The Great Schooner Race, 2008
“We just crossed the starting line,” Captain Garth Wells announces to his passengers. “We’re in the lead.”
This is surprising on two counts. First, Captain Garth had been modestly downplaying his Race Day chances since the start of fit-out season back in April; his bone-deep modesty had convinced me we’d be reading transoms all day. Second, and more surprising, is the simple fact that the race is already underway. After all, there’s no physical starting line (no banners or buoys) and there are no signals (no starting gun, no flag waving, not even a casual “Go!”) to mark the start of the race.
Earlier this morning in foggy Holbrook Island Harbor, all the captains met aboard the Victory Chimes to determine the course and the start time. They decided the race would start at 10:30 a.m., and the course would begin on an imaginary line stretching between Islesboro Ledge and Cupola Point in upper Penobscot Bay.
In the moments before the race began, 15 windjammers tacked back and forth in an effort to speed across this imaginary line at exactly 10:30, and not a moment earlier.
Captain Garth timed his approach perfectly, and, had he not humbly announced the onset of the race, it’s likely I’d have remained unaware.
Jenny gives tours.
This isn’t to say the race is unexciting. It might be a low-key, low-stakes, gentlemen’s race, but it’s inherently exhilarating to see so many tall ships heeled over and pressing for the windward mark under a rich blue sky. (It’s so enthralling, in fact, that we attract the attention of a P3 Orion sub hunter; it circles the windjammer fleet several times before continuing its transatlantic flight in search of nuclear submarines.)
The weather this morning was foggy and dead calm—not exactly perfect race weather—but as we motored into the Bay, the fog lifted and a light wind picked up.
For the Lewis R. French, the light wind is a godsend. Under stronger winds, she’d be at a disadvantage.
When it comes to speed, size matters. Windjammers have displacement hulls, which means they plow through the water rather than skim across it like some powerboats and small sailboats with planing hulls. (Entire books have been devoted to boat design, and full chapters could be devoted to sussing out the differences between displacement, semi-displacement, and planing hulls; however, in the interest of brevity, let’s limit the discussion to displacement.) Length is such a determining factor with displacement hulls, you can determine a boat’s top speed without ever leaving the dock. In the 1800s, an Englishman named William Froude determined the formula for hull speed: 1.34 x the square root of the vessel’s length at her waterline. (In the case of the Lewis R. French, 1.34 x the square root of 55 feet equals a hull speed of just under 10 knots.)
As a boat moves through the water, two waves form: the forward wave (known as the bow wave) and a wave directly behind it (known as the stern wave). At low speeds, these waves are relatively close together, but, as the boat speed increases, the second wave moves aft. The faster you go, the farther the two waves spread apart. However, when the second wave reaches the stern of a displacement hull, the boat can move no faster—the hull is too tightly cradled between the two waves it creates. With a longer hull, however, the vessel can reach higher speeds before the second wave reaches the stern and halts any further acceleration.
Alongside the Angelique.
Nearly all the vessels in the fleet have the advantage of being longer than the Lewis R. French, but in today’s light winds, no one’s going to reach hull speed anyway. Therefore, because the Lewis R. French is lighter than most vessels in the fleet, a light wind can push her along at a decent clip while the others struggle to make way.
In any case, the race organizers have leveled the playing field by dividing the fleet four different classes: the Coaster Class, Leeward Class, Windward Class, and Flying Jib Class. For the purposes of manageability, this entry will focus solely on the Coaster Class, which includes us, the Grace Bailey, Isaac H. Evans, Mercantile, and Stephen Taber.
Several rumors abound—the veracity of which cannot be fully determined. First, the Stephen Taber was never much of a threat on Race Day until Captain Noah Barnes took the helm a few years ago. It’s been said that under the previous captain — the theatrical Ken Barnes — the Stephen Taber frequently wandered off course while Captain Ken engaged his passengers in raucous storytelling. His son, Captain Noah — although no less theatrical — keeps a steady hand on the wheel during the race, and the Stephen Taber has proved formidable in recent contests.
