Searching For Winds in the Waters off Breakwater

The crew of Gossip works to stay ahead of the pack during a Wednesday afternoon race at the Breakwater Yacht Club.
The crew of Gossip works to stay ahead of the pack during a Wednesday afternoon race at the Breakwater Yacht Club.
The crew of Gossip works to stay ahead of the pack during a Wednesday afternoon race at the Breakwater Yacht Club.

By Christian McLean

I am railmeat in quite possibly the slowest Wednesday Night Race in Breakwater Yacht Club’s history. We’re drifting in the current near Jimmy Buffett’s house in North Haven. Speed is zero knots. Target speed is zero knots. We are in what appears to be last place. We are the only boat that hasn’t tacked toward Marker B. There are over a dozen of us on the boat. It is boiling in the sun.

About an hour earlier, the dock at Breakwater was buzzing. Life-vested sailors palled around, lugged coolers, schlepped gear. I’d caught a ride on a zodiac out to Gossip, a J/109 owned by Steve Kenny of East Hampton. On the dingy was some of the crew: Mike Hayes and his nine-year-old son Gus. Steve’s son, Liam, 15, was at the tiller and riding the bow was Charlotte also 15. I had heard about these races for years and I envisioned tan and toned captains of industry at the helm as their ships jockeyed for position in the wind. I hadn’t expected so many teenagers. By the time we left the mooring, Gossip had seven kids ranging from nine to 16 years old, and seven adults (including my photographer and me).

We were only a few minutes under power, just past the breakwater that gives the yacht club its name, when Steve asked me if I knew anything about sailing. I believe even if I had told him I had never been on a boat before in my life he still would have invited me to take the wheel. On this boat people were encouraged to learn how to sail.

The Wednesday Night Races at Breakwater Yacht Club began in 1988 and participation ranges from five to 20 boats on any given Wednesday. Sean Elliot, Breakwater’s sailing director, quotes the club mission when asked why the races are important, “To foster interest in sailboat racing and sailing in people of all ages and to interact with the community. We encourage our young sailors to come out and participate in some very competitive races and learn what an interesting, complicated and always challenging sport sailing can be.”

The majority of boats are of the same class: J/109s, a stock, fiberglass one-design sailboat about 35 feet long with a 10 ½ foot beam. Other sailboats also participate and scoring is managed with a handicapping system in order to ensure fairness. Each boat has a rating. The J/109s are rated at 69 but other boats in the race are rated higher. Witchli, a sleek Brenta 38, has a rating of 51 and Purple Haze, a Henderson 30, held the highest in our race at 48. This means, on paper, they are faster boats and when scoring is done they will have minutes added to their time.

Gossip crewmember John Grant gives direction.
Gossip crewmember John Grant gives direction.

Steve Kenny keeps his boat simple for Breakwater races, but trades his Dakron sails in for Mylar and Kevlar for the national stage. He usually campaigns the boat for Block Island Race Week and competes in Newport. He’s been racing at Breakwater for almost 25 years.

“I’m more about the camaraderie of it all. That’s where it all started. The competition is great too, but it’s not only about the competition.” Speaking of … boats that race on Wednesday nights participate in major national races including the North American Championships, which Skoot, owned and skippered by Jim Vos, won in 2014. This isn’t your summer softball league.

On a whiteboard of the committee boat the five legs of the race had been written out. Liam scribbled it down and I looped back around, directing the boat into the wind.

When the crew raised the mainsail, the chatter started. Where’d the wind go?

It had been blowing around 15 knots earlier in the day, but now it was practically gone. The first five-minute warning blew and Liam took over at the helm. I headed to the port side rail. Tor explained the importance of roll-tacking, my new job. Five kids, Jay Payne who was a steam engine collector, and I were to hold fast until the last possible moment, then as the boat tacked, we needed to scramble across the deck to the other side of the boat in unison. This job, railmeat, as some call it, would prove incredibly important.

In heavy wind a boat tacks easily and the sails fill, but in lighter wind getting everything to line up correctly is a little more difficult. A good roll-tack uses the shift of weight from one side of the boat to the other to bring the ship around quickly. The quick change of weight helps fill the sail and provides a momentary burst of forward momentum.

The two-minute horn blew and we were in position. The laidback tone in Steve, Mike and Tor’s voices disappeared. They were calling out directions. Two degrees. Fall off. Seven boats funneled past the starting buoy. The boats were converging. This was racing. Cleo, skippered by Ray Pepi, was off our starboard bow and we were closing in. Purple Haze was off the port. Big Boat, which had won the Breakwater’s May Series, was to our stern and catching up, but we kept to our course. The wind was light and we were moving about two knots over ground. Steve read the ripples in the water. Tor was looking for signs of a breeze on shore and Liam had his eyes on the telltails.

The intensity had lightened almost as much as the wind. All other boats had tacked and I watched as their skippers put distance between them and Gossip. Steve, Mike, Tor and John Grant talked strategy. Steve later explained to me, “You’re looking at tides and what the tide is doing, but also vectors. Vectors are the directions, not just the way the tide is flowing, but the way it is going to be pushing you sideways or left or right. It’s like playing football on a moving field and the players are always changing. Nothing is ever the same.”

It became quickly apparent the other boats’ sails were luffing. The little wind they had died. Steve decided there was no reason to turn. Liam kept our heading and we stayed in the current, checking our depth as we drifting closer and closer toward an anchored Hinkley. We let the water do the work while the crew waited for a window.

The author, with cap, and fellow rail meat during a decidedly slow Wednesday night race off Sag Harbor.
The author, with cap, and fellow rail meat during a decidedly slow Wednesday night race off Sag Harbor.

Finally it was time to make a move. The young crew and I braced for our first roll-tack. Liam turned, the boom swung.

“Now,” cried Tor. We crawled, fingers and toes, across the deck and dropped ourselves on the starboard rail. The boat swung around, picking up momentum, and headed toward the first marker. We were on our way, the wind was still light, but our sails were full. Boats in the distance appeared to move backwards. A call came over the VHF radio; the committee boat shortened the race. All we had to do was round the first maker, and then make it back to the committee boat. There was talk of spinnakers. Jay Payne, who until this time had been quiet on the bow, got moving. In a frenzy on deck, the asymmetrical spinnaker was hauled and we caught what little wind was around. If we stayed on this course, we’d be heading toward the lead. Through a series of tacks (our roll-tacking was improving) we found ourselves back in the pack. Steve spotted some movement on the water and we tacked again. We started gaining speed. Big Boat followed suit. Purple Haze had already passed the first marker and was heading toward the committee boat. There was no way to catch up, but with one last tack we cut past the marker, then back around we went, heading home with a grip on second place with Witchli, Skoot, and Big Boat on our heels.

It was a race of patience. Tortoise and hare kind of stuff. Sure there was some luck, because there’s always luck in sports and sailing is no exception; but surrounded by veteran sailors who knew what to look for, who understood the boat and had an eye for vectors, we did pretty well. Far better than I had expected, when I first climbed aboard and thought I was on a high school field trip. It wasn’t easy sailing, but even a kid (or seven) could do it.