This Side Up

What it takes to hold a lead

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Sometimes being the leader can cost you the race.

That’s a lesson I was reminded of last Thursday during the second of the season’s sailboat races out of Narragansett Terrace Yacht Club. If you recall, Thursday was hardly one of those idyllic nights for sailing. The wind was good – not overpowering, yet gusty enough to keep you on your toes. But the air was thick with moisture making for damp and raw conditions that had telltales sticking to the sail and permeating even the best of foul weather gear.

A week earlier, with the first of the season’s races, it felt like August with temperatures in the 80s and a steady southerly. Yet even with the best of conditions, the season got off to a bumpy start. We weren’t ready, nor was the race committee. Lacking a coat of anti-fouling bottom paint, the committee boat was still on the hard. And while there were willing sailors, there wasn’t a boat for the committee.

That was until John Cavanaugh showed up. John started out as a crewmember, but as I turned attention to racing smaller boats he became the skipper. John and his crew motor over from Bullock’s Cove in East Providence to my boat that I keep on a mooring off Conimicut. It’s been a great arrangement.

Not wanting to miss an opportunity to race, John suggested the committee accompany him across the bay in his powerboat and then use it to start the race. That arrangement worked two weeks ago, so the committee did it again Thursday.

The committee was prepared with flags and whistles, however, failed to bring along a white board to display the course. They relied on verbal instructions. Fred on the committee boat shouted out the marks that we were to leave to starboard. It seemed simple enough – upwind to a mark, a reach to a second mark and then back to the finish in the form of a large triangle. That was the course for the first class of boats. We were in the second class and given the same course, only rather than saying twice around, Fred repeated the marks.

I was at the helm. We were off to a good start and holding onto the lead as we approached the second mark and I questioned John and the crew as to the next mark. They had understood we were to return to the first mark, sailing the leg three times before heading to the finish.

By now we were cruising and had passed the boats in the first class. We were out front on our own and in the lead. That’s a great place to be as long as you sail the correct course.

“You’re sure,” I asked of John and the rest of the crew. “Yes,” they assured me, that’s what they heard. I looked back, boats were following us. They must be right. Our confidence was soon shaken. When I looked back again it was obvious the rest of the fleet was on a different course.

Had they gotten it right?

John and crew went through it again. They were convinced we were right. I held the course, ever widening the gap between us and them.

“Well, we’ll know when we cross the finish line,” I said. “If we don’t get a whistle, we will have sailed the wrong course.”

As we reached the finish line we were a good 15 minutes ahead of the next boat, which is a resounding lead. But rather than elation, as our victory would have been at the expense of someone else’s mistake, I was ambivalent. If we won, it wasn’t because of skill. If we got tossed out, we could reason that at least we’d spent the evening sailing. Either way the rewards were bittersweet.

We crossed the line. Fred watched but he didn’t blow the whistle. His lack of action signaled his verdict. The rest of the fleet was right and we were wrong.

Had we been in the middle of the pack, we would have followed the leader.

Instead we were the leader and didn’t have any followers. That should have told us something, but no we believed we were right.

Next time, I want to be in the lead again. But then I’ll be watching the followers. It’s part of staying ahead…and not just in sailing.

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