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End of summer sail

(At left) Norm Down (background) and Marc Adam aboard the Savage.  - Ryan Schierling / Staff Photo
(At left) Norm Down (background) and Marc Adam aboard the Savage.
— image credit: Ryan Schierling / Staff Photo

The second of a two-part story on a weekly sailboat regatta from Eagle Harbor that puts fun ahead of competition. The first part appeared Sept. 3, 2003.

Before September rains carry the precision of the memories down the nearest storm drain, this is what summer was:

Perching atop the cabin of a fleet, heeling sailboat in the middle of Puget Sound, caressed by a maritime breeze;

Struggling to learn something about the art of sailing and making a lot of mistakes, none of which result in drowning;

An excuse to delegate Wednesday city council meetings to another writer;

And, over a two-mile stretch of gloriously sparkling water, flying toward an imaginary finish line, neck-and-neck with another proud vessel and its crew on the last 85-degree afternoon of the season.

How we got to that last moment – as a writer whose previous sailing experience could be expressed in one word: ballast – that’s our story.

The narrative begins in early June, as we sign on as observer/deckhand for the Savage, a 33-foot sloop moored on the south side of Eagle Harbor. One of the crewmembers, Norm Down, is a friend through his work on the Marge Williams Center; the skipper, Jim Laughlin, we’ve met a few times through our regular professional endeavors as chronicler of the battle between Good (all right-thinking islanders) and Evil (developers), of which Laughlin is among the latter.

The ostensible goal is to document a semi-competitive, five-year-old regatta – with some 250 races behind it – that sets out from Eagle Harbor every Wednesday.

Thus, the first few weeks are spent huddled with pen and notepad, trying to make sense of the remarkably complex system of simple machines around us, studying the physical interplay of sails and wind that propels the vessel.

We are overwhelmed by the nomenclature of the sailing world, its jibs and its jibes. Ropes, we learn, may be “sheets” or “halyards,” but they are never, as near as we can tell, just plain “ropes.” Even today, with three months’ experience behind us, if directed to “raise the topping lift” or “release the downhaul,” we’re still not sure we can complete either task with certainty.

Undaunted, each Wednesday we join the crew to set out in the wake of the 4:45 ferry, invariably drawing the curious, perhaps envious to the rail.

We are among a panoply of colorful names: Rodster, Hooligan, Palancar, Savannah, Amicus, Shabu Shabu, Savage, Alerion. Over the years, we learn, nearly every skipper has traded up for a bigger, faster vessel. Particularly feared are the sleek boats of the J-105 class skippered by Rod McKenzie and Uly Cheng, each said to be worth as much as the whole fleet was when the series began.

Asked to expound on those vessels’ comparative advantage, one racer confides: “It’s the difference between your 21-year-old girlfriend and your middle-aged wife.”

Yet what a given vessel lacks in innate speed, we learn that a skilled sailor can make up for with wile – he or she is ever cognizant of many invisible forces.

An understanding of prevailing currents is essential; a boat can lose ground on an ostensibly straight tack, swept subtly off course by the relentlessness of the sea. Too, distant ripples and “wind lines” in the water ahead offer the perceptive precious clues as to where breezes swirl.

The wind itself assumes a metaphysical quality, like happiness or a sense of personal salvation. Some seem to find it no matter which way they turn; others beat back and forth in vain, unable to harness it to their satisfaction.

Sometimes, forces come together obligingly, brilliantly.

“This is what you call ‘boat speed,’” Down says with satisfaction one afternoon, as the Savage plows ahead at a mad pace. “It’s trying to lift itself out of the hole in the water.”

Races run north to and from a buoy in Murden Cove, or south to a marker off Restoration Point.

The first leg of each event is usually into the wind and is marked by great maneuvering under main sail and forward “jib”; the second is typified by a flat-out sprint toward the finish. On a downwind tack, most vessels fly spinnakers – bulbous, wildly colored sails the seem to inhale the wind and propel the boats at impossible speeds.

And each week, different strategies emerge. Some skippers hug the shore, trying to dodge currents and take advantage of a shorter linear distance to the mark. Others sail well out into the sound – almost to Seattle, it sometimes seems – propelled by magnificent breezes before cutting back to round their goal from upwind.

