A Laser Day, nearly 18 years ago

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(I just ran across this old account of a pretty sporty day on Tomales Bay. Kind of long..... but I'm happy to report I still sail my Laser there. Maybe a bit more conservatively)

Too Much Fun (almost)

- TomalesBay, Northern California. February, 2000

Our little Laser-buddy group (Marconi Cove Yacht Club) had a rainy and largely windless January and February, so when this particular weekend promised big wind along with a Pacific storm front moving through we were all phoning each other Friday night, saying "we'll see you at the launch spot tomorrow, rain or shine." We seldom officially race our Lasers, preferring the freedom of simply sport-boating. My competition is with myself and the water planet: Sailing a Laser, you hang suspended with one hand in the ocean (tiller) while feathering control to the other hand that connects you to the sky (mainsheet). You are the pivot point between the two fluids and get to go along for the ride.

All four of us arrived at the launch spot Saturday. It was a Southerly storm moving in, all right. It had built from 15 knots at 0600 to a very gusty 25 - 30 by 1100 when we got there. Now it was raining hard sideways and the forecast called for Small Craft advisories, Heavy Surf warnings, and winds over 30, gusting "higher at the Coast" by afternoon, with rain increasing heavily.

It was exactly the kind of conditions that, if I were alone, or there had just been a couple of us, there would be no launch. Period. It was a great day to go back home and read a book - ("Fatal Storm," or "The Perfect Storm" come to mind. . .) in front of a fireplace.

It was difficult to rig. Seating the mast and sail on the boat and getting the outhaul clew anywhere near the boom end was demanding, and all four of us had boat-crashes on the beach before we had them put together. I normally regret reefing the Laser and haven't done it often, but after a quick trial run by Mark, we could see the building wind required it. Mark, Carl and myself put in two wraps, and took off, beating out and reaching back, staying close to our shore enjoying the adrenaline, the state of animated suspension and that strange sensation of almost drowning because there is so much water being loaded into the air. .

While we were doing this, it took our newcomer, John, about an hour to rig his beater boat. He put in a 3-wrap reef. He is a relative novice to the Laser, but he is a large, strong surfer. That is how we found him - surfing his old Laser in the ocean at Bolinas. He is pretty brave and enthusiastic, but has little time in the boat and even less experience with Heavy Air.

By some odd consensus, we all then decided to head for the other side of TomalesBay. I was not really sure we should go. You couldn't see the other shore because of the worsening weather, but I led the way and felt there was safety in numbers and we could always turn back.

Everybody else but me had, by this time, been capsizing some, and with 22 years Laser experience, I was the guy they are following. A dangerous Guru.

We had nearly reached the far shore when the afternoon forecast came true. Out of nowhere, I started getting creamed by furious, shifting gusts. After a couple of uncomfortable wipeouts I decided we should turn back. (Later, the other guys said they weren't scared until they saw me start to have problems.) Everybody got turned around and then John was immediately in real trouble. He simply could not keep the boat upright. He would accelerate into vicious rolls - to weather and leeward, and every time he righted the boat it would often capsize again before he could climb back in.

We managed to circle and stay by him, but even shouted encouragement was useless, as the wind and rattling sails carried only their own sounds. Also, we were getting tired of crawling back aboard from our own capsizes. It didn't matter what you did. I tried stopping head to wind and just letting the sail luff, but the savage gusts would simply veer, and blow the boat over without even any pressure on the mainsheet. The boats were shivering and shaking. I was glad I had rigged my old sail. Odd stuff happens in this much wind. Twice, I found the pin that holds the tiller into the rudder head had come out. Carl's did, too. This has never happened before. Maybe it was plucked out by the mainsheet when it whipped around slack during boat rightings (?)

John had been doing a good job of not letting go of his mainsheet during capsizes, staying connected with his boat, but now I watched him let go and swim aft of his turtled hull. He dove and came up with the rudder. I got close enough then to scream "Don't for God's sake lose that - don't you have a lift stop on that thing?!" He pointed to it, bent completely upward. . . useless.

John got the rudder back on, but bigger seas were now joining the wind, and each time any of us capsized, it was harder to sort things out and get back in the boat. Then the boat would fall off a wave top and you would find yourself swimming again. There is normally elation in the exertion required to sail this boat upright and fast in heavy air, but being forced into this continual losing battle in a deteriorating situation adds anxiety and tires the body and spirit quickly.

By now, I did not think I had the strength to crawl back in the boat one more time. The weakening aftermath of adrenaline was turning to sour fear. I don't know what the actual wind strength was but it was gusting for sure up to 40 and this was the first time I have been out of real control with a reefed sail. John was upside down more than not and I started to think we could pick him out and leave his boat. I could also see that if things continued to worsen, we would be looking at rescuing Carl and Mark, as well.

I made a tough call. Thinking of the sturdy powerboat that the Point Reyes Park Rangers keep at a dock only a mile away, I headed for the shore where my truck and VHF handheld radio was. I felt I should call, and at least have them help John. I was sure he was going to lose his rudder again and they would be able to help recover the boat. I am still not sure about that decision.

It felt wrong - leaving.

By the time I got to shore and got the radio out, I could see the other three boats weren't far behind, and they in fact arrived before I had to put out a call. Carl said on arrival "you did the right thing, we knew you were going for help, and when you sailed away, it seemed to help inspire John stay upright." That's when I noticed for the first time that John (being a surfer) was not wearing a lifejacket! He was pale and shaky, but glad I had not called for rescue. He allowed that he would wear the lifejacket from now on.

Everybody went home all right. Our usual armor of wetsuits, booties, gloves and windjackets kept us from hypothermia. I soaked my bones in a hot bath and was in bed at 8pm.

I am simply relating how things happened - how I question our judgement in going out in the first place, and my decision to leave for a radio. (I doubt I could have used it if it were on board. . . I did have a waterproof camera stuffed under my lifejacket, but only got one on-the-water photo that day. There were no hands available in that mayhem to work a camera.)

I have often joked that I don't have a good Lasering day unless I was scared. This was a VERY good Lasering day. Mark and I are 57 and 52 years old; John and Carl in their 30's. We are all in pretty fair shape, but I think maybe you are never as good as you think you are when the winds are that strong. Another factor to watch out for is the Group "Hey, watch this!" bravery that got us out there in the first place. Finally, there is definitely something good to be said for organized racing, where you can get away with all sorts of nonsense with Committee and Crash Boats around.

We were quite alone.

Dennis Olson “Beastie”

Tomales Bay, CA

ILCA (Big Olson Rudder)