It was sudden and violent. A brutal “bang” and the rig crashed down around us, the boom dragging in the water, the boat skidding to a stop.
“Everyone all right?” asked Rod Favela from his coaching spot on the stern.
We were fine. The boat? Not so much.
It was a downwind run on a Colgate 26, the school boat at the Performance Race Week put on by Offshore Sailing School and North U at Captiva Island on the west coast of Florida, near Ft. Myers. Each spring, North U director Bill Gladstone rounds up a fleet of coaches and 44 students for this intensive, six-day school.
The drill is similar all six days: An 8 am start, rigging boats and heading out to the nearby race area; three hours of racing; then ground school back on shore with lunch; another three hour thrash on the water; and another ground school. I love to sail, but by mid-week I confess I wanted a break from more hours battling the boat and heavy wind. During nearly every session this year the wind blew into the teens and they said it was the heaviest they’ve seen. Really? This was my second trip to the school and it blew just as hard or harder last time!
So what happened that dismasted us? We weren’t sure. Maybe something broke. More likely, our relatively inexperienced helmsman may have thrown us into a “death roll,” the spinnaker pole hit the water and the stress took down the rig. Out of 11 racing boats, two were carrying spinnakers in heavy wind. We were one of them.
We began dragging boat parts onto the hull, untangling and untying the mess that seconds before had been a fully-functioning sailboat. By afternoon, we’d been given a back-up boat and we were back on the race course. More starts, more races.
Surprisingly, Steve and Doris Colgate keep a great attitude about these little mishaps. They founded Offshore Sailing School 50 years ago and know that when sailors push the boats this hard, things break. Their shore crew fixes them and sends us back for more. Most of the year the boats are used to teach people to sail or sail better. This one week of high-performance racing has become a school mainstay and in 2015 will celebrate its 15th anniversary. To put a cherry on top of this chocolate sundae, each year Steve and Doris roll out a new suit of sails for all the boats, just to keep the competition close.
Their partner is Bill Gladstone, a fun, funny, upbeat imp who teaches with enthusiasm and stuffs the classroom portions with content. He follows the classroom with a sailing circus act, hoisting himself to the spreaders of a cruising boat, lashing himself on and chasing us around the race course with a video camera. He calls it his “helicopter” shot. By playing back selected video from this perspective during the afternoon debrief, he can point out tactical and trim lessons while it’s all still fresh.
On each 26-foot boat are four students and one coach. The students are required to rotate positions, from helm to mainsheet trim to foredeck to jib/spin trim and back again. The rotation helps everybody understand the demands of each position—and drives home how important good crew work is. The students bring a variety of racing backgrounds, but most are pretty experienced sailors looking for a competitive edge. Nearly half are repeats.
One of the easiest parts of the week is life at South Seas Island Resort on Captiva Island. Our rooms are within a short walk of the boats and Captiva is spectacular spot, surrounded by water from the gulf. Each night, crowds gather on the beach just to watch one of the most predictable and glorious shows on earth: sunset.
What did I learn? On the plane home, I ran over in my mind what I’d picked up this time. Maybe 20-30 things. Many small. Some just finally jelled in my mind after years. There’s nothing quite like racing every day for several days straight to get the rhythm of it. Nothing quite like Rod Favela urging us on from the coach’s box in back of the boat. Even if sometimes it got just a bit too exciting.