Sydney winters are an interesting time to sail: an “average” day of 10 to 15 knots is rare but you get a lot of extremes – days with almost no breeze (and at times some sunshine to compensate but that’s not a given) and days with so much of it that races are on the verge of being cancelled.
Race 2 of the Winter series had us sitting in a hole for ages as our entire division caught up to us and then overtook us; the forecast for the next week looked like a complete opposite: gusty 20-30 knots and rain. Race 3 was also on Mother’s Day.
We had a long and very warm summer and autumn this year so the first cold days came as a complete shock. I generally find myself unable to complain about the cold too much because even after living in Australia for over 10 years I still hear that a Russian person, let alone a person from Siberia, can’t possibly feel cold in 10 degrees. I just glare from under my fur hat. Just kidding, I just sit there with my eyes closed.
Inshore races generally get cancelled when there is a gale warning and I’m not going to lie, I was waiting for that warning with almost the same trepidation I feel as I wait for my toddler to start sleeping better. A cancelled race, some restful sleep and being able to read all by myself with a cup of hot tea were the only things I really wanted for Mother’s Day, and I was pretty sure I wouldn’t be getting the last two things. So when the committee announced that the race would proceed it was a blow.
I saw no possibility of cancelling and just not showing up either. Sailboats really need crew on windy days (especially heavy crew so you should have a big breakfast if it’s blowing outside) and pulling out on a windy day is bad form. So I cursed and put a lot of layers on myself and used my Russian glare on the Uber driver who thought I was a tradie wearing some kind of work clothes when he saw my wet weather gear.
And man, did we had some fun that day. I got to sail with a couple of people who I haven’t seen in a few years, people I really like, and all the usual suspects. We didn’t break anything. There was a lot of grinding involved and a lot of splashing but I managed to stay dry. We forgot the only spinnaker we could’ve used (a fractional symmetrical kite). We put a reef on and then shook it out. I was shouting “weeeeeee!” through every gust of 35 knots. We rounded up a few times and we had to crash tack because of a boat that appeared seemingly out of nowhere. I lost another hat. And after the race tea and red wine tasted better than they ever did before.
Turns out I don’t mind an inshore race in 30 knots, after all. Thanks Bureau of Meteorology for not issuing a gale warning and thanks CYCA for not cancelling the race, obviously you know better than me what’s good for all of us.
I had a long break from sailboat racing, from the early days of my pregnancy until my daughter was almost a year and a half. Partially it was because becoming a parent turned out to be an all-consuming task not leaving time for much else, especially in that first year (babies generally like having their mothers close by at all times and I was happy enough to oblige), but there was also a bit of fatigue involved.
My boat ownership was a mixed bag of exhilaration at its best and frustration and hopelessness at its worst. The older boat required a lot of patient investment of time and money culminating in a replacement of the keel and while I got some help from friends I was never competent enough to do any repairs myself and wasn’t cashed up enough to delegate them to someone else entirely. What was even more painful, even with experienced crew I never got to the point when I felt confident enough as a skipper of a sports boat – every time a race came around I would be obsessively checking the forecast worrying that I would lose control of the boat and smash into someone else or that something would break and hurt people in the process (de-masting is not all that rare even inshore). I had an experienced crew, by far more experienced than me, and sometimes it felt like I was an impostor on my own boat. I suspect that if I had enough time and persistence to stick with it and maybe forget about being competitive for a bit and concentrate on the basics instead of overthinking everything, I’d eventually get to the point when sailing my own boat would entail more fun than fear. As it happened, the boat sat on a trailer for a bit until I finally got the keel replaced, got back on the water… and then I got pregnant and sold it. My consolation is that the new owner is taking better care of the boat than I could and yet regret lingers.
My experience racing on other people’s boats somewhat changed, too. I lost my desire to prove myself to everyone and started concentrating on the actual sailing with people who already knew me. I can’t say I’m the best trimmer out there but I can do a decent enough job and did so on a few boats. I didn’t entirely lose my competitive streak and sometimes I did wonder if I could sail on a bigger boat – yet the effort required to strategically socialise with people to claw my way in and then try to prove my worth was too big in my head to even try.
My break from racing changed it even further. I got back on a boat that I sailed on for a while previously and I love the owner and his partner as well as the crew, old and new. It might not be the most competitive boat but it’s also entirely free from politics. There’s no “easing” off the boat, no power struggles, no blaming or shaming, no desperate drive to win at all cost and do everything within your power or else feel like a failure – it’s just fun. Easy-going banter, trying out ALL the sails, laughter and booze. We will get more competitive soon I’m sure but for now I am just enjoying the feeling of sea breeze on my face, the camaraderie and being back on the water – that’s what it’s all about, after all.
