On Saturday morning I woke up just before six and listened for a moment to Junior’s steady snoring in the bunk below me. The RV smelled like the sleep-breath of six open-mouthed crew and I was eager for some fresh air. I wiggled out of my sleeping bag and quietly rolled to the edge of the upper bunk before landing steadily on the linoleum. I dressed quickly and brushed my teeth before opening the door and stepping out into the cool morning. The water level in the bay had gone up overnight, and my first step out of the RV was into six inches of cold lake water—the parking lot was flooded.
I could see a few lights on in the boat cabin, so I slipped onto the deck and quietly started to rig the boat. Two hours later we were motoring out of the bay past the barely-awake city of Erie, Pennsylvania, not knowing that after a third place finish that afternoon, we would be calling my dad (a volunteer firefighter/EMT) to meet our boat at the yacht club dock. Mid-race, our captain dislocated his hip, but true to his stoicism and competitiveness, he was quiet in the crisis and insisted that we finish the race. Back at the dock however, our crew worked with focused concern to get him off of the boat and on his way back to Buffalo.
It was a difficult way to start the week, and left us all feeling uncertain about the racing still in front of us. That night, as we sipped icy rum from dripping red cups, we were quiet and contemplative. As someone who didn’t grow up playing team sports, I have to admit that the sobriety of our normally cheerful crew was hard for me. We’ve had some difficult races this year that have taught me how to process disappointment with a team. It turns out that you can’t win every race, and that bad things happen even on fun vacations. For an idealist like me, who carries wonder-filled visions of the world in each blue eye, it can be hard to accept the imperfect and the disappointing. What I learned on this year’s Dover was how to sit in the disappointment with friends and then to race around joyfully on borrowed red bicycles while the sunset filters through the masts, shrouds, and spreaders of a hundred bobbing boats.
On days two and three we woke once again to minimal breeze, and our race on Monday was one of the most miserable days of sailing I’ve experienced. As the sun rose high and hot, the black flies found our boat and began to bite. As we bobbed in zero knots of breeze, our crew was quiet, with the occasional profanity punctuating the tension as, with a slap, another fly met its death on the deck. Despite the heat, many of us put on foul weather gear just to avoid the swarm that grew with every humid minute. After hours of scouring the horizon for a fresh wind line, or a single puff of cool breeze, we did some simple navigational math and found that we could not, at our given speed, finish the race. After a phone consultation with our captain, we withdrew, turned on the motor, and happily left the flies in the middle of Long Point Bay.
The rain started around eleven p.m. on Monday and poured over the cabin top all night. When I woke up at four thirty the next morning, the first thing I heard was the slapping of halyards—a good omen for wind-hungry sailors. As I jumped down from one of the very cozy upper bunks on the boat (being the smallest crew member often means the snuggest sleeping spots), I felt ready and nervous. We cruised on a forty-mile downwind leg in over twenty knots of breeze, riding each wave on a 14,000 pound surfboard. Foredeck work is light on a downwind leg, so I had the opportunity to learn a few new things from my crew. At one point I was working a winch for one of our spinnaker trimmers, and as I threw my weight into the winch handle to grind in the line, my feet slipped out from under me and through the lifelines. I held on to the winch handle with wide eyes, evaluating what I knew to be a precarious situation. Before I could even think to call for help, Doug’s strong arm gripped my lifejacket and pulled me back into the cockpit. I thought at that moment what I so often think at sailing: here’s to lifejackets, good crew, and not telling mom.
Wednesday, our final day of racing, brought more big breeze and multiple legs at different wind angles. It was a busy day on the foredeck with two headsail changes and mid-leg chute swap. By the time we were finished I had about four new bruises on my legs, three on each arm, and a sore elbow from having my arm pulled across the front of the mast by a quick-tacking jib. It may sound odd to be proud of all of those bruises, but I am. Sailing gives me the opportunity to give all of myself to something, including much of my physical comfort.
Finally, after five days of racing, multiple bags of potato chips, an unnamed quantity of solo cup cocktails, and a few good sunburns, we gathered on the top floor of a sunny boathouse in Pt. Abino, Ontario. We proudly collected three flags and two silver steins, placing first in fleet and second overall. In the end, I was exhausted, sore, and elated. We raced over one hundred miles together, sleeping, eating, and competing in close quarters. We experienced the flared tempers, earnest apologies, and abiding loyalty of a high-performing team, and ultimately, all of us were longing for just one more day, already dreaming of next year.