The committee boat, an old 26-foot Navy workboat, tied up at the dock

The race committee boat is an old 26-foot Navy workboat.

novice sailor gets race rules primer

Learning the racing ropes

As my friend Charlie and I walk along the dock in Oriental, N.C., on a sunny Saturday morning, we see white sails in the distance slip smoothly over blue water reflecting sapphire skies and puffy white clouds.

We pass a 42-foot luxury catamaran, a sleek 26-foot sloop and a new 44-foot cat before stopping at an old 26-foot Navy workboat that has seen better days.

“This is it?” I ask. This is the boat that will take us out on the Neuse River?

Charlie thinks being aboard a race committee boat will help me understand sailing. What do I know—I come from the Adirondacks. He’s overseeing a race for another class of boats, and these sailors will time him when he races in his Ensign class.

Although the boat is functional, no proud owner has lovingly polished its white sides or named it whimsically. Before we board, Bill, an octogenarian, and Dave, a young CEO type, join us.

After introductions, the three men open the large storage box by the slip and take out race instructions, a course board and a variety of flags. The race will start at noon.

Dave will man the radio and drive the boat. Charlie, who is the presiding race officer, will pull up the anchor.

We stow our things on board, and Dave checks the radio and starts the engine. Spray and seagulls accompany us as we motor out to the course. When Dave shuts down the engine, it’s suddenly quiet.

Bill removes a compass, special watch and rule book from his backpack and sets them aside. He opens a box containing a tangled jumble of items, removes a metal cylinder with two openings and attaches shiny orange plastic to one end. The orange plastic grows like an invading alien until I squirm out of its reach. The floating orange pyramid will establish the start and finish line.

At noon there’s no wind, so we raise the red-and-white postponement pennant.

When the wind finally comes from the southwest, we choose a position and raise the blue awning to protect us from the sun. The boat rocks gently, and we decide to set the course and anchor. When the wind shifts to northwest, Charlie pulls anchor, Dave starts the engine, and we move. The radio crackles occasionally whenever a boater wants assurance that we know what we’re doing.

As we change position, a 35-foot boat sails beside us, blocking our path. Charlie calls for right-of-way, and the skipper replies, “Sailboats have right-of-way over powerboats.”

True enough, but Charlie explodes. “We’re trying to set a course, God damn it! Get out of the way!”

“Temper, Charlie, temper,” Bill quietly reproves. The boat moves off, and Charlie gives the thumbs up, his genial self again.

With a new windward starting line, the course changes. This time the wind cooperates, and we anchor, drop the postponement flag and raise the white class flag a minute later, signaling that this is a jib and mainsail handicap race.

In another minute the blue-and-white warning flag goes up. We sound the horn as a courtesy, but the flag is the official signal that racers look for. Three minutes later as the boats circle for a starting position, we drop the warning flag. Exactly one minute after that, our official timer, Bill, announces the time, and the white flag is removed. At exactly 1300 with no flags flying, the race begins!

Now we get to sit … and sit … and sit. The race won’t end until 30 minutes after the first boat crosses the finish line.

I write down the numbers on the large sails, so we know that 14 boats are in the race. I also jot down unfamiliar words and ask lots of questions. I learn that tweaking your sails is based on wind conditions. And when Dave tells me about different winds and that a “lift” shifts you closer to the wind, Bill dryly remarks, “A lift is for your shoes.” The craggy-faced New Englander eyes me from under the wide brim of his old hat and smiles. Charlie later tells me that Bill is an acknowledged sailing expert and has sailed the Newport Bermuda Race.

“What’s a handicap race?” I ask.

“When you have sailboats of different size and design as we do today, adjustments are made to make the race fair for all,” Charlie answers. This is different from Ensign races, in which all the boats are the same and skill makes the difference. In a handicap race, faster boats give so many seconds per mile to slower boats. Each boat has a specific handicap, and the first boat to finish might not be the winner. After we turn in each boat’s time at the end of the race, the race coordinator will use software to determine the finish order and declare a winner.

Dave announces that sailboats are returning. Bill sits quietly across from me, his hat shading his eyes as he studies his GPS timepiece. As each boat crosses the finish line Dave calls out, “Over,” and Charlie announces the boat’s number and blows the horn. Bill tells me the exact GPS time, and I record it on the forms. The first boat finishes at 1400 hours, eight minutes and 59 seconds.

The boats arrive quickly after that, one after another. The last boat finishes close to the ending time, 30 minutes after the first boat crossed the finish line, but we wait a couple of minutes and record it anyway. One boat doesn’t finish and is designated DNF.

We retrieve and deflate our orange pyramid, pull anchor, put everything away and head home. With the sounds of the engine and waves slapping the sides of the boat, we race the seagulls back to the dock.

Dave maneuvers the boat into the slip and cuts the engine. He and Charlie carry gear to the onshore locker box, and Bill and I follow. Charlie hands in the race results, and though we don’t stay to listen to tall tales and gripes about the wind, we happily accept our reward: cold beers.