“We changed the block on the main to a double one so it’s easier for you to control,” – said Jony.
I was sitting in the driving seat of a paraw, a traditional boat in the Philippines. Those boats are out on the water all day in Boracay, taking tourists around the island and out to the reef. Around 4:30 pm their renting rates double as the sun starts to go down. By 5:30 the entire horizon is full of blue sails in the rays of yet another stunning sunset.
By the time I decided to try and control one of those boats my holiday was almost over. The very next day I was flying back to Australia and my parents were heading back to Russia. I missed three twilights on my own boat while being on holidays and felt very homesick every Friday from 6 pm Sydney time onwards, checking the results to make sure that my crew were destroying my handicap while I was away. They were. I am the least experienced person on my own boat so it was to be expected. The crew posted photos of the trophy glasses, rum and beer on my Facebook wall to celebrate another win. I was staring at the perfect beach on Boracay, drinking cocktails and thinking about what I left at home.
The White Beach is about 5 kilometres long and it’s covered with – you guessed it – very fine white sand. We would usually drop our towels under a beautiful big tree and go swimming or paddle boarding. The beach is full of hawkers, mostly selling sunglasses, hats and selfie sticks. Lots of them also sell water sports, including a cruise on a blue sailed traditional boat with two outriggers on each side. They didn’t call the boats “paraws”, at least not while talking to tourists (I had to look up the correct name on Wikipedia). Filipinos speak fairly good English in general but a lot of the time their vocabulary is very functional, just enough to sell whatever they are selling. I still managed to talk to a few sailing people who described capsizes around marks during races, explained divisions in regattas and talked about sponsors and money prizes.
Jony was probably the most talkative hawker and he was the one who convinced me to try to steer the boat after my parents and I had already gone on a couple of cruises. “There was this woman from Singapore who told me she’s a sailor,” – he told me. “But when I tried to get her to steer she just wouldn’t do it!” I knew then that I would have to do better than the unnamed woman from Singapore, even though I’ve been told that I was not allowed to capsize the boat.
He told me that paraws can go as fast as 19-20 knots. They certainly never go that fast with tourists on. As soon as you turn the corner away from the White Beach, the water gets rougher, the wind starts to blow, tourists get wet and slightly uncomfortable. The boats mostly reach around, avoiding gybes in too much wind. When the locals race the boats, one person steers and trims the sails, the rest of the crew (usually 4 people) move around for better weight distribution. There are no kites. The outriggers make the boat look stable like a pair of skis attached to a plane but it’s just an illusion. When one side starts lifting too much out of the water, tourists are asked to move closer to the windward side (usually with gestures). Waves inevitably find a way to make every single tourist wet from head to toe, even if they decide not to go snorkelling. “It was so much fun,” – my Mum said after our first cruise. “I just wish there was no wind.”
Jony was late on the day when I was supposed to take the boat out. Other people from different boats said hi to me and suggested to go on a cruise with them instead but I decided to wait. When he finally showed up, he was wearing a short wetsuit. “I thought I was not allowed to capsize?” – I said. “Just in case,” – he answered. Mum looked at me anxiously and asked me to be safe. I was pretty sure she didn’t know what “capsizing” meant and it was something to be grateful for.
When we got on the boat, both sails were already up, two local boys looking at me curiously. Jony decided to get the boat out of the busy area before we swapped places. When I finally sat down in the driving seat, I was excited but cautious. There is a rudder but no tiller on the boat – instead, you have to pull on ropes on each side of the hull and do finer control with the sails. You can’t really see the headsail while sitting down. There are knots along the headsail sheet that allow trim for a particular angle. No finer controls, no boom vang or cunningham, no lead cars or outhaul. No telltales or a windex, it’s driven entirely by feel.
First time I tried to bear away in a gust I was not very successful. The weather helm was impressive but easing the main didn’t help much. “Don’t ease, you are losing power!” – Jony said. We were reaching at around 10 knots in 15 knots of wind, and the other two boys were jumping on the outrigger making encouraging noises and yelling “Faster! Faster!” The other outrigger lifted out of the water, waves splashing over the bow. “Um, I guess burying the bow is not that big of a problem on this boat?” – I asked Jony. “No, never had a problem with it.” – He reassured. Jony lives on the mainland and catches a boat to Boracay and back every day. He asked me not to gybe.
