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Hard Lessons Relearned

Playing catch up on the racecourse—a familiar position for the author's E-Scow this season.
In the preamble to their pulsating R&B anthem—Proud Mary—Ike and Tina Turner voice an outlook that's become pretty familiar lately: "We never do nothin' nice and easy," they sing, "we always do it nice, and rough." That pretty much sums up how my weekend of E-Scow racing in the local Hobcaw Yacht Club's Open Regatta went recently. The experience makes for an embarrassing tale involving two collisions, a protest, a retirement, and two capsizes—all of that somehow jammed into a mere three races—and I wouldn't bother you with it unless I thought there was something to be gained by reliving it on line.

It all started when my boat partner called early on Saturday morning—four hours before the skipper's meeting—to say that he wasn't going to make it. Pressing family affairs were calling him away. No problem, he's just the helmsman. We'd figure out something I told myself in a pre-caffeine haze.

Anyway, that's how we ended up with two neophytes aboard this tricky, 28-foot planing craft that can be a blast to sail, but in almost any condition demands that you bring the A team. For the regatta, it was just me, Patrick (one of our regular crew who is a talented all-around sailor), and the two young college students. "Don't worry," Patrick told me before we launched the boat. "What they lack in experience, they'll make up for in initiative and spirit."

A few tacks and a few jibes and the author's neophyte crew was good to go—or almost.
O.K. I'll buy that. But as a normal precaution, we opted to get out on the water as early as we could to familiarize our new crew with the boat, its controls, and its sailing characteristics. After about 20 minutes the two youngsters seemed to be getting down the choreographic details of changing sides and changing the bilgeboards as we tacked and jibed our way around the race area. Patrick was also getting a better feel for the helm so decided to work our way back down to the starting line when wham! We broadsided a powerboat.

All right, collisions do happen, but usually under more trying circumstances than simply sailing around before the start of a race. We made our amends with the powerboat owner, determined that neither of us was going to sink right away, and then got our heads back into the regatta.

  • Lesson No. 1: With new people on board, be extra vigilant, particularly if the person on the helm doesn't usually steer.

In the first race we set up well for the start, but we were tentative, and Patrick thought we were over early, so he steered back toward the line for about 10 seconds until we realized that the committee showed all-clear. So we proceeded to race, steeling ourselves as we watched the rapidly disappearing transoms of the other eight boats.

"So we got back in the race, steeling ourselves as we watched the rapidly disappearing transoms of the other eight boats."

With a little luck, we managed to get back into touch with the tail-end boats by the end of the first downwind leg of that two-lap, windward-leeward race, and it looked like we could catch a few on the second beat. We didn't realize it at the time, but we were still too obsessed about sail controls and things like bilgeboards, so we had our heads in the boat too much. It was about then that we sailed across the start-finish line (which was prohibited in the sailing instructions), and roughly 100 yards later that we realized our gaffe. "Screw it," said Patrick. "We'll finish the race and then tell the committee we retire." And so we did.

  • Lesson No. 2: Broaden your focus; keep your head out of the boat at least half the time.

Redemption is a powerful motivator, and I privately figured that Race No. 2 would be our opportunity to shine. In that contest, we got a reasonable start, rounded the top mark in about fourth place, and looked to have a shot at moving ahead as we started down the leg. As the race endured, two boats broke out into the lead, but we managed to stay in touch with the second echelon, until we capsized. Our first capsize—that's right, we're talking plural here—came while sailing upwind. Though we lost most of the contents of our cooler, we got back on our feet and rejoined the race without losing too much ground. But it was the second capsize that killed us.

On an E-Scow, capsizing isn't hard, but getting back upright can be—especially when the kite is deployed.

On the last downwind leg we were nearing the leeward mark on a tight reach, having closed a fair bit of ground on the boats ahead, when a puff began to build. Suddenly, it became apparent that the kite had to come down without delay. Boats like the E-Scow put a premium on reaction time, and the moment somehow overwhelmed us, so we flipped over without much ceremony. As any Scow sailor can tell you, it's a little more of a project to get the boat back upright if you capsize with the kite deployed, so we were on our side for a little longer that time. When we finally did get back on the horse, we learned that one of our new crew had injured her leg. Since it was the same leg on which she'd recently had ACL surgery, we figured heading back to the dock was the most sensible option. So we had to settle for two DNFs (did not finish) for the day on the scoreboard—not an auspicious start to the regatta.

  • Lesson No. 3: If things look dicey approaching the leeward mark, get the kite down early, especially if you've got inexperienced crew on board.

You can imagine the chagrin of facing our fellow E-Scow racers back on shore that afternoon. But that humiliation wasn't the worst of it. As we pushed the boat toward its spot in the parking lot, some unidentified nine-year-old ran up and said, "Hey, that's the boat that always flips over."

The next day was redemption time for sure. We ended up swapping out our young crew members (they had a previous engagement) for my newly emancipated boat partner. We'd sail the race with just three on board we decided. With Patrick on the helm again, we lined up for the start of the day's only race. The problem was that the committee had set a particularly skewed line and the pin was favored by about 40 yards. After discussing it briefly we opted for a starboard-tack approach so that we could control the other boats, but we seemed to be the only ones out there who understood that starboard-tack boats hold the right of way.

With the gun about to go off for Race 3, the port tackers were in the  majority.
A strong puff descended on the line just as the count wound down to the gun, and though we had hailed starboard for roughly 20 seconds prior to the start, two of the five port-tack boats that were trying to squeeze by the pin blatantly fouled us. That's when the second collision took place, forcing us onto port tack with the usual snarl of yelling. We whipped out the red flag, made our protest known, and proceeded to sail a fairly competitive race, staying in the mix for most of it, and crossing the finish line fifth. We ultimately prevailed in the protest—it was a straightforward Rule 10 violation on the part of the boat closest to us—so we scored a fourth.

With the two DNFs from Saturday, our overall score wasn't very impressive—24 points in three races with a nine-boat fleet. I didn't need to look too far to find someone to blame for our calamitous performance. That culprit finds me from the other side of the mirror every morning. He may be a little slow on the uptake, but at least he continues to learn all the time—the hard way. 

Suggested Reading:

Lessons Learned in Error by Dan Dickison

Bear Away Spinnaker Sets by Dean Brenner

Communicating on Board by Betsy Alison


Buying Guide: Traveler Systems

Dan Dickison is offline  
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