There are sailors, and there are racing sailors. Charleston has a disproportionate number of the latter. Maybe that’s why we did so well in the Conch Republic Cup, a set of races that lured 54 American boats, including 10 from the Holy City, to Cuba in late January.
Some credit goes to the Charleston Ocean Racing Association, or CORA, which cultivates a certain competitive mentality among its members and which encourages them to chase the wind of the open seas. CORA was well represented at the regatta, its members wearing red custom-made T-shirts and making a scene at Dante’s Key West, at Marina Gaviota in Varadero and at Marina Hemingway in Havana.
This was the eighth Key West-Cuba race, but the first since 2003, and the first time it was sanctioned by both governments, a result of the recent thaw in U.S.-Cuban relations.
Cuba was an irresistible prize for many. Sailing overnight from Key West to Varadero, then over to Havana, then back to Key West, with a couple of buoy races in between, this sounded like a dream regatta, a rare opportunity to assume the mantel of American ambassadors, a historic water-bound event. And it was a chance to visit a long-forbidden land.
The crew of Alliance signed up for the adventure. None of us had sailed across the Florida Straits before, and only a couple of us had any extensive offshore experience. Our time on the 38-foot Ericson mostly had been limited to harbor races and several jaunts up or down the South Carolina coast to Bohicket Marina or Georgetown.
It became quickly evident in Key West that this would be no boondoggle. The regatta was not an excuse to go to Cuba on vacation (though we thought of it that way initially); rather, Cuba was the excuse for the regatta. When you sail offshore, it’s best to concentrate on sailing offshore.
Besides, a big regatta inevitably is subject to a variety of X factors, the biggest being weather, which can dictate when and how (and if) you sail.
With Cuba calling, the crew gathered at the boat and prepared it for the high seas. The breeze was up, little whitecaps curled over the waves near shore. We motored out of the Stock Island Marina as wind-blown waves rolled into the channel, rocking the boat about. When we tried to pull down the Alliance banner, it broke free of the halyard, which was left dangling near the top of the mast. An inauspicious start!
Captain Mark Stetler turned the boat around and pulled up to the fuel dock where we tied it down before hoisting Sherry Irwin up the mast to retrieve the loose halyard.
Even at the dock, the boat tossed about, buffeted by the wind. Sherry had to hold tight to the mast on the way up and on the way down.
Then we tried again. Just outside the marina, conditions were threatening, and each of us, to various degrees, were grappling with dread and secretly entertaining selfish thoughts, like, “Really? This is what we must endure to get to Cuba?”
We noticed the boat in front of us make a U-turn. We tried to listen to the radio; the sound of the surf drowned it out. When someone on the other boat threw his arm forward, pointing back to the marina, we all exhaled with relief.
The third push off the dock was the charm. On Jan. 29, Alliance made her way to the start line off the western edge of Key West then, at 5 p.m., turned for Cuba. We were running down wind, surfing 4- to 5-foot waves and flying the spinnaker when we could. The winds picked up and we began to worry that they might overpower the kite or the helm or both, so we scrambled to pull down the spinnaker as Alliance rolled in the surf. The tough work included scary moments in the Gulf Stream, but we were successful and did not lose much time.
With the genoa (head sail) unfurled, the crew of seven was able to maintain course.
In the wee hours of the morning, I took the helm and, with one eye on the compass and one eye on the sea, steered the boat toward Varadero. This was my moment of bliss — well, really about five hours of bliss. The full spectrum of stars glittered above; the rushing sound of rolling waves along the boat soothed the soul. Alliance was cradled by the sea.
Varadero’s Marina Gaviota is large, new and generic. It could be a marina anywhere in the world, with its bland hotels, shops and restaurants circling the docks. We waited six hours for the Cuban authorities to visit each of the 54 boats, check passports, fill out the necessary medical forms and collect docking fees and taxes. A short visit to the town center several miles down the narrow peninsula was unrewarding, but the ride atop a tourist bus revealed the emphasis on tourism and the effort of the government to build, build, build in anticipation of an influx of American dollars.
That evening, as a sailors’ party wound down across the channel, Mark and I sat on the bow of the boat smoking cigars and wondering what we’d find in Havana. We would leave the following afternoon, ahead of other boats participating in a local buoy race, and sail along the coastline overnight.
We pulled into Marina Hemingway early in the morning, checked in with customs officials, tied up at the dock and ate a breakfast of egg-and-bacon sandwiches and coffee. By early afternoon, the crew had checked in with our wonderful Airbnb hosts, Patricia and Fernando, and soon we were ready to explore Havana.
We spent the afternoon and evening walking through the congested, dynamic “central” area. We walked up the Paseo de Marti to the Castillo de San Salvador de la Punta in time to enjoy the sunset, then wandered back into the thick of the old city in search of a bite to eat.
The next day we explored Havana Vieja, the old city, starting at Plaza de Armas and winding our way through the colonial-era streets. I tried to escape the cliche about Havana being “stuck in time,” but couldn’t. The historic center surely is on the mend, thanks to government investment, but it’s still an eclectic mix of nice hotels, artist studios, small factories, street vendors, schools, clubs and stubborn residents resisting gentrification but too poor to pay for the restoration of their buildings, some of which literally crumble before your eyes.
