Horizon Job

Pushing off the dock meant instantly feeling the pull of the boat cutting through water. It meant leaving all the activity of the lot behind — boats being wheeled on their trailers, hoists lowering boats to the water and coming back up for the next. Pushing off meant being under your own power once more. It meant quiet, a long exhale.

Even though the lot was a good scene…but it was land, concrete. Full of teenagers from up and down Long Island, Connecticut and the shores of Westchester, in topsiders, shorts, and tee shirts with a variety of sayings: Adidas, Coors, Hard Sails: Sail with a Hard On. Kids milling around, rigging their boats, setting their sheets, packing their chutes and asking their instructors for the race circular they had earlier but couldn’t find, their noses smeared with zinc oxide.

We were always one of the first to leave the dock. My brother wanted to get out to the racecourse, check out the wind and practice our tacks.

We settled in our boat. We had to tack around all the moored boats in Larchmont Harbor to get to open water. It was windy, blowing somewhere between 15 and 20. I hung suspended on the wire with my knees bent and feet on the boat, reading the names of boats as we passed them. Clearing the harbor, I lowered myself in my harness, watching water shoot off the side of the boat, wave over wave, splashing into the chop.

Pete’s job was steering, getting the max out of the mainsail and hunting for wind. My job was balancing the boat, getting the max out of the jib and handling the spinnaker.

Together our tacks were one fluid movement. For me, my steps were to uncleat the jib sheet, listen for Pete to say “Hard-a-lee,” bend my knees, come into the boat, unhook the trapeze, step across the centerboard trunk and duck my head as the boat turned, grab the new sheet, trim it, hook myself onto the windward wire and ease my body out parallel to the water again, legs straight. And then, taking off, in the gusts and lulls easing myself in and out with my knees, always watching the water and my sail, easing the sheet in and out as I read the telltales.

Being in Larchmont was the high point of our summer. We looked forward to Race Week with great psyche and anticipation. It was the nicest club, the best run race and by far the best dance.

Being in Larchmont was the high point of our summer. We looked forward to Race Week with great psyche and anticipation. It was the nicest club, the best run race and by far the best dance. We’d be welcomed into members’ homes where we’d bunk in their extra rooms, two or three of us sharing. We’d eat big breakfasts around oval tables and sleep under floral bedspreads with breeze coming in all night. The kids and dogs would be our new best friends for three days.

“Triangle, windward, leeward,” Pete announced as the committee boat shrank in our wake. I glanced back at the course posted on a white staff. Pete looked out toward the first mark, calculating. For me, triangle, windward, leeward meant two legs of hiking, and two, possibly three downwind legs of spinnaker trimming. My mark roundings had to be perfect and mostly this meant perfect spinnaker sets.

A spinnaker in a Fireball doesn’t sit in a bucket below deck, like in the Blue Jays we learned in as 10-year-olds. This boat was all about sleekness, from the shape of the hull, to the sail shape, even to the cloth tube the chute sat in that ran the length of the boat, all the way back to my brother.

I looked back at the committee boat. It held all kinds of fascination, and essential information. A square blue flag with an “R,” a red anchor then a “C” flew off the port side: Race Committee. Below that, the course was posted in a vertical stack: letters painted on wood, slid into slots, visible to all. Pennants flew in an inverted V up and down the boat. The decks gleamed. At the highest spot, Larchmont Yacht Club’s blue and white striped burgee fluttered in the sun. About eight crisp-looking adults stood on deck, men in blue blazers with emblems on their pockets and women in pale pink or white long-sleeved Oxfords, navy skirts and floppy sun hats. This group would be staying dry today. I was already getting soaked.

Every skipper, pre-race, sailed alongside the RC to read the course they’d set. Lots of serious face nodding by us teenagers to the people onboard ensued. Race committee wanted a good course, clean starts and sportsmanlike racing.

Pete picked up the circular he’d received at the skipper’s meeting to check exactly where each buoy lay. Race circulars are four-page fold-outs stating classes, divisions, starting sequences and flags the RC would use, like the one signifying “race postponed” if the breeze was too light, or on windy days like today, the one that told us life jackets were required. Translation: you may capsize, and we want you safe if you do. It had a half page map of lettered buoys around the harbor, it listed the time and dress code of the dance and as well as the trophies that’d be handed out at the end of the regatta.

My head turned to read the committee boat’s name. “Aeolus” it said in script, white on blue on its broad flat transom. And below that, “Larchmont, N. Y.”

Our boat was named Baby Baby. We didn’t have a fancy paint job name. Pete had taped the tilted letters onto our transom in gray duct tape – every sailor’s miraculous and essential aid. A Laser sailor we knew from Cold Spring Harbor had crowned his boat with what we thought was the greatest boat name ever: Betty Lou, You Done Me Wrong.

