Racing Overnight From Corpus Christi to Galveston Bay by Bob Harrell

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    Racing Overnight From Corpus Christi to Galveston Bay in 1981

    by Bob Harrell

    One morning, Russ Simmons, a true sailing aficionado having hop-scotched over much of the seven seas in his teak and mahogany ketch, and more recently, a fellow dinghy racer in Clear Lake, Texas, phoned saying, “Harrell, I’m glad I caught you. Are you free tomorrow, Friday night”?

    I said, “Yeah, I think so, but I’ll have to clear it with Lynne. Are you having a party?”

    Russ said, “No, no, nothing like that. You and I have a date with a hot off-the-drawing board San Juan 52’ ocean racer for tomorrow’s Annual Corpus Christi to Galveston overnight race. But we’ve got to drive to Corpus tomorrow morning and arrive in time to take total command of one of the fastest tricked-out sailboats afloat, but we must round up a crew and make the starting gun for the race to Houston, you know, Galveston Bay.”

    I said, “What!”

    Russ said, “Never mind What. The fact is, I’ve already committed us! Can Lynne drive us to Corpus tomorrow?”

    I said “Russ, slow down. What’s the deal?”

    Russ explained that a good friend of his, who has been campaigning this magnificent ocean racer around the hemisphere, called him in desperation, saying that he and his select crew got waylaid somewhere, somehow, and they will catch up with us in a few days to take over. In the meantime, he wants us to take his new boat and go win tomorrow’s overnight race from Corpus Christi to Galveston. Russ explained that the owner is “an important dude”, so he can’t let him down.

    I said, “Russ, don’t you need about six salty guys to manage a serious off-shore boat like that, overnight? How do you propose to come up with them by tomorrow afternoon?”

    Russ replied,” Hey, the two of us, with a fabulous out 52-footer! Common! At least give me a tentative yes, and I’ll start dialing all my hotshot friends. Besides, I’ve already told my owner friend to count us in. OK?”

    I took a deep breath and said, “OK, OK.”

    After I cleared things with Lynne¬on bended knees¬she agreed to drive Russ and I to Corpus the next morning. On the way, I set about trying to wrap my head around what it would take to sail a highly spirited 52-footer, light displacement, tricked-out, boat at top speed, under full spinnaker rigging, all night, for several hundred nautical miles, under unknown sea conditions. It dawned on me that an experienced crew would be essential to our success.

    On the following morning¬the day of the frikken race¬Russ called indicating he’s ready to go, but that he’s had no luck finding any semblance of a crew at this late date, but allowed that we could surely pick-up a few able bodied seaman once we’re in Corpus Christi.

    While driving, we began putting all our cards on the table including: the importance and tradition of this 54-year old annual racing event; the physical and mental demands necessary to correctly sail a sleek 52-footer at night offshore; and, of course, navigation factors including, prevailing winds, surface ocean currents in the Gulf of Mexico ¬especially in light of the Carioles effect, and the clocking nature of large circular patterns called gyres; anticipated weather, corresponding compass headings and race stratagems.

    We put crew assignments aside, until we could find some to impress.

    I reminded Russ that I was a “seat of the pants” kind of guy¬in boats as well as airplanes¬and that I’d be happier at the helm than tinkering with all of the supposed electronic gadgetry below deck. Finally, we pondered whether just the two of us could, if necessary, manhandle what must be a monster spinnaker, in the middle of the night, and whether we could avoid running aground once we entered Galveston Bay.

    Russ attempted to change the subject by saying, “Shallow waters! That reminds me of an old saying, Galveston, where the water is shallow and the women are deep.”

    Following hours of all of this jibber, Lynne finally chimed in, punctiliously, asking, “Are you two sure you want to go through with this?”

    As we arrived at the Corpus Christi Harbor my pulse quickened, and the three of us began searching for our San Juan and, of course, any qualified crew members. Following a quick drive around the harbor, none were found! I said, “Where are all those warm bodies we talked about?”

    Russ said, “Everyone’s probably having lunch, checking the weather, scraping hulls, fixing gadgetry, emptying porta-potys, logging a few hours of sleep¬you know. So, let’s keep looking.”

    While walking the docks, we eventually spied two old codgers fiddling with an aging, patched-up Catalina-22. We told them of our search for a crew, and asked them where everyone was. They said they didn’t know, but instructed us that they weren’t doing anything special, and offered their services. Russ said, “Good, I think we can use you. We’ll be back shortly.”