Second, the Mercantile is a spoiler. It's owner, Captain Ray Williamson, has two vessels competing in this class. It’s been said that the captain aboard the Mercantile is tasked with troublemaking. Again, this is hearsay, but if you believe the rumors, the Mercantile is basically there to blanket the wind and become a pesky little obstacle for other windjammers to avoid.
Cully on the foredeck.
This, in turn, clears the way for Captain Ray aboard his Grace Bailey.
The Grace Bailey is the one to beat in the Coaster Class. She was fast enough to carry perishables in the days before refrigeration, and she was fast enough to take top honors in last year’s Great Schooner Race.
About midway through the windward leg, the Grace Bailey passes us. Two women in bikinis dance on her foredeck and a conga player hammers a steady beat. These gestures, I’m sure, are meant to appease the gods of wind, and it appears to be working.
The Mercantile — perhaps too involved in mischief—has fallen well behind the pack along with the Isaac H. Evans.
The Stephen Taber, however, is close behind and gaining.
Of all the vessels in the fleet, the Lewis R. French and Stephen Taber are probably the most evenly matched. Both are coasting schooners, and both were built in 1871. They are 64- and 68-feet long, respectively, which means their hull speeds are essentially equal. Plus, Garth Wells and Noah Barnes both started captaining their vessels in 2004.
As we round the windward mark — a nun buoy off the southeastern tip of Hog Island — we ease the sails and Captain Garth steers toward the finish line at the entrance of Eggemoggin Reach. Moments later, the wind dies and we drift to a stop. We’re bobbing motionless in calm water; the Stephen Taber drifts abeam, and the Grace Bailey — with her extra mass — coasts into the lead before slowing nearly a hundred yards ahead of us. It’s basically a three-vessel race, we’re a mile from the finish line, and no one is going anywhere. Hot sun beats down on the deck and the still, humid air feels heavy.
It is a helpless feeling to be so close to the finish line, yet going nowhere. Despite all the efforts of the passengers and crew, the tacking experiments of Captain Garth, and the early lead we’d held at the beginning of the race, nothing more can be done to improve our chances. We’re just drifting at the mercy of nature.
This is what it’s like to be in the doldrums.
In the book Voyaging Under Sail, author Eric Hiscock wrote this:
Ghosting under light airs.
“I am glad to have had the opportunity of making a passage through the doldrums under sail, for I feel that is an experience which every sailorman ought to have once in his lifetime, so that he may learn to be patient and appreciate some of the difficulties with which his forefathers had to contend. But once is enough, and if I ever have to pass through that area of calms, squalls, heat, and rain again, I hope to have an engine of useful power and a plentiful supply of fuel for it.”
The windjammers have yawlboats or inboard engines that could push out of this calm, but, naturally, that would be a disqualifying action in a race. Around us, there are plenty of modern fiberglass boats availing themselves of their noisy engines. As the mate, Cully Dorer points out: It’s a day like today that separates the true sailors from the powerboaters. The folks who can’t bear the sound of their own thoughts putter into motion, while the peaceful-minded float at ease.
At the helm, Captain Garth cracks jokes while his smiling passengers bask under a placid sky.
Ahead of us, the wind picks up and lifts the Grace Bailey out of her torpor. She quietly sails over the finish line and out of view, while the rest of us continue to bob on glassy stillness. Captain Garth calls the wind around the Grace Bailey “a personal breeze.”
In that sense, the Great Schooner Race feels more like a lottery than a game of wits. Sometimes skill, timing, and intuition can’t top good-old-fashioned luck (and perhaps the incessant beating of drums.)
Behind us, the wind is advancing up the Bay, and the vessels from the other classes — which were required to complete a longer course — are hotly riding its forward edge. Luckily, the gap of calm water dividing us from the pack soon develops into a dark band of wind-driven chop. As the dark band sweeps past us, our sails grow fat-bellied and we stay ahead of the advancing pack. When we reach the end, the humble Captain Garth Wells announces our standing with tongue-in-cheek glory.
Sometimes nice guys finish second.