Ready, Set, Sail!

A day in the life of competitive sailing

Ready, Set, Sail!Sailing. It brings to mind images of a young Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis – big sunglasses and blowing headscarf – navigating the Greek isles aboard one of Aristotle’s yachts. It’s a pastime I pegged for an entitled upper class, freewheeling aristocrats with romance in their hearts and enough money in their pockets not to worry. When I found myself saying the words “I’m going sailing,” I suddenly felt stylish, sophisticated and trés adventurous.
But sailing in New Orleans isn’t a hoity-toity proposition. It’s an egalitarian sport where experienced sailors welcome novices, teaching them sailboat lingo and grooming them to be a part of a crew. In fact, sailing on Lake Pontchartrain is all about fun, a little competition and meeting like-minded people who enjoy the water, gorgeous summer sunsets, and a burger and a beer at the end of a racing day.
The New Orleans Yacht Club is the center of all the racing action on Wednesdays, the day of the week when anyone can venture to West End and hop aboard a boat needing crew. That’s what I did and ended up on Dr. Alan Robson’s 35-foot sailboat named Footloose.
Dr. Robson, who is the medical director at Children’s Hospital and the commodore of the Corinthian Sailing Association, introduced me to the members of his eclectic crew, and in his British lilt told us neophytes what to do in case someone fell off the boat. He assured us that in his 16 years of sailing Footloose, he’d only lost one person. (“Lost” may have been the wrong choice of words. He meant that he’d had only one “man overboard” and that person was quickly pulled back in the boat. Alive.)
Feeling secure in the hands of Dr. Robson, we climbed aboard and left the docks around 6:30 p.m. As all the sailboats jostled for position to get ready for the 7 o’clock regatta, Dr. Robson taught me all about his J-35 sloop-rigged watercraft and introduced me to a whole new vernacular, one consisting of jibs and halyards, spinnakers and sheets, bad air and bowsprits. It was a lot to take in, especially when the view of 44 sailboats on the lake was such a spectacular distraction. At the sound of a starting gun, we took off, and it quickly became obvious that sailing is a team sport.
As each of the eight crewmembers did their jobs, I could only manage to stay out of the way and observe. Using brute strength to pull on their lines (ropes to us non-sailors), they shouted orders to one another. “Prepare to tack!” “Tacking!” And to the helmsman, we heard the more worrisome, “There’s a big, fat boat in front of you, Steve.” It was dramatic and dangerous, or at least it seemed so. At any moment I felt like I could hit my head on the boom and fall overboard, or the sail could dip into the water and tip us over. But of course none of that happened. We just zipped along, rounded our mark, raised our other sail, and headed to the finish line.
Everywhere you turned was a gorgeous view. Ahead of us the sun dipped behind the clouds about to make for a brilliant sunset; to our left lay the skyline of Downtown New Orleans; to our right the endless waves of a cerulean-blue lake. Behind us, a rainbow of brightly colored spinnakers, parachute-like sails used to move downwind, was the most dazzling sight of all. With every vista vying for your attention, it was easy to forget that you were competing in a race. Save for the urgent commands of the crew, the mood was leisurely, winning secondary.
After the race, everyone headed to the bar for a drink and a hamburger. But before we could get there, we were offered provisions from another boat. Only in New Orleans would there be stuffed artichoke leaves to rival my grandmother’s – on a boat.
The Wednesday-night sailboat races have been taking place out of West End for the past 30 years, with some years seeing as many as 60 boats competing. The camaraderie among crewmembers is palpable, probably because they race with each other three days a week. The races on Saturday and Sunday are a little more serious and for experienced crew. For beginners who are interested in becoming adept sailors, Wednesday-night races are the best place to start.
While the New Orleans Yacht club offers junior sailing lessons, they don’t have an adult program yet. Katie Triplett, the general manager, says they expect to by next year, but in the meantime the Wednesday-night races are their version of lessons. Anyone who is interested can contact Triplett on the day of the races (“the earlier the better,” she says) and she’ll find them a boat that needs crew. Inclement weather doesn’t keep them from sailing. According to Richard Berry, rear commodore of the CSA, “There’s very little that stops us.” •

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