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It took three or four jibes, and then, though I wasn’t graceful, I began to get the rhythm of hauling in arm’s length after arm’s length of mainsheet so the 18-foot-long boom swinging above our heads would center over the cockpit just as the stern of the catboat sashayed through the wind. As I ducked and dashed for the seat across from me while trying to dodge the skipper, who was dodging the tiller and headed in the same direction, I loosened my grip so the sheet could fly, swept away by the boom, sail, and gaff until they were again perpendicular to the boat.
“Let it out until it just starts to luff, then trim in a little,” Handyman’s owner, Jim Findley, reminded me again, explaining that on these boats, the most direct route to the leeward mark trumps a sloop sailor’s inclination to tack downwind and keep the sails full. And it only makes sense; without stays and a jib, there’s really no reason to worry if the main’s chafing or blanketing anything, now is there?
With sailboats, especially raceboats, designs come and designs go, but the single-mast-and-sail catboat has aged well for many generations, and on summer Tuesday nights in Wickford, Rhode Island, a healthy fleet of 18- and 22-footers, mostly of the Marshall breed, come out to play.
On this particular summer night, I was just tickled to be out there with them, since I’d never had the opportunity to sail on one of these hearty little boats but had long admired them from afar. And as is often the case when it comes to a good time under sail, it came about because of a chance encounter. A couple of weeks earlier, in the dying light of a late May evening-my first on a new mooring, in a new harbor; in a new town, in fact-I was on my way to my boat when the dinghy engine overheated and seized up.
Darned if the oars weren’t on the boat. And darned if the flashlight wasn’t in the truck. I imagine I cut a not-so-nautical profile while hunched over the deflatable’s bow and paddling with my sleeves rolled up. It was about then that a powerboat came down the channel and headed my way.
“Nice to meet you,” I said and really meant it as the driver and his wife introduced themselves, took me in tow, and gave me a ride to my boat. “First rescue of the season,” the driver said, beaming, as they motored off into the darkness.
“First impressions-,” I said with a grimace. Then I reached over, gave the starter cord a tentative pull, and the little devil purred to life in a mocking sort of way.
Now, what are the chances of this next thing happening? A week later, I shot off an e-mail to the race-committee contact name on the Wickford Yacht Club’s website to inquire about P.H.R.F. crew opportunities. The response was practically immediate: “Didn’t we meet you the other night?”
Busted! But in a good way. My Good Samaritans were sailors, too, and they suggested a couple of ideas for finding a ride, then followed up with a note about their neighbors Jim and Barbara, who make a habit of inviting people to race aboard Handyman and join them for a cookout with the fleet afterward.
Introductions were made via e-mail, a date was set, and presto, there I was, happily aboard and learning the ropes, literally, as Barbara and Jim got us under way. Over the next couple of hours as we beat, reached, and ran, our fortunes rose and fell as they often do when the wind’s light and competition’s keen. And all too soon, we got the horn signaling our race was done. As we headed for the harbor with a beer cracked and an eye on a good meal ahead, my first and lasting impression of this particular evening was “When do I get to do it again?”
Funny how things turn out when boats are involved.