Racing dinghies, and a woman

The scene: sailing the 5-0-5 racing dinghy at the St. Francis Yacht Club in San Francisco. The ‘Five-Oh,’ as it is called, designed by John Westell in 1953 but still a thrill to sail and race, is five meters and five centimeters of brutal physical test, a beast in boat’s clothing. Beautiful but deadly. The Ferrari of racing dinghies, never rivaled in half a century, sailed worldwide by the thousand, capable of 15 knots and faster ‘on the plane.’

In this demonic device, the skipper steers, controls the mainsheet and centerboard, and manages the show. He or she is in sole charge. The crew handles the jib and spinnaker, rides the trapeze and obeys orders promptly. Managing the jib and spinnaker sheets requires an athletic combination of dexterity and strength, as well as instant-by-instant judgment. It also demands indifference to pain, as the wires and ropes cut and burn—leather gloves, fingertips cut off, are standard equipment.

photo by: John Navas

The trapeze? A pair of wires, one hanging from the mast on each side, with a large steel ring five inches in diameter, a foot above the deck, retained by a bungee cord, which must be clipped to a hook on the crew’s torso harness. It enables the crew get his or her weight outboard, feet on the gunwale, to keep the boat upright for maximum speed. The gunwale incorporates non-slip material to provide a sound footing.

Weight shifting by the crew is done by bending the knees, to get the body mass outboard in gusts and inboard when the wind lessens. Lose footing on that narrow gunwale, and the crew risks sliding forward and inboard, out of control, perhaps falling into the jib upside down and initiating an inevitable capsize—this is unpopular because capsizing, though rapidly recoverable, loses races.

Too often a crew is hanging over the water, horizontal, butting the body into the waves, taking most of them in the face, occasionally ducking and letting the skipper collect a big one, for grins. The boat behaves like a demented hydroplane, hurtling from wave top to wave top in a lather of foam, with violent impacts, on the edge of control. Few boats on the planet match its thrills.

On San Francisco Bay, a wet suit is essential both for skipper and crew, to stave off the bone-numbing, 50-degree Pacific chill. The wind howls in from the Golden Gate Bridge in summer, ensuring a wild ride every time. Several layers of wet sweaters bring the combatants up to fighting weight, but it helps to start over 200 pounds. We never finish a race in the Bay’s typical heavy weather without being falling-down cold, wet and exhausted. It’s all part of the Five-Oh’s ineffable charm. Solution: once the races are over, head for the bar.

I walk up to the bar in sailing gear. After four hours on the water and two stressful races, I’m a soggy mess, dribbling water onto the tile floor through the cut-open toes of my sneakers, but here is this breathtaking creature, with exotic makeup and a mane of back-combed auburn hair streaked blonde, demure in gauzy chiffon and spike-heeled sandals, fingernails and eyelashes out to there, smelling magnificent. A player, obviously.

She is escorted by the upper-class twit of the year—blazer, club tie. Drinking at the St. Francis is apparently his idea of a high-intensity sport. She could definitely provide . . . sport—a bit like the Five-Oh, perhaps, beautiful but probably deadly. She seems too slight to crew on San Francisco Bay, where those north-westerlies power through the Golden Gate at 20-25 knots most of the summer, calling for continual use of the trapeze, but I decide to test her. “Interesting outfit for sailing,” I suggest to her. My grin is calculated to disarm her. I am mistaken.

“Hmmm. Interesting outfit for standing at a bar with actual humans.” Her repartee induces in me a mixture of anger and attraction. Testing time, indeed . . . but for whom?

“We’re at a yacht club, okay.” Score: about even. “Want to try the Five-Oh?”

She laughs: “Why not?”

I look directly into her eyes: “Now? Mine’s at the dock, rigged and ready.”

She gazes back, unblinking: “Sure.” Thrust, parry, riposte.

“I’ll borrow gear for you from one of the women crew,” I offer. “Wet suit. Sweaters. Trapeze harness.”

An hour later we are back at the bar, wet and cold to the bone. The upper-class twit? Vanished. I have inducted her into the Five-Oh Hall of Pain, out on the trapeze despite her inexperience. She has taken it all in stride and accepted my commands dutifully, as required of a good crew, no complaints despite a capsize and recovery under the eye of the ever-vigilant Coastguard hovering nearby in its rescue chopper. Now her nails are chipped and broken, her hair plastered down like a drowned rat’s, her eyelashes vanished, her makeup streaked. She is simply . . . gorgeous, wearing the biggest grin I have ever seen.

What a sport. What a woman. I am stunned, amazed.

I never saw her again.


  1. jj-lisa says:

    Comment number one.

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