The Race

By Tom Neale, 1/6/2011


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We just passed through a decade, and as usual we celebrated it on the water, although we had left the boat to spend the evening with some friends in a house on a beach of the Atlantic Ocean. Changing decades was an awesome event, but it reminded me of an even more awesome event. What seems like only a short while ago we changed centuries. Then, too, we were on a beach. We’d left “Chez Nous” at anchor and come in to Staniel Cay in the dinghy. The Cay was, of course, surrounded by beaches with the Exuma Sound (for many practical purposes a part of the Atlantic) to the east and the Great Bahamas Banks to the west.

These banks are incredible. They’re shallow with sand shoals, small islands and lots of coral. But there are passages through the shoals, the coral is beautiful (as long as it’s not crunching through your hull) and it’s the home for fish and lobster. And to top it off, the water is usually so clear you can stand on your deck when the light is right and see the details of the bottom 20, 30 or sometimes more feet below.

Racing in the Bahamas
Our beach for this event was to the west, overlooking the banks. This was also where the village lay, with the Staniel Cay Yacht Club rocking at one end, as was Happy People, at the other end of the beach. Many old friends were there, and as is true of most cruising hangouts, many friends were yet to be made. I sat on a rock overlooking the banks with some friends I’d known for a very long time. We’d all sailed for years over those banks and in the surrounding ocean waters. We were having a hard time believing that the next day the year would start with a “20”. We wondered if we were getting old. But we felt very special to have been on the sea for those years, and to be looking out now at the banks that were among our favorite waters. But we were also looking forward…to the next day.

At this island, like many others, folks for years have celebrated New Years Day with sailing races, including both cruising and island boats. The starting time was never too early, because that might have interfered with the ending time of the parties the night before. Whatever the schedule, it didn’t matter. That’s what the shotgun was for. If everyone knew what time the race was really starting, there wouldn’t be any need to shoot one. They were a little short on cannons in the Bahamas (at least so we were told), but there was almost always a village shotgun used for shooting pigs and goats on other islands. Shotguns have many advantages over cannons anyway. In the first place, the boats upwind who can’t hear the gun go off can always see the sea gulls falling. In the second place, there would probably be a lot more than sea gulls falling if they were shooting cannons on New Year’s Day.

At that island the “Lady M” was the boat to beat. She was known as one of the finest boats in the Bahamas. Most Out Islanders will tell you that they have one of the finest boats anywhere at their particular village, but we were at Staniel Cay and she was the boat to beat in those waters. Built of timbers from nearby islands, she was a beauty to behold. This year she was unseemingly beautiful. Like many authentic boats, it seems that the seams in the “Lady M” were breaking island tradition of never working too hard because they were working very hard. And this has a lot to do with being able to float, which comes in handy in a boat. On occasion she had a problem with doing it long enough to finish the race. That’s why there was a general understanding that the race won’t last any longer than the “Lady M” can float. It’s true that bailing could prolong a race, but who wants to work when you’re having fun? That thought was so unsettling that a lot of folks had gotten together and replanked her the preceding spring, which meant that this New Year’s race was maybe going to last a week.

Crewing on the “Lady M,” or any Bahamian sailing boat, is something to cherish forever. There are plenty of sand bags and chunks of lead down in the bilge, but the pries are the things that keep the boat upright and the crew uptight. You run these long planks out on the high side and as many people as possible scramble out them. The question of how close you come to the upwind boat before you veer off has a lot to do with how many of the people on the pries bought beer for the man at the helm. Grinding winches on fancy yachts is pretty tame when compared to what you have to do when jibing or coming about on an island racing boat. You scramble off the pries, pull them in, run them out the other side, and scramble back out again. If, as has been known to happen, the helmsman forgets to yell his intentions, or changes his intentions (or forgets his intentions) you’ve got a lot of people sluicing through the water holding on for dear life to the pries which start steering the boat around in a circle for a jibe that is sure to be just a little exciting—or maybe even a more exciting capsize.

You want the heaviest people farthest out on the pries. This makes for greater stability as the wind comes up, and for wetter people when the wind suddenly drops. A gusty day has everybody slinging up and down like a bunch of kids on one sided see saws. Lots of wind means lots of sand bags and lots of people on the pries. Light wind means not much of either. When the wind changes its mind and goes from heavy to light it’s “no problem, Mon.” You throw some of the bags overboard along with some of the crew.

Collisions occur rarely and usually only among folks who are taking things too seriously or who can’t see the other boat because of the beer can in front of the face. Seldom if ever did anybody collide with the “Lady M.” She was usually out there ahead of everybody else, although a few sullied souls occasionally suggested that she was really that far behind. When you race on New Year’s Day in the Out Islands, being out front isn’t all that big a deal unless you know for sure which way is “out front”-- and even then, there may be differences of opinion on the subject. Getting overly uptight about details like that was not a part of what it was all about. And although everybody wanted their boat to win, everybody knew there was far more to it than that. After the race, with beer and rum flowing, there was plenty of kidding about, but no gloating and no protests.

I particularly remember the “speech” of the winning captain---the captain of the “Lady M”---of course. His comments were timeless, and the attitude is a part of what’s gotten us through another decade. He said on the first day of this Millennium, “I don’t wanna make speeches about who won the race. That wasn’t the important race. We’re all out here together in the only race that’s really important--- the Human Race.”

Tom’s Tips About Racing

1. I’ve done very little racing for sport, but a lot of racing to escape storms, time an inlet right, pass through a reef while the light is still good and for a lot of other reasons. I’ve seen too many boats and people come to premature ends because they lost that sort of race.
2. I admire those who can tweak everything there is about their boat to make it go as fast as it can on the wind. It’s a skill and an art that transcends the years.

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