On being … a peek behind the curtain

By Ingrid Sapona

I crew on a friend’s boat for my sail club’s Tuesday night races, which recently started. In the season opener we crossed the finish line first – well over a minute ahead of the boat that crossed second. (Yes, we actually timed it.) The race committee fires an air gun when the first boat in each fleet crosses the finish line. For all the other boats, it fires an air horn. The sounds are very distinct and “getting a gun” is always a thrill.

As we do after most races, that night we hung around, having a drink, waiting for the announcement of the results. Sadly, though we got the gun, we ended up placing third because of the handicap. While I knew we owe other boats time – given the wide gap between us and the rest of our fleet that evening – I found the results hard to believe. Man, it’s gonna be a long season if we sail that well and only get a third…

At my club, we have a permanent race director, but we take turns helping on the committee boat. Last night it was our team’s turn. It was a warm but very, very windy evening, which meant the racers were in for a wild night. 

Race starts are complicated – and not just because you’ve got a bunch of sail boats maneuvering about in a small space near the start line. The race start sequence is five minutes, with gunshots and air horn blasts going off at different times, all accompanied by a semaphore-inspired raising and lowering of flags on the committee boat. There’s a separate starting sequence for each of the five fleets. Since the boat I race on is in the first fleet, I more-or-less know the flag sequence for our start and that’s it.

My job last night was to note the boats in each fleet as each fleet started. I left the complicated flag/gun/horn signaling to the others. At the end of the race I also recorded the time the race director yelled out as each boat crossed the finish line.

The first two starts went smoothly, but then a boat radioed us to point out that one of the signal flags had sort of fallen. The race director quickly ordered us to hoist the postponement flag (the raising AND lowering of which also has to be signalled with a gun or horn, I’m not sure which) while we sorted things out. The postponement flag was up very briefly. When you take it down, you have to re-start the remaining fleets’ start sequences.

Concentrating on tracking boats at the start line, I wasn’t paying too close attention to the signals, so at various points I had to ask: “was that a start?” I’m sure the race director thought I was an idiot because I couldn’t figure it out. But, I wasn’t the only one who had trouble keeping track of the starts. A number of boats from the fourth fleet mistakenly started with the third fleet. Oops… I couldn’t help feel the confusion was our fault because it probably happened as a result of the chaos caused by the fallen flag and then the brief flying of the postponement flag, all of which necessitated lots of additional sound signals.

Because of the courses we set, three fleets had to pass the committee boat twice during the race. Looking into the setting sun, and seeing dozens of boats coming toward you, it’s pretty tricky identifying specific ones. At one point, thinking one boat was crossing the finish line, we shot off the gun. As the boat continued past us under sail, however, we realized it was not finishing the race – it was headed toward the next mark. Oops… The gunshot prompted another radio call from a boat confused by the mistaken signal.

I know lots of things go on during a race, but when you’re racing, it’s easy to forget how many things the committee boat has to do and keep track of. Though I’ve done race committee duty before, maybe because it was such a rough night and it seemed quite chaotic – with many things seeming to go not quite right – last night I felt like we peeked behind the wizard’s curtain, gaining valuable insights.

For example, we were all stunned when the race director openly ignored the fact that one boat crossed the finish line on the wrong side of the buoy. At the risk of a cheap sailing pun, it’s good to know the race director grants boats leeway for such errors. As we were motoring back to the club after the race, a few of us were also surprised by the race director’s “everything went fine” attitude. I wasn’t sure whether he really believed that, or whether he was just assuming an “in command” demeanor to deflect complaints I worried we’d face from the fleet when we got in.

Last night’s chaos and mishaps on the committee boat made me even more skeptical about the accuracy of the results from the first Tuesday night race. But, it also reminded me that since the race committee’s made up of humans, there’s always the chance of human error. And, believe it or not, looking at it that way actually helps me accept the results.

