An Affair for Gentlemen

If you think that’s what ocean racing is all about, now hear this.

August 1976By Comments

I was assigned to the crew of the Barbarian, a yacht as appropriately named for the sport of ocean racing as any in the fleet. The race would begin in Galveston, take a southerly reach to a point off Freeport, turn east 35 miles out in the Gulf of Mexico, and then complete the triangle with a leg back into Galveston harbor. It would, depending on the winds, take anywhere from 20 to 30 hours and cover a straight-line distance of 107 miles. But, of course, yacht races are not sailed in straight lines.

The Barbarian is a 41-foot, two-ton, sloop-rigged, custom-built racing yacht owned and skippered by Houston orthopedic surgeon Don Lazarz. There were eight of us in the crew. There was a professional yachtsman from Australia named Bruce, who’d spent the last year transporting boats about the world and racing for anyone who could afford him. There was Harris, an MIT graduate and a naval architect for Exxon; John, a mechanical engineer for the same company; Herb, an advertising executive; Riley, who has something to do with tax forms, but mainly races; and Donny, the skipper’s son. All were young, tan, and athletic. The last member of the crew will go nameless because he does not figure in this narrative. He was a friend of the skipper who’d come along to see if he wanted to take up yachting, but, two hours out, he was violently seasick and spent the balance of the race hanging over the aft railing. In the end they buckled him in a safety harness and secured him to a stanchion so he wouldn’t slide overboard as the deck tilted violently back and forth. Other than that he was ignored. During the race Riley’s back went out and he too was ignored, no one even bothering to help him below. 

Which is partly by way of saying that yacht racing, especially ocean racing, is a very complicated, very strenuous, very challenging sport carried on in nigh intolerable conditions. It is not at all a sedentary activity where people sit around drinking beer while the wind fills the sails and the bow cleaves smoothly through the waves. Instead it is a world of pitching decks, instant decisions, innumerable sail changes, cuts and bruises, ruthless tactics, and waves that crash rather than cleave.

It is also very big in Texas. I was told by any number of people that there are more sailing vessels along the Texas coast than anywhere else on the Gulf of Mexico, including Florida. I have reason to believe this. About a year ago I had gone down to the Caribbean to do a story for Sports Illustrated on yacht hijacking by dope runners. Calling at various yacht clubs, I would try to find local sailors who could perhaps give mme a lead. But everyone I approached was from Galveston or Corpus Christi or some other Texas port.

There are all sorts of sailing in Texas, all the way from the board boats to the big ocean-going cruisers and the ocean racers like the Barbarian. They range in price from about $400 all the way up to whatever you want to pay. We are only concerned here with offshore racing, ocean racing, which is handled by the Texas Ocean Racing Circuit and is sanctioned by the U.S. Yacht Racing Union. Also I’ll be using a number of nautical terms that I won’t bother to explain. But it is important that you learn the weather side and leeward side of the boat. The weather (or windward) side is the side from which the wind is blowing. Leeward is the opposite−the side that tilts or heels in response to the wind. The more level a boat is, the better it sails, so any crew member who is not occupied should be as high up on the weather side as he can be, preferably hanging over the side. Racing is not comfortable. As a matter of fact it is damn uncomfortable.

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The deck of a racing sloop, even one as big as the Barbarian, is covered with spindles and knobs and cleats and a great many other hard things. And when the boat tacks, coming about, the deck reverses tilt in a great hurry and going to weather can sometimes be like scrambling up a rising rocky wall. If you need to move around, you spot something you think you can grab, then you lunge for it and try to hold on.

But then racing isn’t meant to be comfortable, any more than football or boxing is meant to be comfortable. After we’d been out about six hours Herb was in the cabin, exhausted, lying in one of the leeward bunks because the weather bunks are nearly impossible to stay in even with the side boards. The skipper came down to check his chart and saw him. “Get to a weather bunk, Herb,” he said.