The area was warm with activity, beautiful, fascinating. Everywhere you looked within this condensed streetscape some figure was photogenically set against a textured background that was unequivocal in its projection of place. Nothing was new, not the architecture, not the automobiles, not the knick-knacks being sold by vendors at the Plaza de Armas, not the cultural vibe.
My Cuban friend, Maribel Acosta, helped prepare me for the experience, and she connected me to her former art teacher, Angel Ramirez, a respected painter and sculptor whose work is regularly collected and whose studio overlooks the plaza.
For a while now, Ramirez has been using medieval imagery and Byzantine iconography in his work, playing with the idea of power, or lack of power. The pictures are bold and ironic: Is Ramirez commenting on Cuban politics and society? Who, exactly, are the powerless? He seems to be rejecting the old utopian rhetoric, replacing it with ambiguous imagery that’s at once old and new.
By mid-afternoon, I considered visiting the famed Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes de La Habana, but closing time was a little more than two hours away and I didn’t want to rush. So I added it to my to-do list for the morrow.
But the morrow would not grace the urban explorer in me. It would instead summon the sailor back to sea.
That evening at the marina, as the band played and a whole pig was turned by hand over a sparkling fire, the rumors we had heard that afternoon were confirmed. The weather, subject to unusual instability cause by the season’s particularly strong El Nino winds, would change for the worse and prevent us from sailing back to Florida on schedule. We would push off the dock a full two days early.
At 9 a.m. the next day, we concluded last-minute transactions in the marina’s cigar store, bid adios to our land-based hopes and plans, and prepared for the buoy race in the Bay of Havana. The finish of that race was the start of the Key West race.
We were quickly back in sailing mode, rounding the marks and struggling with the spinnaker (alas, not uncommon on Alliance). It was a historic race with a most unusual backdrop, celebrated by Cuban officials, sailing commodores and many participants.
Heading north toward Key West that afternoon, the wind was southwesterly, blowing against our starboard bow. The seas grew. Alliance rolled up one side of the 8-foot waves, then slid down the other side. At the helm, Mark turned the wheel hard to the right, then hard to the left in an effort to stay on course.
In the Gulf Stream, we confronted a few 10-foot and 12-foot waves. Some of the crew were mighty uncomfortable. Mark’s shoulders were getting sore. Every so often a wave would strike the starboard bow just so, sending spray into the cockpit. There was nothing to do but forge ahead. At least it wasn’t cold.
At some point in the wee hours, I volunteered to take the wheel, thinking I might keep nausea at bay. I lasted about 45 minutes, then asked Mark to reclaim his position. Staring at the undulating compass as the whole world heaved and surged around me proved too much.
By first light, we were approaching land; by mid-morning, we were tied to the dock and more than ready to shake off a tumultuous, destabilizing night of high surf. We staggered toward the marina showers and soon made our way to Pepe’s Cafe for a hearty breakfast.
The next day, Sherry, Mark and I would motor-sail to Key Largo, anchor overnight, then proceed to Ft. Lauderdale in an effort to get Alliance closer to her home port. (Mark, whose heroes are single-handed sailors, would return four days later to finish the journey.)
Despite our difficulties, the Alliance crew did pretty well. We finished the Conch Republic Cup third overall in our division of nine boats, behind two other Charleston-based boats, Eddie Evans’ Naut-on-Call (overall winner) and Jay Cook’s Tohidu (second place).
Three other Charleston boats (Moosedown, Cheers and Sayonara) finished in the top three of their respective divisions.
None of it was easy. Sailing long distances requires stamina, preparation and vigilance. One can take nothing for granted. Storms can bear down suddenly, halyards can snap, crew members can get sick or injured. One’s fortunes and failures are intrinsically tied to the whims of Mother Nature.
We wanted badly to concentrate on Cuba, on discovering this magical, troubled land full of interesting and very kind people. We wanted to indulge more in the food and music, visit tobacco country west of Havana, understand better the changing political and economic environment.
We wanted to explore in detail how people lived day to day, how they earn salaries of $8-$12 a month in many cases. We wanted to learn about the history of race and class and revolution, about the policies and powers of the state, about the entrepreneurial spirit now being fueled by increases in tourism and foreign investment.
With just two partial days in the streets of Havana, such information-gathering proved impossible. We merely got a taste of the city and its sad and wonderful vibe.
Traveling to Cuba is becoming easier for Americans. Even with the U.S. embargo still in place, specialized travel agencies routinely secure visas for U.S. travelers who can claim to be participating in a sporting event or educational initiative, any of 12 activity categories.
The Cubans, in turn, are excited and worried both, according to a few I spoke with during my visit. They are glad for President Barack Obama’s outreach and for the diplomatic thaw, but they wonder what will ensue. How will the economy be transformed in the years to come? What will happen to Cuba’s aging, calcified leadership? Will the diplomatic thaw lead to social, political and artistic freedoms?
The country is at the cusp of long-term comprehensive change. It seems inexorable, as do the challenges
Alliance in Havana, Cuba for the first Conch Republic Cup sanctioned by both the United States and the Cuban Governments.
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.