Confessions of Rail Meat

I’m in the Princess Juliana Airport in St. Maarten. It’s Monday afternoon and my flight to Newark is delayed three hours. Coming AND going, my experiences with airlines this trip have been less than stellar: Jet Blue lost my baggage on the way down and now this. I’m hopeful I’ll still make my connection to Boston although I’m kinda skeptical.

The view from the airport terminal makes up for the inconvenience somewhat: on the far side of the lone runway, the light-green-and-teal-blue waters of Simpson Bay taper to the darker blue of the Caribbean Sea, and all the water is capped by the snow white of wind-blown waves. Yes, Roman Abramovich’s obscenely large motor yacht (and Luna is Roman’s small boat) lying at anchor mars the Simpson Bay scenery somewhat, but the fact remains that it’s still paradise outside the airport terminal.

I’m leaving paradise after three days of racing in the Heineken St. Maarten Regatta. It was an interesting, entertaining weekend, despite our boat’s poor showing. We were DFL, although one (or two, I forget which) boat in our class retired. And the boat that finished just ahead of us failed to round the farthest-out marks in Friday’s course; had that boat been disqualified or done the honorable thing and retired from that race, we’d have finished another spot higher. No matter. It was a fun weekend of racing, partying and getting sunburned; I’m quite sure I’ll be back for this event again someday.

My job aboard Lady Ann was actually a variety of jobs. I was responsible for the port side running backstay. What that means is that I was in charge of sheeting in and letting out the block-and-tackle system that extends from the left-rear corner of the boat to the top of the mast. There’s a similar arrangement on the right (starboard) side too, and the systems alternate depending on which tack the boat is on (which side of the boat the wind is coming over) in order to help stabilize the mast and rigging.

Whenever we would switch from a starboard tack (the wind coming over the right side of the boat) to a port tack, I’d crank in the backstay as soon as the front of the boat passed through the wind. Going the other way, I’d loosen the backstay when we went from a port tack (wind coming over the left side) to a starboard tack, and pull the whole pulley-and-cable system forward of the sail and secure it to a cleat on the deck.

Once the running backstays were set, I’d hustle to the windward side of the boat and plop my ass down on the rail, alongside everyone else on the crew who wasn’t steering the boat or trimming the main sail.

In other words: my role was largely to get my ample body weight to the windward side in an effort to prevent the boat from heeling over too far. So my principle assets for crewing this weekend are one, my aforementioned size, and two, my ability to move that rotundity quickly and smoothly around the boat.

I’m exaggerating a bit, of course. I did a lot more than just crank in and out on a winch and serve as ballast. Given my strength and size, I wound up doing a lot of the chores that others in the crew (two 60-something Dutchmen, one 40-year-old Dutchman, and one small Scottish woman) couldn’t do: hoisting heavy sails and anchors; controlling things on the heaving, wet foredeck of the boat; moving heavy things such as anchors around; etc.

The other members of the crew were trimming sails using electric winches since the forces involved were too much for them to be able to do much else. This was my first time on a boat with electric winches and I have to say: they’re a pretty nice feature. I’ve never been interested in them personally but it sure was nice to hoist a mainsail or crank in on a wind-filled headsail with just the push of a button. I’ll have to think about an electric winch (just one) on board my boat-of-the-future if only to raise the mainsail quickly when I’m out there on my own.

So once again my sailing experience was broadened largely through osmosis: watching Boogie and Marlies and how they managed the myriad different tasks required to run a boat. The next step really is to do more helming and sail trimming, and that can really only be done on my own boat, since anyone else I crew for is going to put me to work on brute-force chores rather than on tasks requiring finesse and judgment. It’s that age-old quandary: how do you get the job? By having experience. And how do you get experience? By having the job.

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