“There’s a regatta this weekend,” David told me after a lengthy Spanish discussion with the dockmaster. He looked at me flatly, knowing perfectly well what I was thinking. “We’re not entering dude. Gaia ain’t a race boat.”
I huffed like a child. I knew our boat wasn’t race-ready. The cutter rigging made tacking a hassle and the running back-stays made gybing nearly impossible. Plus, it was our house, and full of things like dishes and books and clothes and electronics that would get totally fucked up if she heeled over in a good gust.
“That’s cool,” I said, plotting. “I’ll find a boat.”
That night, as we cavorted with the other sailors in the marina at Puerto Bahia, I began planting the seeds of racing glory into the minds of every other skipper on the dock. There were at least a few young crews around, boats owned by American couples who had ditched their desk jobs to sail south. None had raced before, and few even had much sailing experience given the limited weather opportunities presented by the easterly trip from the US through to the Dominican. But they were young and brash enough to buy a sailboat; I knew I’d find someone willing to race their house.
“Hey dude,” a petite brunette said, smiling cannily over her beer, “Don’t suppose you want to crew tomorrow for the regatta?” Her husband eyeballed me like I was a race horse, doubt evident in his appraisal.
I tried to play it cool, like I was reluctant to just hop on the first boat that came along.
“Holy fuck totally I want to race that’s awesome what’s you guys’ names I’m Russ let’s go racing I love racing do you know how to race it’s pretty fun but can be stressful at times but that’s ok it’s all part of the adventure where’s your boat is it fast I hope you don’t have much glassware.” I’m not really exaggerating here.
Thus I ended up racing on the sailing vessel Talaria, a 34′ Sabre, with Galina at the helm and Roman on the sails with me [read their blog here!].
The couple had bought their boat the previous summer and had spent a few weeks getting comfortable with her and outfitting her for ocean sailing. They left New York and headed south down the Intercoastal, before leaving Miami for the Bahamas on a similar route that we’d taken in Gaia. Six months on the boat, and a few of the usual mishaps and breakdowns, and they were ready and excited to get her out racing. They were obviously proud of her racing pedigree (“She’s a proper racer-cruiser; we wanted a fast boat.”) and Galina was well-chuffed to be the only female skipper in the field of roughly 15 boats.
The regatta was set for two days of racing; a 12-mile run around Cayo Levantado on Saturday, then a series of shorter windward-leeward races on Sunday. I gave Galina a hopefully-not-ironic crash-course in sailboat racing-start tactics (hint: extremely complicated) and we discussed some general strategies and rules before the sails went up and we headed for the course. The five-minute warning came, as always, sooner than we were expecting, but we had a very good start and Talaria made it out near the front of the pack as the starting horn blew.
Pushing upwind at almost 30 degrees of pointing, Talaria kept her speed even with a heel of more than 20 degrees. We quickly passed two smaller boats (crewed by the Dominican Navy Youth squads…) and found ourselves behind only one boat, Shiraz, which was featured in every local regatta video and had a crew of six outfitted in matching Shiraz race shirts. We all felt good about our position. The boats behind us tacked into the wind, keeping tight to the race course, but we followed Shiraz out into the bay as she held her tack and waited to lay the line of the mark rounding the island.
Samana Bay is a gorgeous bit of nautical geography, a long rectangle of water surrounded on three sides by low mountains that frame the setting in a misty green haze. Cayo Levantado and a lot of reef guard the eastern entrance to the bay, reducing the Atlantic swell significantly. Talaria pushed through three-foot waves into a 12-knot headwind and we kept Shiraz within reach for almost an hour before she tacked away toward the island.
“I don’t think they’ll lay the island from here,” Galina said, holding up a thumb to the beam of the boat. “Let’s keep going.” Roman shrugged and I agreed with the skipper, knowing that the lead boat would be forced to make at least one more set of tacks before getting around the island, which would slow her down.
A series of reefs rose into view, alternately lighting the water green or turning it black depending on the depth of the obstruction. Galina and Roman fretted over their various electronic charts. I sat back and waited – while they were new to racing, Talaria was their home and they would put safety first over any tactical decisions for the race. We ended up tacking between two reefs knowing we’d have to tack back before we could round the island.
Cayo Levanto is beautiful. It has rock cliffs and white-sand beaches and tall palms and is surrounded by dramatic expanses of reef. It’s a private island that boats aren’t even allowed to anchor off of. Getting a close view of it as we gybed around was a treat, and we all wished we had better cameras with us.
Turning downwind, we watched as the two boats in front of us (wait, where did that other boat come from?) adjusted their sails to test their heading. There was about three feet of trailing seas which rolled the boats around and made a deep downwind gybe uncomfortable in the light winds. The other boats set their sales on either side of the hull and fixed the jib with a whisker-pole, holding in it place like the boom holds the main sail. It was the only viable setting to sail at speed downwind.
