On August 7 the Woods Hole Knockabout Fleet sailed to mark K and back. K is a buoy off Trunk River, near where the bike path and Surf Drive intersect. It’s about two miles from the start and finish in Great Harbor. The current was just turning to ebb to the west in Vineyard Sound. The wind was blowing around 15 knots from the south. Insofar as our “normal” wind direction is from the southwest, it’s worth pointing out that a change in wind direction makes for changes to how a course is sailed. A tactic that is fine for a southwest breeze might be useless in a south breeze. And a tactic that might be good in a light breeze is bad in a heavy breeze.

For example, trying to dive in toward shore in a foul current, in order to get into an area where there is less current: all well and good in light air. The boat is spending a long time fighting the tide, so why not, where possible, get out of some of it, sail over less water—even with the jog in toward land—and get to the mark sooner than the competitors? Ratchet up the breeze and the time—and distance—one expends on getting into less current is still more water sailed over than the competitor simply stemming the current and sailing a straight line to the next mark. Hecate managed to demonstrate this twice on the downwind leg, but not with her usual results.

From a start in Great Harbor, it was a beat on the wind to get around Juniper Point. Then a reach to Nobska Point, followed by a run the rest of the two miles to mark K. We often say “The race begins at K,” because boats on a run tend to bunch up, the hindmost getting the wind first, and catching up with the leaders. Once the real upwind leg begins, that beat back to Nobska Point from K, there is the real race. On the way down, there’s a lot of conversation, boats are fairly close to one another, dinner plans are discussed, rumors hatched.

This start is where Xiphias excels. She invariably takes the pin-end of the line, which is further up the race course toward Juniper Point. But that’s on a southwest breeze. On a southerly breeze, that’s right just a few points on the compass, the pin-end is less favored, and a boat “down the line” is also a bit further downwind. Luciole, Ragwagon, and Scup took the upwind, committee-boat end of the line. Hecate was somewhere in the middle-to-lower end of the line, and out front. Windbag, Raja, Escargot, Luna Nova, and Holy Moly were in the middle.

As the fleet crossed toward the ferry docks, it was apparent that this was no one-tack to Juniper. The south wind might have permitted it, but the ebbing current pushed boats to the north, making the fetching of the Juniper nun out of the question. And the tacking began. Luciole had crept ahead, just upwind of Ragwagon, while Scup followed directly behind them. Hecate was below those three, but working out ahead of the fleet. Just before Juniper Point, after most boats had taken a couple tacks, Hecate simply pointed up, caught the Juniper rip, and allowed herself to be lifted clear of the Juniper buoy. Juniper Point is one of those buoys that is never cut—neither rule nor common sense will permit it: just inside the buoy is an area that the charts mark (quite charitably) as “foul.”

Luciole came over the top, having over-stood the nun, still dogged by Ragwagon and Scup. Hecate slipped inside around the buoy and bore off toward Little Harbor, intent on evading the current. Ragwagon and Scup chased Luciole. By the time the boats arrived at Nobska point, it was apparent that the strong wind on the offshore route more than made up for any current that Hecate might have evaded. In fact, Hecate seemed to demonstrate that, at least as far as where she was, the current was equally strong, and she had ceded that distance she had used in traveling down and back up again.

After the first of the two Nobska nuns, some boats tried threading their ways among the boulders of the East-Nobska moraine. Luciole dove in a small bit, giving loose cover, while Ragwagon stayed outside, followed by Scup and Escargot. After the second Nobska nun, Hecate again moved closer to shore, while Luciole-Ragwagon-Scup held the straight-line against the tide. Ragwagon closed on Luciole slowly and steadily the entire long run to mark K. At the mark, it was again clear that Hecate had accomplished little by sailing in towards shore, except one thing: she had again demonstrated that the current was equally strong closer to shore.

A building current in Vineyard Sound is an impressive thing. It’s strong everywhere, and the fleet would have the advantage of it all the way back. It seems like it takes 45 minutes to get there, and three minutes to get home. That is an exaggeration, of course, but once the leeward mark is rounded, what had been a delightfully paced lulling glide turns into a breeze-screaming-in-the-rigging, pounding-through-the-steep-chop, haul-in-and-hike-out slam-fest.

