Thursday, November 6, 2008

An Apple A Day Keeps Last Place Away

A while back, I found myself a crew member on a big boat in a very big boat regatta series. Usually, I try to grab a position at the back of the boat - mainsheet trimmer, helmsman, tactician, etc. - but for various reasons in this regatta, I was relegated to a position forward, but behind and thankfully, not before the mast.

Late summer sailboat racing on the San Francisco Bay is usually some of the most extreme racing on the planet. The big currents, big winds, big boats, and big egos present in the shadow of the Golden Gate Bridge give racing yachtsmen challenges that are just not available in most other venues. The conditions for this big regatta were typical of the Bay and summer sailboat racing.

This regatta consisted of a series of races using temporary tetrahedrons and a few of the standard permanent racing buoys and navigational aids to mark the courses - mostly windward and leeward jaunts.

We were doing pretty well on the first race of the second day - the traveled laylines were fundamentally sound, and the crew had not made any unforgiving mistakes. We had just crossed a starting line drawn between the hosting yacht club’s committee boat and a red buoy anchored out in the central part of the bay near Treasure Island, after racing for well over an hour.

Typically, the start line and the finish line of most yacht races are most often the same. You cross the line upwind, round the course buoys, then finish on the same line downwind, or maybe finish back upwind on a hard beat to weather.

For this race, our tactician had assumed that we were reaching back toward the starting line to finish the race. As we crossed the line, we heard him ask, “Did anyone hear a gun...or a horn?”

No one had heard either.

“Never mind, “ he said. “The committee boat must have missed us. I got our finish time.

“Jib and main down, NOW!” he yelled, not wanting to continue to flog and stretch the new wardrobe of composite canvas.

“We have about an hour before the next race,” he continued. “Let’s break out lunch.”

The owner of this racing sloop does everything in a first-class manner, from food to nifty crew uniforms. So in about a minute after the tactician’s command, the cockpit was filled with a feast - individually wrapped gourmet sandwiches with lots of mayo and with an organic vegetable garden of trimmings. There was also a large assortment of bottled and canned beers, every variety of Pringles chips, and all of the brands of candy chocolate that the Mars company makes.

Foul-weather gear was peeled off and strewn across the cockpit and cabin top, and 12 hungry souls tucked in to nibble and drink away. While everyone was kicked back and relaxed, we heard the tactician ask to himself, “What’s the rest of our fleet doing? Why the heck are they still sailing?”

He reached down and grabbed the sailing instructions. A grimace came over his sun- and wind-streaked face.

“Let’s get these sails up, NOW! We’ve got to finish this race.”

Our tactician had committed the gravest sin that any tactician can commit - not being intimately familiar with the sailing instructions and the course layout of the regatta. We had not finished, because on this course, the start and finish line were not the same. They were different. The finish line was farther down the Bay, near the Emeryville shoreline.

As the crew leaped into action to get back in the race, so did the gourmet spread. Sandwiches went flying, as did the fillings. Roasted peppers, pickles, and soggy tomatoes skittered across the cockpit floor waiting for a loose and fast foot to squish them into oblivion. Bottles clanked around, candy wrappers flew overboard and garbage was everywhere. Valuable minutes passed by us, as did the other boats in the fleet.

Not exactly ship shape. And what a mess to clean up once we got our bruised egos back home to the boat’s yacht harbor. It wasn’t funny then, and I’m not so sure it’s funny now.

Needless to say, we did not win that race. And we did not win the regatta. But boy did we LOOK GOOD and EAT WELL. Or had tried to EAT WELL.

While I am a great believer in the necessity of great food aboard a sailing vessel - I have even written an article on gourmet cooking at sea for Latitudes and Attitudes magazine - I have changed my tune about racing and eating, due to that disastrous experience.

Recently, I was rereading the book “Airborne” by William F. Buckley, Jr., which chronicles his adventures in crossing the Atlantic Ocean for the first time. As they near the end of the journey, they catch fresh fish for lunch and have an enjoyable mid-day meal. In this section of the book, Buckley tells us that he was “appalled” at a story in Edward Heath’s book about his successful yacht-racing career.

Heath remarked that one of his crew members, Rod Stephens of Sparkman and Stephens, always only ate an apple for lunch, regardless of what the other crew members were enjoying. Stephens explained to Heath that when there was an adjustment to be made in the sails or if an emergency happened, he did not have to find a place to try to neatly tuck a half-eaten sandwich.

With his apple in hand, he could just toss it overboard or into the cockpit to be retrieved later. What appalled Mr. Buckley was that Mr. Heath took pride in his book in announcing that thereafter, for racing lunches, there would only be apples and Mars bars for his crew.

I was enthralled by Heath’s racing-lunch rule. I adopted it with enthusiasm, but made a slight modification.

Instead of the Mars bars on my boat, I went out and bought a case of Detour Bars - high in protein and low in fat.

If only we had done that on the big boat in the very big boat regatta.