The Race That Wasn’t Mine: a Celebration

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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.

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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.

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My First Sydney to Hobart: the Shortest Offshore Race

The crew of Bear Necessity (minus one taking the photo)

The crew of Bear Necessity (minus one taking the photo).

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.

The start

After the start, Southern start line

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.

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.

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.

Sydney to Southport 2014, or my first long ocean race

Sunrise in the ocean

On the way to Southport – photo by Louise Bavin

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?..

Girls

Before the race, Lou and I

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.

Women on Boats, or Don’t be a Dick

Before a race at Hamilton Island, 2012.

Waiting for the start of a race at Hamilton Island, 2012.

I am not big on feminist manifestos. I have worked in IT, a male dominated industry, for a while now, and my career so far has been virtually unaffected by my gender. My boyfriends were mostly supportive of my endeavours. I don’t remember my political rights ever being questioned because I am a woman. So I am all for equal opportunities but I also never felt the need to remind the public of my stance on feminism by exposing social injustice towards women. Yet today I am writing about gender issues here, in my sailing blog. There is a reason for that: it is something that I see again and again on boats, especially new boats I get on. It’s also something I discussed with more than one friend so I know I am not just imagining things.

It’s about how women get treated on some boats and in sailing in general.

I sail on different boats – mostly smaller yachts (30 to 40 foot), and these days mostly with people I like and respect. They never treat me as if I can’t do something just because I am a girl. They teach me when I ask for advice and they trust me to do stuff that I know how to do. In fact, I have been lucky enough to sail with great sailors from the very start of my sailing career who treated me as an equal regardless of my experience. And as I got better at what I do, I started enjoying sailing with this kind of people even more, and the banter and jokes make it better still. And we win races. Repeatedly.

And yet, sometimes I am reminded of the flip side of the coin. We get on a new boat, a 60 footer, and at some point the tactician starts talking about roles during the race. There is a main trimmer, two headsail/spinnaker trimmers, foredeck – all male, all mentioned by name. Three girls are just told, “The rest of you, well, there’s running backstays, buttons and general tidying up.” It’s fine, it’s a first race, you have to prove yourself, and there’s also a lot of ways to be useful on a boat even if you don’t have a glamorous job.

But be prepared. On some boats you can do these kind of jobs race after race and you are always going to be that girl who tidies up. You will never get a chance to show that you can trim, let alone learn something new about trim, and if you grind for a guy he might give you a few condescending remarks afterwards, even when you notice the kite collapsing before he does. Not because you are inexperienced – in fact, they might not even ask you about your experience at all – but because you just happen to be female. Hell, the other day I even heard someone say that Jessica Watson was invited on a boat for publicity only, as if she doesn’t have any experience on boats!

Sailing is a male-dominated world, and there are a few legitimate reasons for that. For starters, it can be physically demanding. It requires physical strength and stamina. It can be rather scary, too, and at times unpleasant. People race boats in all kinds of conditions and unless you want to be a champagne sailor – an insult for any dedicated racer – you will be there regardless of wind, rain, snow, swell, waves. On smaller boats people in the cockpit get thrown around. Sometimes you have to climb masts. Other times those mast can break – in fact, anything on a boat can break, and even if it doesn’t, it’s not that hard to injure yourself. Boats get out of control, run aground and in rare cases even sink. And don’t get me started on toilets, especially toilets on racing boats. In other words, it’s not a nice, comfortable world a lot of people prefer to live in. And it’s definitely not something that is normally associated with the female world.

Some women are not intimidated by any of that. They enjoy the adventure and competitiveness and the mastery as much as the next man, they joke and learn and sweat and never ask to be treated differently from the rest of the crew. Yet they will always be treated in a slightly different way. If they get on a new great boat, someone will probably nudge a friend and say that they must be sleeping with the skipper. I don’t know of a single girl who would sleep with a skipper specifically to get on a boat but I’ve heard of women who flirt with crew to get on a better boat. No matter what you do though, once you are sailing, it is profoundly clear what you can and cannot do. Unless you are never given a chance to demonstrate it – because you are a woman.

Look, I get it. Women are not as strong as men (on average). And there are not as many experienced women as men in sailing. Still. I can complain sometimes that I don’t get to do something because I don’t have as much experience as another person but at the same time I know it’s fair enough. I do everything I can to get better at what I do but you can’t jump over your head all the time – mastery takes time. I am happy to learn more and I will listen to advice and I will step down if it’s better for everyone.

But if you are condescending towards someone just because of their gender, you are a dick, and there is no way around it. Mind you, it’s not just men who do that. Women can be even bigger dicks towards other women, tactless, distrustful snobs. But it’s also men. Men who tell my wonderful friend who sailed all her life and worked as a sailing instructor, “But you are not a real sailor! You are a girl!” Men calling another insanely talented girl bossy because she’s a skipper who tells them what to do. Men yelling out, “Get me a real trimmer!” even though they wouldn’t even notice the same mistake if it was made by a man. Men who yell out to female skippers that a woman can’t steer a boat. Men who just assume that you will never be good at something just because you are a woman.

I don’t want reverse discrimination. I don’t think we need campaigns to attract more female sailors, there are enough Ladies’ days as it is. I don’t think we need marketing and PR and all that; and I know there are wonderful experienced men in sailing who don’t feel the need to constantly prop up their own egos by belittling women.

The only thing I ask you is this: don’t be a dick towards female sailors. Just be honest with yourself. Have you dismissed a sailor and never gave her a chance because she’s a woman? Do you think that girls are only good enough to be rail meat? Would it bother you if a woman turned out to be a better sailor than you? Do you feel the need to be an arrogant prick while sailing?

You don’t have to tell me. Just think about it next time you go sailing. Give us a chance to show what we can do. Give yourself a chance to be a better human being.

