This article was originally published in April 2001 on SailNet.
"Mistakes are the portals of discovery." — James Joyce
There's a passel of quotations and maxims out there conveying the notion that we all learn more from the mistakes we make than we do from our successes. I'm a big proponent of that belief, but that doesn't necessarily make it any easier to live with the worst of those errors, particularly those that you commit in front of your peers out on the water. Eventually, with time and a little introspection, you can come to terms with your errors and morph those experiences into valuable lessons. That's the beauty of rationale. Of course it always helps to know that there wasn't anyone on hand to capture photographic evidence of your blunder.
At the Acura SORC in Miami last year, I raced aboard Bob Johnstone's J/105 and had one of those lesson-learning opportunities jump out at me like a letter from the IRS. On board, I did what I usually do—the bow, some spinnaker trimming, a little tactical backup, and some mirth control. Despite the lack of boats (we only had eight entries in our class), it was a good, competitive series with breezes that ranged from 12 to 20 knots and small choppy seas that angled across the course from the southwest. With the overall standings at the top of our class very close, there was little margin for error and we were all pretty intense about finishing well. The increasing breeze just served to amplify that mindset.
Heading into the first upwind mark during a race on one of the breezier days, we were in the lead by about two boatlengths when the wheels came off. As Bob drove toward the mark on the starboard tack layline, the waves were slamming into us squarely, causing the boat to rise and pitch like a bathtub toy. At the last moment before rounding, I picked my spot and jumped off the rail to pull the tack of the kite out of the forward hatch, under the jib, and just over the first part of the pulpit. I did all that and then sprinted aft to jump the halyard for the hoist. Before I could even make it to the mast, the bow buried under a wave and all that excess seawater grabbed the open foot of the kite and started disappearing under the lifelines with it! Talk about about your bad moments.
I quickly surveyed enough of the scene to decide I'd better hoist the kite, and fast. I figured if I could hoist it faster than the ocean was taking it under, I'd win the battle, we'd get the kite up, and still be in the hunt. No such luck. By feverishly clawing at the halyard, I got all but about 10 feet of it up, but because the Bob had no way to anticipate my antics (nor my questionable reasoning) he was still steering a close-winded course. So the kite filled, and zip, the halyard went flying out of my gloveless hands until the tail entangled itself on the forward hatch handle. By then, the chute fallen about 20 feet to leeward, with much of it in the drink.
Now we were starting the downwind leg with about 60 percent of the kite in the water, the lower half of that quickly moving under the boat. Two of the crew jumped to leeward and started helping me retrieve our errant sail, but if you've ever had to occasion to experience this unorthodox maneuver, you know it doesn't get sorted out very quickly and usually takes most of the manpower you can muster. Somehow the head of the sail flew aft and entangled itself on the end of the boom and subsequently tore. We managed to free that and eventually wrestle the sail back on board, but by that time we did we were close to last place. I thought we'd just rehoist it tear or no tear, but Bob yelled "Get the spare chute!" So in a frenzy I tore at the knots on the tack and the clew as someone fetched the other kite, and we made the new one ready to fly. We hoisted it and got back in the game, but we were dead last.
Fortunately for us this was a four-leg race and we sailed well enough after our fiasco to climb back to a third-place finish. It was our worst finish of the regatta, and unquestionably our worst moment. It was probably a good thing that we didn't have any beer on board to wash away the chagrin, so we were forced to discuss what happened in a sober frame of mind. After we regained our collective composure, we realized that by being a little more conservative during that rounding we could have avoided the whole mess. "We need to hold off on the hoist," was Bob's analysis, "that way the set might end up happening a little late, but at least the kite won't open up prematurely."
He was right, of course. It doesn't pay to gamble on hasty maneuvers, particularly in demanding conditions. Once in a while your heroics will pay off, but usually they backfire and work against you. My own analysis told me that I was foolish to expose the foot of the sail to the waves I'd been watching wash over the foredeck for most of the windward leg. I should have let Bob turn the boat downwind first and then it wouldn't have taken me more than a few seconds to get the kite ready for a conservative hoist. The other thing I might have done instead of trying to race ahead with the hoist was jump to leeward when I first saw the kite disappearing and corral it before any more went overboard. Somehow I was locked into the routine of doing the job as I usually do it. I didn't think to adjust my technique or my timing relative to the given conditions, and we suffered the consequences.
That wasn't the worst mistake I've ever made while racing, and I'm sure there are many more in my future. All in all we were pretty lucky. No one on board got injured and we sailed well enough after that to maintain our overall lead and win the regatta in the J/105 class. Bob took away a nice trophy, along with a photograph, and collectively we notched another lesson in our belts. We'll know better next time.
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