Luciole rounded still in first, followed by Ragwagon, Scup, Escargot, and Hecate. After a short port tack toward the beach, the whole fleet flopped onto starboard tack and sailed off toward West Chop. The idea is that the voluminous Vineyard Sound current is lifting a boat back toward Woods Hole, the wind is almost always stronger offshore, and more wind equals more fun equals more speed, not always in that order. However: again, the wind being slightly more southerly than southwest, even the distant L’Hommidieu Shoal was not blocking the chop. The Port tack was a splashing hobby-horse ride up and down, slamming the nose into one oncoming wave after another (literary types take note: that was foreshadowing). Luciole, the ostensible leader, decided not to cover the fleet (usually this decision goeth before a fall), and flopped back on to starboard, and, taking the waves on the beam instead of on the snout, streaked up the shore toward Nobska. By the time Luciole—still ragged by Dogwagon—tacked out for the Nobska nuns, it was clear that going up the shore had been a Good Idea. The ‘Wagon went further in under Nobska, and while both leaders enjoyed the current “kick” due south along Nobska Point, for a moment it looked as though Luciole might have gone over too soon, and would shortly be reading the name on the blue boat’s transom.

Tacking at the first nun, it was clear that a south wind would permit a straight single tack to the second Nobska nun. On a conventional southwest wind, we have to hop and skip among the boulders of the Nobska moraine, taking several tacks in the steep chop of the Nobska rip. In those conditions, the tacks are toe-stubbing, hull-stopping affairs. See, the Nobska rip was re-christened “The Zone” by enthusiastic board-sailors about forty years ago. What The Zone refers to is a large area of short steep, very steep and larger waves made when the Nobksa “kick” re-integrates with the main current of Vineyard Sound. Board-sailors called these waves “ramps” and used them accordingly for take-offs.

All well and good for a windsurfer. Give these same conditions to a fully-crewed Cape Cod Knockabout, and there’s no such flyover. The boat is eighteen feet long. The distance from trough to trough of each steep wave is about fourteen feet. Result: boat descends into the trough, buries the bow, and two-feet of solid green water comes over the foredeck and looks to rejoin its kind. It does so, indirectly, first by sequestering itself in the bilge of your boat. As the part of The Zone to be covered before the Nobska nun will be passed and allow bearing off is about a hundred yards, this means anywhere between eight and twenty such baptisms. Ragwagon discovered that it was possible to point for all you’re worth, let the current carry you out to the buoy, and sometimes, just some times, you might avoid one or two of the recurrent fillups. She closed a little on Luciole.

Going along Nobska Beach, and rounding Juniper and then returning to Little Harbor, it was somewhat of a parade. Ranks were broken only by Holy Moly, who, having less experience, swallowed more water in The Zone than most. It was later described by her skipper as “Two guys sitting on the transom while one guy bailed with a bucket.” Holy Moly dipped in toward Little Harbor, in case of needing a beach to bond with, but managed to stay afloat well enough for the ever-vigilant Committee Boat to assess their safety. Cigana, the Race Committee boat, had returned to base to call the finish, but went back out just to check on Holy Moly, hence the missing times in the results.

Luciole, still ahead, took the gun, followed closely by Ragwagon. As Luciole crossed the line, she was pleased to be met with cheers from a visiting delegation of the Pakistani Parliament that had been cross-culturally bonding out on the shacks of Great Harbor. Flags were dipped, caps were doffed.

The second-most exciting finish in the race was by Windbag, the black boat with the soul of the balcony seats: she is sporting a fresh set of rags, and sails each race better than the last. This is a mean fleet with a long learning curve. Windbag sailed gamely, finishing in the middle of the pack on a wild night. The most exciting finish of the race, however, took place between Hecate and Escargot, the Snail having tried to catch the Witch at the line, where some up-n-down jockeying for position took place. Once back on land, the rule book came out, and about an hour of (good-natured) discussion took place on the fine points of having- or not-having established an overlap; having- or not-having broken an overlap; proper course toward a mark; and so on. The post-race festivities were presided over by gracious and talented Ragwagon chefs, the whole event skipping the parking-lot tailgate and moving into the club, like the Thursday evening Ladies’ race.


1. Luciole, David Epstein, 0:00

2. Ragwagon, Peter Ochs, 0:18

3. Hecate, Rick Whidden 1:19

4. Escargot, Brett Longworth 1:22

5. Scup, Chris Warner 1:42

6. Windbag, Jake Fricke 3:20

7. Raja, Bruce Courcier 4:26

8. Luna Nova, Fran Elder

9. Xiphias, Michael Dvorak

10. Holy Moly, Tom Lanagan 19.0

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