“Be faithful in small things, because in them is where your strength lies.”
— Mother Theresa
Despite the bravado and bragging rights that come with sailing the big boats, my most joyful moments have come with the little guys — the pocket cruisers, the training boats, those fiberglass hulls that move so lightly, like water beetles across the lakes and estuaries of the United States.
My regular Friday evening regatta took a break the other week, which gave me a rare chance to schlep back to Alameda, where I could sail a Santana 22. Remarkably, my friend Lee was available at short notice, as was his girlfriend, Kat. Between the three of us, we had a crew, as is possible when you have a boat so light that you can trim almost everything by hand.
That evening, Island Yacht Club were hosting their “Island Nights” race and after a quick trip to the local sailmaker to pick up a class jib, we were rigged to do battle with another Santana 22. Lee had largely instigated it — my racing experience is almost entirely limited to foredeck work. None of us seemed to care much for the course sheet. All we knew was that even if we tailed our sister boat around the estuary, we’d have a spirited evening and reason to show our faces at the clubhouse after.
Being personally a little apprehensive about the close-quarters milling around the start line, Lee took the helm. We (roughly) timed our approaches to the buoy in zigs and zags, like seagulls growing bolder around a packed lunch. At one point, we went in for a fast and near-perfect roll… Only to find that we were surrounded by much larger boats and barreling for the wrong start.
Five minutes later, we were genuinely in the race — and with only 2–3 boatlengths between us and the other Santana, we willed hard for that extra puff, that piece of raw boater’s luck that would have us “sniffing their butt”. The breeze blows unevenly down the estuary and is full of traps — like the wind shadow under the US Coast Guard clipper. When you see your opponents grind through doldrums, you know that they’ve been snared in such a trap. It fills your boat with a wonderful sense that somehow, Poseidon is on your side, let’s drink and be glad! Then a minute later, you’re in a similar ditch and the blood leaves your face as your enemy rolls out and away.
With the race well underway, Lee handed me the helm. I can manage both the tiller and the mainsheet well enough — for a prolonged moment, we were making genuine progress in closing the gap between us and the other Santana. That was until we reached the most windward mark, a port rounding.
Quite simply, what simply should have been a clean jybe, became a tack-tack-jybe, an inelegant lateral slide towards the little plastic buoy. I hadn’t given much credence to the flood tide, depowered myself and could only produce some of that hard willing to get us over without penalty.
But despite it all, we were having the happiest time of our lives — Lee was laughing, Kat was in cahoots, I was thoroughly humbled and swearing and huffing and sweating at the tiller — we had rounded the mark and the mark had me rounded over. That it was such a public humiliation guaranteed a good story to tell at the clubhouse.
Despite the internal chiding, it was in that moment that I knew I loved racing — but loved it so much more in a little boat.
The Friday after, I was back to micromanaging the topping lift on a Beneteau 40, either dropping the spinnaker tip too fast, or too gently; nothing goes without comment on foredeck. It was fun and at times, joyous, but I couldn’t stop thinking about how little we cared… And how happy — happy like a bathtub full of puppies!— we had been, sliding around in that Santana 22.
The summer racing season is closing, just as San Francisco’s warmer days have started to arrive. I am feeling that mono no awaré, like someone who has found their soulmate late in life, or thought they’d never see so beautiful a sunset again.
But this is San Francisco. The Santanas bob expectantly all year around, ready at the drop of a glove to glide out into the Bay. Next year, I may dedicate much of my summer to their service, but until then, I’ll dream of cleanly rounding those marks.