Monday, 19 March 2012

A little guy on my shoulder

I ran down the hot sand pausing on the way to undo the line that anchored OB’s bows to a stake. Having squandered the preparation time there was work to do. The race was on and other boats were leaving the beach as I stuffed superfluous gear into lockers and untangled lines. The oars I lashed inboard, lengthways across the thwarts. Each would serve as a brace for my legs when the time came to get my weight out over the gunwale.

OB's nose slid off the sand as I hauled up the stern anchor. Boats jostled on the water, raising sails and crowding each other as they entered the buoyed channel that ran between the moored craft. It was as well to stay clear. Drifting on the gusting offshore breeze I hoisted the mizzen and then the main and just before avenue of buoys turned the bows off the wind.

On OB’s fastest point of sail, particularly in double reefed conditions and in flat water we kept to windward and began catching up. I felt calm and comfortably in control as my boat accelerated in the gusts. The only thing that matters, I thought, is sailing my boat as well as I can. But no sooner was the thought formed than a little guy in a devil’s suit appeared on my shoulder, ‘No Ben,’ he said, ‘the only thing that matters is winning.’ And poked me in the neck with his trident.

Sailing through the pack as we came up to the first mark—the stone tower on the rocks—I looked into the water to judge the depths. We’d been told to give the reef a wide berth, many a year there’s someone who cuts the corner and gouges their bottom. It wasn’t going to be OB, the centreboard was raised and with just the rudder in the water she needed scant depth. All the same I took my time before carefully gybing, lowering the centreboard by half and reaching off for a buoy somewhere on the other side of the bay.

The boats had separated and I was coming up behind a knot of smaller craft. Just as well as I had no idea where the buoy was. The map of the course was floating in the bilges and although I’d paid close attention at the briefing the tensions of the start had wiped my memory. But I wasn’t the only one feeling my way. As I came up with the other boats someone shouted across ‘Where’s the buoy?’ ‘No idea. I’m following you.’ Then a shout went up from the forward most boat and they bore away. Presumably they’d spotted it.

I loosen the sheets and eased away from the wind. There were two boats immediately ahead of OB looking beautiful with their arcs of taught lateen sail bellying towards the briny and windward hulls rising high out of the water. But they were not sailing quite broad enough. I felt a jab in my neck. ‘Cut through on the inside at the mark.’ Said the fellow in red. I was bang on course, it would be a fairly aggressive move but I could nip between the boats and the buoy with a tight, tidy gybe. I looked at the devil on my shoulder and winked.

Thursday, 8 March 2012

Part one of the next bit

I wasn’t really in the mood for a sailing festival. A late summer Mediterranean rainstorm had ruptured the night, first with strafing hail then with icy bullets of rain, coming so thickly as to find a thousand ways through the boat tent. I rose to put on wet weather gear and found the water up to my ankles. I bailed miserably while the rain eased and attempted to go back to sleep as the Tramontana reasserted itself.

The bright, breezy morning found me bleary, damp and dishevelled. From the relative shelter of the cove it looked too windy for sailing out on the wider waters. If I were to get to the beach where the meeting was to take place I’d have to row long and hard into the wind. Maybe I could just make tea and doze through the morning.

But I’d met a few other boats the day before, friendly people who’d asked if I'd come to take part and after cheery waves and shouts we’d agreed to see each other on the morrow. What is more it appeared that Onawind Blue was the only boat, of comparable size, that had a arrived in Cadaqués by sea and that in itself was an incentive to make the last mile to the beach. And so I packed up and rowed.

English punctuality is one of the few national traits that I’m still working hard to shrug off after 25 years of living in Spain. It was no surprise, then, to find the beach absolutely deserted of organisation and boats when I arrived with my arms hanging out of their sockets and my palms burning.

I left OB with an anchor off the stern and line from the bow to a stake in the beach, the only sign that something might be happening today. I meandered over to a bar, filled up on coffee and watched the preparations get underway. Other boats arrived (mooring in the same fashion), people sauntered down from the town and a clutch of old timers built up a fire for the traditional breakfast of barbequed sardines. I met my friend Joan Sol and, having just caught sight of myself in a plate glass window, begged a shower.

By the time I got back to the beach not only was the event in full swing but I was as clean and shiny as if I’d just stepped out of an air-conditioned Audi. A large slice of pan con tomate piled high with sardines and red wine caught mid flow from the porrón soon brought my personal hygiene back to normal levels. Lively chat with old friends from now familiar boats simmered down for the skipper’s meeting but as complete silence is never attainable some people missed valuable information. Anybody who felt the conditions might be too taxing was free to stand down and while at first I’d rather hoped the sailing might be cancelled I now found I’d been injected with a lust for competition.

What is it that turns even mild mannered, low-tech sailors into victory hungry, calculating racers? Quite probably it was the wine, but whatever, I stood close to Quico Despuig the event organiser, the better to get an advantage by hearing what was said. There was a course: Out to Els Farrallons—a small stone tower built on a reef—that would be a run. Then a reach over to a buoy on the other side of the bay, a beat back up to the tower, then the circuit again and back to the beach. Simple enough, I thought.

The Cadaqués regatta traditionally has a Le Mans style start. Crews were given 10 minutes to organise their boats, a time I totally miss-spent explaining the course to someone who hadn’t heard the instructions. I was wondering if I could politely regain my competitive edge when an air horn called us to the start.

Some of us stood nervously on the line. I reflected that at least I was already double reefed from the day before. I wiped my sweaty palms on my shirt as I waited, poised like a sprinter for the second blast. But it didn’t come. The organiser was bogged down re-explaining the course to those that had been out of earshot. Then the horn sounded and I ran. But no, it wasn’t the second horn. It was a repeat of the first, for the benefit of those that hadn’t been ready or understood the course. At last, my adrenaline nearly spent, we re-assembled in a raggle-taggle fashion. The third blast—which was in fact the second—sounded, and we ran to the boats.