Herb said, “Aw, Skipper, I’m all right. I’m give out.”

Lazarz said firmly, “That hasn’t got anything to do with it. That’s not what it’s all about. Now get to weather!”

Herb did, because if you’re going to race, you race—and lying in a leeward bunk isn’t racing. Even that much weight in the wrong place can cost a tenth of a knot and that can sometimes mean the difference between winning and losing.

The Barbarian cost over $200,000, but she has very few bunks and a tiny galley. Even the door from the head has been removed to save weight. But that doesn’t matter. You don’t have time to eat or sleep, and if you could sit on the can under sailing conditions, you could make your living riding bucking horses. She carries sixteen sails and each one, bagged, is about the size of a coffin and, wet, weighs about as much. Most of the inside space of the vessel is taken up with these sails, and a good bit of time is spent dragging them up on deck and then taking them back down. I had one dropped on me through the forward hatch and it knocked me flat. 

There were 41 boats in the race in five classes. The Barbarian rated at two tons, though that has nothing to do with her actual weight, as she weighs four time that much. There were three other boats in our class. Then there were the one-tonners, half-tonners, and two cruising classes. In the race each boat would be trying to win its class, but mainly it would be trying to win fleet. The race is run on a handicap system. The Barbarian was the highest-rated boat; consequently we were giving up time to the rest of the fleet. We weren’t afraid of any of the boats in our class, in fact expected to beat them easily, but for the fleet win we were apprehensive about the one-tonner Ambush and Quick, each of which we were giving 44 minutes. We were even more concerned about the half-tonners, particularly Rolling Time, which we spotted two hours and 23 minutes. She was a dark horse, a lake sailer that had been trailered down from Fort Worth. No one knew much about her, but those who’d seen her in practice said she looked extremely fast in light air and even appeared to be able to go to weather some. Two hours and 23 minutes was a lot of time. 

We formed that morning in the Galveston yacht basin, the boats coming out of their slips and milling around the committee boat and the starting line. The air was very light, a subject of concern, especially to us. We wanted wind, and lots of it, preferably three weather legs, for that’s where a big boat like Barbarian is at her best. 

But the wind held light, and after an hour there was some doubt whether there could be a race at all. Starting time came and there was a postponement. Boats tacked back and forth, drifting aimlessly under a sun that had, by now, become quite hot. On our boat we discussed what sails we’d use for the first leg out of the channel. This was mostly between Bruce and the skipper since all the decisions would be made by them. Assignments were reiterated and alternatives proposed for every conceivable eventuality. Everyone was nervous and tense.

Mainly though, we were worried. The wind would not blow, and we listened anxiously to the marine radio hoping for some good news of a front passing or a storm or anything that might give us a hard blow. We were the class of the fleet and expected to win, but we couldn’t do it in light air.

Finally there was a freshet and then a light breeze that began to increase, and our spirits rose. The warning cannon sounded on the committee boat and then, ten minutes later, sounded again, and the first class was off. The small boats go first, then the cruising classes, one-tonners, and then us. We went in ten-minute intervals, all of which was figured into the time handicap.

We got off to a bad start. We had hoped to tack back and forth and come up to the starting line seconds after the cannon went off to start us. But just as we approached the line, Compadre, one of the boats in our class, hove in on our port bow, forcing us wide of the committee boat, and we had to shear off and come about. Consequently we were the last boat in the fleet off the mark.

Out ahead of us the other boats were beating their way out of the channel, their sails startlingly white against the midday sky. The air was holding light and we began to tack back and forth as we sought to get the boat driving. We were running under main sail (which would not change during the voyage) and a light #1 headsail (which would be changed many, many times).

I had seen these same people around yacht clubs all over the coast and they had seemed like such nice people. To my pleasant surprise there had been none of that money snobbishness you sometimes find around country clubs. I remember thinking that was because the sea is so unforgiving of any carelessness or neglect, it creates a certain democratic bond, a feeling of all being in the same boat, as it were. I had had drinks the evening before with Lazarz and Bruce in the Lakewood Yacht Club and they were so pleasant, so well-spoken and friendly.

