I didn’t grow up in a sailing community.
I knew of a few people who had sailed boats at camp or when they went to visit relatives, but words like yacht club and sailboat conjured up in my mind images of Thurston Howell the third from Gilligan’s Island: captain’s hats and Brahmin accents and $100 bills falling from the sky like confetti.
Then I moved to a coastal town with a vibrant sailing community.
Quickly I learned that, in most ways, we live in a typical suburban American town. The major difference, due to our geography and history, is that a lot of sailors and other boaters reside here and there is a high concentration of yacht clubs.
I won’t deny that there probably are a few Thurston Howells who live among us, but a large majority of the boat owners and yacht club members I know are not from the blue-blood set and do not live lives of leisure.
However, the sailing world can be baffling to newcomers. It certainly was to me those first few years.
One of the community’s traditions, which twenty years ago I found odd and now I consider normal, occurs when a major sailing race begins off of our shores. Days before the race, a buzz spreads throughout town. People extend invitations to friends and family to join them on their personal boats to watch the start of the race. Coolers are packed with sandwiches and beers. Binoculars, cameras, and sunscreen are stuffed into canvas boat bags. When you bump into somebody in town, you ask whether they’ll be out to see the start right after you ask how they are and comment on the weather.
The first time I went out with others to watch the start of the race, I thought it would be an on-sea version of the start of a marathon or a bike race or a car race with people or bikes or race cars waiting at the start line. I hadn’t thought about the fact that sailboats can’t idle the way other vehicles can and a starting line cannot be drawn across the water. I hadn’t thought about how the fastest way for a sailboat to travel between two points is rarely (or never) in a straight line.
About an hour before the first race start I attended, spectator boats began heading out to the race course, where most of the racers had already congregated.
My reaction when we arrived in the vicinity of the start line was: THIS IS CHAOS. The racing boats were in constant motion as were the spectator boats. It wasn’t clear to me which boats were about to race and which were spectating. I had no idea where we would go to get a good view of the start and even after asking a lot of questions, I wasn’t clear on the actual location of the start line. I had difficulty understanding how the racers knew what to make of the signal horns that were going off in what seemed to me to be random moments. To me, it looked like a big mess of boats weaving in and out and around each other, seemingly without any rhyme or reason.
Of course I was wrong. The racers have strategies about where they want to be at each of the warning signals before the start of the race and while they wait for those signals, they begin to position themselves so they will be where they want to be when the race begins. They know where the race committee boat is and where the mark is and that their boat has to cross the invisible line between committee boat and mark after the starting signal goes off. And they know that the warning horns go off at time increments and each signal notes the amount of time left before the race.
Eventually, at that first race I went to watch, the people I was with starting talking about where we might go now. I looked around in disbelief. Somebody explained that the race had begun. From my vantage point, the chaos of the start looked similar to the chaos of before the start. How could they be sure the race had begun?
Since that first time, I’ve seen several starts to big ocean races. I’ve become a little bit more comfortable when it comes to finding the order in the chaos. I’ve gotten a little better at recognizing which boats are there to race and which are there to spectate. I’ve begun to pick up on when a race actually has started, although the signs that tell me that usually have more to do with the sudden mass exodus of the spectator boats than it has to do with the positioning of the racers.
Today was the start of the 36th Biennial Marblehead-to-Halifax Ocean Race, a 363 nautical mile course which usually takes the fleet from three to five days to complete. We went out to watch the start. We ate our sandwiches and drank our drinks and occasionally called out to other spectators whom we knew. After awhile the starting horns began. I tried to convince myself that I clearly saw the boats lining themselves up, waiting to begin.
After several minutes of frustration at the reality of not being able to tell exactly when the boats were crossing the line, I leaned back in my seat and closed my eyes, which luckily were hidden behind my sunglasses. Then, breathing softly, I let my mind drift away from the here and now as my body soaked up the hot July sun.
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