Bear Necessity: Newcastle to Bass Island race

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.

The original story is here.

Simon helming (photo by David Stenhouse)

Simon helming (photo by David Stenhouse)

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.

Getting back into the harbour

Getting back into the harbour (photo by David Stenhouse)

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.

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Confessions of a Boat Slut

Watching boats race on the walk from Manly to Spit.

Watching boats race on the walk from Manly to Spit.

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.