The Thistle Midwinters East Regatta
Early Spring Sailing Nirvana

by Robin Bonner

When Are We Goin’ ta Florida?
They say that for some people, "When Are We Goin’ ta Florida?" is their favorite whine. It’s been mine for years. I stare at the gray walls and overcast skies all winter, just trying to keep warm and make it until spring. (That’s not entirely true; my husband, Gary, and I do make the best of the cold weather—see the Winter 2013-2014 Editorial—but it’s certainly not the same as being someplace truly warm.) Well, this past winter, we finally did something about it, and, of course, it involved sailing. We made a somewhat last-minute decision to sign up for the Thistle Midwinters East Regatta, held March 1–8 in St. Petersburg, FL. And, what a great idea that turned out to be!

Our love affair with the Thistle (a 17-ft sailing dinghy) began innocently enough. We were members of the Nockamixon Sail Club (Bucks County, PA) and Lightning sailors. We usually only sailed mixed-boat races scored using a handicapping system and routinely found ourselves bested by Thistles, clearly a better boat for the light breezes typical on Lake Nockamixon. The situation had become annoying. Then, while we were sailing a regatta in August 2012, a Thistle stealthily, smoothly passed us, and something just snapped. I looked at Gary and said, “We need one of those things!” We weren’t ashore five minutes when a friend of ours from Thistle Fleet 176 commented, “Heard you’re looking for a Thistle.” Before we knew it, friend and Thistle sailor (and salesman extraordinaire) Craig Smith was talking us into buying a used one. Thus, with our kids out of college and on their own, we began sailing Thistles rather late in life. Better late than never!

The following season (2013) we set about learning the basics of sailing a Thistle, which we quickly found out was very different from sailing a Lightning. A Thistle is very tippy, for one thing. Due to sudden wind shifts and spinnaker-handling debacles, we almost capsized several times our first time out. If nothing else was accomplished, we certainly entertained the rest of the fleet! Our fellow Thistle Fleet members, however, encouraged us at every opportunity. In fact, just joining the local fleet was a bonus. The social aspects weren’t something we had even thought about.

Others in our fleet often sailed at “away regattas” along the East Coast, so we thought we’d give it a shot. We decided to race at the Atlantic Coast Championships, in Ocean Gate, NJ, in July. I grew up in nearby Pt. Pleasant but had never sailed on the Barnegat Bay, so I was stoked. However, a front was coming through that day, and the wind had picked up to about 10–15 mph, with gusts up to 20 or 25 mph, so we were flying. (It occurred to me that we wouldn't have sailed the Lightning in those conditions!) As we headed for the start line, which was so far away we couldn’t even see it when we set out, we found ourselves rolling precariously through the chop on the shallow bay, and then planing. Yeeeeehaaaaa! We spent two races avoiding capsized boats (and avoiding capsizing ourselves) and thus got our first taste of “away regattas.” I thought: “Toto, we’re not on Lake Nockamixon anymore.” For us, the Thistle was no longer just a light air boat.

And, we LOVED it.

We followed the ACCs by sailing in the Thistle Class East Coast Fall Series: at Lake Hopatcong (NJ), the Oyster Roast (Severn Sailing, Annapolis, MD—yes, we took this little baby out in the Chesapeake), and the Red Dragon (near Burlington, NJ, on the Delaware River). We held our own, not always finishing last – which we figured was an accomplishment for new Thistle sailors —and living up to our modest goals of (1) not embarrassing our home fleet (trying at least to appear to know what we’re doing) and (2) not capsizing (except for Lake Hopatcong, where we did go over once—for the first time—but were able to right ourselves and sail on). Each time we went out, we learned a lot and overcame our fears. Soon we were “addicted” to Thistle sailing. In fact, when we finished up at the Red Dragon at the end of October, we saw the winter looming ahead of us like a long, cold, desert because there would be no sailing until spring.

Or, would there be?

After our sail club’s annual awards banquet in November, the buzz around Thistle Fleet 176 was, “Are you going to Midwinters?” So the big topic of conversation at our fleet’s winter party in January was just that. Really, to us, sailing the first week of March meant sailing in the winter, which was unheard of. However, I had always wanted to get away to someplace warm in the winter, and St. Pete sounded so lovely. . . . What’s more, we learned that Midwinters offered coaching, which would be a great way to hone our skills. So, we began to think about it, and then to scheme. Our home fleet even joined us for a little preparatory boat buffing party. Before we knew it, we were hauling Thistle #3077 out of our snowbound driveway in Pennsylvania and through the night to sunny St. Pete. We had no idea what to expect, but singing Jimmy Buffett’s “Son of a Son of a Sailor” at the top of my lungs at the wheel about 3 a.m. helped put me in the mood. It was going to be something; I just knew it.

