Boats, Essays, Racing, The Old Days

The Blowout Sail, or: A Tale of the Greatest Race on Earth

I’m sure there are many civil, gentlemanly, quiet model boat races on calm inland waters throughout America. Chrysler-driving old men and cornflake-fed children in Polo shirts gather on a lichened pine dock to launch factory-painted balsa sloops and ketches, tending them with sticks and perhaps even a radio controller. At the drop of a flag, they would totter and slurp through the wavelets to a pink mooring ball, arriving in a tidy flotilla of white nylon sails and politely wagging telltales. Golf claps and spilled lemonade are the only action from the sidelines.
But The Annual Whippoorwill Yacht & Rocket Club 1-Meter Challenge Commodore’s Cup at Red Beach on Martha’s Vineyard was in a league of its own. There were no store-bought models at The Boat Race, as we called it, and nary a telescoping antenna was to be seen. The waters were spared the wake of propellers and jet drives. These things weren’t allowed. But anything else was. Anything.
The homebrewed craft of the 1-Meter Challenge were on their own, under power of sail, when The Gun went off and the skipper released their hold on backstay and shroud. It was a matter of sheer ingenuity versus the chaotic forces of Nature, a fiendishly magnificent tango of Man and The Elements as each duct-taped yawl and Kryloned catamaran slogged across Menemsha Pond one way or another on Columbus Day weekend. We skippers, and our very pride, were at the unfettered mercy of the deep blue. The Chrysler drivers did well to steer clear.
And O, The Gun. Police Chief Tim Rich showed up every year with his carbide cannon and enough shot to start the races and invade the Comoros Islands in one fell swoop. Once this blunderbuss rang out over Menemsha Pond, every set of ears from Devil’s Bridge to Duxbury knew a heat had begun. In my kid years I would run and hide behind a nearby pickup truck when I heard the call of the bullhorn, my Old Man hollering, “ready on the line!” The ensuing blast would hit me in the vitals, causing me to cower no matter how far I jammed my fingers in my ears.
But I was an Adult now. I was well over 12. No one in the Adult class, especially the Adult Multihull class to which I now belonged—a ragtag congregation of miscreants and roustabouts indeed—could be afraid of The Gun. Without it, there was no race. I was willing to give up a bit of my hearing for victory.
Every year, The Boat Race saw wilder and wilder nautical concoctions as kids and adults alike went to astronomical lengths to eke the most they could out of the breeze with as little monetary expense as possible. The auburn sands of Red Beach would be crowded with craft christened Dumptique and Legobeast. Some remained nameless in their own modesty. Seagull feathers stuck into a piece of an erstwhile styrofoam cooler, A&P shopping bags with locust twigs as spars atop lashed-together soda bottles, and all manner of plastic window insulation and Saran Wrap found their way to Red Beach.
The hardcore salts, usually well-heeled Vineyard beach bums who wore wetsuits under their Sunday bests and whiskered former longliners who had seen more presidential administrations than movies, would show up with laboriously handcrafted yachts of uncanny detail and incredible prowess over the brine. Folks of the plastic-bottle-hull school would ooh and aah as they cleared a path for the royalty. Little girls in O’Neill wetsuits clambered in and out of their fathers’ rusty panel vans in excitement.
The run-up to Zero Hour was a contagious mania as the north wind bit our noses and made our flip-flopped feet and bathing-suit-clad legs shiver. The veterans would mosey about the sand in a kindred spirit, recalling Races past. The kids ran down the beach and basked in it all. On Race Day, theirs was a playground like no other child in the world had. Everyone was sympatico. Classic Vineyard, old-guard Gay Head. We were all nutcases. Good nutcases. Somebody always had a good story about someone else from way back when. No one was jealous or scornful, there were no bitter rivalries. Down-islanders, mainlanders, other yacht clubs, they were all as good as family. For that long-awaited Sunday in Gay Head, everyone was a friend, everything was allright, and we were all equals, no matter what we brung.
For about every ten zany new creations that graced the shoreline that day, there was one hale-and-hearty veteran craft. In particular, the WYRC/John G. Early Contractor and Builder entry Udder Shock, a foam-hulled catamaran skippered by the wily old Eric Ropke, had seen year after year of valiant yet unsuccessful participation. Her name derived from the twin rudders cut and painted to resemble bovine anatomy. The John Early crewmembers were surpassed only by Molière for their highbrow humor. Shock was never an odds-on favorite, but on the line, she was an institution.
I had in my corner a strong contender. Having earned my share of victories in the Children’s class in years previous with my brave and storied sloop Day-O, winning many a free half-pepperoni/half-cheese pizza from Primo’s, entry into the Adult division meant I had to likewise up the ante. Pop and I had pored over the bandsaw for hours on end, quick-set epoxy and Elmer’s wood glue crusted on our fingers, pink styrofoam dust in our scalps, as we created my new craft. She would be christened Triumph. A sloop-rigged trimaran of exactly 1 meter LOA, her triple-layered polystyrene hulls sealed and honed to a fine sheen with clear epoxy, her top decks finished in matte black Rust-Oleum, her sails made of lightweight mylar, she would be a force to be reckoned with on the Pond.
