Going into the 2023 Flying Scot North American Championships, my favorite skipper verbalized his philosophy this way, “I’m going to let the race come to me.”
Well, okay, your highness.
Being strictly honest, however, I knew exactly what he meant. After lo these many years of racing together, we've come to share this sense of regatta destiny.
Here’s what we know as fact: You can lose a regatta from not preparing.
But the only way to win a regatta is to have at least one helping of good luck. Preferably many helpings.
Corollary truth: While you can be ready for good luck, you cannot force it to show up. In a word: destiny.
It was the usual Flying Scot good fortune that met us when we pulled our camper and the mighty Scuppernong into the spacious grounds of Lake Norman Yacht Club.
Locals Tim Porter, Steve Shaw, and Dave Rink and our fellow road-show gypsies –– the Cliftons and dear Henry Picco –– had saved us a prime parking spot overlooking the swimming beach and the hoist.
Before long, more Florida teams joined in –– Donna and Jon Hamilton, Dave Helmick and Caroline Chapin, Jennifer and Michael Faugust, PJ Buhler and David Ames, Laura and Scott Marriott, and Jim and Pam Burke.
Measurement was as neatly organized and well-thought-out as any we remember. Preparation being key.
The weather looked promising: aside from haze from Canadian wildfires and the occasional pop-up thunderstorm, we looked forward to good sleeping temperatures and peaceable breeze in the range we like the best: 7-10 knots.
In actual fact, we sailed under beige, smoke-darkened skies, and the predicted winds –– not unexpectedly, given how regattas go –– did not quite appear as promised. Still, even after a drifter of a single qualifier race, the future looked pretty bright. After all, the race organizers fed us morning and night and provided any number of adult beverages (plus a bourbon tasting!).
Once the wind filled in on Tuesday, we headed out to the racecourse to start the actual competition. We checked the current (yes, it’s a lake, but one whose levels are carefully managed) by tossing our sponge into the water by the starting buoy and counting to one minute. During the qualifier, current set us away from the start at one boat length per minute –– try charging that line! On Tuesday, it was far less dramatic, giving us just a nudge away from the starting line.
The four-legged race showed us a little of Lake Norman’s tricksy, lakey quirks in decent 7-knot-ish conditions but we managed to win the first one.
On Wednesday, we packed our apple-and-peanut-butter stacks, our salami-and-cheese rollups, our Gatorade, and our beer for the day. I fondly remember once sailing to the starting line on a Lightning racecourse in Ecuador and having the guys in the boat next to us look –– and then with comedic exaggeration look at us again before exclaiming to one another: “THEY’ve got BEER!” Indeed we do. So there.
The story-telling highlight of the day involved a pontoon boat trailing an inflatable laden with children. We were sailing at a pretty decent clip along the right side of the windward leg, close to shore, with Tyler and Carrie Andrews. the boat builders and speedsters, just behind us and two other lines of boats to leeward when, like a tugboat with a barge under tow, along comes the pontoon boat. Crossing right in front of our bow –– I mean, a boat-length or so in front of the plow-like bow of the mighty Scuppernong.
It's a fact that nobody looks stupider to a racing sailor than Johnny Powerboat Driver taking a leisurely tour of the racecourse. And to be fair, it’s a free country. But as Carrie and I agreed, these pontoon people must have had it up to HERE with those kids.
Belatedly noticing the fleet of pointy boats, each driven by a fierce-eyed competitor, and possibly heeding the suggestions of said competitors, the powerboat driver punched the throttle and made an abrupt left turn. The float whip-lashed over the wake, and, as night follows day, it caught air and landed with a breath-taking wobble. But good luck (and possibly preparation) allowed the youngsters to hold tight. But jeesh.
Intense, focused sailing (is that a puff? can we connect? Yes, trim a touch.) gave us a 3rd and a 1st at the end of the day, leaving us a decent lead. No lead, however, is safe, especially on a lake and with competitors like anyone in this fleet.
Cue Thursday, when we set sail in conditions where everything seemed magnified. Puffs were bigger. Shifts were bigger. Holes were bigger. In the space of a few minutes, we’d go from fully hiked and vang-on to me on the low side, struggling to keep moving, while boats all around us were experiencing wildly differing conditions.
We didn’t find a pattern to predict the shifts: oftentimes, the wind will oscillate at a regular interval, or a cloud will indicate a puff, or wind will touch down in such a way that the initial header modulates into a lift. These conditions were like what bull riders call a "honker." No telling which way the beastie was going to buck and twist.
After deciding not to hit the middle of the course, we found ourselves in the middle of the course on the first leg. When we might have tacked and ducked a bunch of our competitors, we hung left and got hung. We passed boats and we got passed back again. It was one of the most frustrating hot-and-cold days of racing I can remember.
We clawed our way into 5th for the fourth race of the series, watching our comfortable cushion vaporize. Heading into last race of the series –– a 3-legger to finish us closer to the club –– we did not talk about the stakes. We never do.
The conditions continued to span the spectrum, with puffs as high as the mid-teens with drifters in between. We went left and, as the phrase goes “got smushed.” We sniffed out a puff or two and made some gains downwind, noting that the wind was tending –– inconsistently –– to go left.
Halfway up the last leg, we had a clear lane to go left. Leaving a lake-smart team like John Eckart and Ryan Malmgren, who were bee-lining for the right-hand shore, took some nerve. Not my nerve. But as we got closer to the left side of the course, we could see the flags on the finish boat showing a 30 or so degree shift. A favorable shift, at that.
When the puff came to us, we eased first for speed, and then took the lift (Ding! Ding!) all the way to the finish line, sliding into fourth place behind local skipper David Rink. With that, by a single lucky point, we won that shiny belt-buckle of a trophy.
We’ve notched that belt a few times, but it’s always a thrill.
Thanks to the excellent organizers headed up by Tim Porter (and Jennifer), the steely-nerved race management under Matt Bounds, and the amazing Florida Flying Scot District, whose competition (six of us in the top 15 of the Championship, with two top 10s in the Challenger Division) that make us all faster and better sailors.
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