In the grip of a strange racing fever

August 2021

By Tom Dudley
For Points East

Author Tom Dudley’s Electra 22 Right On heeled over in a brisk breeze. The boat was used in his first race off Portsmouth, N.H. in a thick fog. Photo courtesy Dudley Dudley

This posthumously published feature is the third in a series of lively, often wry, reminiscences to be published in Points East over the coming months. Thomas Minot Dudley, of Durham, N.H., died at the age of 83 the day after Christmas 2013. Tom’s wife, Dudley Webster Dudley, believes he would have wanted to share his distinctly New England memories (with some Caribbean ones thrown in) with Points East readers. His last article, “Maine Chartering: Nobody Got Hurt,” appeared in the July 2021 issue.

Racing sailboats persists as a pastime for some, because, I think, of the diverse demands it makes. All at once, mind, body and spirit are absorbed in a costly, infuriating, exhausting, frustrating, heart-breaking, boring, passionate, gorgeous, exhilarating, useless, fascinating venture, of uncertain outcome and in a very hostile environment.

Our seawater temperatures in New Hampshire and Maine, May through October, run about 50 to 60 degrees. Squalls are common; electric storms, routine. A wood or aluminum mast forming the highest point on the entire horizon is no friend with lightning around. Wood shatters, fastenings corrode, cables break, lines chafe, sails tear, fiberglass joints separate, leaks appear, pumps fail, electronics die, bodies tire, minds bend, spirits sink.

And yet, our friend, Armi Dennett told us of his great friend who regularly raced with him in the Gulf of Mexico, off Texas, despite a propensity for seasickness, normally a disqualifier for sailboat racing. Who wants to face certain discomfort, despair, physical depletion, and total loss of any zest for life – for four hours or four weeks – to race a boat, which may only proceed at four to five mph?

During one competition, the man began having the usual convulsions, something ruptured, and he began vomiting blood, lots of it. Armi sent out distress calls, two Coast Guard stations replied, and both sent rescue vessels to their location. When the first arrived, the crewman was too weak to help himself and had to be hand carried across to the patrol boat. As he was in transit, he spoke to Armi in a little, but fierce, cry: “FINISH THE RACE!” They did, got second place after receiving credit for the time lost in the rescue, and the crewman survived to race again. Such is the utter strangeness of this fever.

Watching sailing races has been described as tantamount to watching grass grow or paint dry. For the participants, it may be just good fellowship in the sun and wind, or mortal conflict in close quarters. Some sailors have uncanny skills at gauging speed and distance; most do not. Elegant yachts suffer terribly in collision – broken spars, split bulwarks, gashed topsides, gouged decks and coach roofs, injured crewmen, and apoplectic skippers. I take a different position: Unless I see a deliberate challenge, another boat should have more room than it will ever need, racing or not. Three races lead all others in my memory and will more than suffice.

 

The first race: This was in Right On, our Pearson 221⁄2-foot Electra, in the early ’70s. I entered a race that took us into a blinding fog at the entrance to Portsmouth, N.H. Harbor, right after the start. The first objective was a buoy at the entrance to Gosport Harbor, in the Isles of Shoals. This mark sounded a bell if fog persisted there. The wind was 8-10 knots southeasterly (typical in summer), and almost directly along the compass course to the bell.

So, dead-reckoning in these conditions was a piece of cake. You merely sail close to the wind for equal time spans on each tack. Assuming constant boat speed, wind direction, and negligible current across the bearing to the bell, we should approach some part of the Isles of Shoals in about 1.5 to 1.8 hours.

The northeast limit of the islands would become obvious as the wind brought down the bitter smell of gull guano and decaying fish fragments from Duck Island. The southwest limit would be apparent from the sound of Isles of Shoals Light foghorn, on White Island, a powerful signal also enhanced by the wind direction. Finally, the wind would bring in the sound of Gosport Harbor Bell.

Following this system, and routinely tacking every 20 to 25 minutes (after an initial tack of 12 minutes), we pressed into the mist, never seeing another boat. Mind you, safety rules dictate a foghorn blast from each boat every two minutes or so, but each racer tried to maintain silence so as not to reveal his location, which might help a competitor. Except for us. We literally tooted along, looking at the watch for tacking times, and staring into the unknown in case a bow should suddenly jump out at us.

Lo and behold, after the expected 1.8 hours, we broke out into clear air and bright sun, with the Gosport Bell almost directly upwind, and without another boat in sight. This is an anxious moment: Have they all passed ahead of us, and sailed on to York Ledge, leaving us so far behind that the outcome is already guaranteed? Not so. After I rounded the bell and set our course for York, bigger, faster, better-manned boats began also to emerge from the gloom, all significantly trailing us by at least 20 minutes. At 5 knots this is almost 1.7 miles.

What had they all been doing back there? Everyone had compasses, charts, watches and sense. It was a time to exult, but not for long. Any time for exultation in a boat race is a rare moment. Things just don’t happen that fast. But emerging from the fog to see nothing on the horizon, and then soon see that all others were behind and not over the horizon ahead was just such a moment. I patted the old Electra, knowing reality would soon rear up.

