A fitful breeze soughed down through the posh, wooded hills of western Connecticut and wafted through the fleet, lifting one, now another of the boats for a brief, hopeful moment before moving on, scattering the boats along the windward leg of the Sunday race like so many pieces of confetti.
On one of the sloops, a young girl was on the foredeck, sitting on her haunches. She was gazing over the side where the sharp bow was slicing the pellucid water up into a high curl that toppled over and foamed away on the glassy surface of the sound. Enjoying a momentary advantage, the boat lifted to the easy pull of the gleaming white mainsail and large overlapping jib, especially chosen for the light wind. Heeling a bit now, the boat slid along serenely, its unblemished blue hull reflected in the dark sheen of the sound.
One upon the other, glistening images of the sun multiplying infinitely, danced across the gently rolling water. The sky, brassy blue and undisturbed by clouds, faded to silver at the horizon. The August sun still whirled hot and high, some hours from its destination in the smoky hills far beyond the distant, glittering towers of New York City.
On deck, five youths sat quietly on the lee side of the boat in the shadow of the mainsail, but their position was not just for the shade. Their combined weight along the lee rail was heeling the boat slightly to keep the sails quiet. One of them sat apart on the lee side of the cockpit holding the jib sheet and peering under the smooth pocket of the mainsail at the huge overlapping headsail. The line was wrapped around a large winch mounted on the coaming of the cockpit, two turns only in this light air despite the huge area of the jib. He kept one hand on the winch-handle, now turning it a bit to trim the huge jib, then just as quickly letting the line slide out to undo the adjustment he had made. “Damn!” he muttered.
On the foredeck, the young girl, who wore an orange and yellow bikini, knelt up now, casually holding the lifeline, and began to watch the movement and course alterations of their nearest competitors. The windward mark was in view. Her long blond hair, loose and free over her shoulders, lifted gently in the air which swept around the luff of the jib, and her bronzed skin glistened with perspiration.
The skipper, older than the others, sat at the big wheel facing forward with both legs folded primly toward the lee side of the steering pedestal. He nodded at the young man tending the jib.
“I know exactly how you feel, Chris!” He peered out from under the bill of his dark blue baseball cap at the set of the sails, the movement of wind on the water and the maneuvers of nearby boats. Occasionally he squinted up at the top of the mast where a metal wind-vane oscillated desultorily, seemingly unable to settle itself in the true direction of the wind. With little conscious effort he made continual small course adjustments with the big wheel. Across the pocket of his blue polo shirt the words "La Fabiola" were stenciled in garish orange. The rest of the crew, already deeply tanned from three months of sailing but wanting still more, had removed their polos.
Except for the young girl, who was barefooted, every one on the boat wore brown or white boat moccasins, scuffed and worn now after a long racing season. Occasionally the girl looked back at the older man, pointing out the location of one or another competitor that he may not have seen.
One boat in particular seemed to interest the skipper. Sliding into view now under his lee, it was a thirty-eight foot sloop with a high-sided black hull and black spars. The name "Raider" was emblazoned on the side of the hull in large gold-leaf script. Despite the heat the entire crew wore black shorts and black polo shirts. Raider was heeling up a bit now, exposing her bronze bottom paint and moving a bit faster. The black boat looked hot and uncomfortable but La Fabiola’s skipper kept a watchful eye on her anyway, checking the set of the sails and measuring his own speed against hers for he knew that the crew of Raider would be tweaking every bit of speed out of her that they could. Now and again the lean, pig-tailed man standing at the tiller looked across the water at La Fabiola with a faint smile of recognition. Once, after La Fabiola made a sail adjustment he quickly peered up at his own mainsail and said something to the man at the winch, and they adjusted their big jib, but it wasn’t soon enough. The fleeting gust which lifted La Fabiola to a better heading was gone. Raider fell back a boat-length.
At the windward course marker the boats drew closer together as the fleet converged on a barnacle-covered buoy, its bell clanking forlornly as it plunged and lifted in the long swells. Now polite assertions of “Buoy Room!”, and, “We have an overlap!” could be heard across the water as boats tried to position themselves so they would be in a favorable position after rounding the mark.
Skinning past the rusty buoy behind Raider, La Fabiola was fourth around the mark. As the competitors rounded one by one, winches screamed and colorful spinnakers blossomed, reluctantly shouldering themselves into shape in the failing air. Mainsails were run out to the downwind position and jibs collapsed to the rope-strewn decks. On most of the leading vessels, the crews moved with practiced efficiency, but the frenzied activity that accompanied the sail change ceased as soon as they settled into their new course. With a nod, the skipper of La Fabiola gave the wheel over to the man who had tended the jib on the upwind leg, and after a careful look around, ducked into the companionway and disappeared below decks.
As if on a signal, the young girl made her way aft and went down the companionway after him.
In a few minutes she re-appeared with a tray of sandwiches and frosty cans of soft-drinks. The crew, free from duty now, sat in pairs eating and talking quietly. Voices drifted across the water from other boats and snatches of conversation and laughter could be heard. On La Fabiola a tall, dark-haired young man separated himself from the rest and took a position beside the cockpit, standing comfortably astride the coaming. Constantly attentive to sail and wind direction, he held the sheet line of the spinnaker in his hand, smoothly trimming it or letting it slide a bit to keep the huge spinnaker from collapsing in the almost non-existent breeze. With the wind aft it grew hotter on deck and the crewmen scattered themselves about and fell silent, to all appearances resigned to a long downwind chase. After a while the skipper appeared at the companionway.
Standing on the cabin ladder with only his head and shoulders above deck, he gazed around at the fleet then across the water to the Connecticut shore, looking for dark patches of wind on the water which might benefit them and noting any change in the wind's effect on far-off chimney smoke and distant sails. He spoke up once to ask the helmsman his present compass reading. After a second trip below he reappeared, and after a further look, asked the helmsman to gradually alter course away from the other boats.
“Try to ease into a heading of about two-forty magnetic, Chris. Nice and slow, please.”
As the boat answered, the tall dark-haired youth tending the spinnaker slowly trimmed his lines for the new heading, keeping his activity as casual as possible.
By the time other boats noticed what the skipper had done it was too late. It was clear that in separating herself, La Fabiola had taken a risk which would yield her a winning advantage. In a few moments she was in the middle of a light but steady offshore breeze which seemed to the others to darken the water around her alone, and she slowly pulled away from the fleet. Anemic as it was the new breeze was enough. There was no chance now that other boats could hope to overtake her on such a light day.
Chris, holding the big wheel with one hand and leaning out to leeward, craned his neck to look back at the fleet.
“Well, it looks like this race is over, Van. A piece of cake!” The spinnaker-tender laughed.
“Yeah, with a scoop of vanilla on it!”
Raider could only sit and watch as the sleek blue sloop with the shining white sails doused her spinnaker and with her big jib up again and drawing, angle past a motor yacht at anchor from which a puff of blue-white smoke shot out into the clear air to float away and lose itself downwind. A moment later the sharp crack of the cannon announcing first-to-finish reached the fleet, and as if on that signal, the gleaming sloop rounded up and slanted sharply away from them on a new tack, directly into the big, blazing afternoon sun.
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