SI Vault
Robert N. Bavier Jr.
August 16, 1965
A racing sailor's shoptalk is often as incomprehensible to a landsman as the chitchat of the tack room is to those unfamiliar with horse racing. Yet in any race, over land or over water, the problem of getting to the finish line ahead of a desperate rival is the same. When the race is a close one, the tensions, the suspense, the thrill of winning and the heartbreak of losing are comprehensible in any language.
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August 16, 1965

The Race That Broke The Bird

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The wind had increased on the first reach and we were making 9 knots on the speedometer. But we were not making or losing an inch on Eagle. Both boats flew down the leg as one, locked together, with a length of open water between. Round the mark, we both jibed perfectly with neither of our big chutes collapsing for as much as an instant. On the second reach we held a bit high and gained slightly as Constellation drew up on Eagle's quarter, but lost it back as we bore off for the mark. Things didn't look too promising as we rounded 17 seconds behind.

We had doused our chute just before, and as we rounded I called forward, "Tell me when we can tack." The reply was instantaneous: "Ready to tack." It didn't seem possible our crew could have cleared up the mess of lines so fast but, because they had, we swung around the buoy on port tack and instantly tacked over to starboard into clear air. Eagle tacked immediately afterward.

We were bow to bow now, but with Constellation two lengths to leeward. Even worse, as we ran into the slop from the spectator fleet, she felt dead and looked it, too, as Eagle drove past.

We were still a length to leeward when we reached the lay line. Eagle overstood on purpose, waiting for us to tack and hoping to pounce on us. On and on we went, gaining ever so slightly, but all would hinge on whether we could manage clear air on the opposite tack.

Rod, Eric and I decided on a sneak tack. We passed the word forward quietly, and I spun the wheel hard before a man had moved. Eagle was ready and tacked almost with us. We had clear air and were fetching, but could we hold it? Eagle's bow was nearly half a length in front, and as we drove off below the mark she drove off with us. Rod and Eric both screamed at her to keep up. I piped up, too, but the damage was done. We had to come up to make the mark and, as we did, Eagle was directly on our wind. She was a long-looking seven lengths and 45 seconds ahead as she rounded the mark but, thank God, she was setting the pole to starboard, as we expected she would.

We could see the seas from the spectator fleet rolling Eagle about ahead of us and collapsing her spinnaker as she squared off for the leeward mark. Our three-quarter-ounce 45 chute blossomed out to port, and we held a good 30� high to get moving. And move we did. Within minutes we had halved the distance between us as Eagle jibed to cover, then sought to get out of our wind shadow. There were only two lengths between us as Eagle dropped her chute and prepared to jibe. "We'll carry our chute to the mark and take it down to starboard as we jibe," was the word we passed forward. We had practiced this maneuver all summer and occasionally were able to douse, jibe and then tack almost in one fluid motion. This time, however, it had to work.

The spinnaker was still partly up as the main boom swung over and our bow passed the mark. Lines were everywhere as we swung through the wind. Constellation was festooned with a veritable bucket of worms, but we were clear, and we had gained.

During the run our council of war had resulted in a decision to short-tack repeatedly on the final leg in hopes of wearing Eagle down. As long as we could gain or hold even, we would tack and keep on tacking. But first we had to keep from being blanketed as Eagle tacked on top. "Three quick ones," I called and then brought her up in the wind. Eagle was ready and tacked right on us, but no sooner had we filled away than we tacked back. Eagle held on to gather headway, and when she tacked to starboard we tacked almost instantly to port.

We were going slow now, a little more than 4 knots, and Eagle had opened up a four-length lead by waiting for headway before tacking. We had traded two lengths for being on the opposite tack, but from here on she could never tack on us provided we tacked at the same instant.

Less than a minute later Eagle was tacking again. "Hard alee," I called and slowly, ever so slowly, I brought our head up. We had regained full speed by now and I knew that Constellation loved a long, loping tack. The castoff was perfect, we shot into the wind, lazily swung off as Bob Connell, Freddy, Larry and Fenny pawed the deck, spun the linked coffee-grinders and had her sheeted fully home just as we reached a full and by course. Our speed had dropped only from 8 knots to 6.5 during the tack and we had shot well up to windward.

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