Pumping Sails Ignite Chaos

Eric Newcombe describes his journey on the high seas.

Sailing is a sport that, while only the details have changed in the last 4,000 years, remains an endless labyrinth of nuances learned only by experience. And when I say experience, I think I mean mistakes. Mistakes that are one moment irrelevant and unnoticed; life-threatening the next. That is what both thrills and frightens me about sailing.

Of course, I’m no expert. The sum total of my experience was maybe 200 hours logged out west with a non-profit called Bluewater Foundation. They take inner city youth sailing in the San Francisco Bay, and their mission is to get people sailing who otherwise would not be able to- not just the groups of children, who love it- but the staff as well. Volunteering with them is how I was able to fall in love with sailing. I used to invite my roommate down the hall every week, but he always had something going on. But perhaps a seed was planted in young Alex Black. Later he moved to Long Beach and joined a yacht racing team. He invited me out for the Santa Barbara to King Harbor race the last weekend of July. Of course! Unfortunately, three days before my flight, I severed my Achilles tendon training for stunts in a parkour gym in Miami. Well, I picked up an ankle brace and some crutches- surgery could wait- there was no way I was missing this race.

The captain of O’Day 39 had been described to me beforehand as a unicorn, which I didn’t understand until I met him and saw the huge horn coming out of his head- that’s a sailor’s joke- just kidding, it’s hardly even a joke. Mike Price seemed perfectly normal to me. He was a nice guy, a young guy- younger than me by a few years- though at least a foot taller; built like a quarterback. He made high-quality sails and repairs for Ullman Sails, and the night before shipping out for the delivery most of the crew met there to examine, band, and pack all spinnakers like live ammo into their bags for instantaneous deployment during the race. I did not fully understand how they would change sails underway but was eager to find out. These boys were the youngest team in the LBYC, and they took great pride in that. They were professionals. Young Masters.

Stepping into the boat on race day, as a layman, I felt apprehensive. For even tied up in its slip and slumber, wavering slightly with the rising tide, the boat was a monster. Or it was our horse as we chased down a monster. As my foot left the solid earth, I knew I was in for an adventure, danger, and the possibility of attaining greatness.
Rigging up the boat that morning seemed very complicated to me. There are no ropes on a boat, only lines, sheets, halyards, main sheets, and jib sheets, for guys, after guys, on and on, on wenches and grinders, cleats, cams, cars, leech, luff… get a clew. There was a lot of commotion. “Dude, you’re outside the lifelines.” Reroute. “You gotta be outside the shrouds, under the afterguy.” “Through the cars, but over the spinnaker halyard.” They routed and rerouted. Meanwhile, others hoisted Mike in a rock climbing harness to the top of the mast to attach an LED light to the windex. It was an anticipated 30-hour race for our fleet.

The swarm and frenzy of sailboats before a yacht race is a true spectacle; boats, like atoms, weaving concentric circles within a confined space. They have timed horns, designating different heats and fleets. Five minutes till; two minutes till; one minute till; go time! All these synced watches, and boats circling in such a way that when your starting horn is blown, you cross the start pin, not a second sooner or a second later. “Eight boat lengths to the pin!” “Thirty seconds to start!” It’s tense. We blew through the starting line head to head with their heaviest contender and remained side by side for forty minutes. Then we made trees on ‘em. ‘Making trees’ comes from eyeballing how you’re doing speed wise compared to another boat. I guess it didn’t make sense here because you use it when you can’t tell, but now it is such a figure of speech for pulling ahead that it does make sense. Does that make sense? If trees are passing in front of the boat, you’re taking them. If trees are passing behind their boat, they’re taking you. So they all say, “Making trees.” And Alex, who had coined the term “Making trees like an Indonesian Teak Farm,” finally found fertile soil cause Z-dance and Stephan, two engineers who came with Mike’s English friend Bas, loved it and it became the official phrase of the race. And we did. We made trees like an Indonesian teak farm. We buried them.

We crushed all day, peeling and blowing up spinnakers. Mike pointed, “See how our spinnakers all have the same design? That’s so other boats have a hard time seeing what size or shape we’re using as we pull further and further ahead of them.” Code zero, A2, A3, peeling and pulling. Guerilla racing. Mike called commands from the helm; the crew manifested them in a snap. Perfect synchronicity. It was no games with Mike on race day. Perhaps at times, he was abrasive, but what winner can be carved from the muck without the salt and sting of grit? They told me a story about how a boat had nearly collided with them, and the other skipper shouted angrily “Watch where you’re going!” Mike shouted back, “You watch where I’m going!” At that, he turned to me and said, “We had the right of way.”

They let me grind for the guy on the spin sheet. That was the extent of the responsibility I was allotted and to that, I gave my all. The Peacemaker team had made a perfect run all day, not one slip up, and their gargantuan lead over all boats in their class testified as much. We had rounded Anacapa Island, which looked like Mars- a red planet with no discernable life- and launched explosively out of the island’s wind shadow, watching the other sails disappear into the horizon behind us. We were even starting to pass boats in other fleets. The Peacemaker team did not loaf sail. They everything in their power literally, despite that it was constant work with no visible result, to shave seconds off their time. Even pumping the mainsail, which I’d never heard of or seen, where you hook up a webbing strap to the boom, and right in the vortex of a swell, you yank the webbing with everything you got like a surfer paddling to catch the wave, and when done right, you ride the wave boosted. This would produce a humming sound, and everyone would get psyched and cheer because it meant the boat was pushing high speed. We were holding the 10’s, 11’s, and we topped out at 12.5.

