• Richard Murff

A Boat Called Chaos

The 2022 Lightning World Regatta

And just like that we were going over. A dozen years sailing Lightnings and I’ve never capsized. People say this is we don’t sail hard enough, but it may be simply because I’m fat. Most competitive sailors tend to be small, wiry sorts, but not me. The advantage is that when the wind threatens to knock the boat over, you just hike off the high side and that will set you right in most conditions. Hiking, if you don’t know, is when sailors hang over the high side of a boat like Phi Delt hazing ritual involving a sea-water enema.

Henry Beard, the aristocrat of the old National Lampoon, defined sailing as: “The fine art of getting wet and becoming ill while going nowhere at great expense.” He’s not exactly wrong, but on the other hand it’s better than flying American. Okay, I don’t mean to pick on American Airlines, not when all the legacy carriers have all glommed onto the that fashionable “prison bus” vibe.

Having flown into Wrightsville Beach for the Lightning Class World Regatta, I reckoned I’d better get on the boat. It was an international event, with team’s gather from Argentina, Chile, Brazil, Columbia, Italy Canada and Australia. The wind had gotten so fancy that it was like wrestling a washtub. You’re soaking wet, sliding around the cramped boat – it’s a good thing that this sport is both expensive and a pain in the aft because otherwise I wouldn’t be so convinced I was having fun.

I’m not sure that the Italian team was having fun. Although it’s hard to tell sometimes. The skipper of the Giovanna, Francesco Rulli, managed to fall out of his boat during a lively start (no one was every clear how, least of all Rulli), and was left behind because being at the back, his crew didn’t realize, at first, they had a man overboard. Rulli managed to pull himself up onto the hull of passing lightning. Of course, grabbing a competing boat is wildly illegal, but so is getting out of your boat. On the other hand, this is a civilized sport, so man-overboard rules supersede those of competition. The startled American skipper shouted for Rulli to get off his damn boat. A protest was filed, then the Italians filed their own protest against the American team: Rulli claimed he was thrown overboard. I completely belif the bit about the American skipper telling him to scram, but hurling him over-board seems a bit rich. Sailing is intense, but sending some kid from a college sailing team on deck to hurl Italians into the waves really isn’t the nature of the competition.

This was not the America’s Cup – which has gotten so technically advanced that it looks like nothing a sailor would recognize as the sport. Those crews wear crash helmets, which is a shame because we all know that the whole point of sailing is to get one of those Mount Gay Rum regatta caps and wear it until it is a sun-faded rag.

Amateur maybe, but sticklers on measurements

Even something as grand sounding as "the World's" in the Lightning Class, is an amateur to-do hosted by a yacht club not well equipped for the ordeal. It's always a cluster f*ck, but a friendly one. Avoiding a cluster with five time the normal number boats all heading for the same hoist simply isn't possible. This is where the good people at the Carolina Yacht Club employed a bit of genius by operating on the assumption that if the cluster is unavoidable, then make it pleasant. The QED here being that there was a small boat just out from the docks handing out three-packs of local beer to make sailors not mind that they had to sail around for twenty minutes to get their boat out of the water. It was a nice touch.

As the regatta continued so did the winds, to the tune of a sustained 21 miles per hour. Class rules dictate that you can’t race in sustained winds of 25, so we were at the limit of both boat and crew. I was the youngest one onboard and I am not an undergraduate from the local college team. By the second day an archipelago of bruises was showing up all over my body. Still, we sailed hard and capsized in the surging ….

Hell, we didn’t capsize in the heat of competition, amid the dramatic swells and 30 mile per hour gusts. We were heading into the dock early after an injury. We were almost at the dock when Pete in the front position – standing on the bow to strike a Captain Morgan pose, I guess – missed hopping onto the dock. So we circled around for a second approach about the time some kids with a great whacking outboard set the wake rolling. The boat heeled badly to the right (sigh… starboard) and Pete grabbed the low side of the mast, as I scrambled to the high side. I’m heavy but I’m not that heavy. Then Pete fell into the shrouds, effectively distributing his weight along the mast. That did the trick. Assuming, of course, the trick was to capsize a boat.

As all this was going on, I remember thinking that I should not have mentioned earlier that week that I’d never capsized before. I’m not superstitious, but no one is that free of fate. Then I was looking down at the sails dipping in the water and thinking – I don’t want to fall into that. First off, it would probably drown me, then if I did survive, Captain Bill would strangle me for jumping through his brand-new suit of sails. I went to the side.

Well, you live and learn. What I learned was to hold onto your Mount Gay regatta hat when going into the drink.