DAY 200: Crewing in a yacht race

19 Mar

Peter, Ken and your humble narrator.

KEN doesn’t know me from a bar of soap, but agrees to let me help crew his yacht in a race around Apollo Bay. There are five boats competing, from two-man dinghies to our three-bedroomed, $300k (with $30k of “add-ons”), 39-footer. “Your boat’s all cocaine and champagne,” another skipper sniffs, although actually neither are forthcoming.

Cruising out of the harbour with the motor on, we pass flotillas of stingrays and a lone penguin, then kill the motor and hoist the mainsail (pronounced “mainsull”). Rob is the mainsail trimmer. He keeps his sunnies attached to his head by cords and his cap attached to the back of his shirt with a little bungee rope – he’s not taking any chances. Right now he’s got the sail going full-flap, but if the wind’s blowing like buggery, he might take it up one reef (about 30 per cent) or two (50 per cent) so that he can control the boat easier and avoid us keeling over.

Peter unfurls the foresail (also known as the jib, genoa, or “headsull”). My job’s mainly to make sure ropes (“sheets”) don’t completely escape their winches.

When we get to the course, marked out by buoys, Ken lets loose an oath. They’re short lengths, much better suited to smaller boats. The umpire begins the five-minute start sequence – basically a series of flags hoisted upon his rescue boat. At one minute to, he pulls down the Blue Peter and Ken gives the order to do a 360 degree turn to stop us from drifting over the start line ahead of time. We turn too slowly, though, so when the klaxon sounds we’re facing the wrong way. Curses!

“If you lose the first 30 seconds, ya buggered,” Ken observes grimly, gripping the wheel.

Once back on course, we tack through the glassy water before pirouetting widely at the first buoy and completely blocking the passage of the yacht behind us. Boo! Foul! Consult your etiquette handbook! Etc. Ken’s getting flustered.

The second leg’s interminably slow, before we gybe back towards the final buoy – but we’ve come in third despite having superior wood finishes.

Race two is postponed twice for boats drifting over the start line or conditions not being right, and each time we have to go through the five-minute starter sequence. Eventually, we’re off. I think.

“Have we started?” I ask.

“It is a bit like that,” Rob says. “I dunno about the term ‘yacht racing’ – it’s just yachts going around in circles.”

The wind vane up top’s another thing going around in circles, first one way, then the other. We’re stumped.

The smaller boats have stopped altogether and I can hear a plaintive noise from across the way. “Sail whisperers,” says Peter. “He’s whistling the wind.”

By the time we get over the finish line, one yacht is still on the first leg, and hasn’t moved for so long that its skipper is having a swim. The umpire cranks up the motor of his start boat, shifts it over to the yacht and honks his finish line horn. Over the past two hours the wind has dropped from 10 knots to half a knot, so it’s time to pack it in.

“That was shithouse,” Ken proclaims, but I think he’s had fun.

The rescue boat/umpire. Reassuring.

Once the engine’s running and we’re heading for harbour, it’s my job to brace against the cabin and push the mainsail as far starboard as it will go, holding it there. In doing this, I can feel the rhythm of the wind as it threatens to dislocate my arm in perfectly evenly spaced bursts. Ow. Ow. Ow. Ow… I’m surprised, as I’d assumed the elements to be more random than that.

“You really get to notice patterns like that when you spend time on a boat,” Peter says.

After bagging up the mainsail, which involves pulling it down and clinging on for dear life as the boom swings wildly around, the crew are insistent that I go up front to the bow and have a Kate Winslet moment.

“I’m the king of the waaaaah!” I utter, as Ken yanks the wheel sharply to the left. Ho ho. I slither back across the cabin on my belly.

Keeper? I’ve always wanted to drink in a yacht club bar, so yes.

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