My first tacking manoeuvre turned out to be fairly easy – I had enough momentum not to stall the boat. The second one, however, stopped midway so Jony had to backwind the jib. I wasn’t too concerned though as every single tack during our previous cruises was like that. Soon enough I was able to bear away again and we reached back with a lot of splashing and lifting.
“Do you know Harken?” – Jony asked when we got back.
“Yes,” – I said.
“If you have some spare blocks, can you send them here? They are so expensive here!”
“Not exactly cheap in Australia either,” – I said. He gave me his postal address anyway, just in case.
When I connected to Wifi, there was a bill from a rigger in my email inbox and a Facebook message from my main trimmer. “You gotta learn to sail your boat by feel,” – the message said. “That’s how you become a good sailor.” I could still feel the breeze on my face and my palms holding the main sheet without gloves. I closed my eyes. A week later I would race my own boat again.
When my plane landed in Hobart, it started raining. By the time I got into a cab to the city, it was pouring down. “You were lucky that the plane landed at all,” – said the cab driver. “It’s a big storm so planes are very likely to be diverted to Melbourne.”
I didn’t feel very lucky. That was my first time in Hobart, and the original plan was to get here by boat as part of the 70th Sydney to Hobart race, yet we had to abandon 2.5 hours into the race due to mechanical problems with the boat. “There is always next year,” – said the cab driver, echoing numerous other people, and I nodded and smiled.
The flight from Sydney to Hobart takes less than 2 hours. The record on a sailing boat is currently 1 day 18 hours and 20 minutes. I was on a much slower boat than Wild Oats that still holds this record, a boat in the slowest division, so we would still have been in Bass Strait by the time I landed, had the circumstances been different. As it was, I was going to watch a few of my friends finish the race and celebrate with them.
Despite abandoning the race, I still had a crew pass with my name on it to get into the sailing club in Hobart but almost nobody goes there after the race. After parking the boat in the Constitution dock, most crews head straight to the Customs House Hotel across the road.
It’s a nice coastal walk from the club to the dock despite a fairly steep hill at the start of it, and as I was walking I couldn’t help but wonder what it would be like to see my friends finish the race. I was tracking several boats’ progress; Southern Excellence (Volvo 70), Khaleesi (DK 46), Dare Devil (Farr/Cookson 47), Pazazz (Cookson 40) and TSA Management (Sydney 38). I wished my mates who were sailing these boats well and I was cheering for them as they climbed up the IRC standings. It was still hard not to think how unfair it was that we were out of the race so fast that we didn’t have a chance to make a single mistake let alone experience the race in full. And as I read reports about other boats having issues and abandoning the race I couldn’t help being a little comforted by the fact that we were not alone; I was not proud of that feeling and I hoped to shake it by going to Hobart and by celebrating my mates’ achievements – instead of my own.
My first glimpse of the finish line was sudden. I saw a boat before anything else; then I saw the yellow buoys. The rain was over yet there were white caps and huge gusts all over the water. The boat was carrying a storm jib and deeply reefed main and it was till heeling a little too much as gusts hit it.
As the boat reached the finish line, there was a loud horn sound from the tower and a few people gathered on the shore clapped and cheered. And I cheered too. My friends from Khaleesi were due to finish about half an hour later.
They chose the right side of the course and were tacking painfully all the way to the line; my heart was racing as if it hoped to win, too. My eyes tingled and my chest felt too full as if I breathed in too much air. I was extremely happy and unbelievably upset at the same time, the bitter-sweet combination normally alien to me. I clapped and I cheered and I ran to the Constitution dock to see the boats come in and I hugged my mates and congratulated them on what they had achieved.
They were tired and sunburnt and their lips were dry and blistering from the sun. They grumbled that they could’ve done better as I helped them pack their storm jib. They didn’t want crowds and cheering as they were rafting up at the dock. They told me there were sorry about what happened to our boat.
We were lucky that our rudder gave out when it did and not in Bass Strait; we couldn’t have done anything to prevent it. Yet all the reasonable explanations and logic fade in the face of a major disappointment, when you try to come to grips with reality; reason is just not enough sometimes.
And amid the stories of my friends being hit by unpredicted 50 knots, about owners and unreasonable crew members, about code zeros dragged behind the boat and 30 knot boat speed, amid all the drinking, rum, beers, wine, amid the crowds that felt like CYCA without non-sailing people, amid all the noise and conversations, I felt like I was still part of it all; that despite being heart-broken I could still go on and be happy – genuinely happy – for the friends who have completed the race and weren’t robbed of that achievement.
The 70th Sydney to Hobart race has been one of the most exciting Hobarts so far with two maxis fighting for line honours and the rest of the fleet travelling so close together that a handicap win seems possible for just about anyone. Anyone, that is, who is still in the race.
