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
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
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
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