The light winds, blowing about eight knots offshore, probably helped us. The Alliance does well in light air, especially now that she boasts a beautiful red-and-blue asymmetrical spinnaker that pulls the boat forward with a whimsical mix of encouragement and admonition.
The crew — nine of us, led by Alliance owner and helmsman Mark Stetler — managed the tacks through the jetties and out to the R13 buoy with aplomb. We lost little speed during the turns and quickly found the air again with sails set close-hauled a second or two before the 38-foot Ericson settled into its new tack.
Commands were few, merely “Ready to tack! 3-2-1, tacking!” Then the whoosh of the genoa as it blew over, assisted by Chris Tambasco, Sherry Irwin and Don Hone on the bow. I was managing the mainsail, dropping the traveler and locking it down during the turn, ensuring that the sheet was tight and the outhaul loose enough to put a little belly into the sail. “Nice!” Stetler said, again and again from the stern. Finally, after many weeks of practice in the harbor, after several local races, after ripping up the old spinnaker and enduring the frustrations of inefficiency, we were a proper team, thinking ahead, acting fast, concentrating on the details of sail trim, wind- and tidelines, weather shifts, currents, speed, pressure and the feel of the hull through the Atlantic Ocean.
Our timing was just right, for this was Charleston Race Week, and we had set ourselves this goal months earlier. “What I want to do is just steer and not talk,” Stetler had told us pleadingly. He had been doing a lot of talking until recently, teaching me about the main, instructing Mark Thomas and Chris Rabens how to preset the jib cars so they wouldn’t have to waste precious time cranking in the genoa, helping to calculate the best way to launch that troublesome old spinnaker, and then how to fly the crispy new kite.
But now we were a capable crew, and this allowed Stetler to concentrate on his own position: driving the boat. Arguably, nothing is more important than good helmsmanship when tacking and jibing and launching or dousing the spinnaker. Stetler also doubled as lead tactician, deciding when to change course and how best to approach our marks. He had help, of course, from Eric Dove and Rick Holmes, both experienced sailors and thoughtful strategists. But none of us ever forgot who was in charge, and the captain’s determination and occasional fiery tantrums were needed if we were to become serious enough, and capable enough, to race in the biggest sailing competition in North America.
Over the course of its 20 years, Charleston Race Week has grown from a modest all-local event to an international phenomenon. About 280 boats participated this year, divided into 19 inshore and offshore classes. The boats in the biggest class are the J/70s, lightweight and agile — perfect for the circle races in the harbor. There were 83 of the J/70s competing, 23 more than a year ago. Next year, there could be as many as 100.
Friday had given us winds sufficient enough to propel the larger pursuit boats offshore on the “long course” — out to the G13 buoy, south about four nautical miles and back in a loop, then a return up the channel to the harbor. Just as we approached Sullivan’s Island, the wind died. Completely. We tried everything to put a puff in the sails, but they luffed and drooped like a sad dog denied its treat. The tide was just turning, so we drifted in and across the line, finishing eighth.
On Saturday, lack of wind persisted through the morning, prompting a four-hour delay, but then the breeze came on and we sailed the short course offshore on what became the most picturesque sail of the tournament. Clouds billowed over land even as the sun shone over sea, and the sails of the smaller boats in the circle races winked at us conspiratorially from afar.
Our performance improved with the weather. We were more relaxed (a morning of bloody marys and doughnuts probably helped loosen us up), and the beauty of the day did not escape our attention as we focused on the many tasks at hand. We finished sixth.
Sailing competitively is eventful, requiring intense concentration and physical effort. There is always something to calibrate on the boat and always something to notice beyond the boat.
“Traveller is tacking! Alexandria is tacking!” Dove would warn.
“OK, we’ll get above Alexandria then tack,” Stetler would respond. “Ready to tack!”
“Ready high!” Thomas would say. “Ready low!” Rabens echoed. “Ready at the main!” I’d shout.
