Our writer recalls his favorite moments from 18 Figawi races across Nantucket Sound
“WE ARE GONNA HIT THAT BOAT!” The man yelling those words over the wind, out in the middle of Nantucket Sound, was my first Figawi captain.
Boats at sea are not democracies. The captain’s rule is law. But we had a little parliamentary problem on board. This captain was brilliant. He was—quite literally—a rocket scientist. In fact, let’s call him Rocket Man. Genius? Yes. Decisive? Not so much.
The first mate and most of the crew were screaming at the helmsman to, “Round up, round up!” But the captain was yelling, “Fall off, fall off!” Either maneuver would have saved us. Rounding up would point the bow into the wind, slowing her. Falling off would further fill the sails with wind and speed us up.
But we did neither. We started to tack, but then didn’t. Now, flapping sails added thrashing, taut-snapping sounds to the noise of confusion on deck. I was caught mid-tack, in no man’s land halfway across the cabin top, when the captain started screaming about the imminent collision. I grabbed a deck rail and braced for impact.
There sits on the wall at Baxter’s Boathouse a modest little jug. Few notice it in the corner of the venerable Hyannis Harbor restaurant. The jug was the first Figawi trophy in 1972, now under the same roof where the famous race had its beginnings as a simple bar bet. The particulars are lost to the rum-scented mists of history and the accretion of legend, but the crux of the conversation reportedly went like this:
“I can sail to Nantucket faster than you.”
“Oh yeah? Care to make it interesting?”
Three boats sailed that Memorial Day Weekend. Bob “Red” Luby raced first to the island, with brothers Bob and Joe Horan nipping at his heels. The next year they drew 15 boats. Now, hundreds of boats, thousands of racers, and many thousands more spectators follow the festivities. The little jug at Baxter’s is immemorial, and now winners in the various classes are presented with gleaming silver platters and torso-sized trophies.
Most sailboat races, from the Olympics to the America’s Cup, are buoy races—sailors follow a fixed course around floats. But the Figawi joins the ranks of the Newport-Bermuda and the Sydney-Hobart as races that actually go someplace.
It’s a timelessly enchanting notion, to pack a bag and sail for unseen shores.