A Day at the Races

Dominic and I had our first racing experience on Wednesday, and it was absolutely thrilling. We were hesitant to get involved at first—38 feet long and 14 feet wide, with a full keel and weighing 14 tons, Helios is built for comfort and not for speed. We considered crewing aboard our friends Greg and Kaycee’s 41 foot catamaran, Oceanna; we considered leaving early and designating ourselves finish line photographers; but when I woke to bluebird skies and 30 knot winds, and Dominic brought me coffee in bed, and he bored his chocolate eyes persuasively into mine and said, “let’s race”—it didn’t seem like I could say no, so we went for it.

I’m so glad we did, because it was some of the most exciting and engaging sailing I’ve ever experienced. The course was 17 nautical miles and began in the Vava’u’s main harbor, Neiafu. It looped around the islands in Vava’u’s central bay before ending in an anchorage on the eastern side of the main island.

Most of our white-knuckle moments occurred at the very start of the race when all 20 boats crossed the starting line at 11 am and had to do a lap through Neiafu’s enclosed bay, starting at the northern entrance and circling a mega yacht at the southern end. The bay is narrow and flanked with mooring fields and shallow waters, so Dominic and I executed more sailing maneuvers in the first 30 minutes of the race to maintain speed and avoid collision than we have in the entirety of our adventure thus far.

The boats designed for speed quickly distinguished themselves: 80 foot and professionally crewed, Feeling Good left us all in her wake, while we had a stunning image of Unwind, a 55 foot custom aluminum monohull, and Penn Station, a 44 foot Hylas, raising their colorful spinnakers in tandem after rounding the turning mark. These three went on to take first, second, and third in the race, and this was the last glimpse of them we had.

We were proud to be keeping pace with Oceanna. They had a late start and were overtaking us at the turning point when Dominic had a stroke of tactical brilliance and directed me to head slightly upwind, effectively cutting them off, keeping our sails full, stealing their wind and causing them to luff and stall.

Before we set sail, I had vowed to disengage from my competitive nature and appreciate the learning experience of our first race—but as we pulled ahead of Oceanna my zen went overboard and I found my pelvis thrusting at the helm and my voice saying things like, “Ugggghhhhh, faster, faster, get the code zero out, Dom, we’re ridin’ dirty!”

Dave, Oceanna’s crew, was politely pointing to higher wind areas farther north we could enjoy to get Oceanna out of our shadow and fill her sails, but Kaycee, another first time racer who seemed to be having a similar experience as me said, “Dave is just being nice, get the hell out of our way!” (which was of course followed by: “oh Corinne, I love your top!”).

No to worry, Oceanna forgave us as we approached the dead-downwind pass out of Neiafu. They went wing and wing, cleanly pulling ahead into the next stretch of the race. They went on to be the first catamaran (of three) to finish the race. We kept them in eyesight through the duration of the race and consider that a huge success.

The next leg of the race was long and straight. We had the wind on our beam, occasionally blocked by the island to port. I stayed at the helm while Dominic kept the sails in trim, watched for traffic, and monitored our course. We passed two boats—a 35 foot monohull sloop, Alkira, and our friends aboard Wairua, a 33 foot cat-rigged ketch. Boat speed is largely determined by hull length, so our speedy performance in these conditions could have been easily predicted. But still, as we’re sailing neophytes and Wairua is crewed by salty racers, we were jazzed by our performance.

As we pulled into the open waters of Vava’u, the winds and the stakes got higher. We were averaging six knots in 25 knots of wind; we saw our boat speed hit 8 knots while the anemometer pushed 35. We healed to 40 degrees, the weatherhelm made my triceps burn, and more than once our starboard solar panel took a dip in the salty water. There were reefs and overtaken vessels to dodge, as well as wind shadows to avoid.

We watched Alkira crash tack to avoid being jack knifed by a 55 foot monohull.

We opted for a slightly longer course so we could cover the last stretch of the race on a single, clean, starboard tack. We finished in three hours, noting with pleasure that we achieved our ultimate goal of not finishing last. For my first time ever, I went an entire afternoon sail without once being tempted to nestle in the sunshine and enjoy the comforts of a novel.

And what could possibly be more thrilling than a race such as this?

The afterparty! We received visitors who had been tracking our progress on AIS congratulating us on our stellar performance. We spent the afternoon aboard Oceanna having a wild, jump-off-the-bimini-into-the-torquoise-waters-style soiree. We spent the night on the beach dancing to the greatest hits of Michael Jackson, Shania Twain, and The Village People, spun by Tonga’s own DJ Q. We ran into Pesa, our whale watching guide, who was wearing a fierce orange tracksuit and had his hair picked out into a fabulous, foot-deep afro. There was an after-afterparty, the likes of which aren’t quite appropriate to post on the blog.

These were insanely, wicked good times. One of my favorite parts of cruising is finding myself in scenes I never could have ever predicted. Who knew I would ever go to Samoa? Or could get excited about fermenting cabbage into kraut? Or would badger my new bearded English friend into dancing a minuet with me to the tunes of Cindy Lauper after finding twelfth place in a sailing race to be the end all of awesomeness? At sea, anything and everything is possible.