Sunday, August 17, 2003

Boatrace

Again, that Strip of Roxas by the Sea

It was a mistake to liquefy my brain with a long and rousing game of Super Robot Wars Flash last Friday night. Morning surprised me with motor skill impairments and the beginnings of a head-cold. Getting up, I limped to breakfast; slogging through that, I promptly returned to bed. I was able to leave the house for my one o'clock appointment at twelve-thirty.

My plan involved leaving at eleven-thirty and getting on a jeep bound for Padre Faura. Upon reaching my stop, I was to leisurely stroll along that strip of Roxas Boulevard until I hit the Manila Yacht Club. There, I was to greet my friends, by then rendered slack-jawed by my on-the-dot arrival.

Didn't happen: I was late, though I was by no means the last to arrive. Call it luck, call it fate, call it God: The other key people were late as well, arriving at the yacht club like falling snow-- one slow, drifting flake at a time.

"Arrrgh Matey, Who Might Ye Be?"

When we arrived, the ten of us were introduced.

Mang Rufino was an experienced seaman, older than us by decades. Dado had two years of sailing and racing boats under his belt. Two friends of Eline's could handle rigging with competence.
Cap'n Ron owned the boat, was a friend since college.
Eline, Jo, Franco and yours truly had been on Cap'n Ron's boat before, and had helped him with some minor ship's duties-- 'course, Franco and Dex were adepts at clinging to the boat in rough waters.

We took the launch and promptly boarded YASDIP (fancy way to say "Cap'n Ron's Yacht").

Late for the Race

Cap'n Ron began briefing us as he gunned the engine and steered YASDIP to her place on the starting line. Someone had to help hoist the sail; someone had to crank the winches; someone had to move from one side of the boat to the other and help distribute the weight. Someone had to stand partially in the boat's inner compartment to help hand out provisions; everyone had to duck when Cap'n Ron yelled "Get ready to tack!" Then--

All talk stopped for a couple of seconds when we saw that the other boats had left the starting line!

Tack! You're It

Cap'n Ron and YASDIP's motley crew labored to catch the wind properly. I took my place on the port side, as useful dead weight near the bow (front). I was warned to keep away from the bow, as a smaller sail --I forget what it's called-- was drawn up there. Its swinging could cause someone to get snarled in canvas or rigging, or it could (worst case scenario) get someone thrown overboard. Eline and I sat with Jo, who was already sucumbing to a sea-induced queasiness in the pit of her stomach.

Oh yeah, we nearly collided with the starting buoy.

We tamped down all hope of winning the race and concentrated on having fun. Well, I know I did. Evereyone save Mang Rufino was trading jokes, nibbling on something or talking shop. I had to cut my conversations short several times when Cap'n Ron yelled "Prepare to tack!"

This is how I understand the dynamics of "tacking."

Disclaimer: Make note, I am no navy man. While I feel that what I've picked up from Cap'n Ron is reasonably accurate, it's also likely that what I am about to say may be equivalent to me talking through my ass.

You almost never get wind blowing from directly behind your sailboat. Often, you have to adjust the position of the sails to catch the wind, thereby allowing the boat to slog through the water. You do this by pulling on ropes with hands and winches, and holding those ropes in place with locks and a special spool. One of the ropes (I think) is the tack. It's connected to the boom underneath the main sail.

The main sail is a glorified flag; the mast is its flagpole. The boom is a bonus, like an extra arm running horizontally from the lower end of the mast-flagpole, ensuring that the sail-flag is unfurled and ready to use. You want to expose as much of the main sail as you can to the wind, so you have to swing the sail with the tack from one side of the boat to the other until that sail fills with moving air. The danger in absent-minded tacking is that there is a real chance that you can kayo your crewmates with the boom, or accidentally knock them into the drink. I shit you not. The kind of wind needed to fill the main sail is powerful enough to give the boom more than an extra kick when it swings. You hear anything that sounds like "tack," you duck.

Often, those of us playing the role of ballast have to quickly move to the other side of the sailboat immediately after Cap'n Ron yells "Prepare to tack!" or "Tacking!" When the sail catches wind and swings from one side to the other, the boat often responds by leaning, since it is being pushed at the top by the wind (the sail). Leaning is behavior conducive to capsizing. Boys and girls playing ballast have to move to the opposite side of the boat to redistribute the weight, and keep the leaning from becoming critical. On YASDIP, the exercise is akin to skittering, cockroach-like, on the roof of the boat. Remember: the boat is rocking, threatening to throw you off and the boom could move any second-- you have to move or you're literally sunk.

