Sailboat racing, maybe more than any other sport, brings with it the most solid and insurmountable barrier between those who do it and those who don't. Between sailor and non-sailor.
Talk with the sailors after a race and you're talking to people whose neck veins still bulge from the excitement. People who are going to have to put bricks on their forearms to get the tingling hair to lie down again. People who should be checking into an adrenaline rehabilitation clinic after each regatta.
But to the non-sailor, such events pack all the emotional wallop of watching carpet wear out.
The carpet wore a bit thinner last weekend as the Santa Barbara Yacht Club again snatched the Ventura Cup, a feat it has managed in eight of the last 10 years.
The quest for the Cup pitted eight coastal yacht clubs against each other outside Ventura Harbor. For the 40 crews who ran up the spinnakers and tacked their boats back and forth across the calm ocean, the 2-day regatta was a thrill a minute a 48-hour rush of excitement that perhaps could only be equaled by winning a lifetime supply of that white stuff they put on their noses.
But for the few spectators who bothered to watch--mostly anglers whose favorite fishing grounds were placed off limits for the weekend and who could just as easily recite the entire periodic table of the elements as understand the difference between a spinnaker and a halyard--the spectacle ranked right up there on the excitement scale with watching an old man trim shrubs.
"The thing that really gets me is how slow they go," said Ron McCullough of Oxnard, who stopped fishing for about 30 minutes to watch part of the race from his 20-foot aluminum fishing boat. "They sure don't seem to be in no hurry."
Measures of Speed
McCullough, of course, is correct. In Sunday's final race of the competition, the swiftest boat on the first leg of the race covered the 1 1/2 miles in a blistering 35 minutes. For purposes of comparison, top runners can sprint 1 1/2 miles in little more than six minutes. You could walk a dog 1 1/2 miles in less than 35 minutes. In 35 minutes, some men have to shave twice.
Yet, those who were on the boats talk of speed.
"The winds were light and the race was mostly a tactical battle," said Dick Compton, whose boat Geronimo was the fastest in the race but earned only second place because of the complicated scoring system that considers handicaps.
"But a couple of times we hit seven knots. We were really moving for awhile."
Seven knots is roughly 7 m.p.h.. If you travel that slowly on the Ventura Freeway, you normally start kicking the dashboard and cursing. Seven m.p.h. is about what a middle-aged jogger can do after getting a jump for his pacemaker.
There are other aspects of sailing races that are incomprehensible for those who don't venture down to the sea very often. An example of one of the most confusing was the start of Sunday's Ventura Cup race.
Twenty minutes before the scheduled start, the officials ruled that there wasn't enough wind and that unless the wind started blowing harder, the race would be delayed.
In other words, there was a distinct possibility that a sporting event was about to be postponed because of the lack of inclement weather.
But a wind did develop, and the 40 boats began milling about aimlessly, three miles offshore, with no two boats heading in the same direction. A series of shotgun blasts echoed off the water. The first was a warning that the race would start in 10 minutes. The second was a 5-minute warning. Then a 2-minute warning blast. And then came three more shots. No one seemed to know what they indicated. Perhaps one of the officials decided to shoot some skeet from the deck of his boat.
In the confusion, boats charged back and forth. There were dozens of near-collisions, and tempers flared. Although in yachting, flaring tempers aren't quite the same as flaring tempers at a Los Angeles Raiders football game. Major insults tend to run along these lines:
"Hey buddy, do that again and so help me, I'll toss this jar of French mustard at your spinnaker!"
"Oh yeah? I hope the ice melts under your shrimp cocktail, jerk!"
And then the race started. Or did it? Even veteran sailboat race observers were hesitant to say. Some of the boats seemed to have headed across the rather vague starting line and were heading toward the first marker, but many others were headed in the opposite direction, or lazily bobbing on the water.
"I think they're racing," said a Ventura Yacht Club member aboard an observation boat. "But I can't really tell yet."
Lack of Wind
But the race had started. And then the wind died again, and the boats proceeded at roughly the same rate that grass grows.