“The only difference is that here, it’s hot.” Hilko, a rotund and very well-educated Dutch expatriate oilman comments matter of factly, “Very hot. Though the racing is just as competitive.”
Jim, the sixty-something grizzled Captain from down in New Iberia chimes in, “This is definitely the only boat out here where English is sometimes the secondary language. We might as well be racing in the North Sea with the amount of Dutch that race on this boat… Except, yeah for the heat. Let‘s get ready to tack crew.”
You may have seen these guys among the fifty or so other sailboats milling around at about 7:00 in the evening, dancing a strange disparate waltz together, hopefully never crashing or T-boning into each other. As 7:05 nears, the more fleet of these contenders peel off from the mass. They mirror each other’s movement, and as a gun sounds, the first salvo strikes out towards the Lakefront Airport. Behind them the sun makes its way down towards the brown and brackish waters of the lake.
Though virtually hidden despite the obvious maritime nature of this city, New Orleans, according to these crewmembers, has one of the most active sailboat racing communities in the country and is heavy with character and characters.
Onboard this heavy, late 60’s creation built for lazy cruising, the regular crew tonight is populated by such varied personalities as Dutch expatriates, south Louisiana oilmen, and New Orleans’ bankers and bartenders who ready her sails for the race while drinking beer. They are excited because even though they start in the fourth class; they explain that in the egalitarian world of sailboat racing, they are in competition to win this five race series because all boats race under a handicap. To win showcases the skill of a boat’s skipper and crew, and not necessarily the boat. And this crew, definitely works as a team.
The banter onboard is no different than one would overhear at any watering hole in the city, except it spikes with alien nautical language and tactics along with the ever present thrill of crashing into another boat before the start. “Hey Hilko, grab me another beer. Captain you got this blue hull coming at us? Starboard! STARBOARD TACK! No, I wanted a lite beer, but this’ll do.”
This class, a group of nine boats of various sorts but of generally similar capability gather as they sail, and a gun sounds from the anchored committee boat. Immediately, sails tighten as sounds of rope tense and slip on wet winches. A beer can opens and the boat leans heavily to one side as the sails vet the wind.
“We’re gonna have a nice sunset tonight,” states the woman in her late twenties manning the mainsail, “Captain, looks like we’re walking on Dixie Chick.”
“Fine. So tell me again about how we’re supposed to Fung Sway a sailboat?” The Captain is not really curious.
“It’s Feng Sheui.” She replies, accustomed to the standard ribbing of teammates. “It’d probably help us to race faster… obviously would work better than your current Western Beer Philosophy.”
The Captain looks back, and then rechecks his GPS. “Whatever. Let me know when Dixie Chick tacks out. We’re getting lifted a bit. Did I ever tell y‘all about my cousin up in Jackson who was asked by some guys from Illinois about where all the antebellum homes were?”
Nearly every member of the crew either nods or says “yes”.
With non-existent coverage in the local press, but attention nationally, the crewmembers describe how New Orleans has been quietly producing some of the finest competitive sailors in the country, and how the walls of Southern Yacht Club boast tons of silver national and regional trophies including Olympic metal. Four to be precise, including the United States’ first ever sailing gold medal in the thirties and a silver last year in Athens.
Though tonight’s winds are light, they are according to the Captain standard fare, characteristically variable and enigmatic as the dispersed fleet rounds the buoy near the airport. Sails slash over the decks as crew from different boats shout rules at each other as they approach the mark. All the boats flatten out after the turn and begin their final leg, three miles, towards the finish line.
“Laurens, wait until you race Gulfport to Pensacola. Sailing through the rigs off of Mobile at night is wild. They’re massive, bizarre structures out in the Gulf.” A crewmember informs.
It’s fully dark now with the moon flashing in the slight waves, water quietly breaks off the bow. On boats throughout the course, flashlights intermittently shine up into their sails creating curious glowing bulbs converging on a single point of light out of many in the distance, the finish line.
Our boat gently slides past two others as it nears the committee boat waiting at the finish. Most racers consider the Wednesday night ‘beer can’ races, fun races used to hone teamwork on the boat and to introduce first-timers to this world. In theory racers reserve their true ‘A’ games to the weekend and offshore races, but you can’t always tell that. Tonight, our crew times their crossing across the finish line and tries to calculate their handicap adjusted time. They have a bet riding on this one, yet won’t know for sure until the official results are announced in two hours.
As we dock the boat into her slip, the crew begins a well-practiced choreography of putting the boat to bed. The sooner sails are stowed, lines folded and gear collected the sooner the crew gets to carouse at the yacht club.
Upon entering New Orleans Yacht Club there is definitely no mistaking that you’re in a nautical world. Charts and sailing trophies are positioned everywhere, the sixty or so bar patrons mill about rehashing tonight’s race or last weeks regatta. Crew shirts emblazoned with their boat’s name and T-shirts sporting past regattas is the de riguer clothing. There is a fair amount of rum being poured.
The spirit is one of camaraderie and healthy competition with a hint of understanding that they are all participating in a time-honored tradition. Past commodores of the yacht club stare down on this generation of racers as the results are read, prizes handed out and a certain bet is resolved as a crew shirt is handed over to the skipper of another sailboat.
A new five race series starts up next Wednesday night and this clan of racers will be out there again plying the waters of the lake, trying to harness the winds - Feng Shui’ed or not.