‘Round the Island Race: a magnificent day on the water

The Edgartown Yacht Club’s annual ‘Round the Island Race drew 64 competitors this past weekend. — Michael Berwind

We are beating upwind, against the formidable current running along East Beach off Chappaquiddick at the eastern end of Martha’s Vineyard. The horizon is full of sails, with crews all trying to decipher the ever-changing factors of wind, tide, shoals, sail choice, course, opponents, and race tactics. Aboard Wild Horses, a breathtaking 76-foot W-Class sloop flying what seems like an acre of sail, there is a spirited discussion about whether we should stay offshore, where there is more wind, or alter course toward the beach, where the adverse current might be weaker. We are sailing around Martha’s Vineyard, and we have about 49 miles to go.

The Edgartown Yacht Club’s annual ‘Round the Island Race drew 64 competitors this past weekend. In 2013, 51 boats finished the race. With the addition of big boat buoy racing two years ago, Edgartown Race Weekend is quickly becoming a go-to event for top east coast sailors.

The regatta is a favorite of Donald Tofias, top evangelist for the return of 1930s era classic big boat racing, developer of W-Class yachts, and the Wild Horses helmsman for today’s race.

“I’ve been coming to this race since I was in high school,” he told a Times reporter invited along for the race.

A chorus of accents rings across the deck. There are crew members who hail from Finland, Australia, and South Africa, mixing with an assortment of New England dialects. We are on a reach now, angling closer to the south shore. Wild Horses, if not galloping, is at least slipping through modest waves at a quick canter. Noman’s Land appears on the horizon.

We tick off familiar south shore beaches from an offshore perspective: Long Point in West Tisbury; Quansoo, Lucy Vincent, Squibnocket in Chilmark. The crew and guests hang over the rail, feet dangling just above the waves, fulfilling the mindless but necessary role of “rail meat.” The flatter the boat, the more efficient the hull through the water.

Around the bluffs on Squibnocket Point, we take aim at the Gay Head Cliffs, on a broad reach now, hugging the shore. The breeze is picking up. The perspective is striking. The whole splendid expanse of glacial deposit stretches across the horizon.

Around Gay Head, we are running before the wind now. Just getting the enormous spinnaker sail from the hold up on deck is a complicated operation. Setting the spinnaker is an intricate nautical dance with disastrous consequences for a small mistake. With a lot of muscle and little experience it is hauled up and fills on cue. Three wild red horses with green eyes gallop across the sail.

Trimming the spinnaker is an intricate operation, with a trimmer handling a spinnaker sheet from a forward position on the deck, the helmsman reacting to every tiny puff of wind, and grinders flailing away at the winches. Two athletic but unsuspecting waiters, recruited before the race for the job of grinding winches, do their best. In the sailing trade, muscle-bound winch grinders are known as gorillas. It’s a hard job, but the waiters perform admirably.

The trimmer calls a series of commands from the deck to keep the big sail on trim.

“Pressure.” (Translation: a little puff coming.)

“I need heat.” (Steer into the wind to fill the sail.)

“Very soft.” (Entering a dead spot in the wind.)

“I’ve got nothing on the kite.” (The sail is completely off trim.)

Wild Horses is at a full gallop now, topping nine knots over the bottom, against a building current. We slip inside of Middle Ground, gybing from shoal to beach and back. We have a narrow target to emerge between the shoal and the rocks off West Chop without our 12-foot keel bumping the bottom. Green can (shoal) to port, can 23 (rocks) to starboard. Whew.

Now a sprint back to the start/finish line off Cape Poge, Edgartown. After nearly eight hours of sailing, the final leg seems to zip by in seconds. The race committee boat greets us with a shrill whistle at the moment our bowsprit crosses the line marking the elapsed time as 8:14:45. A few boats ahead, many behind with hours to go.

A magnificent day on the water.