But now we were racing, and, as we came up on our first tack:

“Goddammit, move, move, move!”

“Get on that winch, Herb! Grind, you sonofabitch! Grind!”

“Get the halyard! There’s the halyard, you dumbhead! Christ!”

“Goddammit, get that sheet home!”

I was tailing on the starboard winch and I let go the halyard and we nearly lost a sail. Lazarz was at the helm and he screamed: “Get that sonofabitch out of there!”

It was all rushed, frantic, wild.

Bruce yelled from the foredeck: “Get up the bloody stays’l! Herb, John! Move your bloody asses!”

Lazarz yelled from the helm: “Let’s don’t slot that yet, Bruce.”

“We’ve bloody got to, mate!”

“Let’s get out of the channel first.”

“Not right.”

So we slotted the staysail. During the race there would be many conflicts between Bruce and the skipper about sail changes and such. In almost every case, Bruce prevailed. In fairness to Lazarz, I’m sure he was under no illusions about who was the better sailor. Racing was Bruce’s business and we all knew it. But when you’ve invested $200,000 in a boat and are nominally the skipper, you’d at least like to have your say.

We were beginning to pass other boats. Even in the light air the Barbarian was driving well under the headsail and staysail. We passed Compadre and everyone turned to give them asour look.

Harris asked: “Are you going to protest?”

And Don growled back: “Protest what? He had the right-of-way.”

Bruce said: “Not if you’d kept her headed up.”

“And what? Rammed the committee boat?”

We reached the end of the channel and came about, turning now for the long southerly reach to Freeport. Away from the land, the breeze began to freshen, and the wind gauge on the instrument panel over the cabin door rose to fifteen knots and held steady. Already we had passed all the boats in our class and were beginning to catch the one-tonners. Ahead of us, boats well out to sea began to set their spinnakers. A spinnaker is the huge, multicolored balloon-like sail billowing out in front of yachts. You use it only if the wind is favoring you and you don’t have to tack. Small in the distance we could see the bright sails suddenly come blossoming out from the leading yachts.

“All right, mates,” Bruce sang out, “let’s do it! Let’s get the bloody heads’ldown! Throw that line, Donny! John, get that chute up here. Move it, lads, move it!”

Again, all that rushed, frantic madness. Clinging to the weather edge of the deck and watching the swirl of ropes and lines and halyards, I couldn’t see how they could possibly bring any order out of such confusion. But in moments the staysail lay crumpled on the foredeck and Herb, at the mast, was frantically cranking up the spinnaker while Harris and John were setting it from midships. It popped out, blooming, a tribute to our boat since none of the other two-tonners could carry a spinnaker as quickly as we could, and we felt a sudden surge as the huge sail pulled the boat forward. We watched the knot meter above the companionway door. It resemble a digital clock, only the numbers are bigger. Our speed climbed from 5.52 to 5.73 to 6.00 (a little cheer went up as we passed 6) and then on up to 6.55. I hate to think what that gadget cost, but it is marvelous. It gives you instant changes in speed in hundredths of knots, and you can make your sail corrections accordingly.

Soon, however, the wind began to shift, and we started having trouble with the spinnaker. It was losing some of its tautness, and sometimes, as the lee rail dipped under a wave, the lower edge of the sail would drag the water. Don said quietly, “All right, let’s get the reacher out. Get ready to get it up.”

Bruce said, “Not yet.”

“At least get the sonofabitch on deck.”

“We ought to keep the chute up a bit longer, mate.”

“Goddammit, I can’t hold it!” The boat was heeling dangerously, the lee rail now almost continuously under water.

So the change was made, fighting down the spinnaker, almost losing it as one end came loose, and then battling to raise the reacher, a huge, light headsail. This time Lazarz had been right, for as soon as the reacher was up, the knot meter began to creep past the 7 mark. Bruce, glancing at the knot meter, said, “By Christ, Skipper, when you’re right, you’re bloody right.”