After several rounds of skittering and clambering and, yes, oozing from either side of YASDIP, Eline and Jo retreated to the safety of the stern (remember your Star Trek? that's the back of the boat).

Rough Waters

It's no picnic, hanging onto the boat for dear life while bathing in the historic waters of Manila Bay. When the boat leaned too far to one side or pitched too far forward we got more than salt spray in our faces. For every nine square feet of water we traversed, I saw floating debris. Yes. Manila's trash. Centuries of accumulated waste making their way from homes, marketplaces, hospitals, pipes, from sludgy esteros, from ships, to be diluted, broken down, mixed in the bay. By the time YASDIP neared the second buoy some of us were already covered in particulate trash suspended in seawater.

It was no picnic but I was laughing at the green-brown water, laughing when the bow dipped so far so as to drench me, laughing when the bow rode up a swelling wave. I restrained myself from shouting a challenge to the sea, "Izzat all you got? Sink me! Sink. Meeeeee!!!!!" A part of me knew that such a primal, elemental presence should be accorded the proper respect. Still, it hardly occured to me that it was an effort just to stay where I was. I was having far too much fun.

Can a boat surf? The question was raised and answered in an instant. I saw it when we rode several sympathetic waves. The boat pitched up and lurched forward with such speed that it should have frightened. But I was too busy marvelling at the idea of a surfing boat, too busy looking at the foam and the play of white bubble-clouds underneath the wave's surface.

Finding Nemo

"Where's the Boy?"
"What?"
"Can you see the Yellow Boy?"
"Cap'n I don't expect to see a yellow kid floating on the water--"
"Bu-oy! Buoy!-- Route Marker!"
"Oh! Sorry!"

That's not how it happened, but we did have difficulty finding the second and third buoys. We did have a course map (a soggy one) and a GPS device, but we still had to go 'round the blasted things if we were to finish the race properly. We had help-- we followed the other racing boats and narrowed the search area. It's amazing (though not surprising) that Mang Rufino's eyes are so damn sharp. He spotted the second and third buoys before I could.

"Tack!"
"Oh crap, not again!"
"You gotta move quickly, Dex. You can't wait for the boom to swing over your head before you make for the other side. Misplaced weight means leaning too early or too late. It can mean more drag for the boat. In any race, it'll cost you time."

Wise words. I did my best to follow them.

Dark Clouds

Well into the race, some of the other boats had decided to quit. We had water beneath us but the water above us was threatening to pour. Cap'n Ron said he was going to finish the race. We all agreed. Miguel jokingly noted that we really didn't have a choice: for a yacht this small, the Captain had full control of the wheel.

"It's a lot like life," I said to Jo. "Or college. You're racing to to some endpoint you can't really see. You can start out bad, but you never know what'll happen next. The only real choice you have is going forward." --or something to that effect. Mind you, I was euphoric, coulda said anything. I coulda gotten away with appending a suitably trite hippie caveat: "It's not the destination, maaaan. It's the jourrrneyyy."

After we turned round the third buoy, the heavens lashed out at us. We were drenched (again!). the waters were rougher now, but we were "on the home stretch," to borrow Pop's horse-racing parlance. I had moved aft (to the stern), and was seated near the Captain and the drenched women. Lightning flashed, struck water (maybe) somewhere nearby. I reflexively let go of the metal handle near the wheel. I realized there were no places for me to hide from the lightning, save (maybe) belowdecks: it would strike where it will. Like God. Like Fate. Like Life.

Finishing

A few kilometers to the finish line, the race committee boat anchored near the Yacht Club, the rain had lost most of its strength. We were losing wind and were mostly coasting along on sympathetic waves, inertia and sheer dumb luck. We made a few minor corrections and we picked up speed. We passed the racing comission boat, and ended the race in triumph. We couldn't possibly have made first place, but we felt like champions because we made it to the finish line. As a joke to honor the occasion, I waved, a mock-Miss Universe, to a non-existent crowd: "We're ahll winnahs!" The guys yukked it up.

I would choke on my food an hour later, as we, showered and dressed in spare clothing, ate pancit canton and sandwiches at team YASDIP's table at the Club. We didn't excpect it-- what with the other teams quitting, our getting unexpected help from the rough waters, the masterful maneuvering of the veterans in the crew--

But we won. We won and I'll never forget it. And I'm definitely sailing again.



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