I was part of this race for two and a half hours.
We started with a reef in our main, white caps all around us, harbour boiling with life, news helicopters over our heads. The media is mostly interested in the northern start line where super maxis tussle with each other. Comanche, an American newcomer, was first to leave the harbour this year, and in a few hours we will know whether Wild Oats XI gets their 8th line honours in a row. No matter what happens, there will be plenty of excitement about that finish.
Meanwhile, there were two more start lines with smaller, slower boats that didn’t star in any of the media photos. Most of them don’t have corporate sponsorships or rock star professional sailors. They – or should I say we – still invest a lot of time and effort into being in the race.
During any event like that there are always people who grumble that tax payer money should not be wasted on saving sailors who participate in dangerous races. Such comments come from people who have no idea about safety requirements for races like that. There are safety inspections and safety courses for survival at sea; first aid courses and experience requirements. And of course there are hours of training for everyone who want to do well in the race. So if you are doing Sydney to Hobart, chances are, your entire year will revolve around this race.
It might not be true for everyone but it was definitely true for us. “Bear Necessity” changed owners earlier this year and since then work on the boat never really stopped. John, the new owner, bought new sails and a life raft, replaced part of the standing rigging, replaced all sheets, braces and halyards. We did all blue water races leading to S2H and harbour races in between. There were safety inspections, frustrations and arguments, anticipation and doubts, crew changes and preparations, and whatever happened, there was an ultimate goal – completing the Sydney to Hobart race, a first for all but two crew members.
It looked well for us for a while. “Bear” loves a bit of wind, and we were second over the start line, despite an unnamed competitor who tried to force us down and ignored our polite requests to stay up. We decided against shaking the reef out for the short reach in the lee and soon enough we were out of the harbour beating into choppy seas. The crew on the rail was doused with water every two minutes, sunscreen washed off our faces. The breeze kept growing, we put the second reef in and got back on the rail. We were doing well.
But there was trouble brewing at the back of the boat. The helm started behaving erratically. I wasn’t aware of that for a while until I heard a call for a screwdriver. Too soon after that John called us all back into the pit and said, “Look, I am sorry but we cannot go to Hobart. The rudder bearing is about to go, we’ll lose control of the boat.”
We bore away and dropped the headsail, stunned. Then started the motor. The race was over for us, two and a half hours into it.
As we were motoring back in, we surfed the waves that were now behind us and listened to the helicopters above us. We made the news but for all the wrong reasons. I thought about all the people who wished me luck for my first Hobart, about a pharmacist who wrote the name of our boat on his wrist to look us up on the tracker, my colleagues, my family and friends. My phone was still off but once I turned it back on, it started overflowing with messages of support. I’ve been told stories of people who did not complete Hobart until their 4th or even 7th attempt; stories of seasick boat owners and ripped kites. A friend of mine sent me an itinerary for Tasmania to make sure that I don’t just go home and mope for the rest of the year, devastated. I am extremely grateful for all the support.
7 more boats had to abandon the race on that first day, including the “people’s maxi”, Brindabella, that had a very similar damage to ours. I knew that my mate on Brindas would probably be even more upset than me.
Whatever the situation is, someone will always say that everything happens for a reason, that perhaps it’s for the best. I hope to find a lesson in whatever happens. Yet I also know that we are looking for meaning in everything just because it’s easier to live that way. We need to think that life makes sense on some level, we add structure to pure randomness, we fight chaos. The thing is, the rudder bearing damage was totally random. It wasn’t that typical, there was no reason to look for it specifically. It was just one of these things that could not be predicted. Shit happens and it did happen this time. We abandoned the race before the damage to the boat became dangerous to the crew.
I was planning to decide whether I liked offshore sailing enough to go on after this race. Should I just concentrate on racing my own boat inshore, plane under a kite instead of fighting off fatigue offshore at three in the morning? Do I like long offshore races that much? I am still not entirely sure. What I definitely know is that I have an unfinished business now. I am following the tracker obsessively, wishing all my mates luck in the race (one of them managed to crack a couple of ribs on the first day!), and I wish with all my heart that I was still racing against them.
Sydney to Hobart 2015, here I come. 363 days to go.
Not just any boat, a sports boat. One of the last Young 780s ever produced called “Rush”.
