International 505. ON THE EDGE: racing dinghies, and a woman
By John Joss

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    International 505. ON THE EDGE: racing dinghies, and a woman
    by John Joss

    The scene: sailing the 5-0-5 at the St. Francis Yacht Club in San Francisco. The 'Five-Oh' racing dinghy, designed by John Westell in 1953 but still a thrill to sail and race, is five meters and five centimeters of brutal physical test, a beast in boat's clothing. Beautiful but deadly. The crew handles the jib and spinnaker, and rides the trapeze. Managing the sheets requires an athletic combination of dexterity and strength, as well as instant-by-instant judgment. It also demands indifference to pain, as the wires and ropes cut and burn—leather gloves, fingertips cut off, are standard equipment.

    The trapeze? A pair of wires, one hanging from the mast on each side, with a large steel ring a foot above the deck, which must be clipped to a hook on the crew’s torso harness. It enables the crew get his or her weight outboard to keep the boat upright, feet on the gunwale. Weight shifting is done by bending the knees to get body mass inboard when the wind lessens. Lose footing on that narrow gunwale, and the crew risks sliding forward and inboard, out of control, perhaps falling into the jib upside down and initiating an inevitable capsize—unpopular because capsizing, though rapidly recoverable, loses races.

    Too often a crew is hanging over the water, horizontal, butting the body into the waves, taking half of them in the face, occasionally ducking and letting the skipper collect a big one, for grins. The boat behaves like a demented hydroplane, hurtling from wave top to wave top in a lather of foam, on the edge of control. On the Bay, a wet suit is essential both for skipper and crew, to stave off the bone-numbing, 50-degree Pacific chill. Several layers of wet sweaters bring the combatants up to fighting weight. We never finish a race in the Bay’s typical heavy weather without being falling-down cold, wet and exhausted. All part of the Five-Oh's ineffable charm. Solution: head for the bar.

    I walk up to the bar in sailing gear. I'm a soggy mess, dribbling water through the cut-open toes of my sneakers, and here is this breathtaking creature, with exotic makeup and a mane of back-combed auburn hair streaked blonde, demure in gauzy chiffon and spike-heeled sandals, fingernails and eyelashes out to there. A player, obviously. She is escorted by the upper-class twit of the year—blazer, club tie. Drinking at the St. Francis is apparently his idea of a high-intensity sport. She could definitely - beautiful but probably deadly. She seems too slight to crew on San Francisco Bay, where the northwesterlies howl through the Golden Gate at 20-25 knots most of the summer, calling for continual use of the trapeze. "Interesting outfit for sailing," I suggest to her. My grin is calculated to disarm her. I am mistaken.

    "Hmmm. Interesting outfit for standing at a bar with actual humans." Her repartee induces a mixture of anger and attraction. Testing time ... for her, or for me?

    "We’re at a yacht club, okay." Score: about even. "Want to try the Five-Oh?"

    She laughs: "Why not?"

    I look directly into her eyes: "Now? Mine’s at the dock, rigged and ready."

    She gazes back, unblinking: "Sure." Thrust, parry, riposte.

    "I'll borrow gear for you," I offered. "Wet suit. Sweaters. Trapeze harness."

    An hour later we are back at the bar, wet and cold to the bone. The upper-class twit? Vanished. I have inducted her into the Five-Oh Hall of Pain, out on the trapeze despite her inexperience. She has taken it all in stride and accepted my commands dutifully, as required of a good crew, no complaints despite a capsize and recovery under the eye of the Coastguard in its rescue chopper. Now her nails are chipped and broken, her hair plastered down like a drowned rat's, her eyelashes vanished, her makeup streaked. She is simply ... gorgeous, wearing the biggest grin I have ever seen.

    What a sport. What a woman. I am stunned, amazed.

    I never saw her again

    Copyright by John Joss

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