Boating Adventures | "Losers But Not Quitters" | Story & Pictures by Vicki Totten

I admit that when my husband first approached me about crewing in a sailboat race, I did not immediately jump at the chance. Even though we were approaching our second year as sailboat owners, racing had never been something on my to do list. Plus, at 60 years old, I had come to accept that I was just not a very competitive person. I suppose I could have discouraged him from including me by reminding him of what happened with my friend Dee, who I used to go stay with on her boat. Besides living on a boat, Dee is a competitive person in everything she does, including bicycling. My idea of biking is that you pedal some, look around at the scenery, pedal some more, then repeat. She wrote me a letter a few years ago saying that if I wanted to go biking with her again, I would first have to take a spinning class. So, assuming that in a sailboat race coasting would be discouraged, I wasn’t all that excited about entering into a competitive situation with a bunch of sailors.

But, my husband’s thinking was that if we volunteered to crew on someone else’s boat, it would improve our confidence on the water, expose us to new ideas about sailing, and help meet other people. And since the yacht club in Rockport where we dock our boat, has a spring race series, this seemed like a logical place to start. So, I reluctantly agreed.

Stan had been checking out our options by talking to various other yacht club members planning to race, and I had assumed we would wait and decide together when we attended the “skippers meeting” in advance of the race. So I was surprised when he walked over at a yacht club meeting to tell me he had found us a boat to crew on, and whose boat it was. Our soon to be "74 years young" skipper was very encouraging and kind - and obviously very beloved by the group. But there was also a lot of joking within the group about his abilities – which did not do much to put me at ease. However, Stan had already committed us, so I quieted my misgivings and moved ahead with the plan.

The morning of the race, I suspect we were both a little anxious, since we ended up leaving our boat an hour before we needed to be on the boat we were going out on. When we arrived on his dock, however, the skipper and a snowbird friend of his were already getting things ready. So, before I had time to question my decision, we were off and headed to the starting line.

My only experience with sailboat racing before this point had been ones I had seen on TV. You know the ones - the boats are flying along, with very young and fit men straining and yelling as the boats zoom past one another in the water at full speed. Well, this wasn’t one of those. The first difference was that we had staggered start times based on our handicaps – something to do with the size of the boat, the sails used, and number of hulls. Even though I didn’t understand exactly how the handicap was determined – I knew that the sooner your start time, the larger your handicap. The race was to begin at 11:00 a.m., and our start time was 11:11 a.m., which put us as the third boat out of ten to cross the starting line, a starting line which consists of two huge orange balls in the water that you sail between.

Our skipper did a good job of assigning tasks and of letting us know that even though he was the skipper, it was our race and we could take on as much control of it as we wanted. It quickly became clear that his friend was even more inexperienced than Stan and me. By the end of the six hour race, Stan and I were pulling most of the lines for the sails, and Stan was at the helm as much as our skipper was.

In hindsight I can’t say exactly what I was expecting. I guess first of all, I expected us to be constantly dodging other boats. Other than at the starting line, that really wasn’t an issue. Sometimes you would look up and see that several of the boats were half a mile away, not to the front or back, but to the side of you. The route of the race involved finding various oil platforms in the water and sailing around them to get to the next one. This was not as simple as our map led us to believe. At times it felt more like a scavenger hunt than a race. The route, according to the map, was designed to go from one specific platform (labeled with a letter on our map) to another, then back to the start line and out and back again. And even though we had fuzzy pictures and brief descriptions of the platforms we were supposed to be aiming for, it turns out there are a lot of oil platforms in the Gulf. To add to this particular challenge, was a dense fog for the first few hours of the race, which was followed by cold rain. But the one element missing for five of the six hours we were out was any wind. Literally, no wind. My images of how thrilling a sailboat race might be were soon replaced by minutes and even hours of chilled boredom waiting for something to lift our sails and help propel us forward.

In the end, whatever fantasies and fears I may have had about crewing in a race, I now know what’s important. As important as it is to take a rain coat, a hat, water, and sun block, what’s really important is the attitude you take with you. Any concerns I had about Stan’s choice of skipper disappeared after a few hours on the boat. It turns out that our skipper was a retired air force navigator, so you could also be pretty sure we weren’t going to end up lost. But the thing I appreciated the most was his attitude. I now understand that the joking about his abilities was just that - joking. His sense of humor and seeming lack of concern about whether we were winning or losing helped put me at ease and allowed me to just have fun with what was – even if it was less than ideal. At one point, after about 5 hours of what I had been told would be a 2 to 3 hour race, the discussion turned to whether or not we should just quit before the last loop out, since we were all getting pretty worn out. As we discussed our options - we came up with our mantra that ultimately helped us make that final push to the finish line. Our mantra was “we may be losers but we are not quitters.” And as a reward for this newfound enthusiasm to finish the race, the wind Gods suddenly appeared, allowing us to push the boat to its top sailing speed for the last hour of the race, giving me a glimpse of what a sailing race could be like. And even though we were happy to just be “losers but not quitters” we were in for one last discovery as we rounded that last oil platform and headed to the finish line. Suddenly, trailing behind us out of nowhere appeared one last boat. So not only were we losers but not quitters – we also weren’t last. And it turns out that apparently I’m not as non-competitive as I thought I was. Who knows what I’ll discover the next time we do this?

Vicki and husband, ceramic artist Stan Irvin, are both retired professors who have discovered the joys of Rockport and living part-time on their 33' sailboat and are still working up the nerve to venture further out into the Gulf.

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