We picked up our crew, good friend Craig Smith, just north of Jacksonville around 7:30 a.m. After a few stops along the way for boiled peanuts and fresh-squeezed OJ, we arrived at the St. Petersburg Sailing Center around 1:00 p.m. We found a spot for our boat (and our car), and with the surreal mindset that only driving through the night can induce, we peeled down to shorts and set up the boat, looking forward to the week-long agenda of coaching, racing, and socials. Back home, family and friends were bracing for the next storm; we were basking in the sun, taking in blue sky and palm trees, and fine-tuning our rigging. And, soon we'd be sailing on Tampa Bay. How good can it get?

Although conducted in a pretty laid back manner—and probably because of that—the Thistle Class Association’s coaching program (called, informally, “Coach TCA”) was a big success, at least for us. The first big benefit was the low cost: We signed up online for a modest fee of $40. The second plus (and an amazing one, considering the cost) was the relaxed format, yet expert content, of the sessions: US Sailing president Tom Hubbell led the talks, and he and other top-of-the-fleet sailors covered both basic and advanced topics, the instructors exchanging good-natured banter all the while. Newer sailors were able to take notes without feeling intimidated, and seasoned skippers could pepper the experts with questions as they saw fit. Everyone seemed to have a good time together, and I know it was a true learning experience for us. Gary, as skipper, picked up decision-making tips, and I took notes on how I could be a better crew member.

Photo by Tina Deptula
An “ice-breaker” session on Saturday afternoon (arrival day) at 2:00 p.m. gave participants the chance to meet Tom and some of the other sailors, then (if their boat was rigged) get their “feet wet” with drills out on the water. We sat out the drills, as we had just arrived in town and still had a lot to do just to get our boat ready to launch. However, it was still great to meet Tom and some of the other racers the first day.

The Coach TCA program continued Sunday morning through Friday afternoon, generally with short sessions (about weather and sailing conditions) in the morning before races, and longer, recap sessions in the afternoon. Early sessions would begin right on time with a “raffle” for a “free gift” (a booklet of sailing tips, mainsheet “slings,” and other swag). You had a shot at winning if you arrived on time, remembered to bring your name tag from the social the night before, and were quick to drop said name tag into the “hat.” Sailors are nothing if not competitive, so this was an ingenious way to get everyone to show up on time. After all, 8:00 a.m. comes pretty early when you were out partying the night before.

Sometimes, when wind conditions pushed the start of races into the afternoon, Tom would capitalize on the extra time available and run a longer morning session. He was always trying to give us a little more, but he also would ask if we wanted to take a break and then reconvene. The talks covered mast bend and sail shape, weather, starting, running, beating, sail trim, crew techniques, rules of mark rounding, current, use of compass, windy set-up, and race review. Some sessions were hands-on and conducted in the parking lot. Others were lecture-based and held in a meeting room at the Sailing Center. A few times, we had the chance to watch videos of boats out on the water during a race and discuss starts, sail trim, and boat heel, compliments of sailmaker Skip Dieball. Very cool!

On Thursday we were “grounded” when a front came through and with it thunderstorms and tornadoes. Tom used the extra time on land to embark on a true-to-life demonstration of how to use a compass, complete with a “real” Optimus dinghy and compass. Tom sat the boat on a table, installed the compass, then swung the whole shebang in 90-degree increments to illustrate tacks. We don’t use a compass much on Lake Nockamixon, so this show-and-tell session had a big impact on me, a visual learner. Other experienced sailors were also a big help. I guess I had looked confused at one point because one sailor came over and offered an additional explanation. The women sailors were also quick to answer my questions. Early on, I realized everyone was okay with us being newbies, and I sought advice and information liberally. This was our first exposure to such comprehensive coaching, and we just soaked it up.