It was during this exchange that Riley’s back went out. One moment he was standing in the midships cockpit and the next he was bent over screaming with pain. He half-fell, half-stumbled down the companionway steps into the cabin. Someone told Lazarz that Riley’s back had gone out. 

“Yeah,” the orthopedic surgeon said, “it does that.”

By now there were only a few boats ahead of us: Ambush, Quick, Rolling Time, and another half-tonner far outto sea. I noticed Lazarz letting the boatfall off course, bearing down on Quick. I asked him what he had in mind.

“I’m going to smother the bastard,” he said.

By that he meant he was going to place our boat in between Quick and the breeze, taking the wind out of their sails while we kept ours driving. They saw us coming and their skipper desperately tried to change course. But we were too fast for them. Little by little we crept up until we were broadside, only about 30 yards away. We could see their sails start to collapse.

“Let ’em eat a little of our garbage,” Lazarz said, and laughed. He made minute changes, keeping our boat driving, but hovering over them as long as he could. Over on Quick they were not exactly shaking their fists at us, but, while they made frantic sail adjustments, they would shoot hard looks our way. Then we pulled on ahead, carefully holding off their windward bow so that all they got was the turbulent backwash off our own sails. We left them slowed in the water, their sails fluttering.

“Beautiful, Skip!” Bruce said. “Bloody beautiful!”

Then we did the same thing to Ambush. They took it more stoically, beginning to harden sail while we were still making up on them. Not one of their crew even glanced our way. We left them in the same circumstances as we had Quick.

I wondered if that was quite fair.

“It’s racing,” was all Lazarz said.

Rolling Time was standing out a half-mile seaward of us. There was a brief discussion whether we should go for her, but it was decided it wouldn’t be worth the course change.

“The hell with her,” Lazarz said. “Ifwe get a good weather leg on the secondcourse we’ll lose her anyway.”

It was coming twilight, and behind us the rest of the fleet was spread out. Some of the boats were still close enough that we could see their hulls, but mostly all we saw were the white sails leaning to leeward. Even though to win we still had a lot of time to make up, nevertheless it was exhilarating to be out in front with nothing ahead but a clear expanse of water.

Bruce relieved Don at the wheel. He got up stiff and cramped. “We’ve got to hold 230 degrees to make the marker,” he said, “but I’ll get another fix in a moment.”

They had the spinnaker bagged now, and Idragged it downstairs into the cabin. Riley was lying in one of the cramped weather bunks where sails are stowed for ballast. There wasn’t room to shove the sail in because of Riley, so Iwas about to put it in on the leeward side when Don came down.

“Here,” he said, “put that up on the weather side. We’ll be on this reach another three or four hours and weather side isn’t going to change before we need that sail again.””But there’ no room in there,” Isaid. “Riley’s in there.”

“Then put it on top of him.”

I thought he was kidding and said so.

“Hell no,” he said. “Here, give me that.” Lazarz is a big, powerful man and he grabbed the sail and threw it in on top of the unfortunate Riley.

“Good god, Don,” I said, “he’s hurt!”

“He can push it out of the way.” Then he turned away and went to the navigation table.

I looked in under the bulkhead. Riley had managed to push the sail over far enough to get it out of his face. He gave me a weak grin.

It was night now, and the sea was roughening. Looking back we could see the distance we were putting on the other boats. Toward land an interesting situation was developing. A big cruising class boat, the Nimbus, was sailing well in, three or four miles toward the shore, but she was running almost on a head with us. I asked and Bruce just shrugged. “She’s too low. By the time she points up enough to make the marker she’ll be three, four miles behind us.”

But she wasn’t. I watched her as it got darker and darker and the moon came out, keeping her in sight by her running lights. She kept pointing up into the wind while, at the same time, running abreast of us. An hour after dark she was only a mile downwind, still holding her own. Don came out of the cabin where he’d been taking a fix and studied her. We were approaching San Luis Pass. “He’s taking a chance. It gets awfully shallow in there.”

