On the way home I wiped a layer of grit off my face. “What is that?” I wondered. “Am I peeling?” And then I realized I was coated in salt.
“I know, I’m a peanut,” said my new friend Cici as she pulled up in front of my place.
When I got out, I felt the passenger seat to see if it was wet. My jeans were soaked, ankle to hip, clear through to my underwear. Thanks to my Tretorn boots and sailing jacket, my feet, chest and arms were dry. But when I got home and looked in the mirror, I realized even my hair was wet – thoroughly wet – from being slapped in the face by waves.
“Are you sorry you came?” asked Captain Hope, after one really big wave washed over the cabin top and I, perched on the low side, peeking around the sail with an eye out for other boats, got walloped by it.
“Hell no,” I said. “That’s just the ocean saying, ‘Heya, Cole, nice to see ya!”
My first race
Back in March I went to an Introduction to Racing seminar at a nearby marina and I met Thelma, locally heralded as Queen of Marina del Rey. She got my email and sent me several urgent-sounding messages about joining her crew. This was long before the racing season began.
Then on a Wednesday evening two weeks ago, while walking down the Venice Beach Pier, I saw the boats leaving the harbor, all in a haphazard row like little ducklings. I had to ask myself: what am I doing on this pier and not out there? It was time to get back in touch with Thelma. She in turn hooked me up with Captain Hope and his all-girl crew: J.J., Ruby and Scout. I wasn’t the only newbie; it was also Cici’s first sail with the group.
When I first got onboard Captain Hope’s 30-foot Olson, I saw right away that this boat was not the kind of cabin cruiser I am used to. In fact, the cabin was more like a locker. When you do the math – when you realize that the 27-foot Newport my grandfather owned could easily sleep 4 and host a dinner party for 8, it tells you how lean this Olson is. You can’t stand upright down below. There are no cushions. You can’t sleep down there. And what you lose in height is obvious in the freeboard: she sits so low in the water I could easily put my hand over the side and drag it in the waves.
“The boat routinely surfs at 15 knots,” says an old promotional flier. In one forum a boater calls the Olson “extreme.” It is designed for speed. It’s a “rocket ship,” claims the flyer.
Right out of the gate
We started off hot, by sailing out of the slip. We motor-sailed up the long channel and out into the sea – where we were immediately broad-sided by huge, sloshing rollers. The waves continued at somewhere between 4-6 feet the entire time. When J.J. climbed onto the bow to attach the genoa sail, she immediately got slapped by a wave. And then another. And another. In under a minute every inch of her had been doused with sea water. I had seen her putting on her foulies and her rubber boots at the dock. “Do you really need those?” I asked.
This was, after all, Southern California in June. It was 72 degrees out. “I hate getting wet,” she replied.
When we left the marina, Captain Hope’s knot meter showed the apparent wind varying between 17-23 knots. “Is that thing accurate?” I asked.
“It runs a little high,” he replied. I had to wonder if he was adjusting for true wind, trying to calm me, or just being accurate. If it was the latter, I wondered exactly how high. Twenty knots of wind is a lot of wind to race in. Last week they called off the race somewhere around 20.
I would like to be able to tell you what the knot meter said the rest of the time we were out – but I never had a chance to look. People have always told me that one burns a lot of calories while sailing- just keeping one’s balance. I have not found this to be true. I almost always gain weight when I’m at sea. This sail was hands-down the most active two hours I’ve ever spent on the water.
The tipping point
We tacked four times on our way to the marker – a buoy set out about 2 miles in the bay. We rounded it, right on the tail of another boat and then, after some deliberation, Captain Hope and J.J. decided to raise the spinnaker.
I’ve only ever flown under a spinnaker on the 40-foot catamaran I crewed on to Baja. When you fly a spinnaker sail on monohull, you need this extra attachment to keep the sail out in front of the boat. It’s aptly called a spinnaker pole. It’s heavy, and not something to fool around with. J.J. set up the sail then mounted the spinnaker pole, and I raised it up. This worked for a little while. J.J. said the boat speed hit nine knots. Then everything changed. We decided to jibe – make one last turn into the entrance of the channel. I switched seats and began easing off on the windward sheet. Another sailor, Ruby, was bringing the line in on the low side. But I think I wasn’t letting it out fast enough and we started heeling way too far over.
“Dump the sail!” cried Captain Hope. At some point I looked down, and Cici was in the water. I mean, HER WHOLE BODY WAS IN THE WATER.
I don’t even know how I was holding on. Gravity wanted me off the boat. There was so much strain on the line that even when I removed it from the cam cleat, it still didn’t release. On the starboard side of the boat, Ruby had a tough time releasing her sheet because Scout was standing on it. With the rudder clean out of the water, Captain Hope had no steerage. Finally, the spinnaker flew wildly out in front of us, the line I had let go was flying free out over the water. The boat righted itself. This may have transpired in less than 30 seconds. It felt that fast.
Then we were on our way again, Captain Hope seemingly unfazed, but J.J. and Scout looking a little ruffled.
“You!” J.J. said looking at me, “Help me get this sail on deck.”
Ye mariners all, as ye pass by / Come in and drink if you are dry
Back at the club, I ordered a whiskey, neat. It impressed the bartender and Ruby’s husband, who also races but on another boat.
“I needed something to warm me up,” I said, “a cold beer just wasn’t going to do the trick.”
We scarfed down pizza and rehashed the course of events. “Truthfully, how close were we to capsizing?” Scout asked Captain Hope.
“Not close,” he said.
“But Cici was off the boat,” countered Scout, clearly jarred by that moment when she, too, looked down and saw Cici underwater.
“Nah,” said the Captain without a shred of doubt or anxiety, “she was clearly inside the safety lines.”
On the way home, Cici said she had called her father, who she grew up racing Hobies with in Chicago. “Did you tell him you were nearly washed overboard?” I asked.
“I told him it was exhilarating.”