We met through our children. Robbie’s adorable, brown eyed girl’s cuteness was only rivaled by my own two blueberry eyed daughters. Donna and Robbie lived across the winding dirt road; our front doors faced each other like mirrored images.
I chose the old fixer-upper for its location on a large flat corner lot in the center of an unpaved S-turn in the road. To my eye, it was the epitome of a tree-lined neighborhood, perfect for raising a family. After a short getting-acquainted period, evaluating our compatibility, sanity, and ability to tolerate each other, we began the process of sharing our life stories, and most importantly, our favorite pastimes.
Beyond children and career there must be some passionate interest to engage the mind, body, and soul. Mine was the ocean, the mistress I could only dream about, because it required stability, money, and time to indulge so briny a chatelaine. I had neither the stability nor the cash to afford the sailboat I imagined; however, Robbie did and he needed additional crew, “Where do you moor your boat?” I asked Robbie one spring afternoon, post lawn maintenance.
“I keep it at Cottage Park Yacht Club in Winthrop.” Rob responded; “The Boston Harbor Performance Handicap Racing Fleet (PHRF) meets each Wednesday evening for a regatta around the outer harbor, just off Castle Island to the outer entrance and back. Are you interested?”
“Absolutely!” I responded with a boyish enthusiasm that I thought had died of natural causes. I glanced over at my spousal-unit to gauge her reaction but she was otherwise engaged conversing with Donna, Rob’s wife.
Later that evening after the girls were abed, we chatted about Rob’s invitation, “Did you know that Rob races his boat in the PHRF?” I stated hopefully, wary that my interest would spark another argument about who does more around the house and the iniquity were I to leave my family alone every Wednesday evening to play sailboats with a bunch of buoys. However, to my surprise, Christine thought that it was a great idea. Perhaps, she was thankful to have me gone for the evening rather than enduring my habitual melancholia. Neither of us knew then that no amount of time spent on the ocean could rectify the underlying cause of my depression. Uncovering that would take many more years of suffering, bickering, two divorces, and finally, neurosurgery to remove the Colloid cyst blocking the right ventricle of my brain causing periodic hydrocephaly.
Finally, the first race was scheduled; Rob called to let me know the time. I helped him load his minivan with the gear needed for the evening’s event. A new jib that had undergone repairs, some extra line, a cooler containing a couple of sandwiches, water, and no beer; pirates drank, sailors raced, and only imbibed after the regatta ended and all were safely back at the club.
I kissed my sweaty babes goodbye, gave my wife a hug, and we were off. It was going to be a hot evening; the droning of air-conditioning compressors disturbed the peaceful neighborhood. Sweltering summer heat waves are the bane of suburban Boston residents, regardless how close you live to the ocean. The wind was constant out of the South-west on this Wednesday afternoon. The S-W breeze offered no relief from the humidity but promised a squall passing through the area.
A squall is line of strong winds, characterized by sudden onset, the wind speed increases to 16 knots and sustained at 22 knots or more for at least one minute. Accompanied by multiple lightening strikes and vision obscuring downpours.
I have experienced many bodies of water, the Charles River, seen the aqua clear waters of the American and British Virgin Islands, both above and below the surface, Cape Code and the Islands, Marblehead, Salem, and Kennebunk harbors; however, none of these locations smelled as briny as Boston Harbor. It felt grand to return to the waters of my hometown.
In youth, I knew all the names of the islands, along with their rich heritage. Fond childhood memories returned of frolicking over their rocky beaches and exploring their inner secrets, from Thompson Island Boys Academy playing fields, the old glue factory on Spectacle with its varied history and perpetual belowground garbage dump fires, now reclaimed as a tourist and camping destination. Gallops, Georges Island where old Fort Warren silently guards the outer approaches, and points south with nothing more formidable than ghostly, empty turrets and vacant gun mounts. Hangman (Nixes Mate), Long, Moon, and Paddocks Islands. Happier memories flooded through me like a shot of adrenaline as we unloaded the minivan and made our way through the club and onto its pier and docks.
Directly across the channel from Cottage Park are the runways of Logan International Airport. Day and night, Flights fluctuated there, much to the chagrin of the local Winthrop townsfolk. However, nothing could assuage my joy at being on the water once again. No jet engine was loud enough to drown out my pleasure in that moment.