The one about My First Season. And Superman

A weather front coming in. Photo by me

A weather front coming in. Photo by me

The season of twilights has just finished. It was my first season of skippering a boat. The very first post-Christmas twilight was regular enough, although not without its own dramas: I was crewing on my regular boat while the owners were away.

After the race we got to drinking red wine at the club, discussing Sydney to Hobart and a boat that one of the crew just bought for a ridiculously low amount of money. That night there was much more red wine than usual; the more we drank, the louder we laughed at Kiwi accent jokes. Late into the night Dave said, well, since you didn’t buy a boat, why don’t you enter Troy’s boat into the series and skipper it?

“Oh Troy would love it, I’m sure” – I said and looked at Troy. And Troy said, “I would let you do it.”

I am sure Troy had his doubts and regrets the next day. Dave made me promise I would do it – so I entered the boat into the series the moment I opened my laptop the next morning, my head still throbbing from the red wine. “I did it, it’s happening!” – I texted both of them. I didn’t get a reply for a very long time and all that time I was thinking, “No backsies now…”

My first race as a skipper, the second race in the series, happened to be on a very windy day. It was gusting over 20 knots. To me it felt like 50. The boat, a Sonata 8, doesn’t have lifelines – and it has a tiller, not a wheel. The night before the race I had troubles sleeping and practiced turning the boat and tacking in my head. I imagined sitting on the port side and turning the tiller away from me to turn into the wind. I was checking the forecast obsessively for five days before the race. I also organised the crew – Troy (the owner of the boat), Jo the French guy and a very nice, polite girl Nelly (not the real name).

That race was pretty exciting. We didn’t reef and started the race with number 1 headsail. The boat began to round up straight away while Troy tried to give me instructions and ease the sail at the same time. I didn’t yell – Troy was yelling for both of us. I also wasn’t scared – I suspect because Nelly was scared for both of us. A 26 foot boat with no lifelines that keeps rounding up can be a frightening place, especially when you know that the person on the helm has never skippered in a race before. We ended up reefing the main and changing the headsail after the first leg and we came last, far behind everyone else; but we didn’t kill anyone and there was no damage to our or any other boat.

I was proud of myself and said, “Sorry that it was a bit scary” to Nelly.

“No no no”, she said. “I think you were very brave and did very well in this weather.”

I beamed. How nice was this girl!

“By the way, did I mention that I have to babysit in March?” – she said.

She never sailed with me again.

That was okay; a friend of mine volunteered to trim the headsail for the entire series. It was a bit more complicated with the main. I needed someone who would be really good and could help me with the tactics; someone who could teach me to get better. Troy couldn’t make it to most of the races, and I was struggling to find someone who could help me out. That was the time for me to really appreciate reliable crew. One time after feverishly trying to find someone I got so discouraged that I was ready to give up. I sulked and even cried a little (my tough Siberian nature doesn’t always help me in the soft Sydney climate). That day I ended up sailing with John, one of the ex-commodores of the club. We came third and there was hardly anyone happier than me at the club that night.

Very gradually, I started getting the hang of it. I wasn’t stopping mid-tack anymore and most of the time I pointed as high as I could but no higher; sometimes I even remembered to bear away in gusts while going downwind. I found out how annoying it can be when the main trimmer wouldn’t do what you ask him to do (and complained to way too many people about that after the race). Another time I didn’t expect a huge knock, lost control for a second and the main trimmer got submerged in the water. Sadly, that was not the same trimmer who wouldn’t listen to me, so I had to apologise again and again.

There were a lot of windy races and a few with not much wind at all. We weren’t last anymore but I couldn’t get anywhere near that third place again. At some point the crew from my regular boat became available and sailed with me. I was still extremely tense near the start line and they made fun of my heavy breathing, asking me whether I was scared or excited. If you are interested, it was both. On the other hand, they didn’t have to point out nearly as many boats or give me nearly as much advice anymore as I was starting to evade boats before the start more or less on my own. I was also mildly annoyed when they didn’t listen to my instructions and in my turn ignored some of their – potentially useful – remarks.

Finally, a day has come when I only had one trimmer available and it didn’t look like there would be anyone else sailing with us. I cursed at the charity regatta that took away the rest of my crew. “We’ll be right,” – Tony said as we got on the boat. I wasn’t nearly as optimistic. It was 10 to 15 but gusting; I had serious doubts about the whole enterprise. The start line is fairly short and there are a lot of boats around. And Tony would have to trim both sails. We cruised like that before in 20 knots – but cruising is very different from racing; there’s normally no other boats yelling “Starboard” at you…

As I was thinking that this was a very bad idea, a rubber ducky appeared out of nowhere, and Dave told me to luff up. I would have been equally surprised and relieved if it had been Superman. I wasn’t tense and scared anymore; and I had the most amazing race in my life. A couple of years prior to that Dave had invited me to his boat and taught me stuff; that’s when I started learning sailing in honest. Somehow he managed not to be even a little bit patronising. I was very unsure of my value on a boat back then; I knew little and I was slow on the winch; not being yelled at felt like a great deal already. Someone who actually taught me seemed to be a semi-god. A pretty humble semi-god at that. Now my teacher was finally back; and I wasn’t afraid of anything anymore. We had a few closer tacks than usual that day – and we also sailed much better than usual.

We came first and I was jumping around all over the club, hugging people and telling them what a wonderful world we live in. People laughed and I laughed too, and the world WAS wonderful that night.

Now the series are over. I didn’t get a result for the last race – there was not enough wind and we finished a couple of minutes after the cut-off time. I didn’t mind that much. It was my first season as a skipper and I will always remember it. Thanks Troy and Dave and my entire crew, that was unforgettable.