I looked at Roman. “You ever used that pole before?” The whisker pole is a ten-foot length of lightweight aluminum that attaches to the jib-sheet on one side and the mast on the other. It’s awkward as fuck to put up, and can be dangerous when under pressure.
“Nope.” He shrugged. “Looks like we gotta though.”
I fucking hate whisker poles.
The two of us struggled on deck, embarrassingly, for a few minutes trying to get the damn thing up and attached to the mast. The delay cost us time on the boats behind us, and as we finally got the sails out wing-on-wing (on opposite sides of the boat), a small fleet of Navy youth had caught up behind us.
“Goddamnit,” Galina cursed. We were still in third, but now it was a race to keep it.
Downwind racing is always disappointing after an upwind start. As you’re sailing upwind, your speed adds to the apparent feel of the breeze and the boat feels like it’s going much faster, compared to downwind when the boats speed is subtracted from the apparent feel of the wind. In reality we were only going maybe half a knot slower than upwind, but as we drifted down the course with the sun on our backs some of the excitement of the morning started to wane.
Galina wasn’t drinking in her role at the helm, so Roman and I had a few while we leisurely cruised down the last leg of the race. We kept out of reach of the navy boats, but with only a small jib up we didn’t have a chance to catch the two boats in front of us. Still, we knew we had done well for a virgin crew.
“Wait, why did that boat just do a donut?” Galina asked.
I looked up; the lead boat had turned a full 360 degree circle before continuing over what we thought was the finish line.
“Wait, where’s the finish line?”
We all stared ahead. There was no committee boat. Nor any of the bright orange buoys that had been used to mark the start line. Nothing.
Shiraz had done a 360 around something we couldn’t see – I assumed it wasn’t because they had made a racing foul which occasionally requires a donut. They must have missed the finish line and circled back to it.
“Fucking fuck where’s the line?” I cursed. I pulled out the printed racing rules that the committee had given Galina, but they were in Spanish and the technical sailing terms were mostly beyond my restaurant-grade linguistic abilities.
“Sorry guys, I’ve never seen a race finish without some sort of mark before,” I told them. “There’s a flag on the shore – they couldn’t expect us to sail between it and one of the channel markers could they?”
“There’s reef on the wrong side of that marker,” Galina said, looking at her charts. “I’m not sailing in there.”
“Safety third,” I said, then regretted it, since we were racing their house. I tried to cover my joke. “Just assume the line is parallel to that flag and the channel marker. We’ll sail on the safe side of it, then blow our air horn to tell the committee we finished.”
It was a ballsy, somewhat stupid plan, but it was the best we were going to get with the information at hand. I figured if possession is nine-tenths of the law, then anyone blowing a horn as we go over some kind of line, must be better than no horn if the line is in question. Race committees are made up of old people. Maybe they’d assume one of them blew the horn…
Shiraz had done a donut but the second-place boat didn’t, and they hadn’t crossed between the marker and the flag either, so I thought we were in pretty good stead if there was an issue with the committee. Good enough.
We sailed over our fake line and Roman blew our air horn. We waived and cheered at the committee; fake it till you make it.
“So, uh, I think we’re done?” I said, shrugging. The uncertain finish had taken a bit of the glee out of the afternoon.
“If we get disqualified…” Galina sulked.
“No fucking way,” Roman told her, touching her shoulder. “We’ll argue with those bastards.”
I laughed, thinking about trying to argue with a Spanish race committee about how we didn’t cross any finish line then blew our own horn and come to think of it we didn’t check in at the start of the race either and … well, I thought maybe they’d give us a break as the solo gringo boat on the course.
After the race, Roman surprised Galina with a bottle of Moet to celebrate her inaugural role as a race skipper. She submitted in good humour to having it shaken up and sprayed at her like at the end of any good race… but he didn’t shake it enough and it just spurted a little bit on her boobs, which I somehow managed to not make a joke about.
That night the marina threw a big party for the racers (and any other moochers who decided to join in, ahem Gaia and Lala crews) with free booze and some food that was ravenously attacked by the sailors. A nice old woman from the race committee came over to congratulate Galina, and showed us her time sheet – Talaria wasn’t on there, but she crossed out some other boat’s name that started with T and entered us in that place. I’m pretty sure they just got the name wrong, because it was our finish time. After that we breathed easier knowing the committee was at least partially on our side.
Although we never saw the handicap adjusted results, I knew that we weren’t in the top-three biggest boats so there was a good chance that we’d still be in the top three results after the adjustments. None of the smaller boats were within striking distance of us at the end, so barring a huge time adjustment, we most likely finished third.
Explaining this to the crew, we all cheersed and reached into an ice barrel for another can of Presidente pilsner, then began to look forward to the next day’s races.