We waited for Robbie’s coworker, friend, and our third crewmember this evening, his name is lost to me in the vagaries and vicissitudes of time and damaged memory, so we will just refer to him as Bill. The launch pulled up to the dock shortly after Bill’s arrival to taxi us out to “ZEE,” an alliteration based on the first letter of Robbie’s last name.
ZEE is a Masthead Sloop with the following specifications:
LOA: 24.00′ / 7.32m
LWL: 19.50′ / 5.94m
Beam: 8.76′ / 2.67m Listed SA: 252 ft2 / 23.41 m2
Builder: C&C Yachts
Robbie, a strong competitor, enjoyed racing in the PHRF. Zee was configured for rapid headsail changes. This meant there were no cruising comforts, no auto-furling jib. Headsail changes, to accommodate weather conditions, especially wind speeds during a race, required that the foredeck crewman, manually switch headsails, a daunting task in heavy weather. I found the duties and challenges of foredeck crew exhilarating. There was something thrilling about standing at the bow in heavy weather to change sail that appealed to my darkside.
Once the gear was stowed, and the boat made ready, Robbie ordered “castoff.” He steered ZEE through the fleet of peacefully moored boats, past Snake Island, and out through Deer Island Flats. The starting mark was located off Castle Island near Governor’s Flats in President Roads, the main shipping channel for Boston Harbor. Two powerboats, referred to as the Race Committee Boats (RC), separated by a couple of thousand yards, marked the starting line facing due east toward the outer harbor. The starting line is usually oriented so that the race began with a good upwind course toward the first mark. On board the RC were the PHRF officials who orchestrated the event, armed with a very loud horn to mark the start of the race. These Race Officials record the time that each vessel crossed the finish line, which just happens also to be the starting line. Cannon fire usually marks the start; however, a blast from an air-horn worked just as well. The thing to note about sailboat racing is that participants do not neatly stand in a line or in pens. Sailboat crew, must navigate their vessels back and forth, up and down the channel ahead of the starting line, jockeying for position prior to the start of the race. This was where accidents were likely to occur. Despite rather strict rules designed to determine who has right-of-way; yogurt sometimes happens.
To comprehend the right-of-way rules regarding sailboat racing, first you must orient yourself on the water. Everything about bearing is defined by a vessel’s relationship to the direction of the all-important wind.
• Starboard Tack vs. Port Tack and Windward vs. Leeward all have to do with your relationship to the wind direction, from where the wind is coming.
• Windward Side indicates the side facing the direction of the wind.
• Leeward Side of the Boat is the side facing away from the wind direction.
• Starboard Tack – the wind is coming over the starboard (right) side of the boat. The sails will be on the port (left) side.
• Port Tack – the wind is coming over the port (left) side of the boat. The Sails will be on the starboard (right) side.
Determining who has “Right-of-way” in fluid situations that require constant re-evaluation is a daunting task; however, these rules always apply.
• When one boat has the “Right-of-Way,” the other boats are required to “Keep Clear.”
• Boats that are on a Starboard tack have “Right-of-way”
• Boats that are on a Port tack must “Keep Clear”
When overlapped boats moving in the same direction, one ahead of the other, and the second boat is trying to pass the lead boat then the boat overlapped to Leeward has Right-of-Way. Overlaps are established from the transom.
Avoiding Collisions – All boats are required to avoid a collision, if possible!
Right-of-Way is no excuse to cause a collision.
These are some additional terms for determining “Right-of-way”
• Close Hauled – A boat sailing as close to the wind direction as possible
• Head-to-Wind – A boat pointed straight into the wind. Sails will be luffing.
• Inside – A boat positioned between the mark and another boat
• Outside – A boat positioned with another boat between them and the mark
• Proper Course – The course a boat would sail to get to the next mark as quickly as possible
• Room – The space a boat needs to maneuver properly, given conditions
A Leeward boat has Right-of-Way at the start and is allowed to sail above her Proper Course to shutout any boat heading into the start before the start signal. After the start signal, the Leeward boat must assume her proper course. Any boat to leeward that you can potentially hit should be considered a brick wall.
Moreover, if that was not sufficiently confusing, there was the issue of same tack boats converging on different points-of-sail.