The course to York was a slower point of sail, so the big sails and bigger waterlines grew bigger astern, and some finally passed us. Exultation is not fashionable today: Football players are penalized for overdoing it in the end zone; Miss America weeps into her hands. Will it ever be OK for her to high-five the M.C., raise her skirt, and can-can down the runway, then toss her bouquet to the runners-up?

 

The second race: I was to race our new sailboat, a Cal 29, Celia, in a day race off Portsmouth. When our daughter Morgan was about 16, she spent a summer working in France, living with a French family, who were wonderful to her and became long-time friends. That year, they came to visit with us, travel in the U.S., and rest up at my folks’ summer home on Lake Sunapee.

I wanted them to join the crew, and they did, though totally unfamiliar with this kind of boat. So, we spent Friday night together reviewing boat part names in French, so they could all share in the work. They introduced me to such words as manivelle (winch), coque (hull), tirer (pull), laisser (release), voiles (sails).

Saturday was perfection: sunny, warm, light winds, clear and many boats showed up for the competition. We started well, found a couple of good shifts, and finally led everyone on the last leg. They could all appreciate our progress through the fleet and were warming to the whole event.

Arsene, Mr. and Mrs. Moutard’s friend, who had joined them for the trip, had an arm as big-around as a tree, and operated the winches with astonishing ease. The father, Robert and his son Christian Moutard handled jib sheets smoothly. We finished far ahead of the fleet, and my crew all exploded with excitement and good will when the signal gun fired. Christian pulled off his windbreaker and gave it to me on the spot.

The next day we had a joint picture at the awards ceremony. To realize success is fine, but to share it with relative strangers, despite language differences and ignorance of the process, and then to include them fully in the action, was sublime.

Especially when they have cared for your child on her first venture overseas, as if she were their own. Shared joys are always the best.

The finest sailboat racing of all is in class boats, like the Stars. Each boat is planned to be identical with the others in a fleet, and even all sails may be made to the same dimensions. Then one can tell, with great accuracy, who is better or best. Luck is a factor but can be discounted over many events. Knowing tactics, wind shifts, local currents, weather forecasts, how to keep your speed to weather, optimum boat balance, efficient tacking, quick sail changes, how to round the course marks and right-of-way rules – all these are mandatory. Other skills abound become very refined.

 

The third race: This one offered a class competition of sorts – a match race, if you will, with an identical boat in a broader fleet. In 1975, I sailed this supreme race with Ken Jones, of Durham, N.H., who has been a good friend for many years. Our kids shared birthday parties when very young. I have accompanied him in three of his four boats, and once, with him in his new Tanzer 22 against another identical boat with larger headsails, which gave us some time under our local racing-handicap system.

Our opponent, with his big genoa jib, worked out a 20-minute lead going to weather on the first leg – a seemingly hopeless advantage over us. The second leg was a reach, which very gradually broadened, as I kept track of our wind. Finally, it reached a point where I was sure we could use our spinnaker, and Ken methodically set it, flawlessly, while I steered.

The lead boat ignored us, or perhaps celebrated early and kept his genoa up. He grew larger as we sped up, and we rounded the second turn together. Our momentum unbelievably carried us past him almost at once. It was a heart- stopping moment, and we squared away for the downwind run to the finish line.

His bigger spinnaker was a constant concern, but we kept our air clear, and I could hear him grumbling to his crew all the while. The boat speeds were nearly identical, even as the wind started to fail us.

Our competitor, behind us, then made a bold and very classy move, deciding to sail a longer course to the finish, at better boat speed. I tried the shorter but slower direct route. As we crossed the line, our officials fired two shots in quick sequence. I called across to the committee boat to ask which was ours, and the reply was, “The first!” We had won on both elapsed and corrected time under the handicap. I promptly jumped overboard and swam to Fort Foster, followed by Ken’s daughter, Michelle. Racing should always be that good.

The air temperature was 90 degrees and the water 61, so the upshot was my first and only experience with hypothermia, an alarming condition involving inability to regain body warmth, and disoriented thinking. But I lived to enjoy the moment when Ken strode up to receive his first-place trophy during the evening awards ceremony. It just doesn’t get better, and I will always be thankful to him for that day. Bless you, Ken.

With Right On, our Electra 22.5, our seasonal results were: Whaleback Invitational – 1967: first (Ian Bastelier owner); 1968: first (but disqualified for barging at start); 1969: first; 1970: first; 1971: fourth; 1972: third; 1973; second

Season-long standings: 1968: third; 1969: first (all races June through September); 1970: second; and with Ken in his Tanzer 22.5 in 1975: two firsts and one third. Such joy, no matter we placed!

So, bless you, sport of racing, and bless the fine crews I shared your contests with.

Sailing was Tom’s lifelong passion, spanning 74 years, beginning with his first lesson at Camp Chewonki in Wiscasset, Maine, and summers spent sailing catboats on Nantucket. From racing his Star boat Princess on Lake Sunapee with his brother Dick in the 1950s; to cruising Maine and the rest of the New England coast on his boats Viking, Right On, Celia and Wild Hunter, to offshore cruises in the North and South Atlantic, Tom cherished time spent on the water in good company.