Never on a Sunday or:  How I learnt to Love Sailing and got to Hate Racing by Chris Ayres
As soon as I was old enough to run away from Sunday School, I learnt the Holy Writ that whenever two or three boats are gathered together on the water, there is a race.
I started on a VJ. It was cheap. When my Dad came to pick it up by car, he asked how much.
“Twelve quid, Dad!” says me.
“Bargain bach [a Welsh term of friendly address]” he nods. Now being a good Welsh Dad (they don’t make bad ones in the Land of Our Fathers) he was never wrong. So off we went to Sydney’s Pittwater for sea-trials. Disaster. Capsize. Most stable position? Keel pointing to heaven, mast to purgatory and sometimes the mud.
But I learnt to quickly get her up as I measured the depth of the bay time and again. Heavy as sin it was – hardwood mast, cotton sails, and plywood centreboard. But after mowing lawns, saving and shrewd investment in major infrastructure – terylene main and jib, borrowed spinnaker, aluminium centreboard and a strongish wind she flew. Bat out of Hell was her name and she lived up to it too.
That boat taught me to sail literally by the seat of my pants.
“How do you tune her?” my school mate forehand asked one day. “Feel her through me bum.” End of conversation.
I learnt to read the wind and calculate the time it took a gust passing through the wind tunnel that is Pittwater to come through, stop, hit the high hillsides and bounce back same force from the opposite direction. Next came a 12-foot skiff. Manu was even more responsive. Now I learnt about spinnakers and centreboards set just so, on my own, she would plane in the lightest of breezes. Oh to be young ’twere verily bloody heaven!
In those days, Pittwater was fun on weekends. The other racing boats that looked beautiful, were mostly made of timber and had names like Arcturus, Evening Star, Lady Hamilton, Vega and North Star.
Come forward now a quarter of a century. Pittwater on Sundays became a war zone. Not quite the Spanish Armada that Drake might drum up the English Channel, but a series of random floating cavalry charges from all quarters.
Boats with Dreadnought-battleship-bows waving probosci nearly as long as the boat, open stern cockpits where uncompliant crew could be flushed out to oblivion, and wedge-shaped hulls that threatened to sever anything in their way had replaced the graceful yet powerful lines of the Flying Dutchmen, Fireballs and Dragons. This new generation of offshore racers that never to my knowledge ventured outside of Pittwater, were the Formula Ones of the water. Oh, and they sported cryptic signs of obscure financial planners, ambiguous insurers and undrinkable drinks. Sponsors? Where had they come from?
And they now had funny names. Maid of Tamar was now Made o’ Money, Canopus had become Can o’ Piss. Names such as Derivative, Creditor, Tax Haven, Future Options, Overdraft, Bet-on-Black gave hint to the origins of the new money of the ’80s. The professions, not to be outdone in the name-game came up with Mea Culpa, Ratio Decidendi, Dissenting Judgement (law), Pacemaker and Blood Pressure (cardiology). But never did I see a psychologist afloat – there were no Mogadons or Bi-Polars out there. Money not enough for them to join the pole-wielding, winch-grinding maniacs who might be their obvious clients in a more caring world.
In a moment of madness (only a moment mind!) we acquired a steel dud. Slow as a pay rise she was, heavier than a banker’s bonus, with bicep-building weather helm but she was cheap and had a proper name – Fulmar (soon an acronym for Flaming Useless Lamentable Monstrous And Rusting). She had standing head room to allow you to put your pants on, four bunks (two designed for amorous leprechauns in the forecastle) a quarter berth aptly named since only a quarter of you might fit, a saloon with a hip-cracking table, a head shattering hatch and a diesel – 3.5 horsepower hand start. Let me now disillusion and depress the dreamers. No, you cannot buy a world cruising yacht for $7k! Not even in the ’80s.
Our Top Hat escapes out the Heads.But worse was to sail – or rather try to sail this block of steel.
The first Sunday, minding our own business and with now-former friends we mistakenly believed we could have, if not a quiet, at least a relaxed lunch sailing the lump of Fe2O3, we were met by a herd of charging plastic millionaires’ toys head on. One gleaming monster (the boat not the skipper) just didn’t seem to see us.
Now at moments of deep crisis I become devoutly religious – it’s a Welsh thing you know and any bloody religion will do if it helps. Oh, and I close my eyes. I knew the enemy’s spinnaker pole alone was worth twice our worldly possessions. And I couldn’t go anywhere. That’s what this new generation of sailing psychopaths just didn’t get.
“Pizz orf!” he screams. A slow boat is slow and a stationary one won’t – no, can’t move. In fact I couldn’t ‘pizz’ anywhere and certainly not ‘orf’, no matter how hard I fervently tried. The tip of his pole unseated my beanie. So I generously repaid the compliment by hurling my lunch at him. It landed in his fast-disappearing cockpit with a satisfying splosh. “Thank you” or something similar he says as he tried to shovel the bread-from-heaven out his crew-ejecting open stern. Lunch was not only gone but ruined.
The last Sunday. As we were limping along in 30 knots, three knots to windward, three to leeward, a bright fast plastic thing full of colourfully clad clowns came roaring up to us screaming “Starboard!”.
“Can’t move!” I replied. They said something like “thankyou” and roared past our stern, bow-wave swamping the dinghy we always towed in case we had to abandon ship.
“Go forth and multiply!” says I.
“Oh no, there goes the day – again. Why are you so aggressive!” gently speaks my first mate.
