MARBLEHEAD — For more years than I care to remember, the end of July meant the arduous and necessary task of reporting on Race Week in Marblehead.
It was arduous because in the days prior to when Sailing World Magazine took it over in 1998, reporting on race week meant physically finding the way to one of the town’s three yacht clubs (Boston, Corinthian and Eastern) and tracking down one of the officials, who would dole out a bunch of papers in some heretofore undiscovered dialect with the words “results” at the top.
Nobody could make any sense out of them, and covering the event became one of the summer’s most thankless chores.
But it was necessary because our publishers at the time — the Gamage Family — were sailors. And while they were pretty much hands-off about a lot of things, they insisted on good coverage during Race Week and, in the years when the event was held, the America’s Cup. I can still remember being awoken at around 6:30 a.m. on a Sunday morning by one of our editors because the victorious America’s Cup sailor (it might even have been Ted Turner himself) made an unannounced pitstop in Marblehead and we needed to get right over there and cover it.
I’ve had stranger spur-of-the-moment assignments, but I don’t recall many.
We tried to catch up with Ted, but to no avail. However, I covered my fair share of race weeks, and, in later years, transcribed Sailing World’s press releases into newspaper-acceptable copy, without understanding a single word of any of it. So this year, now that I had time, I was going to go out on the press boat and see for myself what this regatta stuff was all about.
It was humid, somewhat hazy, but otherwise a perfect day for going out onto the water, as long as you had some facsimile of Dramamine and plenty of sunblock. Our entourage, which included photographer Spenser Hasak, took off at 11:30 Friday morning.
While we set out to find the different classes of yachts, event director Jennifer Davies explained the concept.
“The actual name of the event is the Helly Hansen National Offshore One-Design (NOOD) Regatta at Marblehead Race Week,” Davies said.
It’s kind of a mouthful, but you have to add “at Marblehead Race Week” to the end of that because even now, 20 years later, some in the town’s sailing community aren’t comfortable having an outside entity run their showcase event.
A one-design regatta means all events are organized by boat classes. J70s race together, Rhodes, Town Class, Vipers, Etchells and others stay among themselves. There is no cross-pollination. Davies explains that NOOD regattas are easier to run because boats do not have to be handicapped in a Performance Handicap Racing Fleet (PHRF) system, which makes scoring relatively simple. If all classes of boats are racing together, they have to be handicapped, much like golfers of differing abilities, based on several criteria.
This year, the hot new boat is the J70, and there are 58 of them racing off Marblehead Neck at this regatta. That’s because in two months, the international J70 championship regatta will be held here as well.
This has resulted in kind of a pig-in-a-python situation for the race. There are three separate courses (loops, really) in the harbor, and that has always been enough to accommodate all the classes of boats. However, because the J70s are so plentiful, they’ve taken up one whole loop, which means the other two have to accommodate the rest of the classes.
The launch in which we rode was skippered by Eastern Commodore Ulf Heide, who answered the first question I had as I watched sails running up and down masts on these yachts seemingly at random.
Heide explained that those colorful balloon sails (spinnakers) you see from time to time indicate that the boats are traveling downwind and can sail in a straight line. Once those spinnakers are taken down, it means the boat has turned against the wind, and cannot sail in a straight line.
“It has to tack, and turn at an angle,” says Davies.
“Whoever has to lower that sail has to do it in a hurry,” says Heide. “You probably have about five seconds to get those sails down or it could mean trouble.”
What kind of trouble? An unfortunate change in course? The wasting of precious time?
“Well, yes,” says Heide. “But most likely, you’re going to get yelled at by the skipper.”
In each race, regardless of the class, sailors have to essentially do two loops — up and back — along a course marked by buoys. A lot depends on the wind speed and wind direction (the ultimate case of “your mileage may vary”), but a race can last anywhere from 45 minutes to an hour and a half.
“We don’t want them (sailors) out too long,” said Davies. “If the wind just dies, we’ll abandon the race. We also won’t send them out in lightning. And there is a maximum knot speed where if it’s too rough, we won’t race.”
Have you ever been to a track meet, or watched one on TV, where the runners go off at the sound of the gun only to be stopped and lined up again? That’s because someone jumped the gun (that is where the expression comes from) and left early.
It very easy to start over when you’re talking about the 100-yard dash. Not so easy when you’re talking about Rhodes Class boats.
That happened Friday. There is no line, per se, except for an imaginary one set up by the judges who, themselves, are in boats. But the Rhodes Class had what looked to be a picture-perfect launch Friday only to have all the sailors stopped. They had to turn around (which involved — as you can imagine — a complicated set of sail maneuvers) and start over because a few of them went out a fraction of a second ahead of the horn.
What I got out of this is sailing, even if you’re not racing, isn’t a leisure activity. You’re forever taking sails up and down, which requires a fair amount of heavy lifting, and you don’t really get to enjoy the ambiance of a perfect day to be on the water.
In the end, I have to admit I have a new appreciation for what these people do.