NOTE: Once again, this rule applies for two boats near each other on the same tack. However, remember that any approaching Starboard Tack boat has Right-of-Way overall Port Tack boats. Leeward Boat has Right-of Way. In this example, both boats are on a Port Tack. As they converge, the windward boat, which is sailing downwind, has to Keep Clear of the leeward boat. . Keeping all these rules in memory and applying them in a dynamic situation was beyond my humble skillset and I was grateful that our skipper, Robbie, had this responsibility. Only then could I focus on carrying out my duties as crew.
When the order was given to change tack, for example, Bill and I followed a well-orchestrated set of actions. When sailing into the wind on a starboard tack (the wind coming over the right side of the boat and the sails were on the Port (Left) side of the boat,) and the order “Prepare to jib” was given by the helmsman (Captain.) The crew, one manning the portside winch and the other the starboard, get ready to change tack. The person on the starboard side (where the wind comes from) takes up the slack on the headsail sheet while the crewmember on the port side makes ready to release his headsail sheet.
A sheet is the term for the lines that controls a sails’ trim.
When the helmsman orders “Jibho” and moves the tiller over onto a port tack, the jib (headsail) goes slack as the bow of the boat crosses the wind, said to be “Head-to-Wind.” Then the wind pushes the jib’s sailcloth over to the Starboard side. The person manning the Starboard side winch hauls on the Starboard side jib sheet, sets it into the winch, and grinds hard until the jib is trim, finally locking the sheet’s tail into the quick release chalk cleat. The quick release chalk cleat resembles nothing so much as a set horns with a pair of jaws on one side for holding the line taut. The other crewperson adjusts the trim on the mainsail and the boat rapidly accelerates, picking up speed on a new tack. Races are won or lost on a crew’s ability to execute this procedure efficiently.
It may sound simple but consider the effort involved in performing these maneuvers every few minutes as your skipper attempts to jockey for an advantageous position at the start of the race. It was all very exciting.
Sailing downwind has a different process; that maneuver is called, “Coming About;” it is initiated with the helmsman’s call to “Ready About.”
Sailing off the wind, or the wind coming from astern, required a different process for changing tack. The Mainsail is the primary focus due to the forces in play because unrestricted booms can swing rather abruptly and with great force. To avoid damage or injury to crew or boat, the mainsail’s sheet is pulled in tight to a “Close Hauled” position. When the helmsman calls out “Come about” and moves the helm over to change tack, the mainsail has little room to swing making the maneuver gentle and safe. The headsail or jib is hauled in on the proper side and the sails are then trimmed for maximum speed.
That was how it was done. Repetition makes for smooth sailing, so all the jockeying at the start was an intense learning curve to refresh my memory, helping to acclimatize me to the machinations of ZEE, and familiarize me to the proclivities of her skipper and mate, Bill. We functioned well as a team running up to the start of the race.
As boats joined the regatta from Yacht Clubs all around the area, the navigable space grew tight. Robbie made the choice to move to a less contentious position, deeper into Dorchester Bay, and allowed the alpha competitors the room to battle it out for the best positions.
“Performance Handicap Racing Fleet (PHRF) is a handicapping system used for yacht racing in North America.” It allows different sailboats to race against each other in relative equanimity, reflecting crew skill versus equipment superiority.
ZEE had a rating number of 231, placing her somewhere in the middle of the pack.  None of this really mattered to me; it was enough to be out in nature, experiencing the joys of wind and wave.
While we waited for the fleet to assemble, from nowhere appeared a white J-class sloop  with gorgeous lines, she was well past her prime but still a beauty. J-boats are the epitome of racing sailboats and a separate class unto themselves. To sail with a J-class boat would be a racing privilege because there were not many in the PHRF. The J-class of vessels were once the model for the America’s Cup Racers, a venerable design now supplanted by the awesome speed and capabilities of the wing masted, foiling catamarans, the boats that will be raced in the 35th America’s Cup in 2017 in Bermuda. 
After tacking back and forth, for what seemed an eternity, the two-minute warning sounded. Tensions grew, room became close, and the excitement could be felt in the hot, humid, evening air. Robbie kept his strategies to himself, while Bill and I focused on our tasks, providing Zee with all the wind driven power she needed to go where our skipper intended.