Our boat was named Baby Baby. We didn’t have a fancy paint job name. Pete had taped the tilted letters onto our transom in gray duct tape – every sailor’s miraculous and essential aid. A Laser sailor we knew from Cold Spring Harbor had crowned his boat with what we thought was the greatest boat name ever: Betty Lou, You Done Me Wrong. We marveled at how he got all those letters on the back. Another notable name that summer was our friend Dave’s, on his white Fireball: Herb Ox. Everything between Dave and his crew Jimmy was about “ox” that year. Whenever they could stick “ox” into a sentence, they would. Their favorite saying, first syllable dragged out for drama, was “Ox-viously” instead of obviously, which 15-year-olds use a lot in our attempt to be unfazed. Dave was in our division but he never beat me and Pete.

As Pete and I practiced our tacks, sails at all angles came cutting out of the harbor. Now all three classes were near the start: Fireballs, Lasers, Blue Jays. I noted their numbers, sails, hull colors. Most took long tacks parallel to the line as we waited for our start sequences. Some turned their boats into the wind, sails slapping, as the skipper read its exact direction. I went through my list of pre-race checks: the outhaul was tight, my harness was snug, my stopwatch was ready.

The starting line was marked by the race committee boat on one end, all color and rules, and a giant orange buoy on the other. This was called the pin, the pin end. Pre-start is a crowded time when boats are all streaming by each other, booms halfway out, wakes flattened and bubbling. Skippers are trying to give each other room, making sure boats on starboard have the right of way, doing lots of short tacks to stay close to the line, always watching for what’s coming. For me it was a good time to steal glances at the cute skippers from Port Washington and Cedar Point, with their long straight hair and cut-offs. But you’d have to keep your energy in your own boat. I’d watch Pete give his rivals cool, almost indistinguishable pre-race nods. This was the time to be settled and psych out your opponent with your cool, as you passed each other and slightly turned your head.

For me it was a good time to steal glances at the cute skippers from Port Washington and Cedar Point, with their long straight hair and cut-offs. But you’d have to keep your energy in your own boat. I’d watch Pete give his rivals cool, almost indistinguishable pre-race nods.

Our ten-minute warning went off and I clicked my stopwatch. We sailed past the RC. Pete knew the RC was the favored side of the line — getting out here early had its benefits.

“Eight and a half,” I called. We tacked and headed back to the rest of the odd-numbered Fireballs. “Five minutes!” I called as the horn went off. All the skippers and crew were focused on the start. No checking out the cute guy from Cedar Point now. All about getting your boat across the line first and boat speed, boat speed, boat speed. “Three minutes!” I shouted, crouched and straddling the centerboard.

“Two minutes!” I said to Pete, looking up from the stopwatch. My glove was soaked. Squinting, I checked the trim on my jib. The first Fireball division was halfway up the first leg. We eyed them but that’s all we could do because our start required all our focus. It looked like every single boat had gone to the left side of the course on starboard tack.

“One and a half minutes!” I yelled.

At this point we were just beyond the committee boat sailing away from the line.

“OK, Blairsey, get ready to tack,” said Pete, looking behind him as he judged our position and timing. I uncleated the jib with a sharp click and shifted my weight onto my feet.

“Ready about?”

“Ready.”

“Hard-a-lee,” he called as he swung the tiller. The sails fluttered, the jib sheets slapped the deck and the nose of the boat crossed the wind. I was already on the other side, with the jib trimmed and clipped to the trapeze as the boat started taking off on starboard.

“One minute!” I shouted, my hand gripping the jib sheet as we came around the committee boat. We quickly tacked to port.

“Trim, Blairsey, trim!” he said as he pushed the tiller to leeward.

We were practically on the line now, and all I knew was we had good boat speed and a bunch of boats were behind us.

I trimmed and pushed my body straight out on the wire. Seconds later we heard the starting gun boom as the yellow nose of our boat crossed the line.

We could see we were front of the pack. Half the fleet was starting with us at the committee boat and the other half was on starboard at the pin. The only sounds were the water shooting off the sides of our boat, some cursing from the boats behind us and sails snapping as some boats tacked out of our pack.

“What’s the compass say?”

I read off the numbers and we stayed on port. The wind was oscillating so it was essential I keep reading them out. We stayed on port, the cliffs of Larchmont ahead of us, sandy and green.

Shapes came into focus on the cliffs as I hung clipped to the trapeze, parallel to water. My topsiders squeaked on the deck when I shifted. I checked my jib trim and glimpsed a fat gnarled tree on land ahead of us rising from an abandoned fire pit.

