An Affair for Gentlemen

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

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

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