It was apparent almost from the start that our boat was the slowest in the race. The big, new boats vanished over the horizon within half an hour. We kept pace with some of the smaller cats at first, but gradually they pulled ahead, and an hour and a half out of South Padre Island, we appeared to have the Gulf of Mexico entirely to ourselves.
We had bought the battered old Nacra 5.2 in Tallahassee, to use as a training boat while we prepared for the Worrell 1K, a two-week stage race from Miami to Virginia Beach. When the 2003 Worrell was cancelled, we decided to enter the Great Texas Catamaran Race instead. In the last two days, we had driven the length of the Florida panhandle, across Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and a fair piece of Texas, in a big, old, yellow Ford Explorer, with the Nacra bouncing along behind us. We had not really expected to win this race, against very good sailors with very good boats. But I confess I had not realized until the race began just how far out of our league we had drifted.
Quitting, however, was not an option. The coast of South Texas consists of a series of long, low barrier islands, uninhabited and mostly inaccessible by road. Our ground crew, with all our camping supplies, was already headed for Mustang Island, almost a hundred nautical miles up the coast. The sky was clear, the sun was high. I figured we were making about four knots.
Some time after noon the wind shifted south a bit, and we could fly our spinnaker, a huge, rounded, multicolored sail, looking like a parachute spread in front of the boat. We began to make better time, perhaps 8 knots. The Nacra was not built to carry a spinnaker, and we had made some modifications to hoist the big sail. Catamaran masts are bendy by design, and it was unnerving to watch the 30-foot aluminum spar flexing like a drinking straw under the unaccustomed loads. But it didn’t break in the first few gusts, and it certainly improved our speed.
The low dunes and white beaches stretched on before us, looking pretty much as they must have looked to the first Europeans to see them, half a millenium ago. A sea turtle ascended from the blue-green depths, his winglike forelimbs propelling him almost vertically into the sun-shafted water off our windward bow. What he was seeking I do not know, but we were not it. At sight of our boat, or perhaps the billowing purple-, blue- and green-striped spinnaker, he spun about short of the surface in less than his own length, and stroked rapidly back down into the azure gloom.
* * *
With a sharp crack, the spinnaker collapsed over the leeward bow. My rule is, "While the boat can float, stay on the boat", but I was prepared to make an exception if the jagged end of our broken mast was about to lash down onto the deck. However, after several seconds of peering up into the glare, I could find nothing wrong with the mast. The problem lay closer to sea level, where our homemade spinnaker pole had popped a rivet and bent double. We stuffed the ‘chute back in the bag, and resumed our plodding course up the coast, the broken pole dangling dispiritedly between the bows.
Around seven, as the sun sank toward the rocks and scrub on the barrier island, the wind picked up and we began to make some speed again. Our GPS showed us about forty miles from our destination, almost exactly due north. We were finally able to contact the race committee on the cell phone, and explain that we would be a little late getting in.
The sun goes down fast in the low latitudes, and by eight it was good and dark. To the west, behind the sail, the coast was marginally visible by starlight, a darker patch in the darkness. To starboard, where nothing should be but the Gulf of Mexico, what looked like a small city reared itself above the water. First one or two small lights, then chains of lights, then whole, multicolored islands of lights, the oil platforms and towers rose above the black water. No fixed lights were visible on the shore. From time to time a pair of headlights would spear out from the coastline, wheel above our heads and vanish, leaving a flicker of red tail-lights.
The two-man crew of an eighteen-foot beach cat weighs almost as much as the boat, and when the wind blows hard, it is the crew’s weight that keeps the boat from turning over. Mark was hiked out off the side of the upwind hull, suspended almost horizontally over the water by a trapeze line clipped into a hook on his harness. I sat on the back of the same hull, steering the boat and working the mainsheet. By now the wind was blowing in earnest, and we were making 15 knots over six-foot white-caps. Gusts lifted the windward hull clear of the water, to crash back down as we slanted off the cusps of breaking waves. I tried to anticipate the interplay of wind and water, carving the hulls up over the fronts of the bigger waves, then turning at the top so the surge of the crest against the inner hull and the sudden thrust of the wind against the turning sail would send us surfing across the backside into the trough.
Now lights were appearing on shore, green, red, sodium orange. We must be nearing Mustang Island. The GPS was of limited value in the darkness and spray. Mark got the race committee on the cell phone, and they told us to watch for a strobe. My immediate attention was focused on the feel of the helm fighting my left hand, the haul of the mainsheet in my right, Mark looming in the darkness by my shoulder, and the dim gather of the next wave to be climbed. Three distinct ideas turned in my mind, urgent and yet somehow remote. If we were to strike a log, or some other floating debris, at the speed we were traveling Mark would be slung up into the forestay by the trapeze wire, and I would likely be thrown over the side. We would certainly capsize, and probably smash a hull. Something to think about. Then again, if we failed to identify the beach where our ground crew was waiting with the race committee and the invisible strobe light, we might sail on for half an hour or more before we could be sure of our mistake.
The thought that struck most insistently, though, began as a physical sensation, compounded of the very warm seawater splashing in my face, the knurled grip of the hull against the backs of my thighs as we slammed down the back of a wave, the taut, white, flexing curve of the sail reaching up through the keening wind to thrust us even faster into the next shouldering swell, the Christmas display of the oil rigs, unreal under the bright Texas stars. I felt the tremor of approaching muscular exhaustion in my arm, and sensed Mark shifting forward to balance the force in the sail, trusting me to hold the boat steady under his feet. I stared into the oncoming seas, wrapping the sheet around my wrist for purchase to haul the sail tighter into the wind, gauging the wave by the starting rise in the hull under me and the hard, driving lurch of the tiller. The feeling rose in me and formed words in my mind, a message, I believe, from a part that only watches, to the part that supposes it is running the show. 'This,' I thought, 'is as good as it ever gets.'