(In the absence of anything to write about this week, a little piece from November 2009)
To set the scene, there we are in the Fireball just going round mark ‘A’ in a twenty-something mph WSW, half way around the 3rd lap of a fleet championship race. We’re in 3rd place and we’ve just lapped the RS300s, so you can tell it’s fairly windy. The next mark is ‘C’ and Pete in the boat in front is already halfway to ‘B’. He’s gone high, up by the wall, with a view to putting his kite up at some point, but he’s not rushing into it as we all know from previous laps that putting the kite up anywhere on this leg where you can’t get a decent angle to ‘C’ is a BAD IDEA, various boats tried it on the previous laps and it wasn’t pretty. Thus far, I have been sailing with self preservation uppermost in my mind, which is why the more risk-inclined boats are either well ahead or massively behind us.
But I want that 2nd place dammit. If only we had a turbocharger, or some big red button I could press to engage warp drive…
And I swear the big red mad spinnaker winked at me from its bag.
So we bung it up, and the wind promptly notices and comes over the wall in a big lump, and the world starts to go past us considerably more quickly. The initial acceleration is a fairly intense while the various forces battle it out for supremacy, and there’s a few iffy moments and the odd wobble. While this is going on, the slim delicate rudder blade whispers occasional messages suggesting that some of my demands are not entirely reasonable and that steering will become an optional extra if I continue in this fashion. And then it’s all under control again and there is nothing quite like this; the boat is fully engaged, crew flat out on the wire and all three sails are pulling 100%. Gust builds upon gust but we are now going so fast that the boat does little more than twitch as it skates across the flat water at the top of the lake making a noise like tearing aluminium. These adrenalin stretched moments are where sailing, poetry and art collide, this is as close to perfection as it is possible to get, and perfection is fast.
We’re going nowhere near the right way though, ‘D’ looks more likely than ‘C’ right now, and the further away from the wall we get, the windier it is. So as we pass ‘B’ (but way downwind) doing mach 5, I dump the kicker and the mainsheet and tentatively nudge the boat up a bit, and it still feels good. But it’s not going to be good enough to lay ‘C’ and we know from experience that this reach gets closer as you get near the water tower. Pete has gone for his kite too, but there’s no proper wind up there by the wall and his kite doesn’t look happy. A few hundred yards further on and it’s clear that ‘C’ is not going to happen without some help, so I pull a bit of mainsheet in and trip the spinnaker halyard. Paul bangs the sheet in tight and the big mad red kite goes for a quick lie down behind the jib, spread out flat by the wind. We nudge our way cautiously up to ‘C’ where the wind is much lighter, and note with some delight that Pete is now about three boat lengths behind us.
This is great, but there’s more to come. We bear off round ‘C’ for the run to ‘D’, the plan being that we continue on port tack to the far shore while sorting the kite, then gybe and it should be a decent run down to ‘D’ from there. But I only get as far as giving a quick heave on the kite halyard, and before it has any real effect there’s a Flying Fifteen dead ahead which has just gybed onto starboard, and it’s clear that going round it isn’t an option. I yell something unhappy at the world in general and chuck the boat into a gybe. Crew does the thing with the pole and the wind kicks in again, and now we’re hurtling towards ‘G’ on a run with the kite still mostly horizontal, and I can’t pump it up because it’s so damn windy that the force on the halyard when doubled by my 2:1 pump system is more than I can cope with. So I resort to pulling directly on the halyard, but the take-up restricts the amount I can pull to about 8 inches each time and I am distracted by having to steer the boat and keep it upright and other minor details like that as it crashes grumpily from one wave crest to the next. The boat doesn’t like this, the kite is making scornful noises at me, and somewhere behind us I can feel Pete catching up. And now we’re in danger of going past D, so we sling in another gybe and incredibly still haven’t capsized when the dust settles on that one. In a rare moment of inspiration I tell Paul to leave the pole where it is (on the wrong side), thereby avoiding crew leaning over foredeck on a dead run in big waves type issues, and now I find I can hoist the kite up because it’s all tucked away behind the mainsail out of the wind. It goes up, we get to ‘D’ and I look back and decide not to mention to Paul that the Flying Fifteen we met earlier has just been blown flat behind us, as we go for the gybe….
Which we survive. And since the pole is already set for the reach to ‘S’, Paul bounds straight out on the wire and the big mad red kite sets instantly and is laughing insanely (or maybe that was me) as we hurtle past ‘D’ with the spray from our wake blowing off downwind. The waves are proper big out here and the wind is full on, and although I dumped the mainsail after the first five seconds, when we bear off in the gusts it fills anyway because we’re not far off a run and we go even faster. The boat bounces gleefully over the waves, atomising the water where it lands, and it’s still accelerating like it wants to get to the scene of the accident nice and early. And this is sooooo good, but even while I’m giving silent thanks that the Fireball is so manageable in these conditions, I’m also aware that the near future does indeed hold the probability of some kind of high speed unpleasantness and swimming.
Still, we get about three-quarters of the way along the leg and are still roughly on course and mostly upright. Now at this point there is a crew-boat interface problem, maybe wave related, maybe just the bouncing about, and Paul disappears briefly. When he reappears he is lying along the side of the boat with his legs near my ear and he’s dropped the spinnaker sheet. The boat is still upright and still bouncing across the waves, but it’s slowing down now, coming out of hyperspace, and the big red mad kite is making highly disapproving noises and shedding £5 notes by the second. Some sort of telepathy then occurs, where we both know that it’s time to quit while we're ahead (ie, still alive) and get the kite down, although nobody actually says so. So we do and it comes back to its bag like a soppy old rottweiler, tired but happy.
I risk a quick glance behind us, and Pete is now about a hundred miles back but he’s coming down the reach encompassed in a ball of spray like some sort of a wet doomsday machine, and you can just tell even from here that he’s not at all happy about how those last few legs played out. So we nip round ‘S’, pull the sails in, adopt the position and sail a steady and uneventful fetch up to J and OL and a very welcome finish.
We found out later that Pete had problems getting the pole to go on the mast on the way to ‘C’ and then managed to put the spinnaker sheet over the end of the boom, so our barnstorming victory was perhaps a little less impressive than it originally looked. And after all that, we didn’t even win, 2nd place was all that was on offer.
But in my head, that part of that race stays with me, tucked away in my collection of sailing memories of times when we tested the limits of what is possible, to the point where fantasy and reality briefly merged into one. And it was all absolutely great.