Sailboat Racing on Oneida Lake

Over the August 29-30 weekend the Oneida Lake Sailing Club held its Commodore’s Cup series of races, open to all members who had participated in a minimum of three other races this summer, spinnakers allowed.  The plan was for three races on Saturday and two on Sunday.  The day began with a Captains’ meeting at 9am Saturday, after which the folks who would supervise the races on the Committee Boat headed out to set out marker buoys (also called pins.)  At the start of each race a printed description of the course was displayed on a white board on their transom while this same information was announced over the radio.  Due to confusion over the instructions, the race was discarded, which meant we actually had four races that day.

This was our first time as participants in a sailing race on our own boat.  Kevin, an accomplished sailor, had been crewing on other boats for weeknight races all summer.  I, on the other hand, don’t know how to swim and am accustomed to leisurely weekend cruises on our Cal 25.  Guess whose big idea it was to enter the Commodore’s Cup?  Yeah!  We knew at the outset we didn’t have a butterfly’s chance in a tornado at winning, but there was so much we could learn from the experience!  Racing would force us to develop an efficient sailing team, choreograph an effective pas de deux — and bless us with an impressive collection of bruises.

Saturday was overcast with winds coming out of the east, which minimized the waves.  Winds that speed from the west would have given us 4-foot waves to contend with – conditions we had on Sunday, in fact, but that’s getting ahead of things.

To prepare for the race, we lightened the boat, removing tools and anchors, stowed everything else securely, and then went out to observe weather conditions on the lake.  Friends coming in from an early sail warned us of changeable winds with powerful gusts, which meant we’d have to choose wisely on how to set the sails.

We’d only flown our spinnaker once; it’s a complicated maneuver that truly requires an experienced team, so we vetoed that option immediately.  This left us with the three jibs to choose from: storm (smallest), genoa (largest) or #2 yankee.  Racing against the spinnakers other boats would be using made use of a larger jib tempting, but presented the risk of over-powering the boat in high winds.  Over-powering means the boat could misbehave in a variety of ways that I won’t go into, but most of them are embarrassing and soggy.  My vote was for the smallest (storm) jib, but Kevin opted for the yankee and that’s what we hoisted — for about two minutes.  Not to say “I told you so” but one of the least pleasant tasks is changing a head sail in high wind, and that was what Kevin wound up doing; the storm jib was right for the wind conditions, for beginners like us.  For extra caution, we decided to put a reef in the main sail: this is a way of shortening the main sail, making it smaller in a way that it could be opened up if needed.

Racing started at 10am, with a 5-minute warning horn, then a signal for everyone to begin a countdown. We had a little countdown kitchen timer attached to the bulkhead and as soon as it went off we were underway. For sailboat races, the idea is to cross the starting line of the race under full sail, so we tack back and forth to catch the wind until we know the race has begun, at which point we blast across the starting line.  How do we draw a line on the lake?  It’s the perceived “line” between the Committee Boat and one of the marker buoys they set out.

Knowing how competitive the event could be, Kevin kept us on the race course but carefully away from the thick of things; it’s all too easy, and occasionally disastrous, for boats to collide.  Nevertheless, as the races progressed the fleet compacted into a tight crowd, especially as we rounded the pins.. making for some unforgettable moments.

When a boat flies the spinnaker, it can be the same as flooring the accelerator on a Ferrari and this weekend’s wind was the equivalent of jet fuel.  Once the spinnakers were out, the fleet took off like cheetahs and we wallowed in their wakes — with our minimal sails, we had none of their speed — which is why an observer described me as having “eyes the size of dinner plates” when I looked behind us and saw nothing but a big yellow spinnaker.

We’d come around a pin just in front of a larger boat with a 5-man crew, and they had their spinnaker flying within seconds of the turn, so only the man on the bow could see us.  Kevin had been getting set for a tack when he heard my shriek and yelled to the other boat, but they didn’t respond.  We wound up doing an unintentional jibe, with the boom swinging wildly from starboard to port – I instinctively grabbed at the main sheet to slow it down and got thrown across the deck, but that move bought Kevin time to regain control.  For a few minutes afterward, all was quiet on our boat: I was expecting Kevin to yell at me for doing something stupid, but he was fearful that I’d gotten hurt.  I was fine, he was relieved, and we sailed on.

During the third race, we were the closest boat preparing to round a pin – which gave us the right-of-way – but that boat with the yellow spinnaker was rounding the same pin outside of us and giving us little room for the turn.  The captain of that boat yelled over to Kevin that we could round the pin together but that Kevin would have to haul in the boom immediately after that so they could get on the upwind course and fly their spinnaker.

The problem was, this maneuver had Kevin facing aft, working the main sheet and traveler, holding the tiller with his legs.  From where I sat, I could see the impending collision: our boat was sailing straight while theirs turned to port: toward us! I didn’t dare stand up, Kevin was busy, so the only choice was a Jackie Chan side kick to the tiller and a little prayer that Kevin didn’t lose his balance.  It worked and we lived to sail another race — the last one of the day.

Out of four races on Saturday, we didn’t come in last on one of them, which we considered an awesome achievement.  The race series continued on Sunday, but weather conditions were even more severe, with winds out of the west and gusts up to 27mph from a storm front that was producing waterspouts out on Lake Ontario.  Kevin and I went out to the point to watch the whitecaps raging across the lake, and although we were game to give it a shot with the same minimal sail arrangement, that never happened.  Kevin was asked to fill in for a missing crewman on one of the larger boats, I was allowed to come along for the ride, and we thus had the good luck to be aboard the boat that took the Commodore’s Cup this year.