Foul Weather Bluff

I woke up on Saturday at 6am. No, that’s a lie. I reset my alarm to 6:15…then 6:30…then finally 6:45. Not that I wasn’t excited for the race – it was just that it was Saturday. Now it was almost too late. I rushed to find my clothes. Layers, Shayne had said. Wool socks, wool pants, wool shirt. Sweater. Sweatshirt. Foulies. Keens. Lifejacket? Check. I was ready to go. Shayne was here to pick me up.

The sun was rising, glinting off a forest of silver masts as we pulled up to the Edmonds marina. People were milling about, carrying things on and off sailboats. What beautiful boats! No two were even remotely the same. “This is Wagz.” Shayne was introducing me to someone. “And Wayne.” I shook their hands. “It’s a pleasure.” Then we were ushered into the yacht club’s meeting room for the skipper’s meeting, where the race was explained. I drank a cup of coffee and stared around me at the hundreds of sailors. I didn't bother paying attention to the race details. Not my job.

The boat, Bravo Zulu, motored into the harbor and swung around, nestling up to the fuel dock. I grabbed a line that was passed to me – it was soft and thick and new. A wiry man with a hoarse voice told me to wrap it around the cleat once before I did the figure 8. I followed his instructions.

“I’m Peter,” he said, shaking my hand. Clearly he was the one in charge.

I picked up a brush and followed Wayne around the boat, scrubbing the decks glistening white as he sprayed them with the hose. A few final preparations, as short speech from Peter, a few more introductions to the rest of the crew, and we were off, motoring after the fleet into the sound. Around us, sails were going up. Gold and black, they billowed outwards as the boats turned into the wind one by one and winched their sails to the top of the mast. A beautifully painted catamaran skimmed past us. “That’s the dragonfly. She wins every race,” Wagz said.

We sailed in circles, waiting for our turn to race. Every five minutes, the committee boat blew a horn and another set of boats took off. Five minutes to go. I was positioned on the windward side where they had told me to lie down. Code 0, the asymmetrical spinnaker used for light wind, was on the foredeck, ready to go. Denny, the boat’s owner, was talking to Peter. They were watching the boats in the classes ahead of us to see which sails they were using.

One minute to go. I tried to move my body off any lines that I might be holding down. “If you’re sitting on one of the lines, they’ll yell butt-cleat,” Shayne told me.

The horn blew. We were off. I heard a commotion on the leeward side of the boat. Peter was yelling, “Stand down. Barging at the line. Barging I tell you!”

“That’s it. They’re doing a penalty. They were barging.”  The “Absolutely”, a black and yellow boat in our class, had had to sail around as a penalty for barging. Our start had been perfect.

We zipped ahead with the full spinnaker. 6 knots and climbing. I waited, attentive, for them to yell “squirrel.” Squirrel was my task – to stand in the “sewer” and fold spinnakers as they were handed down to me. There were 5 different spinnakers and a drifter. There were also 2 different jibs, but it looked like for now we would only be using the jib for light wind. My other job was rail-meet. Basically, I had to use my weight to either weigh down the leeward side of the boat when we were going slowly and trying to fill the sails with wind, or to counterbalance the windward side of the boat when we started to speed up and the boat keeled over from the wind’s pressure. The force of the wind is an amazing thing. Even in the light winds and fair weather the 40 foot, 12,000 lb Bravo Zulu was being pushed fast enough to leave a wake.

We reached Bainbridge Island just behind Absolutely. A cluster of fishermen at the point were standing waist deep in water. ‘Don’t turn yet,’ Denny told Peter. The rest of the crew looked skeptical as we flew towards the shallow water at the point. We sailed within throwing distance of the waist deep fishermen without touching the bottom, saving time by not gybing. Now we seemed to be ahead of the Absolutely. The mark was just ahead, at Foul Weather Bluff. But the currents came into play again. We were caught in a bad breeze and even though we had been closer to the mark, Absolutely managed to round it before us. “Squirrel!”

They had yelled for me. I rushed below and grabbed the n.1 spinnaker. I heaved it to the deck.

Then I hurried below again to gather and fold the code 0.

As the ships rounded the mark they flew their colorful symmetrical spinnakers for the downwind leg. It was beautiful to watch them go up, like hot air ballons, puffing to full size, full of powerful wind.

The downwind leg soon became painfully slow. The Puget Sound currents were pushing outwards, and several boats with full spinnakers appeared to be standing still, pushed in one direction by the wind and the other by the tide. I was lying on deck again, weighing down the leeward side. It seemed like a good time for a nap, since I was on the sunny side of the deck. I closed my eyes and slept for a good twenty minutes. When I woke up we didn’t seem to be much further. There was one more marker to go around before we could head back. It was on the south side of Whidbey Island. Two fat seals and three slender cormorants had decided to use it as their personal platform. The seals slid into the water as we rounded the marker, splashing their fat into the waves. We didn’t have to take the spinnaker down, as we were still headed downwind. Denny, Peter and the crew were discussing again. The water in the direction of the finish line was too smooth, too calm. One boat had been ahead but seemed to be stuck in the calm water to the north of the finish line. We decided to sail south of the finish line, then tack north to avoid the windless section of water.

We were moving again, faster. I went up and down, fetching the jib and the code 0 in case we needed them again. We didn’t. We finished with the symmetrical spinnaker number one. As we passed the committee boat, they blew the air horn. No pistol for us – we hadn’t been first in our class. Absolutely had taken first.

We had been sailing for 8 long hours and covered 26 miles. It had been a slow race, but the unusually perfect weather had made it enjoyable and relaxing. Next time we'll hopefully have stronger winds...