    As we continued our search, Lynne pointed to a nearby snack stand saying¬jokingly, “There are a couple of kids.”

    “Common”, I said. “Let’s get serious.”

    Russ said, “Wait a minute; we’d better question them.”

    The two youngsters¬no more than fourteen years old¬became excited at the thought of going along with us, but they had to get their parents permission.

    I said, “Before we go any further, the two of you two need to get written permission from your parents, or have them come speak with us directly, OK?

    One of the kids, the one with the runny nose, shot back with his question, “How will we be able to find you?”

    Russ said, “Just look around for the longest and skinniest boat with the tallest single mast in the harbor. Hey, that looks like it. There . . . that one tied up way over there, at the very last slip. Let’s all go find our San Juan-52.”

    The sight of her took my breath away. I had never seen a boat so sleek and gorgeous, but at the same time, intimidating.

    Lynne said, “Now that you boys have water transportation back to Galveston, I’ll go on home to the kids. I’ll be sure to mention you in my prayers.”

    We boarded the beauty and began to walk her vast but narrow deck. We both stopped abruptly looking at one another in utter disbelief. Her deck gave way beneath our every step. I said, “Russ, I feel like I’m walking atop a damn trampoline.”

    Russ looked at me out of the corner of his eye, saying, “This gives new meaning to the term light displacement.”

    I replied, “Russ, all kidding aside, tell me this boat is seaworthy?”

    As we continued on, our eyes widened at the spectacle of the rigging, the towering, naked mast and the huge twin spinnaker poles ominously lashed to the foredeck. I immediately envisioned the majesty of crossing the starting line under full sail just before running up what must surely be a towering spinnaker. Even Russ, the consummate seasoned mariner, appeared to be moved by some equivalent thought process.

    Reality returned quickly as our attention turned to making our pick up crew¬two fourteen year olds and two seventy year olds¬as comfortable as we could under the circumstances. Sadly, we explained that we had little or no time to acquaint them with their duties aboard. In fact, I hoped that they would amuse themselves and stay out of our way. Understandably, all four of them appeared very tentative¬the old fellows for their lack of agility, the youngsters for their lack of composure, and perhaps, runaway imaginations.

    Going below broke the immediate spell. The vacuous hull was barren¬save a half-dozen hammocks and considerable assorted electronics¬free from even a hint of a lounge, mattress, lavatory or galley.

    Russ looked at me saying, “Remember, if you have to take a whizz, go to the leeward rail.”

    I said, “OK, but what if someone has to . . .....”

    Russ interrupted, saying, “Just tell them to get a grip on it,”

    While Russ took inventory of the electronics, I went topside to envision the rigging and run through a few imaginary sail changes¬including the all-important technique of jibing (shifting the sails when running before the wind). Jibing the main and jib is one thing, including the spinnaker in the maneuver can be quite another¬especially one as large as ours. I imagined our crew could help us manage the main and jib sheets without much difficulty and exposure to being tossed overboard, but jibing a large spinnaker at night required both experience and strength. Moreover, each of the two massive, wooden, twin spinnaker poles, weighing about a hundred pounds each, had to be manhandled in a careful and timely fashion during the jibe. Without practice under varying conditions, I had my doubts whether our crew could execute a successful jibe.

    Russ and I discussed whether it might be possible to hold a starboard tack all the way to Galveston. Russ said, “Hell, it all depends on the prevailing southeasterly winds. If they hold constant, we can hold our starboard tack for hundreds of miles, all the way to the Finishing Line. But if the wind clocks over a few degrees, or the gyres act up, we must tack, or wind up in New Orleans.”

    I said, Russ we can’t expose two old men and two inexperienced youngsters to the inherent risks of jibing at night while sailing in ocean waters. I shuddered at the thought of losing crew overboard at night. (I harkened back to the real life incident of Johnny Weissmuller being thrown from cabin cruiser by pitching seas, late at night, somewhere between Long Beach and Catalina Island¬but that’s another story. Fortunately, he was the world’s greatest swimmer, and swam over ten miles to his destination on Catalina. Ho Hum!)

