore of the island. Again, crews look pleadingly at skippers while the pilot “defends” by sailing as closely among the rocks as possible, daring an attacking boat to go closer still.

And all the while everyone watches the wind indicators atop the masts. Keeping one’s boat moving on the run is paramount. And sailing on the lee shore of an island means that the wind can change, in this case often coming suddenly from the beam. Boats have to be ready to drop their lifted centerboards as to benefit fully from sudden puffs from the side. And dropping the board in a rocky shallows has its own implications, too. Sailing on this reachy-run back across Woods Hole passage, boats have to attack and defend. This can mean running up against the current into Broadway, in order to maintain position, then dropping back to leave Red Ledge to the west, which we do by rule. More sailing along the rocks. And then similar attacking/defending after the ledge until boats drop down to obey nun number 2 by Grassy Island. In this race, there was the final loop-de-loop, so no one paid any attention to Can 9, except that one has to obey it, and it gives one a reference point for “Dottie’s Rock,” which is between Grassy Island and Can 9.


1. Hecate, Rick Whidden, 0:00

2. Raja, Matt Sutherland, 0:58

3. Xiphias, Michael Dvorak, 1:39

4. Escargot, Greg Packard, 2:31

5. Scup, Chris Warner, 2:58

6. Luciole, David Epstein, 3:01

7. Luna Nova, Kathy Elder, 3:09

8. Whim, Norm Farr, 3:25

9. Ragwagon, Peter Ochs, 3:31

10. Elf, Skip Crowell, 4:00

11. Winsome, Jake Fricke, 4:10

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