Persistence - Water Dancer and her Captain race for the first time

This year has held a lot of firsts for me. I built my home built boat. I went to my first messabout. I taught my son to fish from a boat, to row, and some basic sailing. I trailered a boat halfway across the country with my friend Steve and my son Vaughan to race in the PD Worlds, and I'd never raced a sailboat before.

We launched the Dancer the day before the races and with some help from Steve we were able to better balance my sail which allowed me to tack and come to windward. The wind on the lake was strong! It was mostly steady, but there were some pretty good gusts. Maybe it was because I didn't know any better but I was having the time of my life. My local lake doesn't have great wind, and even when we have wind it tends to be fluky. I took Vaughan out and we were bombing up and down the beach having a great time, we buried the bow a couple of time, the splash guard we put on actually did it's job for the first time ever. Dancer was running like she had a bone in her teeth and finally, finally, Vaughan understood what sailing was about. We came back to the beach and let Steve take her out. He shared the driving so I figure we should share the boat. Steve is a much more experienced sailor than I am and when he came back in he said Dancer was capable, and nimble. It's fun to hear nice things about your boat. He wasn't fond on the Payson Eyes I used for my rudder (and neither am I) and suggested switching them out for better control. He also bound up about 4-5 inches of sail on my clew to better balance the sail. Looking around at the other lugs I can see I didn't do a really good job with mine. Every other one I saw had a higher aspect on the peak and their boom was higher. My sail works, but it could be a lot better. It didn't matter though, Vaughan and I went back out and had a great time reaching up and down the beach. As I understand it some people didn't go out because they thought it was too windy/gusty for un-reefed sails. Like I said, we went out anyway… mostly because we didn't know any better.

Race day dawned, we had breakfast and made our way to the beach for the captains meeting. I rigged the boat and then went back up to the car and put on Samurai garb, including bamboo hat and wooden practice swords. Someone once told me never pass up a chance to be eccentric and I figure if you can't be eccentric at the PD Racer worlds then where can you be? So I made my way back to the beach and the captains meeting. I was by far the most eccentric captain there, if I do say so myself. I was feeling good, I was excited, and so was Vaughan. I don't know if anyone else in the history of the worlds has had a crew on their duck but I did. Well… I did for the first race. Is that a PD Racer history maker? I don't know but it would be cool if it was.

Never having raced before I paid close attention to the rules and to the flags, I didn't want to foul things up. My first mate dug holes in the sand and sort of listened, sometimes. After everything was explained I noted that no mention was made of it being illegal to board other boats during the race and asked. It was agreed that I should probably stay in my own boat.

Vaughan and I launched and made our way out to the start line. He was in charge of the main sheet and I was at the helm. We did little circles in the area where everyone else was doing little circles and tried to avoid hitting anyone as we waited for the start flag. We seemed to be sailing pretty good, our spirits were high and our possibilities endless. The horn sounded, the flag went up, and we couldn't get across the start line. We made a couple of runs at it but couldn't get across. We turned around and tried a fourth time and finally got across and headed for the first buoy. I would just like to say that I hate the first buoy. It wasn't my friend, and it turned out to be a really difficult mark to hit. All day, in every race.

Anyway we were making for the first buoy and our rookie sailing skills were showing. I kept trying to head directly for the buoy and we couldn't point that high. Noting this and watching the other boats we sailed into the tree stumps and attempted a series of tacks, just like everyone else was doing… only no matter where we pointed our bow we seemed to be in irons. It was frustrating.

Eventually we made around the first buoy and had no problem with the second and third. We didn't even get lapped. As we made our way around the third buoy we saw we were dead last and that the last three boats were rounding that first buoy. We pulled even with the buoy no problem but again we couldn't seem to get around it. After what seemed a very long time we finally rounded it, made our way down the beach and crossed the finish line. We had done it… we had finished our first race! Woo Hoo. Everyone headed back to the boat palace for lunch including us.

The Second heat was right after lunch and so we headed back to the beach. Vaughan elected to sit this one (and the last one) out. He being eleven, and there being other kids playing in the water he decided it would be better if he were to handle things on shore. So I launched solo and went to make little circles near the start line again. The horn sounded the flag went up and I didn't have near the trouble that I did the first race getting over the line. YES! I WAS RACING! I was racing till I got over in those tree stumps again. The wind shifted over by that buoy. That's my story and I'm sticking to it. I had a real hard time getting round that buoy again, harder than in the first race. Nothing and I do mean nothing I did seemed to work. I pointed my boat like the other boats I could see and while they sailed along I went into irons. I was lapped. I was lapped by a few boats, and then I made it round. As before I had no problem reaching down the beach, or running downwind to the third buoy/start line, but as soon as I made for the first buoy again I lost all momentum. This was very very frustrating. So unlike the first race I didn't point for the buoy but a point much higher and I went way past it before coming round to make what I thought should be maybe two tacks to get round. Everyone else crossed the finish line. I tacked something like six times before finally getting round and heading to the finish. I was tired but I had done it again, I had finished the race.

