Called by Optis at an Early Age
Long before world cruising on Wild Card, Fatty got his start in sailing in just the way that many kids do.
I was skipping small, flat stones into Vinoy Basin, in St. Petersburg, Florida, while waiting for my father. I believed that, perhaps, I was the best stone skipper in the whole universe—well, at least for my age group. My lucky coin was in the pocket of my torn shorts. The rabbit’s foot was tied around the piece of string I used as a belt. I was shoeless, hatless, shirtless, and brown as a berry. Huck Finn had nothing on me. But I was confident. My father would bring good news. My father had to bring good news.
I tried not to look him in the eye as he approached from the Vinoy Optimist Youth Sailing Program. He was walking slow. That wasn’t good. Even worse, he had that look of solemn compassion on his face. I knew I was sunk.
He bent down in front of me, smiled, smoothed my cowlick, and grabbed both my arms. I could tell he wanted to hug me but was holding off. This was man-to-man stuff. “No exceptions, son,” he said. “Yacht racing is all about rules, and they can’t bend theirs for you. You’ll have to wait.”
I didn’t say anything. I didn’t cry. After all, I wasn’t a baby. So I just blinked and blinked through damp eyes.
A few days later, when I was finishing up my breakfast at the galley table of the schooner Elizabeth at slip number seven, I lost my temper with my mother.
“But I don’t want to be 8 and a half years old anymore!” I screamed at her as I climbed down from the seat and dashed up the companionway ladder into the cockpit. “I’m sick of 8 and a half!”
I could see my sisters glance at each other as I scooted by. They knew. Everyone knew. It was Saturday.
Time hung heavy. Flies buzzed. It was going to be another St. Petersburg and Tampa Bay scorcher. I sighed as I rummaged around the dock box. Finally, I selected a medium-sized engine. I filled my engine—which looked a lot like a coffee can with a small hole punched in it—with water and went zooming around the marina while making motorcycle noises. This used to be the most marvelous thing in the world for me to do—but not any longer. I wanted to drive something real. Not pretend. Not make-believe. Real!
Each time my coffee can would empty, I’d pull over to the nearest slip’s water faucet and refuel.
I kept glancing at my Timex wristwatch. I’d found it while diving under Ranger III, Dave and Irene Winter’s massive steel head-boat that went to Mullet Key each day. They’d hired me to find a wallet that had been dropped overboard, and I’d ended up finding both. But my new watch didn’t have a five-minute timer with an alarm. I’d have to wait until I was an adult for that.
I returned to Elizabeth at 0915 and asked respectfully, “Permission to use the ship’s binoculars, please.”
“Granted,” my father said. “I’ll hand them up to you if you want.”
I wanted. So I shinnied up the outermost dock piling, and then bent down to grab the binocks from my father. There were about a dozen Optimist prams milling around the harbor. I had a perfect view of the racecourse. The floppy-hatted guy in the skiff with the outboard was setting out the marks. Sometimes, if the wind changed, he’d move them. The first leg would be to windward, always.
Here came the Opti named Fourth Avenue Cleaners. She was fast. But today she flew the mainsail with the number 23 on it, which was all bagged out. If she’d had sail number 31, she’d be unstoppable.
I wondered if they intentionally put the slower sails on the faster boats—or maybe they didn’t pay any attention. If it was random, that could be used to an advantage. On the other hand, if it wasn’t random, that, too, could be used. Knowledge was power, especially on the racecourse.
The gun went off. Sixteen boats scooted across the starting line. Four of them kept going on starboard tack until they ran out of wind, shadowed by the row of palm trees by the water’s edge. Dummies. All the smart ones had tacked away just before sailing into the hole. Pressure was important. It was like the gas pedal, my father said.
“Cookies?” my mother asked. She was on the dock now, too, with my sisters. The whole family was watching.
“Sure,” I said and reached down for a handful. A yacht racer had to keep up his strength.
“Which tack did they start on?” asked my father.
“Starboard, mostly,” I said. “Because the starboard-tack vessel has rights over a port-tack vessel.”
“Correct,” he said. “And it’s best to keep in the middle of the course and to stay with lifts and tack on headers.”
I wasn’t too sure what that meant, but I was too busy watching the action at the top mark. I could hear them screaming at each other: “Starboard!” and “Room!” and “Mast abeam!”
“Why so tilted now?” I asked my father.
“Boats are heeled, son, never tilted,” he told me. “Pinball machines are tilted! Anyway, in light airs downwind, the clever skipper heels the vessel so that the sprit-rigged mainsail gets max exposure to the higher winds aloft and the boat’s wetted surface is reduced. Look at number 27 scoot!”
“That’s Tall Guy,” I said, having assigned each an arbitrary name. “He’s always in the top three. He’s good.”