“Hey! What is that in the water?” It’s between races, Bobby and I have just repacked the spinnaker and readied it for a new launch during the next race. We all look to where Bobby is pointing and see a white, boxy object floating on the surface. Shane steers the boat toward the object, we round up on it, and Bobby snags it over the side.
“Hey!” he says “its a life sling bag!” Yes, that’s exactly what it was. For the rest of us, we saw floating lake detritus and nothing more. Bobby saw…possibilities! The next race, Bobby arrived at the dock with a new handcrafted backpack he made from his life sling bag. It was the perfect boxy, rectangular shape to stack Tecate cans and keep them from wiggling around too much.
Bobby is Shane's right hand sailing man, the bowman, the tactician, and the guy who keeps Heeling Art running smoothly. The sail is stuck on the track? Bobby pulls out a lighter and a knife from his life jacket to tidy up the leading edge of the sail. The block on the main sheet won't roll? Bobby pulls out a tiny canister of silicone spray from his lifejacket to get it moving again. The fuel pump suddenly goes kaput, Bobby fashions a fuel pump from a ketchup and mustard bottle that he somehow finds shoved behind the salon bench. Bobby knows his stuff. He has raced Holder 20s, Newport to Ensenada races, and has even crewed on the Transpac, a race that starts in Los Angeles, California and finishes three weeks later in Oahu, Hawaii.
When I started working the bow with him, Bobby welcomed me aboard. “So, you want to help me put up the kite?” Spinnakers are often referred to as the “kite” because they are usually brightly colored light material that flies beautifully in the wind, just like a kite. He walked me from stern to bow showing me exactly how the spinnaker lines are to be laid out. He showed me how to find each corner of the spinnaker and “run the tapes” to make sure there is no twist in sail. Bobby would sit in the bow hatch, with 2100 square feet of spinnaker fabric gathered on the bow bed below. I watched his hands start at one corner of the sail and slide toward the next corner hand to hand along the edge of the sail, which is sewn over with a specific color of thicker fabric (sailors call this the “tape”). If the tape on each side of the sail can be pulled hand over hand freely, without tangle, you know that the spinnaker is organized correctly and will not launch in a giant twist when you put it up. I helped when I could, and observed.
For many races, we worked together like this. Eventually, Bobby let me to set up the lines and run the tapes myself. Then, he would do a second check following my work to confirm everything was right. This was nothing new, he always second checked his own work each time, before every set, on every race.
A spinnaker that launches smoothly is a magical sight. As a tight cluster of sailboats converge on an inflated yellow bouy, the bow starts bustling with activity. As the mark is rounded, the hoist is started and the brightly colored parachute material is lofted into the air. The sail fills with a “womp” and the boat becomes more level and makes quick way down wind. If all goes right, the bow crew then tugs down the upwind sails while the sail trimmer and the helmsman adjust the angle of the spinnaker. It all happens in the matter of a minute if everyone is sharp.
If things go wrong, though, it can be a real debacle. There are so many trip points. If you have not properly "run the tapes" and arranged all of the lines, the big sail can twist into a giant hourglass, get caught on the wrong side of the upwind sails, or tangle with another rope in use, the lifelines, or any number of other items of equipment. Then, you have a sail as big as a house filled with wind and yanking on the rigging, the mast, or god-forbid, a crew person's ankle in a way it was not designed to do. Best case scenario, your race boat will glide to a halt and go nowhere fast; worst case scenario someone gets dragged overboard or a mast is taken down. If you have not properly applied the topping lift or the downhaul the pole your giant sail might start "sky" or fly upward out of reach and out of control. The bow guy cannot ever win a race, but he can certainly be responsible for losing it.
This harried process is repeated when the spinnaker is “doused” or taken down and replaced again with the upwind sail. As we round the downwind mark, we would systematically release various lines, release the halyard and then pull and gather the enormous, slippery spinnaker fabric in our arms in order to shove it down the hatch. As soon as it is down, we start reorganizing everything to put it back up again on the next leg. These few moments of the race are intense, filled with action, and result in much risk and reward. Launching and dousing the spinnaker is my favorite part of a sailing race.
I knew I had earned bowman status on my 30th Birthday when Bobby showed up at the party and handed me a kite.
The many lessons Bobby taught me can be boiled down into one general rule: Give high respect to the force of wind, waves, the boat and your teammates. You do this best by remaining prepared and engaged. Bobby is always fixing this, tweaking that, or considering a tactic that worked or didn’t work, even during downtime. He plans his spinnaker launch and takedown. He always has his foul weather gear with him, even on a sunny day. He always wears his Mary Poppins Bag lifejacket. He is most always laughing and having a good time. Because a crew member who is ill prepared, wet, cold, and/or has a crappy attitude is a danger to him or herself, and not helpful running the boat.