Sometimes you go with your gut

Posted 8/31/23

“See that?” Ben Block said pointing to an orange blob turning red at the center position in a sea of arrows that more or less formed a pattern from southeast.  He handed over the …

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Sometimes you go with your gut


“See that?” Ben Block said pointing to an orange blob turning red at the center position in a sea of arrows that more or less formed a pattern from southeast.  He handed over the cell phone so I could get a closer look.

“What’s the app?”

Ben gave me a name adding, “I’ve got them all.”

“Any sparks?” Charlie Stoddard questioned from the adjoining seat. Ben looked closely at the screen.

“Nothing there, but this is as of one o’clock. It could change.”

“We don’t want sparks,” Charlie said launching into a story of the sailboat that was struck by lightening at a mooring off Jamestown about a month ago. It was a 36 to 40 foot long vessel and from Charlie’s description it was virtually fried from the carbon fiber boom to the engine and the instruments.

Ben nodded and so did Donnie Miller who was listening. All three are veteran hard core sailors, having sailed multiple regattas in a variety of boats including long distance races such as those to Bermuda and Halifax. Ben crewed for Ted Turner when he defended the America’s Cup. They know their stuff and they have sailed in some heavy weather hundreds of miles off shore or just a couple of miles from Conimicut Point.

If there were “sparks,” the consensus was to head for shore if that was the option. Better yet, was not to venture out at all.

It was 9:15 a.m. Friday. We were seated on the covered deck of the Barrington Yacht Club. We were the only ones there. It was drizzling, certainly nothing that would stop this gang from the first day of racing in the J-30 North Americans scheduled to start at 11, midway between Prudence Island and the Barrington shoreline, in an area called Ohio Ledge. The winds and the forecast were troubling, however.

“Eighteen with gusts to 29,” he said of real time readings from Conimicut Point.

At a skipper’s meeting the night before, the J-30 sailors agreed to cancel Friday racing if there were sustained winds of 20 knots and gusts of 30. This was right on the cusp.

The rest of the crew started appearing in foul weather gear with the exception of John Cavanagh, who owns the boat that I had once owned. He didn’t change the name, Good News. John would co-skipper with Charlie, who at one time likewise had a J-30, for the North Americans.

“Gentlemen,” John said in upbeat tone to the assembly as if this was a perfect day to be on the water. He had brought along a knapsack filled with sandwiches his wife, Karen, had made for our lunches. John was pleased with the outcome of race organizers who had questioned if the combined weight of the Good News crew surpassed the threshold. We all had weighed in and we collectively exceeded the limit by six pounds. The possibility of being disqualified on weight incensed John. On Thursday night, he stripped down at home and stood on the scales. He was six pounds lighter than the reading taken by the race committee. John took a picture showing his bare feet and the reading. The committee qualified Good News.

To have been tossed out on such a technicality after months of preparing the boat for this three-day regatta would have been a disaster. John and Charlie checked virtually every block, line, instrument and component – including the engine that we would only be using to get to and back from the race course. They replaced a lot. They relieved the boat of nearly 100 pounds of unnecessary equipment and cleaned the bottom to a sheen.   She was race ready, but conditions were iffy.

Charlie was waiting for a call from the Bristol Yacht Club that was hosting the regatta. Would the race committee chair sanction the race? Charlie reported the chair was motoring out to the course. We waited, checking weather apps in hopes of getting a read on whether they would cancel, postpone until later in the day or sound the first gun as planned that morning.

“It’s a go,” Charlie declared. We sprang into action, grabbing knapsacks and sipping up our foul weather jackets.  Richard Jaffe and Ian Millspaugh, regulars in John’s crew were ready. There were seven of us. Donnie disappeared into the forward berth to unpack the spinnaker and ready it for rapid deployment although none of us imagined using the sail in this stink. With it spitting rain, we cast off dock lines and motored down the Barrington River. Once clear of the inner harbor, conditions revealed themselves. A wave slammed the port bow where Donnie was sorting out lines. He was soaked, his hair plastered against his head, water running down his legs into his boots. Remarkably, he smiled. After all this is part of the experience although the rest of us were content having avoided it.

Out in open water, we were getting wind gusts of 29 knots under racing gray clouds. The committee boat was on station, flags snapping and bobbing up and down. A few of the competitors had their mail sails up, others motored. Everyone kept their distance. This was no place to be coming alongside for a friendly chat although John in his enduring friendly manner shouted greetings.

Charlie powered us into the wind. We untied the mail sail. Ben was on the halyard. Soon enough we were heeled over.

Charlie kept an eye on wind speeds. Conditions weren’t improving and the vision of that orange and red blob forecast to arrive at 1 p.m. along with some possible “sparks,” loomed. Charlie radioed the committee, reminding them of the agreement to cancel in sustained winds of 20 knots. There was silence and then someone reading from a hand held anemometer, “17, 15, 18, 19.”  We looked at our instruments. Charlie radioed we were seeing 18 to as high as 24.

The responding radio message elicited a few invectives. “Where are the batteries? It looks like these are dead.” We were silent in disbelief. Didn’t the committee boat have instruments? Had not someone thought to even use their cell phone and get readings from NOAA or, for that matter, brought along spare batteries?

The committee proceeded with the race countdown.

Charlie had doubts. The boat is more than 40 years old. Things could go wrong quickly. Things could break. People could get hurt.

“What do you think; we call it a day?”

I agreed, so did Ben.

After all the build up and preparation, John was understandably disappointed. He, too, agreed. We headed back to the club where John brought out Karen’s sandwiches, Donnie dried off and we convinced ourselves it was the right decision.

The orange and red blob never hit. The winds actually abated somewhat, yet out on the race course one sailor went overboard (he was rescued), a sail was washed off deck and there were a variety of minor equipment failures. Races were canceled Saturday for a lack of wind and on Sunday they raced.

I didn’t crew on Saturday or Sunday. Friday was enough to reinforce my belief; you go with your gut, even though there are times when those in authority may tell you “everything is going to be okay.”

Side Up, editorial, sailing


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