© 2012 Ingrid Sapona


On being ... immune to "cool"

By Ingrid Sapona
I am not “cool”. I have never been “cool”. Beyond knowing where I stand on the “cool” spectrum (or maybe I should say, knowing that I’m not even on the “cool” spectrum), I never really gave much thought to the concept. Honest.
Recently, however, I’ve had some interesting insights into how “being cool” – or being perceived as “being cool” – motivates some people. Last week, for example, I took a one-night course and I think it’s safe to say that everyone but me (and maybe one other woman who was there with her husband) was there because they thought what we were learning would boost their “coolness” factor. My motivation, on the other hand, was utilitarian. The course was a three hour introduction to motorcycling workshop.
The past few years I’ve been thinking that with the price of gas always going up, and parking always being difficult in the city, a Vespa-type scooter seems like a great way to get around town. But, never having mastered a standard transmission, I had serious doubts about being able to handle a scooter. When I saw a half-price coupon for this course and I found out you didn’t need any experience and they provided all the equipment, I signed up. I figured the class would be a relatively low-risk chance to see whether I could even entertain the idea of a scooter.
The class was terrifying but fun. The instruction was terrific, so even someone green like me managed just fine. Besides learning how to maneuver a small motorcycle in a parking lot, I left the course rich with insight into “cool”.
The main instructor was a cute, 30-something guy who learned to ride a motorbike when he was about 10. Regardless of what he was explaining, he absolutely beamed with enthusiasm for the sport. But, it was clear it wasn’t just the fun of the activity that appealed to him – it was some intrinsic “coolness” factor that he attributed to pretty much every facet of biking. Throughout the evening he explained nearly everything in terms of mastering the art of “looking cool”.
For example, in explaining how to back-up a motorcycle, he said there are two ways: one that “looks cool” and one that he called the duck walk, which he admitted was effective but looks silly. It was clear which technique he thought we should strive to master. After we had all backed our bikes neatly next to each other, he offered his utmost praise, saying: “Nice. That line of bikes “looks cool” – don’t you think?” (I didn’t see that – I just saw a bunch of bikes lined up.)
That evening, I also noticed that striving to be “cool” is not strictly a Y chromosome thing. One of the students was a stylish, 20-something woman who sported a fashionable, smartly-cut, forest green leather jacket, beautiful scarf, and form-fitting jeans. She looked like she walked right out of a Ralph Lauren Polo ad.
She was quite cute and quite enthusiastic. She quickly latched on to the Suzuki – the oldest, most beat-up bike there. Later, when she noticed me watching her take pictures of “Suzi” with her cell phone, she excitedly said, “This is so “cool”! I’ve just got to send a picture to my mother. I need the evidence.” I laughed and said that I planned on keeping my attendance at the course from my mother. To that she said, “Oh no – this is the year. I’m getting a bike and a tattoo!” I was taken aback – she certainly didn’t look the tattoo type. (Who knows, maybe there’s a Ralph Lauren biker line that I don’t know about.)
The course was in the far corner of a parking lot. I was vaguely aware that some people nearby were watching, but I didn’t think much of it. (I was too focused on not stalling-out to care.) About halfway through the course, however, I noticed someone revving a car engine and then saw the car spinning around – burning rubber, I think it’s called. After one particularly spectacular-sounding skid, the car drove away. I don’t know what that was all about, but I imagine the driver thought he (or she) was “being cool”. (My thought, which I kept to myself, was that the driver was being an a--h---, but never mind...)  
A friend who owns a motorcycle had gone with me to the course. On the way home I asked him about the “coolness” factor the instructor kept referring to. He admitted “being cool” was a motivating factor for him – at least when he first took up biking. He thought that by riding a bike he’d be seen as “being cool” and he thought that upped the chances he’d attract women and win the respect of others who value “cool”. Hmm…
In the course of our discussion, I couldn’t think of anything I find inherently “cool”. My friend found it hard to believe, so he threw out a number of examples, and I honestly couldn’t say that any of them did anything for me. Indeed, many things that, I guess, are widely considered “cool” (like tattoos or the signature roar of a Harley) – actually turn me off.
The bottom line is there are lots of things that motivate me, but “being cool” has never been one of them. I guess I’m just immune to “cool”.
© 2012 Ingrid Sapona