Frank's Corner: Pivotal Moments by Robert Harrell

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    Pivotal Moments by Robert Harrell

    1980: A Sailing We Shall Go!

    Looking back, I suppose at the age of fifty, I had entered those restless, anxious years we call Mid-Life-Crisis. Although family life couldn’t have been better: blessed Lynne was a soul mate and Emily and Alison were college bound. And my money management occupation was stimulating. However, my three partners had become complacent during a prolonged doggy stock market. This frustrated me and added to my surplus competitive juices. Mixed-doubles tennis and week-end golf were fun, but they failed to vent. I craved something more stimulating­short of motorcycle racing or bungee diving.

    To my surprise, I realized sailboat racing absorbed leftover juices, and then some. I marveled at the excitement generated by a small craft, moving only a few knots per hour. After reading a dozen or so How to Sail books, I discovered that competitive sailing entailed more mental and physical challenges than I had expected. This sailing thing began with dingy races off our backyard pier on Clear Lake, Texas, and mushroomed with a step-up to “Super Juice,” a high-performance Santana 24, sailboat having a unique dagger board and dagger rudder layout, and a wide assortment of sails for all conditions.­ Hot off the Astrodome showroom floor; ­all in all, quite a spirited craft for the seasonal winds and six-foot chop of Galveston Bay. It promised to be unbeatable in light air and exceptionally maneuverable in the bay’s shallow waters.

    Together with a group of neighborhood Astronauts, most of whom had little or no sailing experience, we got the racing bug, and decided to campaign “Supper Juice” in the coming year-long contest sponsored by the Galveston Bay Cruising & Racing Association. Hundreds of different racing hull boats, each having a distinct TIRC handicap rating, participated. The annual winner would be determined by the lowest total adjusted time during all sixteen races held during the Summer, Fall, Winter, and Spring Series. Many scores of boats of all sizes were present in the Open-Class division, a number of which were sponsored by factory trained crews or sail loft owners, and skippered by internationally recognized mermen such as John Kolius. (Later, John would win the International J 24 competition and proudly skipper a boat in the Olympics.)

    To everyone’s great surprise, except perhaps our extraordinarily gifted, but neophyte, crew of astronauts, our devil-may-care approach on the water attracted attention from established competitors, especially one particular boat, about our size, skippered by a spirited and respected young woman. Her name escapes me, so let’s just refer to her as Brunhilda. She trailed Super Juice, slightly, in the Summer Series, with the final day at hand. The morning was already hot and becalmed as the boats slowly maneuvered for advantaged positions prior to the starting gun. Super Juice just sat motionless on top of the starting line, near the committee boat, to await the starter’s gun before laying-off to begin its initial starboard tack. One of the crew commented, “Is that Brunhilda, bearing down on us?”

    From the opposite end of the line, on a starboard reach, Brunhilda bore down on us. Her starboard tack gave her right-of-way over all boats on an opposite port tack. Although dead in the water, Super Juice held a limp port tack; its boom pointed to the helmsman’s right shoulder; making us vulnerable to being fouled out by the approaching Brunhilda. I got giddy and pretended not to see her. She kept coming, Fantastic! We waited for the moment that she took her eye off of us to nudge the boom over about two feet to starboard. Intent on nailing our stern with her bow, she just kept coming. She clipped us as she ghosted by, screeching “Foul” while running up her red Protest Flag. We noted the identity of the other boats near us so that they might be available to verify our starboard tack configuration to the Protest Committee following the race. To Brunhilda’s great surprise, she lost her protest, but probably felt relieved that Super Juice had not reciprocated in kind by hoisting our red flag for her unjustified ramming. Eventually, Super Juice managed to win the Summer Series! As the helmsman, I thrilled at magically ghosting past virtually the entire fleet during light air conditions, particularly on spinnaker runs over mirrored waters. Perhaps we had been activated by sheer Astronaut brain waves?

    Soon, however, the unruly fall and winter winds would arrive, unleashing on Super Juice and her unproven crew. During the Fall series, we soon experienced 40 knot winds, that led to a tortuous dismasting caused by Super Juice sailing over its own spinnaker following an attempted take-down at the blustery leeward mark. The Santana factory in California replaced our mast and rigging within a few days, allowing us to continue, and eventually receive a Second Place in the Fall Series. We began getting Who Are Those Guys? looks from the other boats. We tried not to look coy.

    Next, in the Winter Series, I sported a heavy plaster cast over a broken ankle, up to the knee, which prevented me from going aloft to free the spinnaker halyard which had jammed in the block atop the 40 foot mast­following our rounding that same blustery mark where we lost our mast earlier. I turned to Astronaut Brewster Shaw for help. Despite very strong winds and heavy chop, he agreed, readily, to go aloft to free the uncontrollable sail which threatened to capsize Super Juice. But first, I removed and secured my own belt around Brewster and attached a free halyard to hoist him to the top of the mast. As a renowned former test pilot, Brewster was no stranger to danger. He performed brilliantly freeing the sail and began his descent. At that moment; his borrowed belt broke releasing him into a free fall toward a pitching deck. As if he had practiced and mastered the free fall, Brewster fully extended both arms majestically and caught the horizontal, metal spreaders, half way down the mast, thus breaking his fall, and then monkeyed down the mast from there. Had Brewster not been so adroit, Astronaut Jeff Hoffman had crouched in preparation to catch him. (A few years later, Jeff received the nation’s admiration when he went into space to personally repair the Hubble Telescope.)

    With a Second and a First under our collective belt, some of the crew suggested we might have a chance to win First Place for the entire year-long 1980 Regatta. However, I knew we had forespent our light air advantage and could fall prey to those big, sleek, stable ocean goers in the crueler months ahead.

    Nevertheless, by the time we completed all 16 races, we knew Super Juice had a descent shot at winning the 1980 Regatta. Alas, following the awards dinner at the Houston Yacht Club, the 5-foot trophy went to a magnificent 36-foot J Boat, crewed by a celebrated factory team, but Super Juice finished in Second Place, just one pivotal moment (actually a mere fraction of a second of adjusted handicap time) behind the winning boat for the entire 1980 year.

    Unquestionably, America’s Astronauts are amazing human beings. God bless them, one and all!

    As for Super Juice, it beat itself into little pieces against our dock during Hurricane Alicia in 1983, at which moment we were exploring the hills around Lake Tahoe - Robert Harrell

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