In the spring of 2010, a family member announced that he had purchased a boat. As a then-20-year-old adrenaline junkie, I envisioned jet sledding around inland lakes: wakeboarding, tubing, and a roaring motor capable of creating wakes big enough to launch friends from said tube.
Sharon Kaye’s crew navigate a downwind leg in a recent Main & Jib raceInstead, he proudly showed us a photo of a sailboat named Wampum: a nearly 38-foot vessel built in 1978. I had never sailed and remember moaning inwardly at the slowness of this behemoth of 6,000 pounds compared to a motor boat. Reluctantly, I joined the crew for the new owner’s maiden voyage to Saginaw Bay. Walking from platform to platform, I struggled to understand why anyone would forego modern energy in favor of a maze of lines and equipment that seemed to require an advanced degree to operate.
The crew, mostly novices, finally managed to hoist the mainsail, and the owner and helmsman shut down the engine. The silence. From the time this boat went from diesel to wind, it took about ten seconds of falling in love with sailing and trying to learn everything I could about it.
The Wampum crew sailing the weather in a Hand & Jib race.As we silently crossed a Great Lake using a method of transportation invented in ancient Egypt (with some improvements since), the call hit me like a rogue wave. I was then asked to help the boat crew on a race, and the newfound love of sailing combined with a competitive nature has been put to good use ever since. All qualms about boredom are gone – sailboat racing offers some of the most thrilling times you’ll find anywhere.
If you’ve ever looked out over Saginaw Bay on a Wednesday night between May and early October, you’ve seen the twenty or so sailboats scrambling for position as they race around their marks. While the Bay City Yacht Club touts its Main & Jib series as a less competitive twist on its weekend races, in 12 years I’ve never seen a crew take this to heart. Winning is the goal.
Wampum crosses the finish line in a recent Hand & Jib race.“Main & Jib” refers to the two main sails of these boats – the main being the larger of the two, connected to the mast. The jib is a headsail, sitting forward of the mainsail and controlled very differently, requiring the attention of the majority of the crew. Sailboats of this size can deploy a variety of other headsails, but the appeal of the Main & Jib race is in its simplicity: sailors focus on sailing as quickly as possible under the power of both sails.
Sail across the Saginaw River to the mouth of the bay, eventually you’ll come across one of nine running buoys. Eight are spread out to form an octagon, with the ninth directly in the middle to serve as the start and end point. Depending on the direction of the wind, three points are chosen as the race course. Teams gather around the starting buoy before the horn sounds at 7:05 p.m., signaling the start of the race, which usually lasts around an hour.
Sharon Kaye skipper Jim Ferency tracks race times during a recent Main & Jib race.The first of the three legs of the race is called a weather leg, where the wind is most favorable and the sails are at full power. With enough wind, the boat can list (tilt) to the point where the wall becomes the floor. A good crew will keep safety in mind and make room for the variety of tasks: alongside the headsail, raising or lowering the mainsail sheet on the traveler, grinding the line for the jib sheeting, “reading” the sails and making adjustments, and a seemingly endless number of other tasks all of which must be done quickly and accurately if there is any hope of winning.
The thrills are part of the appeal, but my favorite moments are between the action. Watching a sunset while sailing downwind on the final leg, slowly passing another boat and realizing you have to do something right, post-race conversations with the crew.
The Wampum crew prepares the boat for the race.Twelve years later, Wampum is still racing on the Wednesday Night Main & Jib series. I am now a crew member of Sharon Kaye, a J 29 built the year I was born, in 1985. Although sailing does not actually require a higher degree, I still feel like an amateur, even several years after my first experience. . There is always something new to learn, a challenge to overcome and a skill to improve – sailing is, in many ways, analogous to life.
The Bay City Yacht Club offers several educational opportunities for sailors of all skill levels, and those interested in sailing or other water activities can find more information at www.baycityyachtclub.com.