I pulled up on the beach and Steve was waiting for me. I pulled down the sail and pulled out the mast. My windsock was fouling my lines and I wanted to take it off. Steve observed that I was pulling my sail in to far on that leg to the first buoy. He explained it was a rookie mistake that many people have made. He was trying to be nice. I told him I didn't have any ego where my sailing skills are involved, nor in the tuning of my boat. I was open to any and all observations and advice and I would certainly try it all out. While pulling the streamers from my windsock out of the lines (about 2 min after I finished the race) the five minute warning horn for the last race sounded. I cursed. Steve kept explaining how to best search for the wind no matter which way I pointed my bow. I was tired. I was thirsty. The four minute warning horn sounded. I re-rigged my sail, stepped the mast and Steve threw me a couple bottles of water as I shoved off again.

Downwind to the start line… no problem. I'm good downwind, but I think the wind has died down some because I'm not moving as fast as I was earlier in the day. Intently watching the flags I made my way toward the committee boat and the start line. I might make it. The start horn sounded, the flag went up and I was not quite at the start. When l launched I waited until I was almost waist deep before jumping in the Dancer, and so I had a bit of water in the cockpit. Normally I don't think this would have been a problem, but I was tired, sore, thirsty, and had had no break between this heat and the last, so sitting the puddle was working on my nerves. I rounded the start line buoy and pointed for that deleted expletive first buoy. I went into irons. I pointed more to the right let the sail out and low and behold it filled. I was off. I went straight for the stumps. I went through the stumps. I went well (and I do mean well) past the buoy and I tacked. I turned right into irons. I tried a series of tacks and seemed to be going nowhere. I was lapped. I kept making for the buoy. I was lapped some more. I passed a chase boat and received some encouragement from the crew. I was lapped by the rest of the field. A couple of the other captains offered some advice as they passed and I took it, and I used it. I played with my downhaul, I pointed a little lower, I looked for the wind. I found it. I rounded the buoy as the last of the rest of the field finished the race.

I reached across the beach and to the second buoy/finish line. I gave everyone the thumbs up, rounded the buoy and went downwind. I was not going to give up. I was going to finish this race. I rounded the third buoy and passed the committee boat. I affirmed that I was going to finish and got a lot of thumbs up and encouraging shouts. I didn't point to at that dreaded first buoy. I just ran with the wind to the tree stumps and made to tack. I pushed the tiller over and kept going strait. I pulled a bit and pushed again and the rudder went diagonal and then came up parallel to the water. The lower eye on my rudder had failed and I had no way to turn. I do believe I cursed. Then I looked at the rudder and asked… "really? On the last turn of the last leg of the last race…? Really?" I let go the sheet to the wind. Leaning over the transom I could see the eye was still on the bar running through it. Hurrah for cotter pins! I pulled the rudder into the boat. I carefully removed the pin and pulled up the bar with one hand as I held the eye with the other. I put the eye in the cockpit and pulled in the rest of the rudder. I looked at the hole the eye made when it tore out. I picked up the eye and moved it to the top of the crack above the hole it made when it tore out and I began to screw it back in. It didn't want to start. I laughed. I pushed down HARD and turned. It bit. I put the bar through the hole and used it to screw it back in as far as it would go. With the utmost care not to drop anything I put the rudder head back on the transom. I shoved my rudder back down making sure it was bungeed in. I don't know how long this took but it seemed a loooong time to me. I had drifted pretty far. I grabbed the line for my mainsheet and pulled it in. The sail filled, I started moving and I tacked. I pointed my nose to that awful, hateful buoy and slowly made my way towards it. A chase boat came out to meet me and asked if I wanted a tow. I politely declined saying I was going to finish the race. He said something about my stubbornness and Navy "Can Do" attitude while shaking his head as he came about and headed back in. (We had talked earlier in the day and I had said I was fairly stubborn and it might have something to do with 20 years of Navy "Can Do" attitude that says you always finish what you start.)

It seems to me that I must have tacked into irons a dozen times trying to get to that buoy, but I did it. I finally reached the buoy and finally made it round. Just a reach down the beach and I was finished. The wind had diminished through the day and that reach seemed so very long, I don't remember it being that long before. Most of the others were gone, I had been out there a ridiculously long time, I'm not even sure that a lot of people realized I was still racing. Eventually I came across the line and someone blew the horn for me. I did it. I finished. I finished all three races. Steve was there with a good word, and Vaughan took the bowline and pulled the dancer into shore.

I was beat. My hands were sore, my back hurt, my butt hurt (I'm recovering from a tailbone injury), I was thirsty, and my lips were chapped, but I finished the race, and it felt good.

At least three people made a point of seeking me out and telling me that they could see an improvement in my sailing from the first race to the third. John Welsford found me back at the boat palace and told me I shouldn't be embarrassed by my performance. He said to me that I should be proud of the accomplishment, that I was one of those less than 1% of people who "get it", those people who built their own boats and then actually get them on the water. I wasn't embarrassed at all, I was proud. There were others who couldn't get past the start, and there were some who didn't finish at all. I think I did all right for my first time, in my first boat, with my first sail, but it was very cool of him to say so.

Vaughan and I won a sail kit from Dave Grey at Polysail International to help us out for next year and we got a stuffed duck for a trophy. Most importantly we got to race together and "we" finished against all the odds. Later I was told that the folks on the beach had had a meeting while I was still out on the water and they decided I should rename my duck… Persistence.

Dancer, Vaughan, and I will see you all next year and with our new sail, improved skills, and boundless enthusiasm. We're bound to be in the middle of the pack, however I think maybe I can improve the odds if I ignore that "no boarding" rule. =)