Shapes came into focus on the cliffs as I hung clipped to the trapeze, parallel to water. My topsiders squeaked on the deck when I shifted. I checked my jib trim and glimpsed a fat gnarled tree on land ahead of us rising from an abandoned fire pit. We were the only boat that had gone to the right side of the course. We rode the lift, and our compass confirmed our advantage. But we couldn’t get too close to land or else it might get shifty.

The header came, and we tacked on it. I was out over the water again, the white speckled sheet in my hand. My harness was soaked now, and my glove felt slimy on my skin. I needed that glove to haul in the sheet in wind like this. Pete’s glove was wet, but not soaked. His head swiveled as he calculated the lay line.

“You think we’re there?” he asked me, but he was the one that knew.

“I think so.”

We could both see we were on the lay line pretty perfectly. If you overshoot it, it’s just wasted time and you lose a bunch of boat lengths at the mark. We could also see how much distance we had put between us and the rest of the fleet chugging up the leg, tacking back and forth as rights were called and boats were forced back to starboard. We knew we were first.

We got ready to round the mark and set the spinnaker. As we rounded, Pete stood up, headed the boat off with the tiller between his legs, cleated the mainsail, grabbed the spinnaker halyard, leaned forward and took two enormous pulls. The sail would need to balloon out fast as I straddled the centerboard and reached back to trim the sheet as the sail came up. Trying to keep my weight back now, I grabbed the windward line, the guy, and stuck it in the guy hook as I got on the wire again. I sat halfway out, further aft now and knees slightly bent, my body angled in closer to the boat as we took off on a broad reach. The water crashed out from the sides of our boat as we sped over water.

I played the spinnaker all down the leg, so that our sail soaked up all possible air. At the second mark, I came into the boat to jibe the pole. It thunked off the mast as I tried to control it, pushing it hard to leeward as the full power of the sail pulled it back.

“Nnnnh!”

“You got it, Blairsey!” Pete said as I jammed it back on the hook and reached for the guy.

Right before we rounded the third mark, we pulled down the chute at the last possible moment and I got the pole back in. Pete steered upwind again and I eased out on the trapeze on port tack.

Upwind, we stayed right again because it was so favored on the first leg, but the lift was of lesser degrees. Still, this was the side of the course to be on. The distance between us and the second place boat was a full leg. It felt thrilling and odd to be so un-surrounded.

We’d practiced mark roundings and setting the chute during our sailing lessons in Northport Harbor. And we practiced before our lessons too. From Pete I learned focus and with Pete I left my cigarettes and joints behind. Even though I was fraying more and more each school year, sailing was a clean endeavor and I didn’t cross it with my self-destruction. That would take over next year.

Our windward-leeward legs were clean and our lead held. We approached the finish line, rocking the boat back and forth as we chugged downwind. We got the gun. I saw the smoke, then heard it. First place. We headed up and cranked our sails in.

“Way to go, Blairsey. Nice race.”

“Nice race, Petey!”

He steered past the committee boat, held up his hand to wave to everyone smiling on deck, nodded his head and said thank you. I waved and smiled. There wasn’t any other Fireball finishing any time soon. RC would have to wait.

We were a sight to see, my red overalls and blue harness soaked and streaked with salt, my hair sticking out in all directions, Pete grinning under his conductor’s cap — a brother-sister team, in our blue and yellow Binks. We were elated and tired and could finally relax.

We headed back to the harbor. I rode low on the trapeze so the water beneath me peeled by closer. I let my back fingers drag below me. The spray off our bow doused my face. I spit and wiped my face. Pete’s head bobbed as he sang “One Way Out.”

At the dock, the hoist’s greasy chain pulled our boat up from the water and down onto our trailer. We wheeled the boat back, me pushing down on the back, to where our club’s boats sat overnight. The Laser sailors were milling around, jabbering. They had started before us, gotten in before us, hosed down their hulls and laid out their sails.

Frank Fletcher walked over. He was a Laser sailor we knew from Oyster Bay. His long blonde hair, sunburnt face, khaki shorts, white tee shirt and bare feet were all flecked with dried salt. He had a little fame as a Long Island Sound sailor because he had won the Bell Trophy two years in a row.

“Hey Sweeney, my instructor just got in,” he said, nodding his head, “He said you pulled a horizon job!”

That’s right, a lead so wide, the rest of the fleet could see your boat as just a speck shrinking on the horizon. Into the sunset, all skill and maximum boat speed.

We talked about our lift and how it held and how it was just us going right. Frank congratulated us and said he’d see us later. We coiled our lines, took one last look, bunched up our wet sails and headed for the lawn.

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