By the time I decided to buy “Rush” I had been thinking of buying a boat for about a year. I knew it would be the worst financial investment I could possibly make, a black hole for money and time. There are a lot of jokes about boat ownership and I had heard them all. Still, the thought persisted and I kept looking around. “F-Sharp”, the boat I helmed for a season, was for sale – yet I found it hard to get excited about it. There is nothing wrong with a Sonata 8, it’s inexpensive and fairly sturdy. “Rush”, on the other hand…
“Rush” is a very light boat. She does not just sit on her mooring, she dances around it as if impatient to go sailing. “My wife is afraid of “Rush”, – the old owner admitted as I was sitting on the boat with the agent, a friend who found it for me. A very light boat with a huge sail area is bound to be scary at times, especially with a kite up. She gets on a plane very easily. There are no lifelines. There are no comforts on the boat at all – but she seems to be very impatient to go sailing. Just like me.
And she’s beautiful. When I look at her I can’t help thinking how pretty she is, every single time. It feels like love.
“I like the name,” I told my friend the agent. “Because you know, it’s “Rush” and I am Russian.”
His face lit up and he said, “You should add an apostrophe and an “n” to the name!”
And I did. The new name is “Rush’n”.
The old stickers were a nightmare to remove. On the Melbourne Cup day, a big Australia-wide celebration of gambling and fancy hats, I slipped out of the office straight after the race while my co-workers were partaking of the provided beverages and snacks. I was carrying a bag with a hairdryer and a razor blade. The old sticker on one side came off fairly easily with a bit of persuasion from the hairdryer. The other side would not budge at all, no matter what we did. The next day I tried a domestic steam cleaner. It increased the speed of removal to about a centimetre in 30 minutes. I removed the lower part of “R” before I dropped the steam cleaner off the ladder one time too many, rendering it unusable. By that time my arms felt unusable, too. The result prompted a few people to ask whether the name of the boat was now Push.
We did eventually got the old name off with a rubber wheel that I bought on eBay specifically for the purpose. Overall, the process of getting the new decals on the hull involved 7 people – my wonderful friends who helped me with advice and printing, provided drills (to use the rubber wheel) and manpower, told me not to stress about silly things and eventually got the new sticker on.
I am still clueless when it comes to working on boats. When I was towing the boat with a tender kindly provided by another friend I was thinking about a book I read about a year ago. A guy with no experience in sailing decided to sail around the world, spent all his savings on a boat and crashed it into the marina almost immediately. I didn’t crash mine but at times I was overwhelmed by helplessness because I didn’t know how to do so many things. I read the surveyor’s report (finishing with “fast boat, very little to do”) and had to look up “split rings” on Wikipedia. I have a to-do list for the boat stored in Evernote, it’s all very organised, but I only know how to do a couple of items on the list by myself – they involve climbing the mast and buying things.
The stereotype has it that boat owners are rich. And some of them are. Other boat owners are resourceful and good at working on boats. I am neither of these things – but I love my boat and I’m determined to keep her going.
I found a very long thread about Young 780s on Sailing Anarchy and read all of it before buying the boat. I read that one guy bought a Young 780, raced it, got scared shitless by it and then kept it in a trailer for about 10 years. The former owner of my boat claims that it was “Rush”. He himself owns too many boats so he wasn’t sailing her that much – yet every time he sailed he was getting good results. His extremely experienced crew also managed to break the rig so I got the boat with a brand new mast, a boom and spreaders. A few things still need adjusting. The main gets out of the track very easily, the vang snapped off the boom during the very first race because it wasn’t secured properly. There are many things to do, the list is long.
I was expecting a steep learning curve and it’s definitely steep. A boat doesn’t win races by herself. I am inviting people I can learn from and I am trying to be patient. Yet it doesn’t escape me that the funniest thing of all is that after writing about being a boat slut I almost immediately committed to a boat.
“Why are you buying a boat?” – said one of the kindest skippers I know. “You can sail on my boat any time!” And I will. I learned so much from other people that I don’t intend to stop sailing on other boats. Yet my heart is now taken and it belongs to “Rush’n”, a temperamental sports boat that still needs a bit of work.
This blog post is a little unusual: I wrote this text about our latest Blue Water Series race for the Balmain Sailing Club’s website so it’s a little different from my other blog entries, a little less personal perhaps (suffice it to say that I haven’t used the personal pronoun “I” once). Our good position in the final results is partially due to luck and favourable weather conditions; then again some of our prior failures (such as our results in the Southport race) could also be at least partially attributed to unlucky circumstances. This race was more enjoyable for me personally than the two previous long offshore races for a number of reasons, despite sleep deprivation whose effects I can still feel three days after reaching the finish line. One of the reasons is that one magic day when we surfed the waves from dawn till dusk, our big red spinnaker filling up with a gentle breeze.