In this manner, countless small trigonometry lessons play out on a sapphire slate. The seat at the head of the class, we find, is not exclusive.

“Everybody kind of takes turn winning,” says John DeMeyer, whose 38-foot Palancar was christened for a favorite reef off a Mexican beach. “There’s no dominant boat.”

This proves itself again and again over the course of the summer. Even DeMeyer, generally regarded as the best sailor in the series, has a few “off” days and watches helplessly as other boats streak past.

“If you don’t do well, it’s no big deal,” DeMeyer muses, “because there’s another 250 races to go.”

This is the spirit of the regatta.

The race

The quarter-hour before each race is spent tacking back and forth to gauge wind and tide, with skippers jockeying to be first off the line. Each pass is met with good-natured cheers and jeers.

The race itself – which by agreement must be completed within two hours – is then defined by long periods of inactivity and relative relaxation, punctuated by periodic bursts of frantic action.

“There’s times when you have to bring yourself back to reality during a good conversation – ‘oh yeah, we’re supposed to be racing,’” says Bob Schoonmaker, a series regular who crews on various vessels.

This is true aboard the Savage, where seldom is heard a discouraging word unless conversation turns to local politics; the summer’s only string of profanity comes when a winch handle goes tumbling overboard during a collectively inept tack.

Much thought and discussion are devoted to present and future courses and the relative positions of other vessels.

Then, “Helm’s alee!” Laughlin says, and the crew scrambles into position to execute a change of course.

As the tiller steers the vessel across the nose of the wind, the jib sheet is freed from its robust winch at the side of the cockpit.

The designated “jib bunny” – a sardonic title, given the Savage crew’s makeup – must stand on the foredeck and quickly flop the sail from one side of the mast to the other. Often, the sail envelops him like a mad wraith before flapping off to be reeled in and tamed by others.

Another crew member cranks feverishly at the opposite winch that will pull the jib in to the desired angle, to maximize power and thus speed. Then it’s a matter of constant trimming, adjusting both sails to account for shifts in course and wind.

Those who do this cleverly and efficiently do well in the race.

Within a few weeks, the writer himself is pressed into service.

And the Savage’s crew – and its captain, who despite his profession appears to have neither horns nor tail – are infinitely patient with the novice seaman, who blunders into most of the myriad ways to demonstrate sailing ineptitude: the halyard wrapped the wrong way around the winch, wasting what seem like hours during a crucial tack; the jib released long before the spinnaker is ready to be raised, causing a numbing loss of speed; countless other idiocies long since suppressed.

Conversely, the crew is bolstered early in the summer by the captain’s college-age daughter, an expert sailor with a competitive streak wider than Puget Sound. We recall it is she who first proposes a longish but strategically sound course well above the mark at Murden Cove, an idea that pays immediate dividends.

Indeed, an unfamiliar phenomenon becomes part of the Savage experience: victory. Three times in the first six weeks, the sloop is first back to Eagle Harbor.

Once, the crew opens up a sizeable lead, only to run into doldrums at the mark and watch in frustration as the other vessels catch up. But thanks to crafty navigation, the Savage is also first to find the wind for the second leg, and comes home free with the rival boats mere specks on the horizon.

“We need to start following you,” one captain says at the dock after the third thrashing. “At least we’d finish second.”

Lest the Savage crew fall into complacency and hubris, the weeks do bring their share of poor starts, poor finishes, and a scratch one week when the skipper gets stuck in the ferry line in Seattle.

But, on the last in a summer of glorious afternoons, it also brings what is perhaps the best race of the year. Spinnakers fly early; four vessels round the mark at speed within seconds of each other, their crews trading barbs even as they scramble to set their rigging for the homeward leg.

The course home is very fast and requires but a single tack, leaving one free to sit atop the cabin and meditate on the nature of wind, happiness and salvation.

The winner is conceded at the finish, only to be – in the spirit of the series – half-heartedly disputed at a post-race barbecue.

But everyone knows the Savage won.

And this is what summer was.

It was good.

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