Winning is wonderful, but coming in last place isn’t that bad. I wouldn’t have thought that until I raced in the J-30 North Americans Friday, Saturday and Sunday.
The J-30 is a sailboat that Rod Johnstone of Rhode Island designed in the 1970s. It’s a racer-cruiser that was on the cutting edge of boat building technology. The use of balsa wood as the core to its fiberglass hull dramatically reduced weight without compromising the boat’s integrity.
The boat has been out of production since 1987 but they are still around. They continue to be competitive and, like those who own certain cars and trading information and getting together for rallies, there are regional fleets, a national association and the North Americans. The North Americans determine the best J-30 boat, skipper and crew. It’s a big deal to J-30 sailors and the series is taken extremely seriously, from an inspection of the boats, to sail measurements and the combined weight of the crew. Collectively, the crew can’t exceed 1,400 pounds. In addition, you must sail with the same number each day, thereby eliminating the loading up the boat on days with heavy wind and sailing light should the wind drop.
I’ve raced several North Americans and never done very well. This time wasn’t the exception, although that would have been fun.
There was no lack of excitement when it started Friday with winds out of the northeast blowing a steady 20 knots. Conditions were nasty; with choppy waters and rain showers skating across the upper Bay where the regatta were held.
Twenty-three boats registered, a number that dwindled to a hardcore 19 after the first day. Friday’s races literally and figuratively left us in tatters.
We were put to the test with the very first. Some of the strongest gusts of the day came on the second down-wind leg, the point where everyone flies the balloon-like spinnaker. Boats across the course were rolling side to side with their crews hanging on as they screamed toward the finish line. One boat to our leeward went into a death roll, pitching wildly until it was knocked down. For an instant, it lay on its side, its keel exposed and rudder uselessly out of the water. Then the weight of the keel pulled it upward, the vessel rounded into the wind with its green and white spinnaker flapping. It was a wonder the sail wasn’t shredded. Remarkably, the skipper and crew regained control and in minutes were back in the race.
Not soon after, Barry Rideout, one of my six crewmembers and tactician for the series, cursed furiously. The interior mechanism of the winch to fly the spinnaker came apart under the extreme pressure. It spun uselessly. Quickly, he looped the line on a cleat and saved control of the sail. But it was short-lived. Jeff Gooding, who was working the foredeck with Barry’s son Chris, yelled, “She’s blown out.”
I felt the boat slow, although we were still charging ahead. I shifted my sight from the boats in front of us to the top of the mast. The spinnaker was gone. It had torn from the head, ripping down the sides until it fell, flapping, into the breaking wave in front. Without a spinnaker, we were out of the competition, but we weren’t going to turn tail. In the second race, the main sheet started to disintegrate, making it impossible to release the sail. We finally cut the sheet and then used the remaining piece – the ingenious work of Tony August – but by then we had withdrawn from that race. Meanwhile, the flexing boat caused the port windows to pop out. As we waited for the third race of the day, Barry covered the openings with duct tape.
When we motored into Barrington, John Cavanaugh and Stewart Walker, who would be crewing Saturday and Sunday, were ready with adhesive caulking.
Then Charles Stoddard, our competitor and skipper of Falcon, came to our rescue with the loan of a spare spinnaker.
We were back in it on Saturday, or so it seemed. The wind went to the south. Racing conditions were ideal. The crew came together, but the boat was slow. We re-tuned the rig Sunday and dove in to clean the hull. She was faster.
We were determined to climb out of the figurative cellar. We were moving well and were the fifth boat to round the windward mark in the final race. Then disaster struck again.
The spinnaker jammed on the hoist. It hadn’t been properly rigged. There was a lot of yelling. The sail had to come down. But fixing one problem created another. On the second hoist, the spinnaker was upside down. One after another, boat passed us as we went for the third try. It was too late. We were out of it.
There was disappointment and some recrimination but, too, there was satisfaction in knowing that, at least for a short time, we were holding our own with the top boats in the fleet.
We know we can do it, but it wasn’t going to be this year.