Racing Bahamas Sloops. Crazy!

Perhaps the best way to begin this post is to say that I am sore.  My arms, back, hands and just about every muscle in my body hurts.  So, what caused this discomfort Bob, you say?   Yes, you guessed it, I sailed on Thunderbird again yesterday for three races.   On top of the muscle sores, I have plenty of “boat bites” (that’s racer talk for bruises thanks to Thunderbird).   Yes, the bumps and bruises hurt but they are totally worth it.  What a kick in the pants.

Yes, and my head hurts a bit too although that wasn’t from banging it into the boat.   It’s well, from banging my head into a Klick,, a local Bahamian bear, actually a number of them.  Having said that, I didn’t have more than a few, so to have a headache from that is pathetic in itself.  You’d think that after so many years of practice I’d do better.

Yesterday was just about the most fun I have ever had on the water.  Having said that, I am very happy that the races are over for now as I doubt that I could make it through another day without serious injury.  I am just too little a guy to be tossed around on these boats for too many more races.

So, let me give you the gist of all this sloop racing stuff.  Ok, you start by anchoring your boat along a line between two buoys,  the starting line.  Each boat, and there were nine of them racing, dropped an anchor, actually a grappling hook, and let out enough line to fall back to a spot just below the starting line. Once this is done, and it takes longer than you’d think to make this happen, the race begins.   The lining up at the start is as much a part of the race as the sailing as the captains jockey for the best spot on the line.

Perhaps the most curious of all, although not surprising is that all of the captains cram their boats into the favored end of the line and when there isn’t any more room, the latecomers just pick up and move the starting line buoy so that they can squeeze in. Off we go.  You can see how small the sail is given how windy it was.  Imagine if a full size sail was used?  That’s a really tall mast. I doubt that the United States Sailing Association would encourage the moving of marks.   I guess it’s just a “Bahamas ting mon”.  All the while there is constant yelling from one boat to another about any perceived infraction.   Believe me, there is nothing said here that isn’t done in a raised voice.   At one point I asked our captain just how pissed off this other captain was at us.  His answer was that they were long time great friends, laughed and began yelling back at the top of his voice again.  I’d say that with friends like that I’d be very wary of real enemies.  More on that later.

So, when all of the jockeying is finally done, the boats are settled and the gun goes off.   That’s when all hell breaks loose.  The captain yells “pull boys, pull that F*%#@$% anchor, F&^%$@# pull.  Faster, faster…”.   Three members of the crew pull on the anchor line as fast as possible  and this gives the boats forward momentum so they can get going fast enough to maneuver.   Once the anchor is nearly on board the sail is hoisted up and off everyone goes, on a starboard tack, always to starboard and always to weather. We’re the one with the “9” on the sail. 

As soon as the sail is up, actually at the same time, the long hiking boards called “prides” are put in place.  These are thick heavy wooden boards, 10’ long, that are rammed under the leeward gunwale against the hull of the boat so that they stick way out to weather.  These boards allow the crew to act as ballast.  Without this leverage and weight to weather, these way over canvased boats would capsize immediately and sink.    When you set the prides in place you literally launch yourself out onto the board.  Moving the prides into position is done with such violence that it’s a wonder that they don’t go right though the hull and out the side of the boat.   Believe me, the ribs in that (all of the boats are wooden) are pretty banged up from all the abuse.

This close up of us hiking out on the prides gives y0u a feel for how high up from the water you are.  As the wind was very gusty, we had to scramble on and off of the prides every few moments.  Amazingly, know one fell overboard but some came close.  The rules require you to finish the race with the same number of crew that you start with.  That’s good.

As you can imagine, this sort of violence reeks havoc on the boats and all are in various stages of decay.  There was plenty of evidence of repairs done badly, if at all.  There was also plenty of trash under the small decks including a tool box that was more like a lump of rust than selection of tools.   Not surprisingly, at the end of the races when we delivered the boat back to the mail boat to be shipped back to Nassau, the now soaked cotton sail was just left in a heap in the bottom of the boat.   

The rigging is a mix of stainless wire and a few a few turnbuckles but mostly just eye splices that had thin line laced through to provide needed tension to the rig.  Amazingly, they don’t seem to get dis-masted and in spite of sailing in 25kts of wind, nothing major seemed to break on any boats.   Two boats did sink, something that I understand happens with some regularity to the great amusement of the spectators.  As you can imagine, it’s a bit of a project to re float one of these boats as they have a good deal of lead ballast  which has to be removed, one pig at a time prior to pumping out.

On the first day it was really rough with waves breaking over the bow and running inside the boat on each weather run.  So much water came over the bow and leeward side that a bilge pump is just left running to deal with the incoming flood.  They don’t even bother to have a float switch or any on-off switch for that matter on the pump.  When we were taking on water, which was most of the time, the captain just reached under the aft deck and placed the lead on the battery.  Note that everything is soaked with salt water which is an excellent conductor of electricity.  The few times that I had to connect the battery lead that was always coming loose and was treated to a solid buzz of electricity up my arm.