What do we know about “Bear Necessity”? The boat used to sail out of Middle Harbour and belonged to Andrew “the Bear” (hence the name). In 2014 the C&C 115 was sold to BSC’s own John Blair and despite his decision not to change the name to “Blair Necessity”, it is still very much a Balmain boat these days. The crew includes two former commodores of the club, its racing director and fairly active volunteers (including a former treasurer and a website captain). Rumours have it that during long offshores the crew might or might not entertain the thought of creating “Balmain Sailing Club: the Musical”.
Newcastle – Bass Island Race is the third race in the Blue Water Series organised by Cruising Yacht Club of Australia. It started at 7pm on Friday the 3d of October. There was some kind of commotion at the start line but Bear Necessity wasn’t part of it. One of the smaller boats in the 20 boat fleet, she moved out of the harbour with ease and grace. There was a long beat up the coast to Newcastle ahead of her.
The night was relatively light, and the water gleamed like metal where the moonlight touched it. The wind was gentle. The crew sat on the rail, armed with PFDs and PLBs, some of them undoubtedly dreaming of beating “Wild Rose”, the defending champion of the Blue Water series the year before.
After the excitement of the start, the crew settled into having snacks and talking to each other. The off watch went downstairs to sleep, listening to the soft sounds of water around and the occasional snore of fellow crew members. Navigators kept checking the course and the boat kept moving.
“Bear Necessity” turned around upon reaching Newcastle to go downwind all the way to Bass island; the turn was not ideal (too much tacking involved) but the day after was. Saturday was a perfect day for everyone on the boat. It was sunny, the boat surfed the waves reaching the top speed of 13.7 knots and gusts rarely disturbed the kite. The crew, bundled up at night, took of their thermals and enjoyed friendly banter as the off watch slept on the deck.
When the darkness descended, it felt different. The boat had to change the course, moving closer to the wind, and the shy kite started to overpower the boat. At some unfortunate moment the active sheet gave off from the pressure and flew off the winch. The next moment the sheet disconnected from the sail too – and it took efforts of the entire crew to get the sail down, undamaged, and get a jib up. Sober and quiet, the crew sat on the rail once again, sombrely chewing spaghetti bolognaise. Tony, a bowman, received first aid for rope burns on his palm.
After reaching Bass Island, “BN” turned once again to go back to Sydney. The crew on the dreaded 3 to 6 am watch was dreary-eyed and exhausted, yet Dave, the navigator, one of the helmsmen and the main motivator, kept the crew moving from the windward to the leeward side depending on the wind strength. Closer to 6 am the sun suddenly appeared. It wasn’t long to go. As the other watch got up, everyone stayed on deck – nobody wanted to be downstairs for the final rush into the harbour. Eastsail’s “Breakthrough” made it home just a little ahead of “BN”, and “Kraken” became a boat to match race, until finally, the entire crew cheered upon crossing the finish line, and a traditional bottle of rum magically appeared on deck.
“Bear Necessity” came first in division 2 on IRC and ORCi, 3d on PHS. “Wild Rose” finished the race 4 hours after.
Believe it or not, I am very loyal and dependable. I don’t like to disappoint. I commit and I follow through. In fact, I once wrote a blog post about getting attached and about difficulties of letting go.
Yet, as I was waiting for our boat before a race a couple of months ago, a skipper I know asked me while walking past, “So what boat are you on today? Do you even remember the name?” and I blushed. He was long gone and I was still muttering to myself. “I commit to boats for an entire season! What did he even mean? I always sail winters on the Tiger! And I sail Sundays on another boat!” My fellow crew members, always happy to help out with a smart-arse comment or two, chuckled at how close to heart I took that comment. “He called me a boat slut!” – I said finally. Although technically he didn’t.
I don’t think there is such thing as boat slut shaming. I am almost positive there isn’t. The first time I heard the term, quite a while ago, it was a self-description and the guy who used it was quite casual about it, almost self-congratulatory. After all, being invited to a lot of boats is flattering, especially when you are invited for the right reasons.
Still, the term doesn’t sound neutral. It implies lack of loyalty if not morality, and its parallels with romantic relationships are obvious. When we fall in love with a boat and commit to it for a long time, we get to know its every quirk, every nook and cranny, the preferred tack, the slipping halyards, the thin line between going fast and being overpowered, the best way to position yourself while trimming and a thousand other things. Racing on a familiar boat is comforting in its familiarity, not unlike sex in a long-term committed relationship – you both know how to get each other going, you work together really well to reach the desired outcome and you feel safe and protected, even if that last bit is an illusion.
