How Not to Prepare for a Regatta, or How to Get a New Mast

As we're in the middle of the nationals/europeans/worlds part of the season I've been reading loads of bits about these big events over the last few weeks. And with the Rio test event on as well, I got to thinking about regatta preparation - I mean these guys are already preparing for a regatta that is two years away.

Personally, I've never prepared for anything two years in advance. In fact it is fair to say that I've prepared pretty badly for a few regattas in my time (and quite well for one or two), but my favourite preparing-badly-for-a-regatta story is this one:

Many years ago (too many years ago) I was preparing for an Optimist national championships. My siblings were delighted because it meant that instead of going on one of those awful continental holidays, with sun day after day, and nothing to do but relax and eat ice cream, they could instead look forward to being taken to Cornwall where they could do lots of improving and character-building things like visiting places of historical interest or playing crazy golf in the driving rain. Or they could watch little white dots bobbing about in the distance.

The weekend before we were due to leave I was at our sailing club running on a pontoon, and I caught my foot on a loose piece of metal. I cut a two-inch gash in the bottom of my foot, and it was bleeding profusely. All my friends were very impressed. My parents not so much. So it was bandaged up for the night, and I was sent to the doctor the next day to get it dressed and get whatever injections you need to have when you've done something idiotic.

I rode to the doctor on my dad's bike. The doctor was suitably unimpressed too, and, having done what doctors do, told me that the wound had to be dressed for the next few weeks, and that it must not be got wet in that time.

"Wait. Not be got wet? But I'm sailing in a national championship next week."

"I don't think that would be a very good idea. Maybe next time you'll be more careful"

So off I went home on my dad's bike, trying to come up with a way of slipping un-noticed into conversation that we were now going to Cornwall for our holidays, and I wasn't even supposed to sail because of my injury.

As I cycled along pondering this problem I heard a loud crack and the pedals stopped working. I looked down, freewheeling along, trying to figure out what had happened. Just as I realised that the chain had broken I heard another loud crack and everything went dark.

When I came to, I found a friendly chap bending over me, asking if I was ok. It turned out that whilst I had been peering down, figuring out what was wrong with the bike, I had ridden straight into the back of a parked car, in which the driver had been sitting waiting for his wife.

I stood up gingerly and I asked if the car was ok. The driver, as any sane man would, had checked his car whilst he was waiting for me to come round, and there wasn't a scratch.

The same couldn't be said for the bike. Or for me, for that matter. The bike was a write off - I had bent the frame so the front wheel was permanently off-set to the right. I had also managed to halt my own progress by hitting the car with my mouth, and it hurt. A lot.

But the man was being so polite and friendly, I didn't think I could prevail on him any longer. So after many apologies I lifted the front of the bike and proceeded to walk home, nursing the realisation that this was going to make it even harder to bring up the whole foot issue.

When I got home and explained my mornings activities I was sent straight to the dentist. He had a look in my mouth and announced that I had killed two of my front teeth and I'd need to have immediate root canal surgery. Fortunately, I had no idea what root canal surgery was, so I readily agreed if it meant that I had fixed one of the problems.

Several hours later, and now in no doubt as to what root canal surgery was, I returned home. I think I remember being in a particularly bad humour.

My humour had not been improved by the dentist telling me that I needed to mind my teeth carefully for the next two weeks.

Whilst I'd been away, action had been taken. It had been decided that, because I had a dry-suit my foot wouldn't stop me from sailing. I just had to make sure that I didn't get it wet in the changing rooms, etc. And as for my teeth, it just meant no mainsheet in the mouth.

And so it came to be that less than a week later I was sailing out to the start line for the first race of the nationals. I was sailing on a run, so  I decided to point up wind and check my sail settings and get some compass readings. I sheeted in the main tight, rounding up to close-hauled, and I heard a loud crack.

Now, I'm nothing if not a fast learner, and given my experiences with loud cracks over the last week or so, I had learned that they are rarely an indicator that something good has happened. Some might say that one of Pavlov's dogs might have made a similar deduction, but I'm pretty sure they took more than three rings of the bell to make their conclusions.

As I looked around I had that weird dream-like sensation that you get when most of your surroundings are familiar, but something big is not quite right. And then I realised what was wrong. I didn't have a mast or sail.

My mast had snapped as the extra pressure was put on it when I sheeted in, and it was now lying in the water next to the boat, with the sail snugly attached. This, I concluded, was going to hinder my chances in the race.

I pulled everything into the boat as best I could, and, as no rescue boat had come to my aid I did that silly waving thing you're supposed to do when you need assistance at sea, whilst lots of other competitors sailed past me minding their own business, as teenagers do.

Eventually a rescue boat came over, helped me secure everything, and towed me to shore. My dad was out on one of the mark boats taking photos of the racing, so my mum was the only parent on shore. To say she was delighted to see me would probably be an overstatement, not least because the first thing I did was to start explaining to her that she was going to have to buy me a new mast.

And so we found ourselves in the chandlers. And there it was. The mast I had wanted for a long time. The stiffest, lightest mast available. And also the most expensive.

"I need that one." I said, trying to sound nonchalant.

Mum looked at it, then at the price tag. Then she looked at the price tag again, more closely, as if she must have mis-read it. Then she looked at another mast, or, more accurately, she looked at another mast's price tag. Then she looked at the first mast's price tag. Finally she looked at me.

"It's the one dad would say to get", I said, knowing that she wouldn't be able to ask him until it was too late. And as she looked at me I suspect that she saw someone who had cut his foot, killed two teeth and snapped his mast, and she took pity on me.

And she bought the mast.

I'd love to conclude with a description of how I went out and sailed the regatta of my life, winning despite missing the first race, and all thanks to my new mast.

But I didn't. I had a disastrous regatta and came nowhere. And the sun shone the whole time, meaning that my siblings all had a wonderful holiday - much better than mine.

But I did at least have a new mast.

4 thoughts on “How Not to Prepare for a Regatta, or How to Get a New Mast

  1. Great story! I loved the description of what it felt like when your mast broke. I had the same sensation when I broke my Laser bottom mast section back in 2010. It is surreal at first. My brain just couldn’t process what had happened for a second or two.

  2. Thanks – sadly it is all true.

    As regards how one breaks a mast – I’ve done it twice. Once was this time, and it snapped at a rivet hole where the kicker cleat attaches to the mast. The other time was a Laser top section – fairly standard stuff I believe.

    I’m pretty good at breaking things on my boat, and also on other people’s boats too – although that’s a story for another day…

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