At our Club, we’ve traditionally had a regatta near the end of sailing season, where the champion of each of the racing fleets competes in a race with the champion of all the other fleets, and a “Champion of Champions” is then crowned. This year, at the end of the summer, I was honored to be the champion representing the Thursday Herreshoff Twelve fleet, along with my fleet-mate, Laurie, who had agreed to crew for me. The race was to be held in unfamiliar waters (New Bedford) on a boat (the Sonar) which is not typically raced in our Club, the goal being to eliminate any unfair advantage. We were told that we’d only be allowed to have two aboard each boat.

Fast forward to race day, when I was kicking myself for having had to miss the Women’s Sailing Conference in Marblehead, where another friend, Joan, had asked me to skipper a Sonar, to help some of the newer sailors get out on the water. It certainly would have been good practice!  Ugh. And so, in lieu of on-the-water preparation for this race, we tried to learn everything we could about the Sonar online – you know, consulting the tuning guides, how she sails, what the “go-fast” tricks are, etc. Armed with a good deal of information, but no actual experience at the helm of a Sonar, we showed up to do battle. We chose not to be intimidated by the fact that there were competitors in this regatta who had actually had racing experience on the Sonar, and on similar boats, and instead, trained our mindset to focus on learning everything we could, using the races as “practice.” After all, since we had never set foot on the Sonar before, they really were practice races, and if we focused on learning from our mistakes, we should get better pretty quickly, right?  At first, this meant sitting around for several hours until the wind decided to fill in, which is never helpful to one’s mental game. Ugh. But there we were, on the mooring, figuring out how the boat was rigged, keeping our focus, and developing our strategy. Finally, when the wind filled in a bit, we were ready to let go the mooring, and figure out how to sail her.

A few things come to mind right away. The hiking stick is perhaps the foremost. On a Herreshoff Twelve, they aren’t allowed. I’d never really sailed with one. So, luckily for me, Laurie, a Bullseye-hiking-stick veteran, and a former sailing instructor, kept yelling “Microphone!” – which, to an opera singer doesn’t really mean much, but what the hell, I channelled my inner Adele, and just went with it. And it worked, in a weird sort of way. The other is the traveller. We decided to leave it cleated amidships, because we didn’t have nearly enough hands with just the two of us between trimming the main and the jib. We did several tacks and gybes just to get the feel of the boat, and felt as ready as we could be once the Race Committee blasted their warning signal. Out of the 9 boats, there were only 2 helmed by women, but we decided not to be daunted – after all, these were the guys we raced against every week. Besides, testosterone on the race course can also be a hindrance, can it not?

If you’ve been reading my blog posts, by now you know that I think a lot about mindset, and how the right perspective can help you become a better racer. Luckily, just before this Championship, I’d been giving myself a pep-talk by re-reading Tara Mohr’s Playing Big, which reminded me that I shouldn’t listen to my “inner critic” (you know, that nasty little voice in my head that was telling me I shouldn’t put myself through the embarrassment of racing a boat that I’d never sailed before, especially among a group of guys who had far more experience on these types of boats than I did), and instead, concentrate on taking this leap into a situation where there wasn’t time to perfect or polish my technique, and use the experience to move myself forward in my sailing and gain another type of experience. I should just get out there and do it. So, with that as my goal, I jumped in, and we gave it our best shot.

In retrospect, I guess I would have to call that first start an “experiment.” By that, I mean our strategy was to start a bit at the tail end of everyone else so that we wouldn’t hurt anyone, and also so that we could tack away pretty quickly after the gun. But alas, my competitive spirit kicked into high gear, and we ended up right in the middle of the fray, working to claim our position on the line. Since someone was trying to squeeze us out at the start, we cut it awfully close to the race committee boat, but those guys, to their credit, didn’t even flinch. It was a success on many levels (we beat another boat!), and not the least because we did some valuable “on-the-job” learning as to how these boats maneuver and accelerate, and how close aboard and astern other boats we could cut it — much different that a heavy Twelve, which requires about a minute to get going, but takes much longer to slow. This slowing piece became painfully evident in the second race where, for tactical reasons, I had tacked (against Laurie’s advice) a slight bit early for the lay line to the windward mark, and tried to “shoot” the mark as I would with my Twelve, which has a generous amount of way. Let’s just say it was a disaster in a Sonar, which slowed much more quickly than I would have expected. We (I?) caught the mark in the rudder, then handed over the tiller to Laurie while I tried valiantly to get the line free. Ugh. After I nearly went overboard, we had to call the mark boat over to help remove it. Did I mention, by that time, everyone else had finished the race, and they were just milling about, enjoying the show?? And they never put the mark back, alas, so we were unceremoniously scored “DNF,” minutes before we were quickly called into action for the next race. I quickly put this embarrassing loss behind me – after all, there were to be 6 other races, and so maybe this DNF would be our throw-out, right?

But wait! Did I tell you that we had to switch boats in between each race?? This was a tricky maneuver involving:

  1. knowing which of the other 8 boats you were supposed to switch with,
  2. docking your boat alongside an inflatable dinghy which served as the “transfer station,”
  3. realizing that the inflatable was not anchored into the wind because someone on the other Sonar had either left the vang on, or the jib sheet cleated on the boat attached to it, and
  4. being able to bail out on a split-second’s notice to avert certain disaster.

Actually, I got to be quite good at this, and looked forward to it, in a masochistic sort of way. After the first race, we realized that if you waited around and were the last boats to swap, you didn’t have time to figure out even the most rudimentary of things about your new boat before you were suddenly thrust into the 3-minute  start sequence. So we harnessed our limited testosterone, got a little pushy, and just went for it. Once, when we were making a landing to the inflatable, the recent occupants of another boat (who shall remain nameless here) neglected to let go the vang, and so, because the guys couldn’t hold her any longer, I had to jump off of our boat, pass through the bouncy inflatable, and then immediately aboard this new boat (kind of like a giant obstacle course), sail her off, and single-hand her until another boat had landed, and they could regroup and take me back again. I had a blast. I got her back to the inflatable on the first try. After that, I decided that I had finally conquered any vestige of my old nemesis: Mooring Phobia. Actually, I think the Sonar is a lot easier to sail than a Twelve, once you get the hang of it and you have enough hands for trimming.

Armed with what we’d learned in the earlier races, our scores moved up every time. Yes, the very action of just jumping in and doing this thing had increased my confidence, and now I was in it to do my best. But looking back, it’s clear that we should have developed a better system for the leeward mark rounding, because that’s where we lost lots of places. We were pretty good on the windward leg — let’s just say in our later races, as we figured out the boat, we passed some really good helmsmen. The leeward mark was tough, though – there were only the two of us, and sheeting in the main was nearly impossible without another pair of hands. For me, pulling the mainsheet in a few feet, then trying to cleat in (with my foot), before I could pull it still further, all while steering and trying to keep my balance on the windward side, was definitely not very competitive.

We raced 7 races that day, and although it was exhausting, we had a lot of fun. We were totally bummed out when the day’s racing ended earlier than planned  – after all, we badly needed a throwout, and wasn’t it obvious that we just needed a few more races until maybe we got a bullet, or at least a second?


Deborah Bennett Elfers
I was practically born on a boat, though on a working lobster boat rather than a sailboat. In my early days, I sailed quite a lot on a Sunfish, but not very elegantly, as in our little neighborhood “fleet,” the boat was primarily used as a weapon in a wildly popular game of “kill the other guy!” Who could have imagined way back then, that one day I’d become so passionate about all things sailing?
Deborah Bennett Elfers
Deborah Bennett Elfers

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