The boat was a DB2, about 10m LOA, German built purely for racing, there was no teak down below, no settee, no cushions or berths, nor even any bulkheads, just a VHF radio, minimal instruments, hooks to hang sail bags and struts that were placed in a way most likely to yield concussions. It wasn’t even a nominally functional cruising boat, it was made with a single purpose in mind.
The hull was a Kevlar-reinforced composite, sails were Mylar/Kevlar, mast was high-tech carbon fiber, with running backstays and other controls to make it bendy in multiple ways. It had dual jib halyards and dual luff tracks up the forestay, and the same redundant arrangement for the main. It had three spinnaker halyards, the third being a spare in case one got lost, stuck or tangled. Any sail could be changed while underway without taking anything else down first. And the boom had adjustments we couldn’t even put a name to. As a whole the rig made it endlessly possible to shape the sails. The difference between fast and slow was micro-fine. It was a challenge to sail well, to say the least!
Bob K., the boat’s owner, took the helm and was de facto tactician (although he rather sucked at the latter.) Bobby R. was the jib trimmer, Joe H. was on foredeck, Steve W. trimmed the main and running backstays, and would’ve been a great tactician if Bob had listened to him more often than not. I was in the pit, aka the sewer man, the hardest position I ever loved.
The start line was near Ballast Point, instructions were to leave Coronado Del Sur to port and Sugarloaf to port, finish outside of Zuniga -- about 65 nautical miles worth of race course. It was a popular race, there were a hundred+ boats in the fleet, out for a beautiful day on the water.
We had quite a bit of company rounding South Coronado, about 15 nm into the race when we left it astern, but only a handful of boats were in sight when we rounded Sugarloaf and started the long beat home, against the current. Around sunset the wind clocked 180 degrees, we hoisted a spinnaker and flew for half an hour or so. We were really in the groove most of the race, paying no mind to the rest of the fleet. As the wind backed around towards its predominant direction and died down, we doused the chute and put up the #2 because it held its shape better in light winds and a moderate swell. Daylight was gone, we were still a long way from home.
This was before the GPS satellite system was deployed, SatNav (precursor to GPS) was probably up but often it took hours for it to plot a fix, so useless for short off-shore races. We had Loran C on the boat that didn’t even give us geo coordinates, just Loran lines of position. Seamless electronic maps for civilians were still a long ways off, paper charts were the standard of the day, but we weren’t even using those… And as usual the fathometer was off, because it “burned too much battery” and because there “weren’t any shoals we needed to worry about.” (Except for a little one called “North America”.)
Bob the skipper was a senior pilot for American Airlines at his day job, which he somehow figured gave him magical powers of navigation. He disdainfully rejected doing any ded-reconing. He said he knew which way was home, just sail the damn boat, so we did, for a while. We were all very familiar with the area, but it’s amazing how perceptions can distort at night, the shoreline becomes indistinct and the lights become a puzzle. A responsible skipper plots a course and takes bearings from prominent features on land to track and verify his position as he goes. Old Bob figured all that fussing was a waste of time.
Looking around, 12 hours into the race, we noticed that we were miles ahead of the entire fleet! The reason we got so lucky was that Bob the skipper was badly disoriented, we were way closer to shore than any sane boaters would be. This gave us some current advantage and at times better winds, but it put the boat at risk, and placed us on the wrong side of the kelp beds.
Steve had suggested a tack 3-4 miles earlier and the rest of the crew concurred, but Bob the skipper was having none of it, he was certain we were 5+ miles from shore; he was wrong. Bobby the jib trimmer and I were becoming quite concerned, especially as we started to hear, and then could see breaking surf in the [not enough] distance.
We urgently asked the skipper to tack, he argued. We demanded that he tack, he was convinced we’d be sailing “180 degrees from the mark” if we tacked. Bobby the jib man says, “dude, at 100 yards from shore I swim for it!” I tell him to cut the jib free and he does. Main trimmer luffs his sail too, and I tell the skipper, “I’m dropping halyards in 10, 9, 8…” The skipper flips his lid and starts yelling. “Tack the god damned boat right the fuck now,” we shouted in unison, over top of him. Finally he did so.
Of course we ended up in irons the first try, starting the turn with sails flapping. It’s such an odd feeling to steer straight for destruction just to get enough momentum to avoid it; a little bit terrifying when you don’t know exactly where that destruction lies; a lot terrifying when you know it is very close!
It wasn’t long after that we could see reality sinking into Bob’s expression. There’s no getting around the fact you are indeed in breakers when you have to plough into them. He didn’t have a lot to say as we watched the fleet tack on their lay line (that we had so massively over-sailed) and parade on past us.
For a sickening minute or two after tacking successfully we weren’t even holding our position in the steeping swells. We felt the keel kiss the bottom a couple of times as we slid into the trough behind a swell. We tried to get him to work the surf, bear away as the wave lifted us, then head up as we went down the back side, the skipper balked at every suggestion. We were trying to save his boat; he was still racing, I guess he was just hell-bent to point the boat at where he perceived the line to be.
Of course we hit kelp about 25 times and each time the skipper argued about going head to, to clear it – I was starting to wonder if he had suffered a stroke or a brain injury along the way. We were forced to re-assert that if not for us his boat would be hard aground in pounding surf. We would’ve let him live it down, eventually, but we were not about to let him pretend it didn’t happen. It may have been a little harsh, but the time for allowing him to call the shots from inside his bag of delusions was over. He was lucky we didn’t tie him up, gag him and stuff him in a lazarette! His bad judgment had almost left us hard aground, god damned if he was going to pull his “my boat, my call” bullshit on us not even an hour later!
We finally cleared the kelp, converged with the fleet somewhere near its middle, and still took 2nd in our class after corrections. If Bob had tacked when we first suggested, we would’ve been first over the line by a substantial margin, ahead of boats that had to give us a half a minute a mile. We might even have set a record and got our pictures in the paper. Instead we were off playing kelp cutter, .
We got back to the marina a little before 2:00 AM, long day on the water. As we were putting the boat away we realized that Bob the skipper was actually still pissed at us, he made some off-handed comment about insubordinate crew tending to be replaced. Bobby the jib man lost his cool, “dude we saved your ass, you’d be waving bye-bye to your boat from the beach!” He drew a breath to go chapter and verse but I cut him off with, “I think that’s his way of thanking us, ‘you are replaceable’ actually means, ‘so lucky to have you on board.’” Bobby stopped long enough to laugh, “in English we say ‘you’re welcome’,” he said to the skipper, slowly and deliberately, as if he didn’t speak it.
Then we went to Bobby’s house and ranted and raved until the sun came up! If we had bought that beachfront real estate he would surely have considered us responsible for the destruction of his boat, since we luffed the sails – the irony would’ve been mind-blowing! And not even the positive outcome detracted from his epic idiocy.
The events of that night never came up again while the skipper was present, though we sailed a few more races with him. He seemed to harbor some resentment and the atmosphere on the boat had changed. I got involved in a one-design fleet of 22’ pocket cruisers, that was very competitive and a lot of fun. Bobby the jib trimmer, Steve the main trimmer and Joe the foredeck man found crew positions on bigger boats. They wanted to move up the PHRF food chain, I wanted to get back to basics and control my destiny.
One by one each of us moved away, we lost track of each other after parting ways… but, in the immortal words of Metallica, the memory remains, like a faded prima donna, yeah!