    As the hour approached, we assembled our crew of four novices and proceeded to the starting line. We had forty-five minutes before the starting gun in which to get sufficient feel of our borrowed Spitfire. She responded like no other boat I had ever sailed. Her light displacement allowed this juggernaut to pirouette like no other, yet when turned loose her acceleration made others appear stationary. ”Oh my, away we go!”

    Russ loved to start, thus he called his number, and maneuvered brilliantly, wasting no time in establishing our Val Kyrie as the boat to beat. Once in unchallenged open waters, I took over the helm and set a northeasterly course directly for Galveston. While Russ set the spinnaker, the two kids cranked on the halyard, and the two seniors secured the sheets until Russ could return aft to trim them. Under a southwesterly wind I delighted in setting a course which surely must have been our fastest point of sail that would, hopefully, hold indefinitely to Galveston. At this particular moment, after seeing the majesty of the enormous spinnaker blossom forth¬under a setting sun¬chills went up and down my spine.

    I shouted, “Say BYE-BYE” to the nice boats.

    With the seas moderate and the wind almost brisk, most other boats would likely disappear before long, except for a big beefy brand new Hunter-50 that was fading much more slowly than the others. The hours passed quickly as we got comfy with our mount. Our pick-up crew of four must have been exhausted just watching all the fun from their rail position, and soon retired to the hammocks below. Meanwhile, Russ decided to get weather reports, and shake-down the electronics.

    Before going below to do so, he tweaked the sail settings to perfection, and counseled me to sail the boat under these settings. He simply meant for me to lock-in his sail trim settings, while making subtle helm changes¬if possible¬to maintain optimum speed. Russ counseled he would keep tabs on our progress¬by monitoring the instruments below which indicated course and speed made good over the ground. If we slowed under the same heading and wind conditions, Russ threatened to yell up, “Hey partner, you falling asleep?”

    According to Russ‘s instrument readings, we were making over ten knots over the sea floor. This went on well past midnight, until the compass began indicating that I had to bare-off incrementally in order to maintain speed. Of course, a clocking wind would take us eastward of our desired course to Galveston, thus prolonging our arrival, unless we could jibe before we went much further out into the Gulf of Mexico. I feared the crew would have difficulty in manhandling those monster spinnaker poles.

    Russ emerged from below and confirmed my fears saying, “The wind is continuing to clock and we must jibe, NOW! Every minute we remain on this tack adds about three minutes of extra time to make up. You go rouse the crew and instruct them how to help you jibe the spinnaker. I’ll take the helm and handle the main.”

    I woke the crew up and took them forward to explain the mechanics of jibing and their individual responsibilities in unison. They didn’t get it. I lost them, completely. They began asking questions as if to forestall the event. After wasting twenty precious minutes on my verbalizing, Russ beckoned me back to the helm. I left them on the foredeck starring at one another over their frustrations and likely fears. Russ asked, “What’s the problem up there?”

    I said, “Russ, the crew is literally petrified. I’m afraid I’ve overwhelmed them with dos and don’ts.”

    Russ said, “I’m not surprised; you were up there long enough! You take the helm. Let’s see what I can do.”

    About ten minutes passed before Russ shouted, “Stand by to Jibe.”

    I whispered, “God help us,” and yelled back, “Jibe Ho” as we began our cautious tack, intended to place the unfaithful winds on an opposite port tack, the crew appeared alert.

    The main swung over with a lurch and a thud, while the sheets played crack-the-whip, and the spinnaker popped loudly as it fought and slapped the head stay. During about ten tortuous seconds the jibe was accomplished successfully. I looked up at the starlit heavens and whispered my Thanks to God for our pivotal, momentary miracle, and gave Thanks for the presence of Russ, one of the finest mariners I had ever known.

    With their heads held high and chests out, our crew of four smiled proudly as they returned to their hammocks for a well deserved rest¬until they were awakened to enjoy being aboard the first boat to cross the finishing line, by over thirty minutes. Unfortunately, on a handicap adjusted basis, we placed second to the Hunter 50.

    However, that mattered little.

    Without words, Russ and I understood that our greatest feeling of achievement and real reward came not from crossing the Line ahead of all boats, but from witnessing the transformation of two runny nosed kids and two fidgety senior citizens into proud full members of a successful Racing Team. We all managed to confront our particular Pivotal Moments on the high seas, and ultimately come away with fond, indelible memories to be savored forever.

    Bob Harrell

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