A bonus of the Coach TCA program was the one-on-one mentoring. In these private sessions, each skipper and crew were paired with an “expert” coach, who accompanied them out onto the water, observed the boat and its handling, and offered tips on performance. We scheduled a session with Tom Hubbell for Tuesday morning but were thwarted by still winds. So, we got to talking on shore, and Tom had us raise our spinnaker (yes, there in the parking lot) so he could give me pointers on trimming. It was quite effective: We weren’t going anywhere, but I could see the effect of the light breeze on the spinnaker. Other sailors also stopped by to offer tips. Later that day, I was able to put my new skills to use. And, when we headed out for the day’s races on Wednesday, Tom hopped on board our boat and gave us some on-the-water tips.

We knew what we were up against when we signed up for Midwinters, and, with our old boat and sails, we suffered no illusions of making a “respectable” showing. Sailing the East Coast Fall Series in 2013 triggered a love of the rush of Thistle racing, but we knew we had a lot to learn. Getting out on Tampa Bay for the first time on Sunday afternoon was exhilarating, however, and just passing the breakwater and leaving the harbor elicited a wild whoop of joy from Craig. Yes, it was huge and beautiful, with the afternoon sun glistening on its surface and the Tampa skyline just visible on the horizon. Plus, we were in shorts and tank tops. Eat your heart out, Philadelphia! We were sailing in St. Pete, and tomorrow would be our first race day. So, we spent Sunday afternoon refamiliarizing ourselves with our boat. (After all, it had been four long months since we last sailed at the Red Dragon Canoe Club on the Delaware River.) As middle crew, I concentrated on getting a feel for the jib, which I had trouble trimming as the wind strengthened. I’d get it right, then the old sails would stretch, and I’d have to tweak the line, which sometimes was more than I could handle. Under Craig’s tutelage, Gary focused on trimming the mainsail rather than steering. But, we were (finally) sailing on the bay and loving it.

At the races on Monday, it was much of the same thing. I was middle crew; Craig was forward. The wind blew 9–11 mph—a sea breeze from the south. We did a spinnaker run toward the racecourse, as we were running late, and caught up before the start. (The spinnaker is the huge sail that billows out in front of a boat—it’s used only for downwind runs.) I was trimming the jib (the sail in the front of the boat that you usually see up) and, again, I was having a hard time of it. I also trimmed the spinnaker, which I didn’t often get a chance to do. Gary worked the guy (the line controlling the spinnaker pole) because I didn’t have much of a feel for how to do both. Craig pushed Gary to concentrate on boat speed—sail trim and steering. I got (rock-climber) belayer’s neck from watching the spinnaker curl. It was a thrill when Craig jibed the pole (when we changed direction) and I needed to hold the sheets—the reins, so to speak—to keep the spinnaker centered and in the air. Whoopee!

Photo by Tina Deptula
Because of light air, Tuesday’s races were postponed until later in the day. (The expert Race Committee [RC] monitored the weather and wind, made the calls, and kept us apprised.) At the start of the first race, we were right up there with the pack, but a few boats were over the start line early, so the race was restarted. Once again, I began the day as middle crew, and this time, when I trimmed the jib, I jammed my foot down on the sheet just so, and it lodged in the cleat—a trick one of the experienced women sailors divulged over drinks the night before. I also trimmed the spinnaker, but this time, after Tom Hubbell’s helpful coaching session just that morning, I was also able to work the guy on those downwind legs. That’s not to say Gary or Craig wouldn’t adjust things on occasion, but at least I was on the map with it. I switched to forward crew after the first race so I’d get some hands-on experience with the pole and jibing it, but not before practicing my new skills sufficiently. The two races seemed to fly by as Craig coached and Gary and I worked to hone our skills. The high point came between races, when we saw a few dolphins breaching off the bow. I was so startled that I couldn’t even grab our waterproof camera in time to document it!

On Wednesday, we were all ready to race but the wind just wouldn’t cooperate, and the RC was forced to push back the start once again. The wind finally came in from the southwest, but because it was late in the day, RC decided to hold only one, albeit long, race. The starting sequence began, and we decided to go for the front row. Unfortunately, at the last minute, the wind shifted substantially, so the RC stopped the race. (The marks would need to be reset.) They announced by radio that they’d restart the race after the wind settled in.

