Saturday, May 19, 2012

To Race or Not to Race

Global Ocean Race participant

This morning’s email from our weather service provider was a don’t-even-think-about-it kind of message as he forecast the possibility of the system forming just north of us getting a name.  We don’t like storms with names.  It is an indication that they are mean.  We will therefore delay our departure north and stay safely tied to the dock at the Charleston Marina.  The only rocking we get here is from the wakes of 300 metre long freighters that pass by a few times each day.
On the flip side, our dock neighbours for the past week, four Class40 racing boats, headed out into the stormy mess at 10:30am sharp.  They are the remaining vessels in the Global Ocean Race that began last September in Mallorca, Spain and covers 30,000 miles around the globe.  This is the last leg which takes them back to Europe, and they crossed the start line this morning because that was the schedule.  Weather-shmeather.  I pictured them rubbing their hands with glee and yelling, “Named tropical storm!  Bring it on!”
I say this with tongue in cheek because while the dock was active with last minute preparations, the sailors were serious and somber.  One of the boats was de-masted on Leg Two from South Africa to New Zealand.  They seem like dare devils to me but they know the risks better than anyone and I imagine they are not having much fun this afternoon beating against strong north winds that are blowing against the Gulf Stream.  The resulting waves will be high and close together.  It is a world class race so they will be pushing the edge with their sail size and trim and trying to make some miles with the wind at their bows (the worst place for good sailing).
So why do they do it?  I wanted to know and began reading sailing race stories, particularly those around disasters, before we bought the boat.  In recent history, the Fastnet race in 1979, and Sydney-Hobart race in 1998 with unexpected 170km/hr winds and waves up to 20m high, cost a total of 21 sailors their lives.  All stories subsequently written about the two races are rife with head-shaking wonder that more people weren’t lost.
I read the books because I am fascinated by what makes people do this, and how they survive in impossible situations.  The most tragic and fascinating story to me is the one about Donald Crowhurst who embarked on the first around the world solo race in 1968 with 9 other participants.  Struggling financially, he was desperate to win because of the cash prize.  I won’t give the ending away but it is captured in a compelling documentary movie called Deep Water.  Check out this link for a recent article about the Crowhurst tragedy.
I don’t think many other racers are in it for the money.  The cash prizes don’t come close to covering the costs.  Perhaps there is some ego involved in winning but sailing is the most humbling thing I’ve ever done.  As soon as I get too smug about it, I am inevitably brought to my knees by Neptune and his troops.  
Perhaps it is the attraction of increasingly sophisticated technologies that enable humans to go faster and further on water.  Circumnavigations that used to take months can now be finished in a matter of weeks.  Fast can definitely be fun.
Of course human triumph within the elements plays a significant role.  We are land dwellers trying to live at sea.  Athleticism on a racing boat has a whole new meaning when the arena, team mate, and opponent is the ocean, with one not knowing which she will be at any time.  One's mental and physical stamina, creativity, and problem solving skills are tested to extreme measures.  

Recently, Antares sister ships Escapade and Field Trip had a friendly competition in the Atlantic Cup race from the Virgin Islands to Bermuda (Atlantic Cup Link).  I enjoyed following the pre-race banter of secretly adding extra weight to each others' boats, and the subsequent postings of their progress and finish.  Mark on Field Trip commented that the boat really sailed well as he kept engine hours to a minimum, and I caught some wistfulness in his blog posting about how he could really get into racing.  It seems both crews had a great time testing the boat and their skills.

The biggest problem with racing is that it is set to a human schedule regardless of weather (in many cases).  As Craig and I watched our dock mates leave, the starting line excitement was enticing but I was grateful that we would be staying tied up.  Although the current weather forecasts are nothing close to the Fastnet and Sydney-Hobart storms, these experienced sailors will undoubtedly be challenged.   

I hear the ping of an email telling me that our storm now has a name: Alberto.  He is too early for the season and should have formed near Africa, not here.  Someone forgot to give him the schedule and proper coordinates.  Looks like we are going to be seeing more of Charleston which is just fine with me.

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