We were on a long reach, legging it on a course for the Freeport marker, and the boat had become comparatively quiet. We were all huddled up on the weather aft corner of the boat, keeping our weight as far back as possible—except for Harris, the sail trimmer, who was up on the foredeck shining a flashlight up at the telltales. These are little strings attached to the leading edges of the sails. Ideally they are supposed to stream out without fluttering next to the sail. Occasionally he would call back, “Take in an inch on the stays’1″ or “Let out a turn on the header.”

Then we would all watch the knot meter anxiously, hoping to pick up another hundredth of a knot, feeling good if we succeeded, or yelling out if the speed fell off. It was incredible how minute and continual the sail adjustments were. In the dark behind us, we could see the faint glow of the flashlights as other foredeckmen on the trailing boats checked their sails. Occasionally the skipper would peer back through his binoculars, trying to determine how our lead was progressing.

It had become cold by now and, one by one, the crew went down to put on heavier clothes. Once, Herb and John lingered too long in the cabin, and Lazarz yelled down: “Okay, you guys, if you haven’t got business down there get your asses back up here. You’re not doing the boat a damn bit of good down there.”

And, when they didn’t respond quickly enough, he yelled: “Goddammit! Get up here.”

There would be those moments of yelling, shoving, cursing frantic madness, when everyone was at each other’s throats. And then would come the moments of quiet, with only the slosh and slap of the sea and the creak of the running gear, and they would talk quietly among themselves, making small nautical jokes. Most of them had raced with Don many times before. In fact, Harris had missed only three races on the boat. I asked him why he did it. He’s a quiet, athletic, bearded type and he looked at me in astonishment. “Because I love it, “he said. “Otherwise I wouldn’t do it.”

“Why? You can’t call this fun.”

“I suppose every man has his own definition of fun.”

He had me there, for even as cold and cramped and bruised as I was, I found myself beginning to enjoy it.

Four miles from the marker at Freeport there was another heated crisis. The wind had fallen off to ten knots and was blowing at a 60-degree angle in relation to the boat. Harris and Bruce wanted to set a star rigging, which meant raising a smaller-cut spinnaker. Lazarz vacillated.

“It’s bloody perfect for a star,” Bruce said, standing on the foredeck with his hands on his hips. “Let’s get the sails up.”

“But goddammit, it’s only four miles, less than that now, to the buoy.”

Then there was a mixed discussion about the heavy #1 headsail and the light #1 and whether the port halyards would be free or the starboard or which tack we’d be on. It went too fast for me to follow. The main argument seemed to center around whether they’d want the heavy #1 up on the second leg, which all hoped would be a weather leg. But the breeze was holding light and Lazarz was fearful we wouldn’t be able to run under the heavy #1 on the weather leg. In the end they compromised by putting up the heavy #1 before we rounded the mark. Bruce said, “What the bloody hell, if we’re wrong, we can get the light back up in a flash.”

Surprisingly, Nimbus had made it to windward and, in the dark, had pulled ahead of us. She turned the marker, a flashing beacon, just as we arrived at it, but no one seemed to be concerned. “She can’t go to weather,” Harris said contemptuously.

Now we were on the long leg out into the Gulf, bound for a drilling platform 35 miles away. The wind was freshening and seemed to be swinging to the north. Jubilation swept us. We wanted weather, tacking weather. A weather leg would lengthen the race; it would mean a lot of tacks and we could sail five points closer to the wind than any other boat in the fleet and sail it faster. Consequently, with just one good weather leg we could make up all the time we were giving the other boats. That ability was one of the reasons the boat had cost $200,000. But it’s no good if the wind won’t cooperate.

