Of Human Ballast

Rail Meat.

When you see a sailboat racing through the waves, heeled over in a stiff breeze with a line of guys hanging over the high, windward side of the boat – those seemingly sedentary sailormen are what is known as “rail meat”.

And that’s what I was on August 20, 2011 aboard the good ship Misfit as we contended against the elements and our adversaries in the Tri-Point Ocean Race, the last contest in PierPont Bay Yacht Club’s 12th annual Island Series, staged in the waters of the glorious Santa Barbara Channel.

The crew of Misfit (who would appropriately be referred to as “Misfits” in the Royal Navy), and her resolute, seamanlike captains, George Moll and Eric Schlageter, were in an anticipatory mood. We left the dock at Channel Islands Harbor that morning knowing that a good finish in the day’s race could secure the overall Island Series trophy in the Spinnaker A class.

With the Island Series title within grasp, our Captains made a critical decision: put the young guns to work – and put the “old guys” on the rail.

Thus, the talented, enthusiastic and very salty youngsters, Shaun, Geno, Cody and Reed were tasked with switching out headsails, hauling the spinnaker in and out, trimming the mainsail, and many other critical duties that us “old guys” had performed in the past. The “old guys”, Claude, Tom and The Matey (that’s me) were relegated to the role of human ballast.

Rail meat.

To appreciate “rail meat” one must understand “ballast”, which is, according to Merriam-Webster, “A heavy substance placed in such a way as to improve stability and control (as of the draft of a ship or the buoyancy of a balloon or submarine).” I, and my ancient mariner brethren Tom and Claude, were that “heavy substance.” (After devouring his signature sandwich, Tom may have been the heaviest substance.)

Youngster Cody (L) is employed at something technical. "Old Guy" Tom (R) adds his weight to the rail. As Lord Nelson himself once said, "They also serve who sit and hike!"

The Tri-Point, like many races in the Santa Barbara Channel starts at the Mandalay Buoy off Ventura Harbor. While we jockeyed for position among the cluster of boats in our Spinnaker A class just seconds before the start of the race, our Temporary Co-Captain Todd (who may be the most entertaining, crude and colorful yachtsman in the entire Santa Barbara Channel) was at the tiller. As the seconds ticked down to the starting gun, Todd sailed us toward the starting line.

On approach, it appeared that we would either get off the line first — or sail across scant seconds too soon…

As Misfit was about to cross the starting line, one of our competitors, Rival, was sailing down the line on our starboard side: parallel to and just below the starting line — perpendicular to our line of sail. In simple terms, they were headed right for us and would likely strike us amidships!

Under the arcane rules of the sea (which I cannot always claim to understand), Misfit evidently had the right of way – but with Rival bearing down on us, seconds from the start, with scant room to maneuver, a collision was imminent!

Youngster Reed and I were on the starboard rail, stationed on either side of the shrouds, closest to the increasingly obvious point of contact: the fateful juncture at which Rival’s bow would smash into us. Seeing what was coming, I scuttled over to the port side — just as the sickening crunch of fiberglass and the shouting of manly curses could be heard. We sheared off to port and sailed tightly back around the starting buoy, hurling epithets at the malefactors aboard Rival as we crossed the starting line again and began our race in earnest.

Luckily, the damage to Misfit was minimal — a small gouge in the deck too damn close to where I had been sitting. Our chief adversary, a larger boat named Radio Flyer, had just a slight lead on us. Rival trailed us. The race was on.

The three points of the Tri-Point racecourse are the oil platform “Gina” and the two ends of Anacapa Island, finishing in Ventura Harbor — a distance of 34 nautical miles. We raced toward Gina, rounded to starboard, and made for the south end of Anacapa with its picturesque arch and sheer cliffs caked white with eons of seabird guano.

I’ve had many experiences sailing the backside of Anacapa — a long, thin land mass broken into three sections with plunging, narrow gaps that nothing but a kayak dare pass through.

Because of its tall cliffs and sudden gaps, the winds along Anacapa’s backside can vary widely – and quickly. A sailboat racing across the backside of Anacapa must quickly adjust to these shifting conditions. So, therefore, must her contingent of rail meat.

As I described earlier, sailors serving as rail meat are only “seemingly sedentary” — and on this day, the “old guys” wound up doing a lot more work than you might expect. Because on a sailboat as nimble in light winds as Misfit, there’s a constant need to shift the ballast in order to maintain an even keel and sail the boat at its greatest level of efficiency. And since the winds were not always light or consistent this race day – especially on the fickle backside of Anacapa — the rail meat had to scramble from side to side, back and forth from port to starboard – often on the same tack.

With the deck shifting dramatically and the boom swinging side to side, all that scrambling can be hazardous — and, indeed, Claude got clocked by the boom, leaving a substantial knot in his forehead. (Of all the knots a sailor must learn, the knot in the forehead requires the least amount of skill.)

While the “old guys” manned the rail throughout the race, nearly all Misfit hands would serve as rail meat at some point. Depending upon the wind conditions, especially along Anacapa’s backside, there were times when all available crewmen were hanging over the rails – “hiking out” — to keep our keel in the ocean.

“Hike out, boys! Hike hard!” was the constant, emphatic command. The more the wind heeled Misfit over, pushing the leeward side of the boat dangerously close to the water (and a potential “knock down”), the more weight must be brought to the windward side to balance the ship. The further that weight can be extended out over the windward edge – the better. So rail meat must “hike out” – hanging as far over the lifelines — and over the side of the boat — as flexibility, courage and intelligence will allow.

Tom & Capt. George hike out. When needed, even the Captain must serve as rail meat.

“Hiking out” can be the whole ballgame when you’re racing a sailboat in a stiff wind. How fast can you go and still keep your keel in the water? That’s the critical calculation: because if the keel ever comes out of the drink — it’s game over.

And call vessel assist!

Here’s what the keel looks like from the POV of us rail meat. As you can clearly see, the keel is still underwater. If it wasn’t, I couldn’t have taken this picture. I would’ve been thrashing around in the ocean, hoping my life vest would inflate as advertised.

“Hike out, boys! Hike hard!”

In little more than an hour, Misfit circumnavigated Anacapa Island — and headed for the red whistle buoy at Ventura Harbor. The crew ate their sandwiches, raced toward Ventura, and tried to calculate handicap times based on the relative ratings of the boats in our class. (Who had to give time? To whom did we have to give time? We knew that Radio Flyer had to give us plenty of time — but how far ahead of us did she cross the finish line?)

After the race, Captain George savors our Island Series victory.

As it turned out, we finished second in the Tri Point Ocean Race – just seven minutes off the lead. (We probably lost at least two minutes due to our starting line kerfuffle – and a few more when the youngsters had a bit of bad luck flying the kite (spinnaker) after we rounded Anacapa and made for Ventura. Us “old guys” had been there before, done that many times. (Hey, Claude, remember that red “devil rag”?)

But in this case, second place meant first place.

Because, combined with our second place finish in The Hardway, and our third place showing in the Milt Ingram, our runner-up placement in the Tri-Point clinched the Island Series Spinnaker A title for Misfit.

Congratulations to Misfit and all who sail in her.

And to her human ballast: the rail meat.

Long may they hike!

1 Comment

Filed under Sailing

One response to “Of Human Ballast

  1. Elda Borroni

    Beautifully written and inspiring. What an adventure!

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