Even as we forged ahead on a straight line, close-hauled, we were constantly checking our speed and feeling for puffs, ensuring the tell tails all were flying, trying desperately to maximize performance. Seven knots in low wind feels fast (it corresponds to 8 miles per hour). It’s amazing how the tiniest adjustment — burping the jenny or sheeting in the main an inch — will produce results that can be felt.
In high winds, the Alliance can be overpowered because of its large head sail. That’s where the power is, but we don’t want the boat to keel too much because it will draw the top of the rudder out of the water and deny the helmsman steerage. So we let the sails out or, if it’s blowing stink, apply a single or double reef, which shortens the main sail, limiting surface area.
Learning all of this has been a remarkable gift. A year ago, I knew little about sailing big boats and nothing about racing. My sailboat experience began with Sunfishes we rented when I was a kid vacationing with family on Sanibel Island in Florida. I would hop on the boat and glide across the shallow bay, avoiding the sandbars and hoping for strong winds, flipping the sail across the deck to tack and leaning out to balance the boat.
It was not difficult to understand how it all worked. Air rushes over the front of the sail faster than it moves along the back of the sail, creating a pressurized vacuum — lift — that pulls the boat forward when it’s moving into the wind, just as an airplane wing does. Pressure builds (and therefore speed) when the sail is hauled in at a 15- or 20-degree angle to the wind. To move downwind, let the sail out so the wind can push the boat forward.I understood the basic principles, but I did not know the terminology, I had never grinded a winch, I had little experience adjusting backstays, outhauls, boom vangs or cunninghams. When I was first invited onto Stetler’s boat, I responded to commands by scanning frantically the labels taped to the deck near each line. It took me several months to respond automatically to Stetler’s requests, and another few months to know what to do without being asked.
It became an obsession. The Alliance allowed me to float freely, liberated from mundane concerns. I would look at the shore and think about wind angles, not work. I would see the Cooper River Bridge looming above and think about the tack to come, not the traffic to Mount Pleasant. To sail is to be consumed entirely by the moment at hand; it leaves one little room for fantasy or philosophy. It is the best way I know to forget about mood and money and yard work and the stories I have to write and the obligations that pile up.
None of it would have been possible without Stetler, his wife and co-captain Caroline Knopf and their wonderful water machine, the Alliance. I find that my obsession is in direct proportion to my gratitude. If I am to sail on this boat, if I am to enjoy such a privilege, I better know what I’m doing.
On the final day of Race Week 2015, the Alliance once again sailed the short course to G13 and back, once again launching the asymmetrical spinnaker for the ride home. We crossed the start line about a minute early, a mistake that soured Stetler and caused a ruckus on board. The start is everything. Well, not exactly everything, but it is very important.
The boats in our pursuit class each are very different, and each have a performance handicap based on weight, draft, design and so on. To ensure a level playing field, slower boats start first, faster boats start later. The Alliance was in the middle of the field, and we crew were mostly successful keeping the faster boats behind us.
As we re-entered the harbor, passing along the beach of Sullivan’s Island, we found ourselves battling Tohidu to the finish. We sailed in Tohidu’s wake, hoping our temporary nemesis would break up the current a little. As we inched closer we hoped we could steal some of Tohidu’s wind. Then we were side by side, with Alliance leeward and therefore at a disadvantage, shadowed by its competitor. We tried to nudge Tohidu closer to shore and away from the finish line, forcing her to jibe from a greater distance.
The two boats were close, their kites trying to kiss. We had the wind, then we lost it. Tohidu pulled ahead, then slipped back. With the finish buoy 50 feet in front of us, we were pointing better, but the wind gave out at the last moment and Tohidu slipped in front of us, its crew letting out a cheer. It was a photo finish, exciting, memorable. We were going three knots across the line.
This is what competitive sailing is all about, these long stretches of tense determination and focus, hours on the water, embraced by the elements, in tune with the turning Earth.