It’s been a little more than two weeks since I became the recipient of some insane generosity and good fortune, when my friends Chris and Anne loaned me their 505 dinghy to play with and prepare for the North American Championships in Bellingham in early June. I’m sailing with one of my favorite sailing buddies, Dan Kaseler, who brings a level of knowledge and experience that dwarfs mine and then some. I’m grateful that I get to go to “dinghy school” with such a good sailor, and have fun with someone who has become a close friend over the years. As accomplished a sailor as Dan is, he’s new to the 505, too. So, we’re just a couple of good sailors (the average of one very good sailor and one pretty good sailor) out of our comfort zones, learning a new boat, making all sorts of mistakes, and having a blast.
Though my first sailing experiences were mostly on scows in Minnesota and my first boat was a Laser that I enjoyed learning and racing (poorly) for a couple of seasons, I have never considered myself a dinghy sailor. I know dinghy sailors, and I’m not them. Let’s just say that nobody ever used the phrase “quick-twitch grace” or “incredible balance” in a sentence that also had my name in it. Nonetheless, I’ve been attracted to the 505 for some time. So many good sailors have sailed the boat, and many still do. I’m intrigued by how a design that hasn’t changed all that much since its beginnings in the early 1950s can still feel so relevant and supercharged. Also factoring into my interest is the fact that I’ll never be small enough to be a good fit for some of the smaller, lighter-weight dinghies. I was sailing the Laser at about 230 pounds. Remember that I wasn’t good at it, anyway… But, I can’t block out those six-knot summer evenings when I might as well have been dragging a sea anchor compared to the 170 pound guys, all the while feeling like a gorilla in a phone booth. Now a slightly fitter 210 pounds, I’m still a little short to be an ideal 5-Oh crew, but I’m in the zone.
Our first sail on the boat offered a gentle 4-6 knots. I got on the wire in one puff, with Dan sitting to leeward. It was my first time on a trapeze. Ever. So, it was still exciting, even though it was slow-going in light wind. My big takeaways from that first sail were that I’m not a very proficient roll-tacker and my wetsuit is way too hot for a 75 degree day with light wind! I threatened to dump us just to cool off. It’s kind of funny to think that, since then, I’ve spent so much time swimming next to a tipped-over 505 that that same wetsuit hasn’t had the chance to dry in two weeks.
Even though I have never considered myself a dinghy sailor, I’ve been surprised by just how ill-equipped I feel starting out on this boat and getting to know the mechanics of being a crew on a trapeze. That said, I love the boat. It feels remarkably stable (except when we’re capsizing) and has a natural and intuitive motion. It is fast, fast, fast. I can start to see why people think it is such a great boat in big breeze, both upwind and down. We’re barely scratching the surface of getting the boat handling down, let alone figuring out how to make a highly technical boat go faster than our competitors, but even sailing it with the wrong settings and inexperience, the boat has felt lit-up and super fun. We think (we hope) we’ve had it planing upwind, as they are reportedly able to do with good breeze. Between our almost continually disastrous jibes, the downwind rips have been full of white-knuckle goodness.
We’re definitely having fun, despite the fact that the boat seems to be winning. I feel like a novice sailor again. Even Dan has felt as though he’s been reset to square-one. It seems like our current 5-Oh M.O. is that anything that can go wrong will go wrong. We’ve dumped the thing in the most creative ways, and it goes way beyond the jibe capsizes.
Our first swim was a tack when I couldn’t get the trapeze hook off of my harness, so I got stuck on the low side. That was actually an important one to me. I came in with a lot of concerns about getting on and off of the wire, and what it would be like to have the boat come down on top of me. It happened slowly enough that was able to unhook the trap line as we went over – no drama in what I worried would be a harrowing situation.