When the RC’s horn sounded the start, Zee found herself in the middle of the fleet, making for the first Mark, Black Can buoy #3 off Thompson’s Island. Fortuitously, we happened to be on a Port Tact and if Robbie could keep us close enough to the wind, we would not need to engage in a speed reducing tack change. In situations like this, the crew becomes “Rail meat,” a little extra weight on the windward rail to keep the boat trim, with less heel. The term “heel” refers to the leaning angle that a vessel exhibits under sail. The lead ballast of a vessel’s keel was usually enough to keep a boat upright in most conditions; however, due to the dynamics of wind and sail, hulls moving through water, a boat that was heeled over more than fifteen degrees was less efficient and thus slower. To counteract the effects of the wind on a boat’s heel the crew acts as extra ballast, thus presenting a more advantageous angle of mainsail to wind.
Zee was moving at approximately twelve knots, evidenced by the log, which according to Robbie was not that reliable but would provide an approximation of our speed. In the lead group of boats were the faster vessels, among them the sleek lines of the J-boat with her tall mast carrying bright white sails, perfectly trimmed. Her name is now lost and among the casualties of my failing memory. She was just rounding the first mark when I happened to glance behind, toward the Northwest, farther up the inner harbor toward the mouth of the Charles River, and the Boston skyline. There I saw a ominous dark line of clouds approaching.
Pointing out the atmospheric anomaly to my crewmates, I wondered what this would portend for the remainder of the race, “Robbie, what do you think, should we just keep on, or what?” I asked from my place on the rail.
“I do not know what the RC will do, I expect they will just allow each captain to make his own decision, we just have to wait and see. I doubt they would or could stop the race at this point; besides, we will be hit in either case,” Rob responded without emotion.
“Damn, that is moving fast, to,” Bill chimed. The squall line was dark, almost blue in color, definitely foreboding, yet strangely exhilarating. My heart was pounding in my chest; I knew I was alive.
“Prepare to shorten sail!” Robbie ordered. “Take down the jib and secure it along the leeward rail.” He pointed Zee into the wind as the sails luffed and the boat lost momentum. Bill and I moved forward to the bow and working together pulled down the crinkly Dacron jib. Bill stood at the mast and loosed the halyard, while I tugged on the sail to bring it down. Once on the deck, we furled it as quickly as possible into a neat bundle that we strapped to the gunwale on the starboard rail with lengths of cord.
The fleet ahead was still making for the next mark, “R” #6 Flashing Buoy. They appeared completely unconcerned with the ominous weather bearing down on them from astern.
Working together, we made ready. Gear stowed, hatches closed and dogged, Robbie resumed course toward the next mark, powered only by the mainsail. The fleet behind along with the RC was obscured from sight by the rain when it was upon us. A whoosh of wind both cooling and terrifying heeled Zee over putting the leeward rail in the water, then came the driving rain. I could barely hear, the force of the wind was so strong; I was thankful that the large jib was not available to catch the gusts. We did not suffer a knockdown but I could not say the same for the rest of the fleet.
A knockdown is a terrifying experience, not exactly a broach (when the boat is knocked on her beam’s end due to wave action from a following sea.) It is when a vessel heels to near 90 degrees and the mast is parallel to the surface of the water. Most well designed cruising sailboats can suffer such a catastrophic accident and recover but serious injury may occur to the fragile humans onboard. The squall passed quickly; only the rain persisted, just longs enough to soak me to my skin. I wished I had time to don my raingear. It was an invigorating experience to say the least, I enjoyed it immensely, and the child in me wanted to do it again.
When the rain ceased and we looked around for the fleet, the other boats were not where we had last observed them. They were scattered across the harbor; however, all appeared upright and still underway. The J-boat was across the harbor, near Spectacle Island, between “G” #3 GQ and “G” #1 Fl 4S. Her jib in tatters, she had apparently blown out her headsails, and she was out of the race. The rest of the fleet called it an evening and made their way back to our respective clubs. The air was dramatically cooler on this side of the front, a welcome change.
Back at Cottage Park, the beer ran freely, and so did the talk of would be pirates, tales of the Sea, and men who would be sailors, if only for a few hours in the evening, one evening per week.
1. Islands – http://www.bostonharborislands.org/islands
3. For further information on PHRF go to – http://www.phrfne.org/page/567
4. J-class – http://www.jclassyachts.com/history/1851-1928
5. < www.yachtingworld.com/blogs/matthew-sheahan/new-americas-cup-class-revealed-think-46-knots-in-16-knots-of-wind-and-thats-just-the-start-63197#ZswS0zPSTkGMTbs0.99>