We took forever to gain headway. I could see Eagle tacking on our leeward bow and a moment later reaching directly for us, flat out. We were still only up to 6 knots. Can't wait any longer or Eagle will overrun us. "Forty-five seconds." Rod called. I spun the wheel and tacked. With 30 seconds to go, we were on the wind, down to 4.8 knots and with Eagle on our weather quarter with a bone in her teeth. Since she was a length to windward of us we couldn't slow her down by backwind. Would we pick up headway fast enough to keep our wind clear? It would be close, and the whole race might hinge on it. My wish to be close had not included being close behind.
Twenty seconds to go, speed up to 6 knots, but Eagle still gaining and now just one length behind. "Two lengths from the line, closing fast," Buddy called over the intercom just as my watch read 15 seconds. Then, five seconds later, "Charge," our word for "Go for the line—you won't be early." Eagle was charging, too, overlapping us, her bow abreast of our cockpit and still creeping up. As usual, Cox had timed his start perfectly.
I squeezed against the cockpit coaming, watching the jib for the slightest break and called, "Ease three inches," to Don. Speed now over 7. A glance to windward showed Eagle's bow was now abreast of our mast but no longer rushing past. "Bearing 285�, distance 30 yards," said Rod, keeping us posted on Eagle's position. A minute later: "Bearing 283�, distance 35," meaning she had crept up a bit. Our speed was now 7.5 knots. Another minute later: "Bearing 285�, distance 40." Good. Now we could go to work. Eagle had edged us at the start, but we were safe and, while we would have preferred to be closer, we were in our favorite spot on her lee bow. Eric saw me chewing gum as if to tear it apart and offered me a cigarette. As I reached to grab it I could see Eagle dropping back ever so slightly. "Trim jib," I said to Don. Constellation was dancing now, and our spirits danced, too, as Rod called, "Bearing 289�, distance same." A couple of minutes later it was 289�, distance 35, then 290� and 32, 295� and 30.
Time to squeeze up, I thought, and brought Constellation's head slightly to windward. Eagle's shadow marched up our deck, then passed. Squeeze a bit more. Our speed dropped to 6.5, but still Eagle's shadow hung. She was squeezing, too, trying to keep clear of our backwind but not liking to sail so high. Then her shadow started creeping aft, and a glance to windward showed her bow opposite our wheel. We had her!
Eagle's tack came as I was watching. We held on for a length, then arched slowly through the eye of the wind, and on to port tack. "Wide trim," I told Steve, who was tailing the genoa, while Rod called to Larry to ease the main. Eagle had eased even more and was going hell-bent to the west. In a few moments we were up to 7.8 knots. Eagle had sagged off and was a good three lengths to leeward, with our bow almost overlapping her stern. We eased the jib a few more inches and as we did could see Eagle trimming slightly. Bearing 290�, distance 80; then 295�, 80; 300�, 80; 305�, 82. Rod reached over the side and gave Constellation's topside a couple of love taps.
We were abeam of Eagle when she tacked—a bit earlier than I had anticipated. In hopes of blanketing I swung too fast. We wound up almost, but not quite, on her wind. The quick swing had killed our way. Eagle tacked back, and this time we held until we had good headway and gained nicely when we came around. There were two lengths of water between us as she crossed our stern on the next tack, but now Eagle was out of phase and we could no longer tack on her. No matter, I thought, we were easing out ahead ever so slightly on each tack, and with half an hour gone Constellation was looking mighty good. Then it happened. Eagle had tacked onto port, and as we crossed her bow by five lengths we ran into a real fiat spot—3 or 4 knots at best. Speed was over 7 knots, but as we tacked on Eagle's weather bow we dropped down to 4 knots. We eased everything but just didn't have enough headway to pick up more than 5 knots in the dying breeze. In a couple of minutes the wind came back, but by then Eagle had driven through.
Later that evening, when I had time to contemplate, it dawned on me that no matter what the tactical situation called for it was sudden death to tack a big heavy 12 to cover in the middle of a hole in the wind. All I realized at the time was that our comfortable lead had evaporated in two minutes' time and we were behind a boat that had shown every sign of going slower. I was mad, mad only at myself, and even madder thereby. Here we were, halfway up the weather leg and behind, while Eagle was off to the west of us with every likelihood of the wind shifting to her advantage.
When she came about we were unable to cross but managed to get a safe leeward. Eagle tacked clear. Next time we came together we were again unable to cross. I realized later that I had not reckoned with the westerly wind shift that kept Eagle almost even with us.
Approaching the mark on port tack as we came together for the third time, we had gained almost enough to cross. For a moment I thought we could, but Rod, who had been taking bearings, fairly shouted, "Go under." He later admitted he too thought we could cross, but we had a long-standing agreement that unless we were sure we would never press matters in the early stage of a race. After all, we still had five legs to go: two reaches, another beat, a run and a final beat for a total of 24.3 miles.
I was pretty mad at myself as we rounded the weather mark 12 seconds behind at the end of four and a half miles of sailing.