Jumping on the Riddell Crazy Train

The view of oncoming spin-flying boats was so pretty the crew applauded. Photos: Mike Ferring

The view of oncoming spin-flying boats was so pretty the crew applauded. Photos: Mike Ferring

Here’s a prescription for sailing chaos: Take a dozen men who barely know each other, throw them in a frat-house hot-house, mix in gallons of beer and vodka, drop them on a 37-foot boat that most of them have never sailed, on a race course that’s a complete mystery to them, outlaw speed and nav instruments, give them 45 minutes to practice, and put them up against 10 well-drilled, well-honed competitors.

Oh, and just to make things interesting, make most of the dozen captains of their own boats with their own ideas of speed and tactics. And as an icebreaker, one of them greets another one by announcing, “I don’t like you and I don’t know how I can sail with you.”

So, how did it come out?

Not bad, actually.

John Riddell conducting the AYC symphony.

John Riddell conducting the AYC symphony.

None of this is made up and some of it you’d never believe anyway, but for the third year AYC membership director John Riddell patched together a crew of guys from the club with the express goal of their getting to know each other, of mingling experience with inexperience—heading off to have fun while trying not to make fools of themselves in front of the best of the West Coast sailing glitterati. First year’s results: last. Second year: next to last. Third year: third from last. At this rate, it’s victory in 2022!

The venue is the Ullman Sails Long Beach Race Week, a very well organized and run regatta that this year drew 142 boats, including a couple TP52s and boats that are even bigger. Tony Chapman told me before the regatta that he thinks it’s the best on the coast and he’s been going for years. In fact, all the AYC Vipers were there to compete. And Chris Smith towed his J/80 for this event and another race that sails to Catalina. In all, there were probably over 30 AYC people racing on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday.

We all gathered Thursday in a very nice rented house not far from Long Beach Yacht Club and a short walk to the clatter of 2nd Avenue’s row of restaurants and shops. I never got an exact count, but there were at least 15 men sharing this four bedroom, 2½ bath house. What they did at night is the stuff of next-day legend, but what happens in Long Beach, you know, stays there. Animal House didn’t have much on this bunch of much-older-than-thats.

Some of the raucous pick-up crew of Crazy Train.

Some of the raucous pick-up crew of Crazy Train.

So we gathered in a meeting where John Riddell cracked jokes and made it clear that he was pretty sure he knew what he was doing on big boats and he expected us to follow instructions and no backtalk. He said in the past he had a habit of shouting instructions (and other words) from the back of the boat to the front of the boat and this year he damn well wasn’t going to do that (a vow he broke constantly all three days). Everybody talked; some listened. It was very loud.

I woke up at 6-something Friday morning to the smell of frying bacon and sausage. Peter Lehrach would stand in front of the frying pans for a couple hours each morning stacking eggs and bacon for the gathering mob. Thanks, Peter. And then Adam “The Badger” Torel would mass-assemble a countertop of sandwiches to bag for lunch. Adam was John’s able organizer off the water.

Identical Catalina 37s were our Crazy Train.

Identical Catalina 37s were our Crazy Train.

The 11 racing boats lined up stern-to in slips in front of Long Beach Yacht Club, each boat rented from the club for the regatta. They’re 1990 Catalina 37s, built for the Congressional Cup match racing regatta that was already famous when Frank Butler custom built these 11-of-a-kind boats that have been used for that prestigious event ever since. They’re maintained perfectly. This weekend they had crispy new sails.

You’ll see in the picture that our team was outfitted in new team shirts, another Riddell LBRW tradition. We were the “Crazy Train,” a name that fit comfortably. Other teams were also wearing team shirts and moving around the boats with a studied familiarity. A couple teams sail these boats nearly every week. Others sail as a team on other kinds of boats. They all knew what they were doing.

In matching team shirts, the Crazy Train gets ready to set sail.

In matching team shirts, the Crazy Train gets ready to set sail.

With all of 45 minutes permitted before the first gun, we had enough time to figure out pretty much what everybody should sorta do. Fortunately, helmsman Trey Harlow had drafted his friend JB to handle the front of the boat, so the front and the back were in good hands. The middle? Some work needed. Some position-swapping. Some encouragement from John.

The boat is big and heavy and slow to respond and likes to keep moving, gathering speed slowly out of tacks. That’s about all we knew when the first gun sounded and we approached the much-too-short start line. Late. John said he wasn’t ready to mix it up with the fast guys this early, especially after last year, but we won’t talk about that.

Tenth. Out of 11. Race and repeat. Ninth. Not so bad when you consider the size of the hill we had to climb. I was assigned the job of standing at the back of the boat trying to look useful—something I’m pretty good at faking. Not a bad gig, really, with a nice view. But main trimmer Jason Donkersley aggravated a back injury and was carted off to the ER and suddenly I had a new job Saturday: main trimmer. Cool. The view’s not as nice, craning your neck to watch the trim and judging whether the top batten tell tale is stalling 50% of the time as John prescribed or 35% of the time, which he knew wasn’t enough, or not at all, which I darn well knew was the right way (as one of the many “captains” trimming on this boat).

Thistle Maestro Trey Harlow at the helm.

Thistle Maestro Trey Harlow at the helm.

And BANG. Saturday’s first race saw us on the starting line at speed and actually freaking leading at the windward mark and only giving back two places to finish THIRD! “See we know how to sail this boat!” John shouted across the water to no one in particular.

Hubris, of course. The next race we went this way and the wind went that way and we were gargling salt water in last place. Last. The pain was palpable. We recovered for a 9th in the third race of the day and went into Saturday night clinging to 9th overall by one point and staring at a 7-point gap to 8th. On Sunday we scored an 8th and a finale fifth and left the race course feeling very good about the distance we’d come.

Chris Reinhardt spin trims as the afterguard works the boat downwind.

Chris Reinhardt spin trims as the afterguard works the boat downwind.

Los Alamitos Yacht Club and Long Beach Yacht Club offered up noisy, liquid parties each night and we got a chance to compare our day with the Viper guys and hear about that mark rounding where Chris Smith was supposed to leave it to starboard and a boat three times his size was supposed to round to port and, wow, it all came out all right. And the expensive Velocitek? Kicked overboard. Fortunes of war.

As we scattered for the airport or a highway dash across the desert, I think everyone was savoring a weekend well spent. I know I was. The weather was gorgeous. The boats and races were fun. Fifteen or so guys in a house worked better than I ever thought it would. Thank you, John Riddell, you crazy SOB, for driving this insane experiment.

Rob Gibbs wind sprints the spin halyard.

Rob Gibbs wind sprints the halyard.

New member and veteran sailor Scott Burkhardt gets into the racing thing.

New member and veteran sailor Scott Burkhardt gets into the racing thing.

Nailing the start.

Nailing the start.

Commodore Peter Lehrach kept the pit cooking. And breakfast.

Commodore Peter Lehrach kept the pit cooking. And breakfast.

Hike hard. Adam Torel and Josh McClain.

Hike hard. Adam Torel and Josh McClain.

Here’s a video that Rob Gibbs put together of the event (using some of these pictures).