I have always felt that real sailing belongs on the ocean blue. The tang of the salt air, the gulls wheeling overhead, the playful barks of the sea lions as they swam to investigate our nineteen foot Prindle racing catamaran—they all added a certain atmosphere to the feel of the boat skipping over the waves.
So, when I found out that our next race would be held on Huntington Lake, I didn’t feel a great deal of enthusiasm. Lakes were…tame.
Still, it was a mountain lake, ringed by pine trees and nestled in the snow-capped Sierras. Pretty. And the party afterward in the campground rec room would be fun—as long as I kept an eye on whoever was mixing the drinks. Sailors can have a wicked sense of humor.
We readied ourselves on race day—standing the mast in our trailerable catamaran, setting the sails, and donning our racing wetsuits. The excitement of racing permeated throughout the crowd of spectators, captains, and crew.
I was crew, so my job was to keep an eye on the small jib sail up front, adjusting the line to keep the proper angle as the wind shifted. My not-yet husband Tom was captain, manning the mainsail and tiller.
Once we were on the water, everyone jockeyed for position as we waited for the gun. We all wanted to be close to the starting line, but not too close. If we got pushed over before the race officially began, we’d have to go back and start over again.
Our start put us in the middle of the fleet, and Tom broke away from the crowd on a port tack, a gutsy move. Sailors heading into the wind can’t aim straight for the windward mark—they have to veer back and forth in a series of zigzags, called tacking. Boats on a starboard tack—those that have the wind coming from the right-hand side—have the right-of-way. If two boats are on a collision course, the boat on the port tack must yield. This can cost a boat valuable distance we might not be able to make up later.
On the other hand, a port tack kept us out of the wind shadow of the leaders, giving us a better chance at getting out in front. It’s one of those decisions that no one can tell if it was wise or not until it’s over.
That day it worked brilliantly. Our speed built and the windward hull lifted us out of the water. This might sound like a problem, but catamaran racers—those whose boats have two hulls—expect it. Catamarans lack the deep keels of monohulls, so sailors who race them can’t drive through the waves. Instead, we skittered across the surface like water bugs.
To keep the catamaran from tipping over, the captain and crew have to stand on the hull that’s risen above the waterline. This is less dangerous than it sounds because we clip ourselves to a special line, called a trapeze wire, which hangs from the mast for this purpose. This is called going on trap.
I hooked myself to my wire and stood on the rising hull, reveling in the feel of the boat beneath me. Because of the shifting winds, the boat felt like a living thing, almost like riding a very smooth horse while standing. If you can find the sweet spot, where the perfect balance of wind and driving force come together, that’s called being in the groove, and it feels wonderful.
We found our groove quickly, and as the crew member running the jib sail, it was my job to keep us there. But even though I had to keep an eye on the shape of the sail, other things caught my attention as well. The white water curling up from the leeward hull, the snap of the mainsail as a gust of wind hit, the resinous scent of the surrounding pines, and the pristine snow line only a few hundred feet up. But I couldn’t savor it long. After only a few minutes Tom called, “Tacking!”
The hull came down and I unclipped my line, released the tension on the jib, and ducked down to roll along the trampoline—the connecting fabric between the two hulls. There’s no time to mess about because the main sail passes right through the area where our bodies just were. If the boom connected with our heads, it would put a very painful damper on the day.
The tack worked well, and we had a glorious run. Tom wove us in between the other boats flawlessly, and we rounded the mark first in our class, headed downwind.
A downwind run doesn’t require tacking since the wind’s driving force was behind us. But since you’re not standing several feet above the water’s surface, it’s a good deal wetter. Tom and I traded grins as we wiped spray from our faces. We were several boat lengths ahead of our nearest competitor. This race was ours.
As the final mark came into view, we worked up suitable jibes to use at the evening get-together. We’d been on the receiving end after our last race, and we were looking forward to evening the score.
We rounded the mark and turned into the final upwind leg. I got on trap first and was dialing in the jib when I heard, “Oh, crap!” followed by a splash.
My head snapped around. Tom was nowhere in sight. Where was he? I blew loose the sails to stop our progress as one boat after another passed. “Tom?” I called, but there was no reply.
Where could he be? We were on a lake, for pity’s sake. It’s not as though a shark could have gotten him.
Wait. What if he’d been hit by one of the many boats that had whizzed by? I scanned the water’s surface urgently and cursed Tom’s choice of a dark blue wetsuit. “Tom!” I yelled as I readied myself to dive.
“I’m here,” came a faint voice to the left of the stern.
My knees gave way and deposited me on the trampoline. “Why didn’t you answer?” I bit back more scolding as the poor guy heaved himself aboard, soaked and thoroughly disgruntled. He’d had a much worse time than me.
“Sorry about that,” he said. “I had to duck under to clear a snag.”
“That’s all right,” I said. “I was just worried.”
Tom shook his head. “I can’t believe it. My line didn’t catch on my harness when I went out on trap. We just snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.”
I briefly pictured the future teasing in store and winced. “That’s okay. Come on–we’ve got a race to finish.”
The corners of Tom’s mouth turned up in an answering grin. “We do. Let’s see if we can make it to the end in a single tack.”
We clipped on our trap lines and headed for the finish.