It grew late and most of the crew had gone below. Harris had been given the wheel and only he and John, who was trimming sail, and I were on deck. Of course our useless ninth crew member was still slumped aft over the transom. Occasionally Don would come up and fretfully check the course and the wind direction and our speed. We were on a fetch, a long reach that would carry us to our second marker. Lazarz was worried. We weren’t getting the weather leg. Only once did he lose his frown. He looked back at his friend who was throwing up over the rail for the numberless time and made a bad joke. But his laugh was dry and he soon turned his attention back to the situation of the boat.

We never did get our beat, making it to the platform instead on one long reach. Occasionally Harris, who loves to steer, would watch the knot meter creep above 7 and yell, “God, we’re streaking! We’re screaming!”

But we all knew that the light boat behind us were creaming also.

Sometime early in the morning we turned the drilling platform, a well-lighted skyscraper incongruously adrift in all that black water. We could hear the hum of the huge diesels and the throb of heavy engines. A few roughnecks leaned over the railing and watched us curiously, perhaps wondering what the hell we thought we were doing.

We were on the homebound leg and the crew was weighed down with worry. The air was very light. When I had been assigned to the boat, David Whitaker, the race chairman, had predicted confidently that the Barbarian would win. She had just come in from racing in southern waters, against class boats from all over the world, and had done very well. But now it didn’t look so good. With the coming of dawn, we could see sails behind us. They were far back, but we should have had the water to ourselves. We ran under a spinnaker for a while, but the air was too light, and we finally went back to a reacher and entered the channel under that.

An hour later we went in the harbor and swept past the end of the dock where the committee was now set up. They fired the cannon to signify we were the first boat to finish, and then we backed into a slip and tied up.

For a while everyone just sat there feeling the gentle rocking of the boat. It felt strange to be at rest after all that pounding motion. Finally Don heaved himself up.

“Well, let’s go down and get the bad news.”

We walked down and stood around with the committee. “Nice race,” Whitaker said. “Lovely race. God, you were tearing along on that first leg.”

 “Yeah,” Don said sourly.

 The answer wasn’t long in coming. Ambush came tacking in, beating us on corrected time by 3 minutes and 25 seconds. We were now second in fleet, even though we’d won our class.

Then Quick came in, dropping us to third. They added insult to injury. After crossing the finish line, they came about, and as they sailed by the committee, one of the crewmen yelled over and asked, “Did we beat Barbarian?” Apparently they hadn’t forgotten our little maneuver the evening before.

Third didn’t last long. Rolling Time unexpectedly appeared, sweeping across the line, chewing up, with their handicap, the entire field.

“A goddam lake boat,” Don aid disgustedly.

Bruce said, “Christ, they must have sailed like witches.”

We retreated to the Barbarian. Over the years I have been in the locker rooms of many losing teams—football, baseball, basketball. The atmosphere was the same in the cabin of the Barbarian. In the locker rooms you’d hear one phrase, perhaps, “God, if we just hadn’t fumbled” or “God, if we just hadn’t thrown the ball away.” Here it was, “God, if we’d just had one weather leg! Just one goddam beat!” That was said over and over.

So we sat around drinking beer for a while. Occasionally someone would try a joke. Harris said, looking at Herb, “Well, at least we didn’t have to use our human fender.”

I wondered what that was, and Don said, “Last year a boat was bearing down on us, and I yelled for someone to fend it off. Herb missed with the boat hook and fell down in between and got his pelvis crushed.”

“Got his….Did what?”

“Got his pelvis crushed.”

For lack of something better to say I asked. “Well, Doc, did you treat him for it? Since it was your boat?”

“Yes,” he said. He thought a moment. “And I think I collected on his insurance.”

We were all very tired. After a time Don said, “Well, let’s go home.”

I said, “I’m sorry you lost, Skipper.”

He shrugged. “That’s racing.”

But I wanted to know more. “What is racing?”

He thought for a moment. Then he shrugged again. “Sometimes it’s like standing under an ice cold shower slowly tearing up hundred dollar bills.” 

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