I chanced into the 1994 Figawi on a negligible invitation. A friend kindly lied about my sailing credentials and suddenly I was crewman on a boat that would take a fourth-place trophy. My rampant under-qualifications were mostly hidden by my assigned job, that of “rail meat,” which is what they call the guys they stick up on the windward rail whose main job is counterbalancing the boat on upwind legs. You basically get soaked with cold sea water for five hours.
Between the thrills of racing and the social scene we found once we hit the docks, one Figawi was all it took. Excepting my own college commencement, I haven’t missed one since. I’ve crewed on five different craft. I’ve gone on boats that won silver platters, and I’ve been on boats that nearly sank. It’s never dull.
After that memorable first race, my buddy Slick—he now makes a living on boats and does not wish to be identified here—thought we could make our own run at glory on a Helms 24-footer that sat for years on stands in his backyard. It was full of water, which turned to ice and sagged the belly. It looked about as sleek as a jelly doughnut.
We mustered a crew. Slick would be captain. With one Figawi under my belt, I was de facto first mate. Two others had only been on motorboats, and my college roommate had never been on a boat of any kind—including ferries. The boat we spent the spring refurbishing was named Bulletproof. But it wasn’t even waterproof. It leaked. I’ve been in drier Jacuzzis.
Race day arrived with a misty morning. We sailed in circles toward the starting line, doubling back every time we fumbled another piece of equipment overboard. There went the winch handle, then the jib bag. Then some battens flew out of the sail. The 30-packs of Budweiser remained safely stowed below, like ballast.
On the way to Nantucket, there wasn’t enough wind—one guy got out briefly and swam—but on the way back, it blew like stink. Slick struggled with the helm in big seas. All these years later, I can still hear the groaning, creaking noises from the old wooden tiller, which steers the boat and for which we carried no replacement.
After that, Slick and I went back with Rocket Man, who won several trophies over the years. After Rocket Man moved to Hawaii, I hitched a ride on a stinkpot, as sailors derisively term motorboats. It was a friend’s Hatteras—big and broad and comfortable with beds instead of berths, a refrigerator instead of coolers, even a shower.
It was a new level of unearned luxury for me, but I soon learned that even swell motorboats present opportunity for public humiliation.
Eager to demonstrate my veteran seamanship, as we eased into the Boat Basin in Nantucket Harbor, I grabbed a stern line and hopped up, balancing on the narrow transom, ready to assist the docking procedure. But then the captain bumped the throttles at the worst moment and I fell in. Splash! Hat over teakettle.
As I climbed the slimy ladder to the pier, what seemed like thousands of people laughed and cheered from Nantucket’s dockside bars and restaurants.