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On top of the committee boat there was a wooden framework, holding placards with various letters printed on them. Each letter indicated a marker that would be used as a turning point in the race: V—the mark in the middle of the Sound, I—the black can near Satan's Toe, E—the bell buoy near Execution Rocks.
That was it. That was all that was needed to change the atmosphere as abruptly as if someone had snapped up a window shade in a darkened room. Now they were close enough to the committee boat to recognize their competitors, most of whom were sailing back and forth, parallel to the starting line.
"Mackenzie," said Dyce. "Goslin. Jim London. Clyde, Akell, Hornidge sailing Malacca." Nat hung the stopwatch around his neck. Dyce was working on the plastic-coated map on which he had drawn their course.
"Heading zero four eight to the first mark." From his position, Dyce could see to leeward. "Here's Hunt."
A few seconds later the two Monitors passed each other, the skippers raising their arms in greetings as if they stood in the courtyard of a ducal palace. But while their hands greeted each other their eyes darted over the set of each other's sails. At this moment Hunt had not yet released his jib; it was furled tightly to his jibstay.
Hunt always sailed dressed in a businessman's white shirt and a black bow tie, a silent reproof to all those too timid to handle a Monitor, the city people who bought small, safe boats and self-consciously nautical outfits. But today his clothes, like Samuelson's, were hidden under a foul-weather suit. On the committee boat, someone fired a cannon and hoisted a cylinder.
"Ten minutes," called Nat at the instant that he started the stopwatch.
They were in the thick of the fleet now, lying right near the committee boat as the gun went off. On Hunt's boat, a crewman released the jib. Samuelson gestured to Dyce, who released their own jib halyard, took an extra turn around the winch to tighten it and then fastened it again.
Nat looked at the watch, held it in his palm for 20 seconds and called out, "Eight minutes." The others stared at him. He had let a minute slip by without calling it, but there was no apology in his tone. Then they were passing a covey of Monitors, and Samuelson greeted each skipper, suddenly switching to geniality, but with these he did not bother to look over the trim of their sails.
"Seven." In the past Nat would have cared about his error, not because it would impede the start (the old man checked the second hand on his own wristwatch in any case), but because he wanted to be flawless in front of his father. But that was over.