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Reflections on a life afloat: My first 'round the world trip on a wire

by David Schmidt 11 Aug 2020 16:00 BST August 11, 2020
International 14 Gallon Trophy at Itchenor © Tillie Rose-Brown

As a first-year junior sailor, I had a weird and irrational fear of capsizing dinghies during sailing lessons. Looking back on this now, I've come to realize that there were likely two fears afoot—losing control and not really knowing what might want to nibble on my toes in Long Island Sound's always-murky waters (this was the mid-to-late 1980s, when Long Island Sound was appreciably dirtier than it is now).

Part of the problem was the equipment. I was sailing club-owned Blue Jays at the time, and while we were grateful to have the platforms, there was no disguising the fact that these were old, wooden boats that spent large portions of the summer semi-water-logged. Flip one of these over in a breeze, and it would take the whole crew, plus sometimes an instructor, to get her back on her lines again.

I'd watch the older—and way cooler—Laser sailors flip their rides with abandon. I'd also note with jealousy that they were often able to casually right their boats in a handful of seconds. From my perch on a Blue Jay that was several times older than I was (circa age 10), capsizing a Laser looked like a trivial inconvenience that registered more in terms of racecourse tactics than in any perception of danger.

While I wasn't a big fan swimming in Long Island Sound, I was a huge fan of sailing, and of racing, and I wanted to improve. Plus, I idolized my instructors and often felt far more camaraderie with my junior-sailing friends than I did my classmates at school. After all, the subject matter was far more interesting.

The solution, I decided, was to save up my money doing yard work and buy myself a Laser. After many hours of manual labor spread over two school years, I scraped together enough coin to buy a new-to-me Laser. I was thrilled, but I was also several years and about 25 pounds too light for the boat.

Capsizes happened, but on Long Island Sound's typically calm summer days it wasn't an issue to get my daggerboard pointing downwards and the sail perpendicular to the water again.

The conundrum, of course, was that I had tasted the speed difference of my Laser in moderate airs, and I had run hot laps around the old Blue Jays that I used to sail. To say I was obsessed with my new purchase and the performance gains that it offered is akin to saying that the average contemporary high-school student is interested in their smartphone. But to experience the thrills that the Bruce Kirby design could deliver meant that I needed to sail in bigger air than I was strong or heavy enough to control.

Then, one day in mid-August, as sailing season was winding down and the back-to-school date was looming large on my calendar, an "older" guy (he was likely in his mid-to-late-20s) stopped by the YC to chat up my instructors about One Design 14s. I don't remember the details exactly, but I'm pretty sure that he was repping boats. Regardless, he was interested in recruiting some of our instructors and a few junior sailors to check out the boats. My hand shot into the air. My instructors, realizing that I had the sailing bug something fierce, reluctantly took me along (likely to preemptively stop my begging, but that's a different story).

While details are a bit thin (George H.W. Bush was enjoying the early years of his presidency, to help place this in historical context), I just remember it being really windy on the big day, I think as a result of a tropical storm or low-grade hurricane that had recently glanced the East Coast. The breeze was—and had been—blowing out of the East for a few days, creating a long fetch for seas to build up. Donning my life jacket and looking at the 14-foot rocket ship temporarily snapped me back to my fear of capsizing Blue Jays.

Todd, my instructor, seemed to sense this and gave me a smile and said that we were going to have a blast. He wasn't wrong. But first he had to explain how to use a trapeze and how to most effectively use my weight to help keep us flat. His confidence was infectious, and soon we were out, blasting around the Sound at speeds that my Laser (at least with me at the helm) couldn't begin to touch.

Perhaps my second clearest memory of the day was when the coach boat, an old Boston Whaler, pulled alongside as we were blast reaching. After exchanging salutations, Todd, who was driving, started racing the Whaler. It was no contest—the underpowered, club-owned Whaler couldn't compete. That was eye-opening, to say the least, as was the rooster tail that was pluming behind our stern.

I was utterly hooked.

But my clearest memory unfurled a short while later, when Todd called for the kite. As soon as it reached full hoist, my idea of boatspeed was instantly redefined. The rooster tail increased, as did my face-splitting smile.

I could tell that Todd (a very talented Laser sailor) was working hard not to stuff the bow into a wave, given our speeds. He was doing an impressively good job of things, truly, but then the inevitable happened.

I just remember my feet departing the rail, and the feeling of centrifugal force as I was lifted up and uncontrollably whipped forward. The headstay arrived far faster than I would have liked, as did the kite's leeward side. Then, of course, the rig rotated 80-90 degrees, as did the foils and hull. While I was in no danger, nor was I injured (aside from a badly bruised ego), it was disorienting to detach myself from the wire while swimming. Fortunately, I only swallowed a tiny percentage of Long Island Sound in the process.

We got the boat back up and on her feet, and we re-sorted all of our tangled lines and sails. Then we were back up and running (but with the kite safely stowed), kicking up big rooster tails as we ripped along. I learned to keep a better stance while hanging from the wire, and we managed to keep the boat upright for the rest of our test sail.

While One Design 14s never really caught on in Long Island Sound during my tenure as a junior sailor, the day—and my first "round the world" trip—cured me of any lingering fears of capsizing. And this, of course, had a huge and immensely positive impact on my Laser sailing.

In fact, a few weeks later, the Sound was experiencing similar blustery conditions. So, I loaded my sailing gear into my backpack, hopped on my trusty bicycle, and pedaled the 30 minutes down to the YC after school. I went swimming a lot that day, but I can't say that I spent any time fretting about death rolling or lurking critters. Instead, I only cared about making my foils hum as loudly as possible and learning to really push my limits on the boat.

Looking back on this now, many moons later, I can't thank Todd and the guy repping the One Design 14s enough for helping to open my eyes to the joys of high-performance, high-speed sailing.

May the four winds blow you safely home.

David Schmidt
Sail-World.com North American Editor

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