One of the many things I love about the South is we have year-round sailing. Up north we had to haul the boats out each fall, un-step the masts, winterize the engines, and freeze our tails off until spring when we painted the bottoms, launched and re-rigged everything before we could go sailing for the next six months.
One of the fun things about sailing is racing. Whenever there are two sailboats within sight of each other there is a race. Not only here on Lake Lanier, but throughout the South there are many organized races each weekend, mostly run by volunteers who give up a day of sailing to allow others to go out and compete. The first race is the Barefoot Sailing Club New Year’s Day Poker Run, which is just an excuse to get out of the house into the fresh air and away from the TV for a few hours, not to mention a good party afterward.
The next big event is the annual “Mug Race” down the St John’s River from Palatka to Jacksonville Fla. It’s sponsored by the Rudder Club of Jacksonville and goes in one direction for 38 nautical miles. The “racing” runs with the current, and the winds are traditionally behind you at eight to 10 knots so it’s a lovely reach or a run the whole way. The St John’s is a beautiful scenic river and is one of the longest northern flowing rivers in the western hemisphere. Put this all together and you get a fairly relaxing day of sailing vs. the wild scramble we are used to going back and forth around the buoys here on Lanier.
When some of our friends took possession of a new Elliot 25, We decided to tow the boat down to Florida and give it a try. The Elliot is a perfect boat for this race. It’s light and fast and flies an asymmetrical spinnaker off a retractable bow sprit when on a reach or run and goes like a “bat out of hell.”
We prepped the boat as well as we could and the skipper even bought a new mainsail, which wasn’t delivered until the day before we left. Unfortunately, it didn’t have a sail number so as soon as we launched the boat into the St Johns we applied sticky back numbers as the sail was spread out on the grass in front of the Holiday Inn.
A month before the race I got a chart of St Johns and cut it up, putting each section of the racecourse into a plastic sleeve of a three-ring binder (this was long before GPS and other electronic navigational gear was available). Although the river channel is well marked with buoys, they are for the convenience of the deep draft commercial traffic and there are many short cuts where shallow draft sailboats can go. What we planned to do was have the binder in the cockpit and turn each page as we got into that part of the river, hoping that would give us an edge over the other out of town competitors and make us more equal to the local boys. Even so, the river is constantly shifting with sand bars building up and eroding away with each storm, so there is nothing like local knowledge.
Race morning dawned cool and blustery with the wind blowing 12 to 15 and gusts to 20, but out of the north! This was not what we had signed up for! Our wives were all about to mutiny, but we convinced them that we needed their help (weight) to “balance” the boat. So what was going to be a pleasant day sail promised to be a 38-mile beat into the wind!
Evidently, the rest of the racers had a similar reaction and tempers seemed to be a bit short. Soon after the start another competitor accused us of coming too close to him on a port/starboard situation and the other skipper started cursing at us and waving his winch handle in the air! Our skipper picked up our winch handle and started yelling back and I told him “Yell as much as you want, but whatever you do, hang on to that winch handle.” This went back and forth for a while and sure enough, the other skipper actually threw his winch handle at us! His throw fell several yards short and the winch handle dropped into the river with a satisfying “plop.” Evidently, it was the only one he had on board because with every tack he fell farther and farther behind, having to luff up each time he wanted to sheet home his jib.
The next couple of hours were uneventful. The strategy of sailing by the local chart rather than the buoys was working quite well, and we were not the only ones doing it. At one point we came to a questionable area where it “looked” as if there would be deep enough water for us and another boat similar to ours was doing quite well in front of us so we decided to chance it. We were both going full speed, hard over on a port tack when all of a sudden, the boat in front of us came to a full stop! About two seconds later so did we with a sickening “crunch”!
That was the end of the race for us. We got the main down and heeled the boat over enough to sail off the sand bar under jib alone, then sailed back to the start where we withdrew from the race and put the boat back on her trailer to have her thoroughly checked out for damages.
I like all my stories to have a happy, or at least a funny ending, but that’s not reality. However, this setback did not stop us from having a great time and a party weekend and we know there are many more good stories with happy and funny endings to come!