Triumph’s maiden voyage in 1995 was less than spectacular. First-revision bugs in the system led her left, right, even in reverse, and out to the middle of the pond in various heats, at the mercy of the chase boat. A meager fourth-place final standing was all I could muster in her first year; not even good enough for the free sundae at Cozy’s. I had to improve if I was to uphold my reputation. I’d gained real piloting skills from the renowned sailor Charlie Shipway over recent summers, and my knowledge of points of sail and seamanship were harpoon-sharp. I meticulously analyzed Triumph’s behavior under all sorts of conditions, tweaking the set of her sails, the angle of her rudders, and the weight of her ballast. Every so often, she summoned the power of fire and brimstone, tearing like a mad Rottweiler from my hand, toward first-mate Jesse’s waiting grasp. Any victory I enjoyed was shared with him, my perennial sidekick. As the race seasons passed and Triumph improved steadily, we would test and re-test there in the reeds of Red Beach’s shallows, until we were sure she was ready. In that year of 2000, we were prepared to accept all comers. Triumph was going to live up to her namesake.
We would be on a stiff beam reach that day, my favorite point of sail. Triumph was at her best there, her three hulls cleaving the spitting waters as her red and yellow sails filled and threw her forward on a vicious frothing streak. The damp mid-autumn air tumbled over the dunes and smacked the water’s surface. The souls gathered along the great long finger of road to Red Beach, pickup beds displaying proud efforts. The Old Man was hard at work with the other race officials, dividing every entrant into one heat or another. Participants strolled the russet shoreline, playfully inspecting their competition. Some donned waders to ward off the sting of the seaweed-clogged blue. Herbie sat at the registration table down on the sand, handing out the number decals. Triumph was Number Eight.
Electricity was in the air now. Chief Rich was downshore with The Gun, ear to his two-way radio, awaiting the first heat. Mothers sat on beach blankets on the chilly sand with coolers of sandwiches and Coca-Cola. At least twenty stories about the ‘70s had already been told. A few firecrackers went off. Nylon string was carefully wound and unwound from cleats fashioned from brass screws and eyelets—the final adjustments could make or break a heat.
For some, those last tweaks could mean the difference between a life of anonymity among the motley roster of skippers, or a legacy of eternal glory etched in shining brass. To the fastest craft across the line that day would go the prize of Line Honors, with a sizable monetary and alcoholic purse. More importantly, though, the skipper’s name and year of victory were emblazoned on a brass plaque affixed to the hallowed Commodore’s Cup. It was a beautiful wooden sloop on a stand, once owned by the late, great WYRC Commodore Gordon “Gordo” Otis. To have one’s name on The Cup was to be ordained to the highest order of reverence by Gordo, the God of Racing himself. At the commencement of every Challenge, a solemn dedication was given in his honor, every sailor and spectator knowing that Gordy would look down on us and see us through another hell of a race. I had no ambitions of my name gracing The Cup; it was the domain of the elders, the salts, the Big Boys. I was too green yet. Or was I?
Jesse and I had butterflies the size of Cessnas in our stomachs. The Star-Spangled Banner was sung, and the spectators were wound up like fastballs in anticipation. Triumph was calibrated, set, and balanced with more precision than a space vehicle rendezvous. Her mylar sails luffed loudly as she sat in her cradle, her popsicle-stick weathervane twiddling on its spindle. I imagined myself a tenth my size, working on Triumph’s decks as a one-man crew, guiding her to victory with my hand grasping the mainsheet. Yet this was no time for idle fantasy. A race was afoot.
The first scrappy heat of the Adult Monohull class stood like a jetty in the piercing waters, perpendicular to the shoreline, a great tableau of plastic, canvas, and wood stretching out into the turbid pond. Plovers and gulls swooped overhead. My Old Man stood at his official post in the parking lot overlooking the beach, bullhorn in hand. Various elder race officials encircled him, clipboards grasped in trembling and wind-seared hands, VHF radios poised for signals from the chase boats and finish line. John Early radioed to the Chief to stand by. The Old Man raised his horn.
“Skippers, ready on the line!” A pause. Nocturnal silence.
The Gun went off with a rib-punching report. The first armada of styrofoam sloops and balsawood brigs careened, meandered, and luffed their way down the course. Spectators crowded the seaweeded tidal pools of the shore while cameras clicked. A bellowing obbligato of whoops and hollers accompanied every capsizing and loss of course. Hot glue seams gave way, masts came unstepped, feathers flew, booms slapped back and forth in the fitful puffs. The race was on.
