We are drawn to the elements. Earth. Wind. Water. Fire.
And perhaps one thing more. Competition.
Sunday morning on Pelican Lake, the wind 15 mph from the northwest, rain showers come and then disperse. The clouds grow thin. It’s 70 degrees—cool for this time in July—and out on the water, small but insistent waves break a fine spray into the air.
This is going to be a beautiful day for sailing.
Every summer Sunday, weather permitting, members of the Pelican Lake Sailing Club gather to race. Men and women stop by the clubhouse before heading to the docks and slips where their boats rest on lifts. Other boats and crews set out from homes around the lake. I join Dick Jacobson, head judge for the Sailing Club, as well as Liz Deardorff and Teri Lantz on the committee boat. We’re going to set the buoys that mark the course—a fresh one every time—and officiate the race.
It’s unlike any other race day. No bravado. No posing or threats. This is a group of friends setting out to test their skill and finesse. They race against each other, yes. But more importantly, they race against their own ability to understand water and air.
Few things fill us with as much breath, as much longing, as much hope as the sight of a ship under sail. No motor. Just wind. A thick, wonderful fullness to the sails. Every culture has taken to sea. Every culture on earth has raised a sail and set out for a horizon. One boat is exploration. Two boats is a race.
There are two races this Sunday, 15 boats in the competition. Lasers and C-scows, Catalinas and Corsair 750s, a Corsair MK II trimaran and a Seaward 26. Little boats, bigger boats and much bigger boats, too. Four starts within each race, divided by boat class and speed.
On the committee boat, a white flag is raised and an air-horn sounded. Every sailor knows the routine. Three minutes to prepare. Two minutes later, Dick calling out the time, Liz lowers the white flag and a minute later raises a blue flag. Teri sounds the horn. Three minutes to start. Then the blue flag comes down and what looks like chaos becomes order. One minute to start and the boats are racing for the line. A red flag goes up, the air horn is sounded, and not a second later boats are crossing the line between the committee boat and a buoy, the line that marks both start and finish.
Cross the line early and you have to turn back. Cross the line after someone else, and they are stealing your wind.
This day’s course is a simple one. It’s called a W1. There is an orange buoy about a mile upwind of the start and another one some distance downwind. The boats round the upwind mark, then the downwind mark, then return to the line. But here is the thing about sailing—there is no set way to get from one to the other. No road, no lane, no path in the waves.
Sailboat racing is elegance and intuition as well as knowledge and skill. Wind on the water riffles the surface. Strong wind equals strong riffles, a bit of spray. Captains read the water, the telltale pieces of fabric hanging from their wires, the whispers in their ear.
Sailing upwind is tacking, and it’s never direct. Some captains turn and turn, sailing what looks like short switchbacks to get upwind. Others head out for Siberia, long reaches to find the best wind, one turn and a dash for the mark. Downwind, the spinnakers come out, or jib and mainsail are set wing and wing. Speed and spray, weight and balance and every sail trimmed.
Upwind again, as the boats cross the finish line, determination evaporates as everyone smiles and waves, no matter what place their boat may have gained. Different people win each race.
There is a beauty to holding wind in a sail and feeling your ship move with it. Knowledge, experience, intuition and grace. It’s ancient and also precise. The most beautiful race.