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Sailing on the Moon

On the verge of committing to a boatbuilding
project that would take all my money, at least three years of nonstop toil, and
strain my marriage perhaps fatally, it occurred to me that I hadn’t even
sailed once on a sister ship of the boat I proposed to build.

That was understandable, because in all the
world there were only two of them finished and sailing. Venus, the prototype, was currently somewhere in the North Atlantic
headed for England and Moon was anchored in Bermuda.

I
had been on board Venus at anchor in Antigua. Designed by Caribbean
sailing legend Paul Johnson, she was a 42 ft gaff-rigged ketch whose lines paid
homage to Colin Archer. I had loved the look and feel of the vessel — her
heavy displacement, her cavernous interior, massive construction, and salty
lines. These boats you couldn’t buy off the shelf. You had to build your
own.

But
when I expressed my enthusiasm to another sailor he snorted and said,
“She’ll be a real dog in light airs, I’ll bet.” The guy
was chronically negative but still his remark made me wonder. What if I put all
that time and money and effort in – and she was a dog? It behooved me to at least sail on one before I put my
money down.

John Frith, Moon’s owner, was a friend and when he brought her down to
the Caribbean that winter he invited me to
race on Moon with him at the upcoming
St. Barts regatta. So the day before the race I flew from St. Thomas to St
Barts, passing close enough to St John’s East End for me to recognize one
of my shirts on the clothesline and my first boat at her mooring in the
beautiful mystic blue of the cove.

The
day of the race dawned clear and calm. “It’s beautiful…but
not our preferred weather,” said Frith as we
motored out in the dinghy. “These boats are wonderful sea boats but they
do require some breeze!” My acquaintance’s remark about being
“a dog in light airs” came to mind but I pushed it away. Give the
boat a chance, I thought.

The
breeze picked up in time for the start, which we aced. The first leg was
downwind to Pain de Sucre, a large, conical rock topped by some hardy scrub
about a mile or two out from the picturesque fishing village of Corrosol. Half way to Pain du
Sucre, we were flying everything from jib tops’l
to a striped mizzen staysail and we were still one of the first three boats,
the other two being a Swan and a 50 ft French racing machine.

“She’s no dog, at least not downwind,” I thought. But
when we rounded the end of the island, the next mark, a prominent stone pillar
universally known as Cock Rock, was dead against the wind.

Just about then the wind died away to scarcely 5 knots. We scanned the
sea for signs of better air but the only possibility was
up on the heights of St. Barts where dark clouds seemed to be gathering but
they weren’t moving

One
boat after another put up their light air jennies and
passed us easily. We might as well have been dead in the water, we were moving
so slow. Within twenty minutes we went from vanguard
to dead last

“Well, the beer should be cold by now… we might as well accept
that today just isn’t our day. Sorry you flew all the way over for such a
lackluster performance, Peter. This isn’t fair to good old Moon… she can do better.”

I
made the appropriate reply but the word “DOG!” kept coming to mind.
It was a little depressing… did I really want to put out three years labor in
order to have the slowest boat in the fleet? We all opened cervezas.
Jill, John’s wife, served some food. We gazed at the long line of boats
stretching single file ahead of us, not really paying any attention, when a low
whistle came from Frith.

“Hang on! If this should reach us!” he said with suppressed
excitement.

I looked at where he was pointing.

The dark cloud atop the island had started to move, rolling steadily
down the slopes, picking up speed. We watched,
fascinated as it spilled over everything in its way. The black belly of the
nimbus morphed and writhed like vipers in a pit, an eerie sight as it
approached, blocking out the sun, rasping up white caps off the sea surface. It
knocked the lead boat down flat and thundered in its sails as the crew
struggled to douse them.

Warned, the next boat luffed up into the wind
and tried to drop its sails, but the roller furling jammed and the sail flogged
with such violence it threatened to take the mast down, til
it ripped in half, making a sound like a gigantic fingernail scraped down an
enormous chalk board. On came the windstorm, down the procession of boats, like
a bowling ball knocking off pins. Ahead of us booms were flogging, sails
splitting, crews scrambling.

From aloft came a cold draft of air. “Let the mainsheet
run!” said John as veils of spume lifted off the sea and raced at us. The
wind struck like a drop hammer, the mainsheet smoked through its blocks, the
head sails and mizzen caught the strain and groaned at their clews but held.
With little way on, Moon heeled over
until water flooded in the scuppers and up, up up the
deck to the rim of the portholes. Then she began to move, to glide forward out
from under the weight.

“Now sheet the main back in!” called John, and we jumped to
do it. By the time it was sheeted in and drawing, Moon was hitting her stride, charging along at about 8 knots,
pulling a toppling stern wave and leaving a wake that seethed in the scuppers
and came boiling up past the rudder.

The boat was in her element, striding the sea under full working sail,
passing catamarans and Beneteaus, even the Swan; boat
after boat was heaved to, or staggering to windward with a big bubble in the
main or just lying ahull waiting for the wind to
moderate. It blew 40 knots for five minutes during which time Moon passed every boat in the fleet. It
was exhilarating while it lasted. Gradually the wind dropped off until it was
even calmer than before. We slowed, the ocean racer passed us again, closely
followed by the Swan – by the time we switched on the motor we were dead
last once again, but I didn’t care.

Moon had showed me the bottom
line. I hoped to cruise the high seas with my family on any boat I built. Did I
want a boat that was fast in light airs but overpowered in heavy weather? Or
did I want a vessel that came into her own when the
wind and seas rose?

As my friend John Costanzo says, is that a
trick question?

So was she a dog in light airs? Maybe… I’d let the diesel deal
with it if ever it became an issue.

Well satisfied, I said goodbye to the Friths
and caught the Virgin Air flight back to St.
Thomas.

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