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A Windy Passage from Cocktail to Cocktail
Ellington White
October 09, 1967
A fishing enthusiast who thought sailboats were just a pretty excuse for giving parties finds that an ocean race is something more than merely the laziest distance between celebrations
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October 09, 1967

A Windy Passage From Cocktail To Cocktail

A fishing enthusiast who thought sailboats were just a pretty excuse for giving parties finds that an ocean race is something more than merely the laziest distance between celebrations

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"Chasing zephyrs on a flat sea," I wrote in my diary, "is the closest thing to fishing a racing boat can offer. After the spinnaker is lowered and the drifter raised for the fifth time in as many minutes, you fall to the deck in a heap, and what do you hear?"

" 'Chute time!"

" 'Ease the genny.'

" 'Trim the main."

" "Get the turtle."

" It is surprising how many commands on a sailboat come in threes, like bad luck.

On May 31 a sudden squall, what the Mexicans term "a small hurricane," with winds up to 50 knots, broke the calm. Three layers of water struck the Nimbus simultaneously—a layer of rain, a layer of sea and between them, a layer of waves. David Hatcher dropped the spinnaker and called everyone on deck. The sky seethed with lightning. Clouds rolled across the water. They were not dark, as they are on land during a thunderstorm, but an eerie white, the color of icebergs. The wind slammed the boat on her side, and I heard the skipper laughing furiously. He had the tiller pulled back under his chin, hanging on while the boom banged along on top of the water. Here was the wind he had been waiting for. A white shroud covered the bow. The lee railing went under, and the sea hissed on the deck inches from the cockpit.

"Get this boat up!" someone shouted. "Come on, goddammit, get this boat out of the water!"

Heeled over that far, you get the impression of sliding down a steep hill. The ride is terrifying and exhilarating, a strange mixture of horror and delight. Even the saltiest sailor must occasionally wonder whether the boat is going to hold up under him. Dropping the mainsail, of course, would help it hold up, but races are not won without sails, and when the Nimbus cleared the squall she was still flying everything she carried into it.

Lulls follow storms on long ocean races, and soon the boat picks up the same tempo, alternating between dull hard work and moments of electrifying sensations.

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