Yet in many cases you learn more about sailing and yourself when you sail on different boats with different people. The fundamental principles might be the same, yet every boat behaves in its own unique way. There is a different dynamic in every crew, and it pays off to do a different role to what you usually do every now and again. You might get burned sometimes. The worst race I’ve ever had finished on the rocks because someone put on the running backstay too early so the boat slid sideways past the mark and into the shore. It was a valuable if embarrassing lesson. During better races you learn from other people – how to roll tack better and how trimmers interact with each other, how not to panic when a boat starts rounding up. You compare strings and the way the winches are positioned on boats. You see people tracking target speeds or struggling with stuck canting keels as the shore gets closer. You learn something new every time. And as opposed to romantic relationships, it’s not morally reprehensible, especially if you are loyal for as long as people need you to be.
Sailing on a new boat can also be extremely enjoyable. It’s hard to describe what it’s like to feel a boat tremble and surge forward as you play with its kite sheet. If there’s trust between the skipper and the crew, if you are allowed to do your job and it all goes well, if the boat is going fast, what more can you ask for? Even a bad race is usually enjoyable on our beautiful harbour with its dolphins, seals and penguins, its brilliant sun reflecting in the water and the rugged coast line – and a good race feels nothing short of amazing.
I still enjoy sailing on the same boat for a season or more. I always show up on time and I don’t remember the last time I cancelled. Going steady with a boat is exciting in its own right, all that getting to know the crew and the way the boat behaves in different situations. Yet sometimes, when there are no prior commitments, it feels great to hop on to another boat and see what it’s like. And if that makes me a boat slut then so be it, even if I do get uncomfortable about the term and mutter in self-defence for a minute or two when I hear it.
4 a.m. Can I describe the night sky in a way that doesn’t sound completely banal? Probably not. Yet, I will still tell you that I have never seen stars this bright and beautiful and so I try to take it all in, puzzling over unfamiliar constellations of the Southern Hemisphere. The coast is on our port side, and the only way to tell it’s there is the glow above the landline. The starboard light on our bow is reflected in the sail, painting its tack green.
I have time to observe all that because there is very little wind and we are moving at a barely tolerable pace of 3 knots. The current against us is not helping either. I am holding a spinnaker sheet in my hand, staring at the sail and trying not to fall asleep. My body doesn’t want to be awake and neither does my brain, so I force myself to come up with silly little poems, first in Russian then English. The verses keep slipping away from me as I am trying to think of a rhyme so I repeat them to myself again and again: “My kite is trembling, almost sighing, a slave to currents and the breeze. I won’t give up, I’ll keep on trying and praying for a wind increase.”
This is my first long ocean race. I avoided having any expectations before the race, yet it still managed to surprise me, again and again. It’s not the strong winds and huge waves that presented a challenge but long hours of slowly ploughing through the areas of very little wind. Contrary to my experience on land, I do not get cranky despite sleeping 3 to 4 hours at a time, but my body and brain seem to be far less responsive during the night, as if half-frozen in suspended animation. The seasickness that went away relatively fast is different from what you’d think, too: it’s not the excited flatter in your stomach as you go down the wave, it’s a constant feeling of being unwell, your head heavy, your whole body weak.
We had a relatively good start in very light conditions, keeping up with much bigger boats and changing sails from an asymmetric to a code zero to a screecher back to the asymmetric. Brindabella gave way to us as as a starboard boat. I was trimming the kite, peeling layers of clothes off one by one in what turned out to be a warm sunny day, and we were all watching a seal who was lazying in the water, seemingly undisturbed by the fleet. Wild Oats was moving south in search of a better breeze. Then we got a bit more wind, too.
That first day turned out to be critical for us. I was woken up after dark by the call from upstairs, stumbling to get off my bunk and put my PFD on and then helping to get our asymmetric down – ripped. Unusable for the rest of the race. It was about 17 knots, and we discussed afterwards what sail we should’ve used after we tore that kite – symmetric? Fractional asymmetric? Code zero? As it happened, a jib top went up, an easy sail – but a not very fast sail. It was dark and it seemed as if were alone in the universe; very different from harbour races where the pressure to overtake other boats is almost palpable as you see them going around the mark in front. The boat was new to the owner and the entire crew, and most of the crew, including me, were new to ocean sailing. And so the jib top stayed, and we were slowly losing ground compared to other boats, for hours, as my parents on the other side of the world were looking at the race tracker online, curious about our progress. “They are falling behind for some reason,” – Mum said. “You must be wrong,” – Dad replied. “Our daughter is always among the winners!”
