Cruising World - - Underway - — Corinne Dolci

Sail­ing into Vava‘u’s open waters, the anemome­ter pushed 35 knots, and our 14-ton, full-keeled 38-foot cut­ter clocked a record 8 knots through the wa­ter. Weather helm turned my tri­ceps to cin­ders, but I was too dis­tracted to feel the burn: Nearby, 35-foot Alkira crash­tacked to avoid be­ing jack­knifed by 55-foot Dreamcatcher.

Though I held my first tiller at 6 months old, I didn’t take the helm for my first sail­ing race un­til I was 31 and pass­ing through Tonga en route from Mex­ico to New Zealand.

Spon­sored each year by the Is­land Cruis­ing As­so­ci­a­tion, the race­course was 17 nau­ti­cal miles and be­gan in the main har­bor, Neiafu, be­fore loop­ing around Vava‘u’s cen­tral bay and end­ing in an anchorage on the eastern side of the is­land.

Given the specifics of our Is­land Packet 380, nei­ther my hus­band, Do­minic, nor I were ini­tially inclined to race. With a 14-foot beam, He­lios was made for com­fort, not for speed. But when we woke to blue­bird skies and 30-knot winds, our de­sire to be leisurely spec­ta­tors evap­o­rated.

Most of our white-knuckle mo­ments oc­curred early in the race when all 20 com­peti­tors crossed the start­ing line at 1100 and had to do a lap through Neiafu’s en­closed bay, start­ing at the north­ern en­trance and cir­cling a megay­acht at the south­ern end. The bay is nar­row and flanked with moor­ing fields and shal­low

Cruis­ing boats of all stripes head out for a day of fun com­pe­ti­tion in the waters off Vava‘u, Tonga.

waters, so Do­minic and I ex­e­cuted more sail­ing ma­neu­vers in the first 30 min­utes of the race than we had in the 6,300 nau­ti­cal miles of our voy­age thus far.

Rac­ing neo­phytes, we were proud to be keep­ing pace with the strag­gling cata­ma­ran 41-foot Oceanna. They had a late start and were over­tak­ing us at the turn­ing point when Do­minic had a stroke of tac­ti­cal brilliance and di­rected me to head up­wind, keep­ing our sails full and cast­ing a wind shadow that caused Oceanna to luff and stall.

Be­fore we set sail, I had vowed to dis­en­gage from my com­pet­i­tive na­ture and ap­pre­ci­ate the learn­ing ex­pe­ri­ence of our first race — but as we pulled ahead, my Zen went over­board and I com­man­deered the helm, howl­ing at Do­minic to ease the jib.

Oceanna for­gave us as we ap­proached the dead-down­wind pass out of Neiafu. They went wing and wing, cleanly pulling ahead into the next long, straight stretch of the race.

Near­ing the fin­ish line, the winds and the stakes got higher. Av­er­ag­ing 6 knots in 25 knots of wind, we watched agape as the wind and boat speed con­tin­ued to ac­cel­er­ate. We heeled to 40 de­grees, and more than once our star­board so­lar panel carved tracks in the wa­ter. There were reefs and ves­sels to dodge, as well as wind shad­ows and sub­merged rocks to avoid.

We fin­ished in three hours, ex­cited that we had achieved our ultimate goal of not fin­ish­ing last. For the first time, I went an en­tire af­ter­noon un­der sail with­out be­ing tempted to lounge in the sun­shine and en­joy the com­forts of a novel.

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