Heat after heat burned on, until finally the multi-hullians were called upon. The first heat saw Triumph turn in an intimidating performance, an easy 2nd place finish, soundly securing my slot in the elimination rounds. First-mate Jesse and I were feeling good about this year.
Then, without warning, the heretofore cooperating wind shifted ninety degrees to the east. Boats on the course went wild, unable to fill their sails with the direct headwind no matter how close-hauled they were. Good Lord, what were we going to do? The officials scrambled for a solution. Hastily, they reconfigured the course to head away from shore rather than run alongside it. Yet not only had the wind shifted, it had picked up considerably as well. The chase boats would have to be particularly on the stick, lest any rogue crafts boom on for Quitsa and the dreaded tidal currents of the Menemsha Channel. The deciding heats were on, and skippers frantically recalibrated their rudders and sheets for the severe conditions. Jesse and I staggered back and forth in the shallows, doing our level best to re-set Triumph. The Old Man advised the use of the storm jib, which we tied off and set in record time. The moment was at hand.
The tension was thick like a summer morning’s fog rolling across the beach. Teeth chattered on the line as we awaited The Gun. Eric and Udder Shock stood beside me at the ready. Her war-torn paint finish and rusty fittings spoke volumes of the battles she had fought so resiliently. Though ornery, she was swift, and under the right conditions she would be a worthy adversary. We stood, set like steel traps.
It was as if Gordo had come down from above and tied our boats to the bumper of his ‘65 Chevy Impala and gunned it. Udder Shock and Triumph tore from our grasps with an unprecedented vigor. The two had met each other’s match. Triumph never hesitated, her red and yellow sails ballooned like a blowfish and pushing her forward with all the energy of a Niagara power station. The two of us had a commanding lead over the rest of the field. As the two craft rocketed towards the finish, it became harder to tell which was in front. With time creeping onward and the two multihulled demons duking it out for glory, it appeared that Triumph had gained the upper hand. Sweet Jesus, this could be the year. Shock did not give up by any means, though. If I were to win it, it would not be by much. My Triumph had to throw down as much thrust as she could muster. Her sails were set for a close reach. Her rigging creaked and vibrated under the relentless October wind. She was a thunderbolt. This was it, the home stretch.
Then, calamity. Just on the verge of the finish line, Triumph’s storm jib burst like a truck tire under the pressure of the howling easterly wind. Gasps and moans. At the last second, she lost just enough momentum to yield the checkered flag to her arch-rival. Triumph had taken a noble second place, going down in a blaze of glory. She was taken back to shore by the chase boat, the air of a wounded solider about her, her jib shredded, decks covered in salt spray, hardened from the fiercest race she had yet seen. I was proud.
But the saga was not over. After all the prizes were handed out, every large pizza and dinner at the Home Port awarded, it came time to announce Line Honors. There were the usual inklings of past victors taking the prize; Spa Tharpe, Ridge White, the usual crowd. But this time, it would be an underdog. The Old Man read the race report. The winner, he said, had registered the fastest time across the line in the entire history of The Commodore’s Cup. Jesus God, who could it be?
“Eric Ropke and Udder Shock!”
The crowd went berserk. Jesse and I couldn’t believe it. No one could. Eric had done it. Gordo had chosen him this time around. What a way to come back after a slump. After so many years of Runner-Up, Eric had taken the highest honor he could have asked for.
Triumph had stared victory straight in the face that year like a moose in the headlights. A mere whisker of distance, a shred of mylar, and a good dose of fate had kept her from legend in the annals of the Whippoorwill Yacht and Rocket Club. Though I was happy the Cup would stay in the WYRC family that year, I was in a state of incredulous lament. We pondered what might have happened if, if, if; we knew that it was the God of Racing himself telling me to keep the faith, that you never know how the chips will fall or which way the wind will blow at Red Beach. My podium finish was hard-won and honorable. Triumph had given me everything she could that year. Gordo still had plans for me, surely.
The pickups and wagons were loaded up with another year’s bevy of brave skippers and braver craft, off to celebrate somewhere in the woods of Gay Head, drinking to the victory and tragedy, the lore and legend of the Race. The Gun would lay silent for another year, the waters of the pond would lap gently at the lobster traps and pedal boats. Summer would come and go. We nutcases had another year to add to the great storybook, another year to recall wild tales of yore, another year back in drydock. Our grand symphony of sail and mast, of anguished cries from the shallows to a runaway boat and ecstatic cheers as another one crosses the line, the choruses of father and son, of sister and brother waiting for the roar of The Gun, the ballet of hulls on the foam, the primeval duet of two crafts bow-to-bow slicing toward the line, as ever, would be back.

Postscript: In 2006, Triumph and I would go on to win Line Honors.linehonors.jpg


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