They said pumping the mainsail might earn you a boat length every dozen successful pumps. All in baby! Everything for the glory. After a few guys, I had a turn pumping the main. It was a little tricky with my severed tendon but I made it work. After a while, Mike said to hold off on the pumping for a minute. I wanted to easily grab the webbing again and not let it drag in the water, so I tied it to the lifeline in a very loose slipknot. We’d been on a port tack for hours with no plan on changing. If something happened it would shake the slip, right? Alex and Joey went down below to start cooking up dinner for everyone as the sun was setting. I looked down to see that a bee had landed there on the boat between my feet. I thought, “Wow, you’re a long way from the home bud unless you live on the boat.” I didn’t hear the little ping sound then, but I did hear Mike say, “What the hell was that?” And a second later he commanded, “Drop the kite! I’ve lost steering, drop the kite now!”
Everyone burst into action. I remember hearing someone yell, “Drop the kite, drop the kite! Wait, what’s the first thing we gotta do?” And with that, the wind forcefully jibed the boat. I was still right there on the rail and ducking, I shouted, “Look out, here comes the boom! Jib Ho!” and it went swinging with tens of thousands of pounds of pressure. The kind that kills you, no questions asked. People ducked, cleared, BOOM! But what? -The boom snagged on my little slipknot to the lifeline! It cinched impossibly tight into itself. Unnaturally the boat lifted and heeled almost totally sidewise. Things went sliding, banging; there were chips, water bottles, cans, lines, people. I tried to yank the slipknot but the pressure backing it was insane. It was like one of those bad dreams when you try to punch someone, but you’re absurdly powerless.

“Cut that line!” Mike yelled over the chaos. Someone crawled up with a blade and started slashing, but the pressure did not yield immediately. This time, no one thought to yell “duck,” as Drew was pulling the spin sheet from the cockpit, fighting down the raging spinnaker. Suddenly the webbing blew like an explosion, and the boom went flying again in pure, unmerciful force. Somehow Drew’s intuition kicked at the sound of the line blowing, and he dove backward, turning his face as the boom skimmed the end of his nose. He flew back into the binnacle and dropped. The people who saw flew over to him. I couldn’t move- my heart was in my throat. He was okay! In shock but okay. No death, no battered face, no missing nose. Not even cut on the nose. But it had touched him. It had touched him as it went by, before crashing into its outer limits.

Relieved of the wind pressure, the boat finally up-righted. But no time to exhale. The spinnaker was still out of control, knocking things and people, pulled halfway in then ripped out, the boat broadsided and giant swells pounded. All things not tied down slid back and forth. I raced up to the spinnaker to help Duke and Bas drag it in, and several times it was yanked from our hands by the crazed wind. I remember not the whole sequence but images- being laid out on the deck somehow, the spinnaker pole on top of me. Then it was in the water, somehow, but rescued before sinking. Then the kite was dumped and in the water. One of my shoes was gone as we stuffed it all down the front hatch, getting soaked and soaking everything in the V-berth. Until that spinnaker was fully submerged below deck, it was like String Theory, The Musical.

All of a sudden it was calm. A quick inventory of the crew revealed perfect health. Thank God! I turned, and Bas handed me my shoe. I must have looked at him dumbfounded, cause his response was a scholarly wink that comprised all the charm of Great Britain. Just classic. I couldn’t help but laugh. Now it was rocking swells and fading light vs. the improv of the captain and engineers. They opened the lazarettes and threw all their contents down below, while others pulled all lines into the cockpit- many from out the water. I untied what was left of the blue webbing strap from the lifeline, and just sat there awhile holding it, not sure how to process. It was haunting. I tried not to get neurotic. Ultimately I was awash with gratitude. I had been shown divine mercy. Again. What a seemingly inconsequential mistake. Until it almost killed Drew.

They released a squarish parachute, called a sea anchor, behind the boat. It helped stabilize things a little, as Mike and Drew went down the lazarettes to access the steering system. It turns out it was just some pulleys and wheels, fallen apart but a very basic system, they said. However, the cotter pin to the rudder, which had exploded under the rusting of 30 years and our championesque sailing, was rather in a compromising position. Finding what it was Mike said, “Damn. We were scheduled to overhaul the steering system literally next week.” They set to jerry-rig it back together, struggling to find ways to stabilize themselves and have hand usage amid the heavy rocking. People scoured the boat for extra pins and produced anything even close. They tried them all and like a glass slipper, nothing fit. The sun left, and it grew very cold in the wind and waves. No land in sight.

The floor of the cockpit looked like multicolored spaghetti. Down below looked like the lazarettes had thrown up. Intimations of seasickness began. I felt my eyes glaze over. My mouth coated with saliva. But I stayed in the game and held open a lazarette, handing over and taking back tools. Drew came up for air. He was getting mad sea sick down there but kept at it. Finally, after an hour, he and Bas switched out. Other boats started to appear. Eventually, a few came and passed, one pulling up to ask if we were okay. That was nice. And then, with the last light gone, and the stars and heavenly bodies shining, Mike and Bas emerged from the lazarettes. They had reached a working substitute. Mike radioed in our abandon race call, and I don’t remember what he said, but I remember the tone of his voice. It reminded me of a father holding his children in his arms.

We motored at 4 knots an hour for the 15 or 20 miles to Marina Del Rey, the closest port, famous for their racing stripes. We put on our warm gear and follies. Made sense of everything, like reflaking and retying the mainsail. Duke wrapped every line. Alex finished cooking up his hot and delicious spaghetti dinner he had started a few hours ago, and we all ate, safe and warm. Mike led a debrief. There were no broken spirits here. There was no blame passed around. In fact, there was a buzz, a reinforced comradery. It was magical. And whether pulling my weight or adding weight to be pulled, I got to be there with them for a truly miraculous happening out at sea.

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