We also had a spectacular wipeout when I was too low on the trap and we rolled a bit to windward. I had been doing my best to keep my footing on the gunwale as a few waves pounded my shoulder on a beat. I’m sure an experienced crew would have seen or felt it coming, in this particular situation, I looked ahead just in time to see a wave coming not a shoulder height, but what looked like two feet above my head. It hit me with such force that I spun off the rail, doing a full counter-clockwise 360 and winding up behind Dan and the main as I pulled us over. I didn’t even realize it, perhaps because I was a foot underwater, but as I was flung backwards, the trapeze line came across Dan’s face, and I nearly brought his decapitated head with me.
Everyone has assured me that the 505 will not sink. It’s a good thing, too, because it will fill up with water to deck level! Last night, we had our biggest 505 shit-show to date, when we managed to have a bad jibe in a big puff on our inside-the-marina turn to go into the fairway by the dinghy dock. We had decided to cram in a quick practice between work and an evening meeting, because we need all the time in the boat that we can manage. The breeze was up at 15 knots, with puffs slightly above, and we had some great rides and a couple quick swims. We were buzzing back into the marina after our brief session, cutting it close on time already. As we prepared for our jibe, Dan said “ok, we’ve got a big puff here.” We went into the jibe and I jumped to the soon-to-be-high side to no avail. I’m not sure if we got hung up on the boom or what, but over we went, literally between a rock and a hard place (the breakwater and the lee shore of docked 40-footers). I did my best quick-like-a-bunny scramble over the gunwale to get on the centerboard. This, in and of itself, is an unnatural move because I can’t belly over with that trapeze hook ready to poke holes in stuff. But I got over safely and we righted the boat, but not before we were full-to-the-brim with water again. I pulled myself in over the transom and we sailed downwind, trying to maintain steerage and keep our kiddie-pool of a boat upright while we figured out what to do next. The boat has auto-bailers and flaps in the transom, but both require speed to get draining and the water wasn’t going out very fast in our dead-downwind run between the ominous breakwall and the docks. I bailed with a tiny blue bucket doing little-to-no good. We got halfway into the marina before we took the chance of coming up to a reach in the wide runway by the fuel dock, in hopes of clearing some of that water. A reach back and forth sucked a lot of the water out of there, and we decided to try going to weather with a little less of the wrong kind of water ballast. Phew! We could go upwind! With a couple dozen tacks back north and a little help from the flowing current out of the locks, we got back to the dinghy dock unscathed, though I was now a good half hour late for my meeting. We pulled the boat out no worse for the wear, shaking our heads and chuckling at what a disaster we were in this new-to-us dinghy. Dan thoughtfully put the boat away while I went running for the car to get to my meeting, which I attended in a lovely dried-saltwater crust. The meeting overlooked the marina, and it turns out that one of the attendees had been wondering what a 505 was doing sailing around in the middle of the marina. Yep, that was us.
I’ll say again, despite all of our blunders, these adventures as beginning 505 sailors have already been a highlight of my year. The fleet is extremely friendly. We’ve gotten advice on a variety of settings and maneuvers on the dock, in a starting sequence, and at the club after sailing. We’re using a borrowed boat, and I’m sailing in a borrowed harness (which I forgot yesterday and was able to sail thanks to the generosity of Alex Simanis, another 505 crew, who loaned me his). It’s really awesome.
Our progression has been steep and rewarding. We’re reading, and talking with local sailors, watching youtube videos on repeat, and sailing as much as we can. Our tacks are actually getting pretty good. We experimented with having me throw the main across in breezy jibes last night (some 505 folks say do it, some say don’t), but we think it helped keep us upright more of the time. Dan’s analytical and engineering mind always seems to move faster than mine, but I’m trying to keep up with his ideas about rake, ram, and a multitude of other settings, and I’m confident that if I can get the boat handling better under control, he can get the boat a little closer to dialed speed-wise. I’m even starting to have some fun doing the little ‘boing’ move to get out on the wire while keeping the kite trimmed. Both upwind and down in last night’s fresh breeze, my feet didn’t leave the gunwale! That’s improvement!
It’s four weeks to the start of NAs in Bellingham. That’s not a lot of time, and we’ve got a lot of work to do. Luckily, we’re enjoying the ride!