But devious I was. I knew that once they – the Enemy – hurtled past the windward buoy, they would have to give way to me, since I was in the same place and stationary and not going anywhere thanks to the work they had done turning the dinghy into a drogue. So back they come. This time they scream “Racing! Get out of the #@*%ing way you heap of %^&*.” Nice types I thought.
Sunday afternoon on Pittwater as I remember it.“Nine tonnes. Steel!” says me. “Thank you,” or similar they say again as they realise this iron lady ain’t for turnin’. Then I sort of lose clear recollection. Sails flap. Big bright plastic thing comes into the wind. Stops. Like me. Spinnaker comes entangled. Language is rude. Very rude. My friend-for-life is furious. The day is ruined but is about to get worse.
An idiot comes on the scene at the wrong moment. One of their crew makes a fatal mistake. He drops his bespoke tailormade $500 yachting shorts and reveals a fat, pink moon.
That is too much for our cattle dog. The honour of his mistress impugned, he hurtles though the air, clears the life rails of both vessels and is about to sink his fangs to aforementioned plump bum when owner of this flabby posterior, seeing the Biblical menace of a gnashing of teeth taking a literal meaning as dog flies towards him, seeks to escape in the narrow confines of the cockpit.
Fancy Pants now finds his expensive shorts down around his ankles. He trips, falls and ‘splash!’. Meanwhile dog thinks this is great fun – now for the coup de grace and dives after his target into the water. About this time I choose to assert my authority. Attack is, as Napoleon always thought, the best form of defence, at least prior to Waterloo, anyway.
“Look what you’ve done now!” accuses I. “You’ve soaked my dog! Poor thing could get eaten by a shark (this remark provokes demented activity from naked man in the water). You cruel inhuman swine.”
“And,” I add chivalrously, “your floundering fool has deeply offended my Lady Wife.”
Skipper of the boarded yacht responds by muttering a confused something as he looks at his ruined foredeck and contemplates his ruined day. Lady Wife fumes furiously. You’ll keep she thinks. Meanwhile I grab bedraggled but triumphant dog and flee at the giddy speed of three knots – sideways. He who fights and runs away … hell no, just quit while still alive!
After persuasive consultation with Herself, I promise never ever to go out on a Sunday again. Not ever, never so Help Me God. But surely Sunday School was never this much fun!
So my last race on Pittwater was on someone else’s boat and on a Monday. Steve was the mildest kindest and gentlest man you could ever meet. He owned a beautiful timber 30-foot sloop, in keeping for such a caring, gentle man. The fact the other crew-member also had never sailed with him before should have rung a warning bell. In fact – as I later discovered, hindsight being 20/20 - no-one ever sailed with Steve twice. Once again, I was doomed.
The race began quite nicely. We were well-placed at the start and, assisted by a brisk sou’easter, roared down the bay. But the boat wasn’t doing the roaring. Steve had undergone a horrific transformation and Mr Hyde had replaced the kindly Dr Jekyll.
“Ready abart! Move it you useless #**^ing couple of %^&*s” What? Us ponders I? That’s not nice? But then – whack! I am beaten with a rope’s end. Zing! I duck as the rope’s end flies over my head this time, followed by derogatory remarks about my beloved Celtic ancestors. Quickly I join the other crew-member cowering up on the foredeck. Out of harm’s way. Or so I thought.
But this was not a good place to be. Life is about to become very, very nasty. Our maniac skipper now tries to squeeze tight up past the halfway buoy.
The Iron Boat.Good tactic, apart from the very expensive yacht that now appears under our bow. Bang! There goes $10k. Then, the yacht following us, not expecting us to suddenly stop as we bury ourselves at considerable expense into the hull of the yacht in front, goes crunch!!! ($20k!) T-boning us.
The forestay goes twang, crew and I grab the now-useless halyard – since the genoa was shredding itself like files from a US embassy in a middle eastern consulate about that time – and as the pulpit (the place from whence sermons are delivered both on and off the water) and attached stanchions were still returning from the sky together with other expensive debris, and tie it to the anchor cleat.
The mast stays up – just. Meanwhile, it’s the Battle of the Nile all over again. Wreckage wherever we look. Dismasted and sinking ships surround us. Maniac skipper has gone an awful shade of blue and is foaming incoherently, spittle flying in the wind.
12-foot skiff Manu which I had in the mid-’60s. Someone on one of the salvaged wrecks drifting nearby remarks, “Hope you chaps are insured!” But Steve wasn’t. Never believed in it. Why would anybody as calm and gentle as Steve ever need insurance?
But I had learned at last the fundamental rule of racing – never ever trust any boat behind you. Buy a boat that can sail its way out of trouble. And let the problems be in front, well in front, where you can watch ’em and avoid ’em. Oh, and never ever sail on a Sunday.
Years on, I was in north Queensland and humbly held back – as I do - from the racing fleet, giving them all the room they needed. I was only pleasure sailing after all. For fun and the joy of sailing.
I heard the familiar screams of “thank you” or similar. Only as I drew closer did I see people waving and actually meaning “thank you”. These were different racing people from those I had endured in Pittwater. Long may it be that way.
I won’t race – not any more – ever. But sometimes there is another yacht on the horizon. I tweak the sheets and look up at the set of the main. On the genoa, check that the tell-tales set nicely like fish tails. My boat murmurs as hull speed is reached. After all I simply can’t let it pass me … Can I?