At one point on the first day we were taking on so much water that the pump couldn’t keep up with loads of water sloshing around in the bilge.  Being the littlest guy aboard I was asked to bail by hand while the guys that had 100lbs on me were hiking out.   They say that the best bilge pump is a terrified guy with a bucket.  However, try as I might, I couldn’t do much to lower the water level since my bucket was only a one quart thermos    After a while I thought to look under the aft deck I noticed that the bilge pump  was working just fine except that the hose was split wide open so that most of the water was just squirting back into the boat.   Duh!  Fixing this problem helped a lot.

Fortunately, in the “tool box”, such as it was, there was a roll, no make that a remnant of a roll of electrical tape so I was able to wrap around the two pieces of hose so that the water was again being pumped outside of the boat, where it belonged.   It’s pretty obvious that the hose won’t be replaced any time soon so let’s hope that the tape holds out.  Perhaps if I am lucky enough to race on Thunderbird again in the future, I will be able to check on my “temporary” repair.  So much for preventive maintenance   Let’s hope that there is a roll of tape available then too.

So, back to the race.  I won’t give a blow by blow, pun intended, except to say that while racing rules are important they are only loosely enforced.   One interesting example was when we were rounding the weather mark neck and neck with another boat, us outside (the correct side) and them on the inside of the mark (the wrong side), with the mark passing between us.   Instead of them re rounding the mark, as required, they just kept going.   No protest was filed, probably because they finished after us. Actually, there was plenty of “protesting” going on but it was more like “street court” between two New York City cabbies in an accident than yacht racing.  Pretty amusing.

Other highlights included a number of close encounters and collisions when boats crossed a bit too close or the end of the impossibly long booms that hang out beyond the transom at least ten feet caught on another boat.  However, the best, no make that the worse, encounter we had was at the windward mark on the second day of racing.   We were approaching the mark with a number of other boats and a boat approaching on a different tack held their course for a bit too long even though we had the right of way.  As we passed  in front of them our boom caught their forestay and pulled them right over  on their beam ends.  This was a bad thing, very bad, as they quickly flooded and headed right for the bottom.   The good news is that the water at the mark was only about ten feet deep so they didn’t have a long way to go.  The rest of the fleet was able to dodge them and continue around the mark.

The crew of the stricken boat were all yelling obscenities at us.  Actually, everyone is always yelling obscenities but it was pretty clear that they really meant it this time.  If we thought that they were pissed, we hadn’t seen anything yet.  A few minutes after the collision  some guy, perhaps the owner of the now sunken boat or at least one who sympathized with their plight, powered up to Thunderbird in a large launch with a 150hp engine, waving his arms and suggesting all sorts of unpleasant things about our mothers and girlfriends.  What seemed at first to be just one more enthusiastic Bahamanian, turned ugly when he decided that yelling wasn’t making his point clearly enough so he began ramming his boat into our stern.  At first it was more of a nudge, a sort of “I am bigger than you are and can prove it”, sort of a bump.   As his rage grew, he tired of this more “subtle” approach and things quickly escalated into his running his the boat between our hull and the boom, which pulled in our rig violently and threatened to break the boom.   At this point profanity really got interesting.   Me, I was having sinking thoughts or worse. The situation was going from bad to worse and it wasn’t looking good for us.  Finally, he backed off.

However, as it turned out, his backing off was more like an enraged bull stepping back to begin a final charge.   So, next he powers up and charges for our beam.  He struck us amidship with his bow rising up over our gunnel as if he was going to run right over us.  I was standing, no make that couching down as low as I could as his bow rose over my head.  Fortunately, he backed off but it sure felt like a near miss to me.

Again, more swearing and disparagement of various family members but he finally backed off for good and sped off on his way, perhaps back to the bar.   Amazingly, no one was hurt and damage the boat was minor.  Actually, there are so many battle scars on Thunderbird that everyone seemed to take the whole episode in stride.

I heard later that the “offender” had been ejected from the course and that was the last it was spoken of.   The whole episode was amazing, actually.   Perhaps most amazing is how quickly everyone forgot about the whole thing.

After the races we took Thunderbird back to be un-rigged in preparation for her to be taken back to Nassau aboard the mail boat.   Then we returned to the party on the beach and what a party it was.   The Bahamians take racing seriously if the size of the trophies are any indication. On top of there were several government officials in attendance all decked out and looking very much part of the yachting set.  It seems that outlandish pants are not unique to the US yachting and golfing set.It was just fabulous fun being  a part of such a Bahamian event with the locals far outnumbering the cruisers.   Perhaps this tee shirt worn by an enthusiastic Bahamian says it best.  I agree the Bahamas are indeed a great country.I’ll close with a photo of the “yacht club”.  And, a nice shot of Pandora from the docks. Our own little piece of paradise.   I’m taking it.

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