The wind finally came. But it was four hours too late.
At first, the wind was no more than a distant shadow on the bay, tiny ripples on a mirror-smooth surface. As forecast, it was out of the southwest. That’s the summer pattern.
At this time of year, it could have just as likely been out of the northwest at a steady 15 knots, maybe more, chilly and even carrying rain.
That would have been fine for the more than 60 sailboats gathered at Ohio Ledge Sunday morning. Wind is what they were hoping for. But they didn’t get any.
The event was the “Bud” Humphrey around the island cruising class race sponsored by the Barrington Yacht Club. The race has become somewhat of an end-of-the-season rally. The race is open to all boats that have a rating. No club membership is required; as long as you pay the $20 registration, you’re welcome.
Vessels from the two-person day sailor to the 50-footers with a crew of a dozen show up. It’s a sailing community tradition that signals that change of seasons, when people start thinking of hauling their boats.
This is a pursuit race, which may seem obvious, since all races are a matter of finishing ahead of the other guy. There is a difference for sailors, however. In most races involving boats of varying length, design and speed, everyone starts at the same time. Then, based on rating and the finishing time, the boat with the best-adjusted time is the winner.
In the pursuit race, the time adjustments are applied at the start of the race. The slower boats go off first, until the known “speed demon” – sometimes a high-tech, one-of-a-kind – is the last to start. If everything is equal, all equally competent skippers and crews, and the ratings accurately reflect a boat’s performance, all of the boats should arrive at the finish line at precisely the same second.
That’s never happened in all the years I’ve been sailing the Bud Humphrey. In spite of a course of about 17 miles, there have been some extremely close finishes; where four or five boats cross the line within 15 seconds. But for all 60 boats, that’s not going to happen.
One year, when more than 90 boats raced, I finished 10th and it felt like I had made the trials for the America’s Cup. A couple of years ago, I was crewing for Bill Riggs when he edged out two slower boats, and escaped being passed by two faster ones, to win it. The victory cinched “boat of the year” for Riggadoon from the Narragansett Bay Yachting Association, by a mere tenth of a point. There was no such excitement Sunday.
The water was flat, almost oily. The crew arrived at the mooring at 10:15. The first boats were scheduled to start at 11. We would begin 32 minutes later, or so we thought.
Coolers with sandwiches, sodas and beers and knapsacks with foul weather gear and a radio (to listen to the Patriots game) were stowed. Once under way, we raised the main, passed around the sunscreen and looked for the wind as we were heading south from Conimicut Light. From different points, we could see other boats heading for the Ohio Ledge bell. None were sailing: All were under power.
That should have been warning enough, but we all kept coming. No one wanted to throw in the towel so early. At the rendezvous, skippers cut their engines and the boats drifted. People carried on conversations between boats. It was a party, sure enough, but that’s not what everyone had come for.
For maybe ten minutes, there was a zephyr out of the west. We were moving every so slowly. There was the sound of winches and squeaking blocks as sails were raised on other boats to catch the breeze.
But the flags were limp on the committee boat. The start was postponed indefinitely. Out came the cooler. Sandwiches were passed around, along with soda. Talk turned to football and how, unlike baseball, it is difficult to visualize the plays with a radio broadcast. It was suggested we could get it on a cell phone. That sparked a bit of excitement. Perhaps we could watch the game and the afternoon wouldn’t be totally lost.
Still, we scanned the horizon. There was no wind anywhere. The puff from the west died as quickly as it had come.
At 12:45, the first of the calls came. The committee boat was being hailed by one of the boats. We listened to the broadcast as the skipper withdrew from the race and that seemed odd: How could you withdraw from a race that wasn’t?
The rest of the skippers were steadfast but not for long. There were more calls. Engines were started. About 40 diehards waited and then the official word came from the committee boat: The race was off.
The bay was like a parking lot being cleared at the end of a game. Someone yelled, “Go New England” over the radio. Then race was on to tune in the game. The “tailgate party” in the middle of the bay was over. The football season was on. So much for sails, engines were at full throttle.