Stompin' on the Terra

"And he said, 'Stomp upon the Terra.'" – Lord Buckley (via Hunter Thompson)

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Location: Plum Island, Massachusetts

05 March 2012

Confessions of Rail Meat

I'm in the Princess Juliana Airport in St. Maarten. It's Monday afternoon and my flight to Newark is delayed three hours. Coming AND going, my experiences with airlines this trip have been less than stellar: Jet Blue lost my baggage on the way down and now this. I'm hopeful I'll still make my connection to Boston although I'm kinda skeptical.

The view from the airport terminal makes up for the inconvenience somewhat: on the far side of the lone runway, the light-green-and-teal-blue waters of Simpson Bay taper to the darker blue of the Caribbean Sea, and all the water is capped by the snow white of wind-blown waves. Yes, Roman Abramovich's obscenely large motor yacht (and Luna is Roman's small boat) lying at anchor mars the Simpson Bay scenery somewhat, but the fact remains that it's still paradise outside the airport terminal.

I'm leaving paradise after three days of racing in the Heineken St. Maarten Regatta. It was an interesting, entertaining weekend, despite our boat's poor showing. We were DFL, although one (or two, I forget which) boat in our class retired. And the boat that finished just ahead of us failed to round the farthest-out marks in Friday's course; had that boat been disqualified or done the honorable thing and retired from that race, we'd have finished another spot higher. No matter. It was a fun weekend of racing, partying and getting sunburned; I'm quite sure I'll be back for this event again someday.

My job aboard Lady Ann was actually a variety of jobs. I was responsible for the port side running backstay. What that means is that I was in charge of sheeting in and letting out the block-and-tackle system that extends from the left-rear corner of the boat to the top of the mast. There's a similar arrangement on the right (starboard) side too, and the systems alternate depending on which tack the boat is on (which side of the boat the wind is coming over) in order to help stabilize the mast and rigging.

Whenever we would switch from a starboard tack (the wind coming over the right side of the boat) to a port tack, I'd crank in the backstay as soon as the front of the boat passed through the wind. Going the other way, I'd loosen the backstay when we went from a port tack (wind coming over the left side) to a starboard tack, and pull the whole pulley-and-cable system forward of the sail and secure it to a cleat on the deck.

Once the running backstays were set, I'd hustle to the windward side of the boat and plop my ass down on the rail, alongside everyone else on the crew who wasn't steering the boat or trimming the main sail.

In other words: my role was largely to get my ample body weight to the windward side in an effort to prevent the boat from heeling over too far. So my principle assets for crewing this weekend are one, my aforementioned size, and two, my ability to move that rotundity quickly and smoothly around the boat.

I'm exaggerating a bit, of course. I did a lot more than just crank in and out on a winch and serve as ballast. Given my strength and size, I wound up doing a lot of the chores that others in the crew (two 60-something Dutchmen, one 40-year-old Dutchman, and one small Scottish woman) couldn't do: hoisting heavy sails and anchors; controlling things on the heaving, wet foredeck of the boat; moving heavy things such as anchors around; etc.

The other members of the crew were trimming sails using electric winches since the forces involved were too much for them to be able to do much else. This was my first time on a boat with electric winches and I have to say: they're a pretty nice feature. I've never been interested in them personally but it sure was nice to hoist a mainsail or crank in on a wind-filled headsail with just the push of a button. I'll have to think about an electric winch (just one) on board my boat-of-the-future if only to raise the mainsail quickly when I'm out there on my own.

So once again my sailing experience was broadened largely through osmosis: watching Boogie and Marlies and how they managed the myriad different tasks required to run a boat. The next step really is to do more helming and sail trimming, and that can really only be done on my own boat, since anyone else I crew for is going to put me to work on brute-force chores rather than on tasks requiring finesse and judgment. It's that age-old quandary: how do you get the job? By having experience. And how do you get experience? By having the job.

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02 March 2012

Serious Fun: The Heineken St. Maarten Regatta

If we didn't finish DFL we certainly weren't much farther ahead. The first race of the 2012 Heineken Regatta in the waters around St. Maarten finished a couple of hours ago, but I've yet to bother finding out how the Lady Ann did.

Not that it wasn't fun and not that things didn't go well. But we have so many handicaps that the likelihood of us placing highly are as slim as the possibility that I'll go home on Monday NOT looking like a lobster that's been boiled for far too long. And after four days on the Caribbean, trust me: my skin is already fried.

The bottom line, pun intended, is that the Lady Ann has a modern underbody and a modern keel, so her rating in the eyes of race organizers is that she must be a fast boat. But we're not racing with a spinnaker -- or even a gennaker, a hybrid between a spinnaker and a genoa -- so our downwind legs aren't exactly blistering. Going to windward, Lady Ann performs reasonably well but with all the extras on board for cruising -- the creature comforts below that facilitate her existence as a charter vessel -- she's bloated way beyond the light weight of her competitors who skim over the sea, taking better advantage of the gusts.

As if Lady Ann's limitations weren't debilitating, her crew would cripple even a speed demon. Yes, we've been practicing this week but none of us are true racers. And none of us has been in our role WITH the others on THIS boat so that we can anticipate better. We're all still dependent on our leaders, Boogie and Marlies, who tell us what to do -- trying to keep it as simple as possible all the time -- and then end up babying us through the task step-by-step. No matter how much better we get, however, we also have limitations brought on by strength (or the lack thereof) and age (or the advanced nature thereof). Suffice to say: We're getting better, but we are NOT a well-oiled machine. And it's safe to say we never will be.

So combine all of those factors and apply them to a boat competing against boats that are 80-plus feet long, and longer, and crewed by a dozen-plus sailors and Lady Ann's goals wind up being a little more down to Earth.

Not that it really matters how well we do. I mean: win, lose or draw, we're sailing on the Caribbean on a lovely yacht. The water is turquoise, the sun shines brightly and the wind whistles in the rigging. Pick any cliche you can think's here for the living.

But as mellow as I like to think I'm becoming as I mature (cough, cough), getting smoked offends my competitive nature, I must admit. I've been able to dial back my amp level when I play beer-league hockey, you'd think I could dial it back when I'm out sailing. But there's something about competition that makes me want to tweak every little aspect of the boat and crew, trim the sails on a second-by-second basis, and strategize to the Nth degree, all in the quest for microscopic increase in speed and being first over the line. I guess old habits die hard.

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