Racing sailors are a competitive bunch. We all hate losing. And in the heat of the moment it’s hard to think about the benefits of races that go wrong. You need someone with a very cool head to calmly assess tactical decisions and performance of the entire crew and instead of turning it into a fight of wounded egos make sure that the lessons to learn are very clear. If we don’t discuss our mistakes openly, we still assess ourselves and each other but do we learn as much?..
I found out that I need to take seasickness tablets and that I require much more practice before I can steer properly in the open ocean; that I get bored while staring at a kite in very little wind for hours on end and that I care about what people think even when I wish I didn’t. And I learned that my friends can be incredibly cool, making me smile as they wake me up for the dreaded graveyard shift with a cheerful call and a cup of coffee; getting a tight spinnaker wrap out in the dark; climbing masts and not giving up until the very last moment; driving the rest of us even when we started losing hope; a lot of things that make sailing with friends different from sailing with a bunch of strangers, especially strangers who are sailing superstars, each with their own opinion and little concern for others. Can we still be competitive? Can we learn and make enough progress in the rest of the series? I would like to think so.
We saw a lot of whales, dolphins and flying fish during the race. It felt like a cruise to some, and in reality we were not at all isolated from the rest of the world. Not just because of the GPS and the yellow tracker and the skeds; some people never even ran out of batteries on their phones – and they did use them. Yet, it was not hard to tune out of the everyday life if you so desired. Turning my phone off for 4 days was one of the benefits of the race to me, and I slept better than I ever do on land (who knew that sleeping on sails could be this comfortable?). I felt free to be present where I am instead of worrying about what I temporarily left behind. And when we finally got to our destination, that feeling stayed with me just as much as the sense of accomplishment about my first long ocean race, done and dusted, more important to me than the daily grind of seemingly important things I have to do every day.
The story about women on boats is my most popular blog post ever. It generated more unique visitors and views than all the other posts taken together and started a lively discussion on Reddit where, among other things, I was accused of being sexist and entitled, rebuked for not submitting my sailing resume and invited to sail in San Francisco and Maine. I got downvoted and then upvoted and then downvoted again. Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised that my story about dreaming of blueberry bagels while soaking wet offshore didn’t merit the same response.
The blog post about women and being a dick also started a few interesting conversations in real life. First, a sailing mate of mine pointed out that he is an excellent example of being serious about sailing and still avoiding sailing in bad weather. Of all the things I wrote, I would not have predicted that someone could be offended by that part. My sincere apologies, mate, we all know that you are an exceptional sailor, and I look forward to hearing more horror stories about sailing in the cold and miserable waters of the UK. As a person who grew up in Siberia, I am also familiar with the anguish of dashed expectations when Australia does not live up to its image of perpetually sunny land (it’s been raining for two days here in Sydney).
Second, I appreciated all the jokes that I heard once I got on a boat after that blog post. “I hope we will get real trimmers this time, not these girls!” – that was my first clue that someone read my blog. It was fun. I think I got to trim more than ever that day (we came third, not a bad result, considering that we crossed the start line early and had to go back). For the record, that was one of my regular boats. For some reason, a lot of people on Reddit think that I don’t stay on one boat long enough.
Third, the same helpful people who kept making fun of me for writing that story told me that there is an official name for those who do all these tiny and unglamorous jobs on the boat – “fluffers”. Fluffers coil ropes and generally tidy up the deck, they often take care of running backstays, they press buttons on boats with electric winches, they grind for people – you get the idea. “We don’t have fluffers on our Volvo 70 right now, and it’s a pain in the proverbial!” – they said (they might not have used the euphemism). The same day I heard that “fluffer” is also a porn term that should not be used lightly. My friends always teach me something new, even when I actively resist some of their expertise.
We also discussed that trimming on a bigger boat can be genuinely dangerous. Where a bigger guy flies three metres through the air, raising concerns about safety of the boat, a smaller person of any gender might seriously injure themselves. A girl showed me a fairly big scar – a rope burn from dropping a kite on a big boat. Not that I wasn’t aware that a big boat can be dangerous; not that I ever protested against sensible choices when it comes to physically and intellectually demanding jobs.
I realised that I am probably not ready to be a very popular blogger who writes about controversial issues. Anger in some people is astounding and quite depressing. The main message of my story was not even about women per se. It was about some people making unnecessary assumptions and acting like dicks, sometimes without even realising it. All I asked for is honesty and self-reflection. If you’ve never acted in a less than ideal way then you have no reason to worry; also, you are probably a robot (or completely lack self-awareness). Otherwise, it’s a good idea to stop and think about the way we act towards other people sometimes, regardless of their gender.