In March of 1980, I recounted a hellacious and potentially fatal ocean race in Sea Magazine. The race was in 1975. [We were ~26.] What follows is the recap of that article. It is every bit as relevant today.
“It started with a lack of confidence. My wife and I weren’t confident we could race our quarter-tonner in a long distance offshore race, so I started looking for two crew berths.
In short order I found them on a 33-footer. The skipper was suave and cooperative: “…just bring yourselves; I’ll do the rest.” he said. A pretty magnanimous attitude, considering a normal crew of six.*
Race day came with high overcast and a stalled cold front to the west with no movement predicted. My wife and I arrived early and, with the skipper, awaited the arrival of the rest of the crew. Only one showed up—the least experienced one. After some discussion we decided to press on.
As we motored out the pass to the starting line. My normal pre-race butterflies were becoming bumblebees. The sky was darkening to the west, but we rationalized it as. “ …just the angle of the sun.”
We started well with a 150 percent genoa and main and assumed an early lead. but as the wind from the west increased in strength, we became more and more over-powered. Finally. I decided that I had stayed quiet long enough and asked the skipper, “Shouldn’t we change headsails?” He said, “Yes”…but the 150 was the only headsail aboard!
We were already wearing a reef, so we put another in, but the helm was still a bear with roundups occurring every 10th wave or so. Finally, sheeting the genny as far aft as possible allowed us to just keep the boat under control.
After some more “discussion” we radioed another boat in the fleet who agreed to loan us another headsail when we crossed tacks. We did this under a sky the color of slate, with a wind that was knocking the wave tops off. With more than a little trepidation, I inched my way out into the pulpit to make the change and promptly started taking regular dunkings as the bow began to bury in the steep counter-current swells.
Just as I finished, the wind freed and the skipper decided we should bag the new sail with no sheets tied in (there were no spares) and lash it to the toe rail. Just after I dragged myself back to the cockpit; the bottom dropped out of the sky.
Sunset came sometime during the ensuing three-hour squall. Afterward, there was the usual irregular chop and much lighter air. With a false sense of confidence, primarily the skipper’s, we left the 150 up and reset the main.
My wife and I took the first night watch while the skipper rested from fighting the ridiculously heavy helm which he later explained was the result of a prototype rudder 18 in. shorter than standard. After my wife and I had spent an hour searching vainly for the flashing shoal mark which was our turning mark. everything got suddenly quiet and the temperature dropped like God had opened His refrigerator. We called the skipper and before he got topside, the boat was on its ear.
Forgetting a harness (the ones on board were useless anyway), I jumped to the mainmast to douse and furl the main and rescue a spinnaker pole bound overboard because its lashings gave way (there were no chocks). We decided it was too dangerous to go to the bow to douse the genny so we bore off on a reach.
The torrential rain beat the sea flat, but it also made reading the compass impossible when sitting far enough aft to keep both feet on the tiller to prevent a roundup. So our third crew person sat forward calling compass courses in a timorous, seasick yodel.
I went below and collapsed on the cabin sole with my legs wrapped around the mast (I was so fatigued that I didn’t even consider the lightning zapping all around us). I only came up once before dawn, half awake, to rescue the errant spinnaker pole again.
Dawn found the sky clear, the wind light, the borrowed genoa out of its bag and dragging along overboard, the fleet dispersed all over the place, and us finishing 12 minutes behind the lead boat——an identical boat with seven aboard, a full sail inventory, and a production rudder.
Not only was [our] boat overpowered, but so was the crew. We were overpowered by the skipper’s charisma and claim that, “he’d take care of everything.” We were overpowered by a poorly outfitted boat in very bad weather (winds were clocked nearby at 45 mph with gusts to 65 mph).
We learned a lot from that long and frightening race. We learned before you crew on any boat, find out about your skipper. Is he known as the local Ahab? Find out about the boat. Is it properly fitted out and built? Find out about the safety gear. Are harnesses available and effective`? What about man-overboard gear?
Finally. make sure there is an adequate crew for the size of the boat. Under-crewing causes fatigue. Fatigue causes mistakes, and mistakes can lead to fatalities.
Remember, it’s your life …and maybe someone else’s.”
SEA MAGAZINE March 1980, C. A. Waln
*The owner involved was a big stick in the local racing community. We felt honored he would take us aboard. But behind his back most of his age/economic peers considered him a loose cannon. The crew that failed to show up had chosen this race to comment with their feet. The problem was he was a local marine service provider who discounted his services heavily for those he raced among. As a consequence there were none who would share their true views of his competence.
When the race committee disqualified him for finishing the race with more sails than he started with, he quibbled that he owned the sail loaned to him (he did) and that his boat had been measured with it aboard (true). Fortunately the Committee stuck to its guns on number of sails aboard and we remained DSQ.
This same attitude ran him afoul of the Feds with herbaceous plants involved and we never did hear the outcome other than he was still quibbling as they transported him to detention of some sort.