• Richard Murff

The Chips are Going to Fall

Prepping for the North American Championships

Politics aside, the man looks good...

At a boozy birthday party at the tail-end of the COVID unpleasantness and a year of canceled regattas, Capitan Bill looked at me and said, “I want to go to the Worlds.” He said it like he was contemplating a ham sandwich.


I knew what he meant, I just didn’t know how we were going to do it. Official Lightning class rules require a crew of three and the sailing community in Memphis is thin, to say the least – there are no lakes big enough to matter and while the river that made the city in huge, it’s dangerous and you really don’t want to face a current like that without a motor. Before the invention of the steam powered paddle-wheel Mississippi River traffic was one way. Which is to say that in informal fleet races we’ve gotten pretty good as sailing two-handed. For regattas – certainly championships - you have to make it legal. “We’ll need a third.”


“I know.” Said he.


“No really –“ I wasn’t sure that he did. “a regular third who knows the position and won’t try to work mine. And we need to practice.”


“I know… I know…”


As it happened, the issue of the front position wasn’t a problem – the fellow Bill pressed into the front position is both infinitely likable and a Coast Guard veteran. For team Clair de Lune, however, there is still, however, the minor, tiny really, issue that you can’t just walk up the World Championships of anythingand expect to compete. We are going to need to qualify – which means a fair showing at the Lightning Class North American Championships being held this year in Cleveland in August.


Sailing on Lake Erie sounds like a blast, the problem is that to sail the NA’s it will eat an entire week and I only look unemployed. This summer I’m promoting my recent book, Pothole of the Gods, and making a mad dash to turn in yet another manuscript. Crunching things on the other end, is that the World Championships are being held in North Carolina, as opposed to say, Ecuador. Or Finland. So, if it is going to happen, it’s going to happen this round.


So what to do? Fortunately sailing is one of those sports that, like fly fishing, that seems to have a built-in obsession to go with it. Or at least a lifestyle choice. I started rereading some of my favorite sailing books, like William F. Buckley’s chronical of a transatlantic crossing, Airborne, in which he writes this gem:


I was raised by my father on the doctrine that, for busy people, there is "no such thing as a convenient time for a vacation." That being so-my father deduced-take a vacation exactly when you want to; and let the chips fall where they will, since chips are going to fall in any case.

Well, there we are. The chips are just going to fall. Buckley is in good company: Both FDR and JFK were men who used the open water under sail to escape the pressures of all those promises they weren’t keeping. For my part I’ve been to filing stories from parts unknown long before the pandemic made remote working a talking point. Could I set up an office at the Edgewater Yacht Club and run things from there? To answer my own question, I bought a new pair of topsiders.


There is more to all this that off-kilter fashion choices. There are tactics and strategy that need to be forgotten at the crucial moment to make the fun all that more infuriating.

To win a race isn’t so much a matter of speed but of finding the shortest possible route under wind. This is almost never in a straight line, you need finesse, even style. A sailor knows the boat, studies the surface of the water, finds the wind, and then figures out how to use it knowing that with every change of air everything gets reshuffled.


Even the propulsion isn't that straight forward. Those big square sail you see in paintings on the walls of yacht clubs and nautical themed bars, and big poofy spinnakers, work on the same principle as flying a kite –fill the thing with air and go with the wind. The fastest way to sail is when the wind is blowing perpendicular to those triangular sails that work on a principle like an airplane wing turned on its side to create a differential in air pressure.


All in all, it’s a bit like running a foot race in one of those carnival fun houses where the walls and the floor are moving.


Dedicated sailors say it is precisely that moving challenge that makes sailing such a complete escape for those who are up for it. If the wind gets going and you are thinking about deadlines, or an argument with the spouse, you are going to end up soaking wet or very bruised. In which case the wife is going to laugh at you much, much harder, than if you weren’t dripping with water.


Now I’ve gotten myself worked up, but the truth is that I’m borrowing trouble by getting myself pressed into this foolishness - the World Championships are going to take