Meanwhile, we went off dolphin stalking. We spied a large pod (of 15–20) in the mood to play, and this time I had our underwater camera ready. Several swam next to the boat; some breached. They were sleek, beautiful, and all around us. A number lunched on a school of fish just off the port bow. Between the multiple breaches off bow and stern, and a brand new little one swimming alongside the boat, we were both amazed and delighted. I videotaped as much as I could as the boat flew along and lurched during tacks. (We later posted a video on You Tube.) When we finally had our one race that day, it was a good one. At the start, we were right in with the fleet. The winds were still lighter (3–6 knots), which was just fine with our lightweight skipper and forward crew. We held our ground for most of the race. At the last leeward mark, however, we made a bad jibe, and it was a downhill slide from there. Still, we weren’t last, finishing 31 out of 34 boats.

On Thursday, a front came through and we awoke to howling wind and drizzling rain. Racing was canceled for the day because of thunderstorms (proved by a loud crack just outside our classroom window). We also heard later that a tornado did in fact come up the bay. After a long morning coaching session, it was time for a little R&R, so we joined a group of our new friends for lunch at the nearby “Lucky Dill.” Afterward, we all went in different directions. Some visited the Dali Museum, but Gary and I headed back to the room to do a little reading and writing. It reminded me of going to Disney World: You look forward to “having a day off” and not going into the theme parks, not because you don’t love it but because you need to regroup at some point. I caught up my journal on the week’s events, and Gary perused the sailing books that came with our coaching packet. We’d need to be well rested and on top of things on Friday. Right after the storm, there was sure to be a whole lot of wind.

And, Friday’s races did prove to be everything an adventurous sailor could hope for, and then some. The day began with a coaching session at 8:00 a.m., so we arrived by 7:45 to ready our boat. We were decked out in our brand new salopettes, our Christmas gifts to one another. These are essentially waterproof bib overalls, made especially for sailing. Whether or not you capsize, they’ll keep you pretty darn dry; and insulated. Worn with a rain jacket, they certainly keep off the cold, wet spray, and there are no worries about hiking out and having one's shirt come untucked!)

Tom Hubbell began his talk by covering the day’s weather and sailing conditions. After mentioning how windy it would be (a steady 10–15 mph, and more with gusts), he immediately brought up safety issues, including how each crew member should always carry a Gill rescue knife and be capable of cutting oneself free of lines or wire (presumably during a capsize, when one could become entangled and need a quick release). YIKES! Nice time to bring that up. So, as we launched the boat and made our way to open water, for the first time that week I was feeling a little leery (because, of course, none of us had Gill rescue knives; at least, I knew I didn’t). Then, Craig found the rum I’d stashed in the cooler for the sail back to port, when all had gone well (meaning we survived). He howled outright at such a find first thing in the morning and dove right into it. I can’t say that eased my mind one bit. Ho ho ho and a bottle of rum, here we come!

There were two races of about 4.5 miles each. We had good starts in both and, in general, we did our best to stay clear of other boats. That was fine for the first race, but during the second, we were in the thick of it. We held our ground for a while, but eventually the hot shots worked their way ahead of us. We blame that on their better equipment! It was a real struggle going upwind, though, because of the heavy air and waves. We figured we were dealing with 13 to 15 knots and gusts over 20 mph. We had a few near misses with other boats. Then, we turned the mark and had to decide whether to fly the spinnaker. Everyone had theirs up, and, after all, that’s what we came for (Gary said that; I had no such thought.) Well, the guys (Gary and Craig) said to get the (spinnaker) pole ready, so I went to work. We raised the spinnaker right up and took off.

After a few big rolls to windward, we prepared to jibe. As a safety measure, we took down the spinnaker, jibed the pole, and then reset the spinnaker, raising it a second time, to port. Then the puff hit and the screaming began, literally, as we planed the rest of the leg. I was afraid to breathe, quite honestly. I’m glad I somehow remembered to do it because no one would have noticed if I passed out. Carnage was everywhere: We picked our way between capsized boats as we careened ahead. Just before the mark, I pulled in the spinnaker, and we raised the jib afterward, another safety precaution as far as I was concerned, although Gary called it a “timing issue.” All I know is that I was already exhausted. We sailed most of that first race with all the other boats. In fact, we were in in front of other boats, until the last windward leg. We made a bad rounding after the second spinnaker run and went way left, and the left side didn’t pay off. So, we finished ahead of just a couple of boats, which would have been enough for us, but with all of the capsizes—six that didn’t finish—we had our best race all week: 24th out of 34 boats!

The second race was much of the same. Waves were coming over the bow and hitting me in the face. Yum, salt water! We had another screaming downwind leg with the spinnaker up, and one where we dropped it early and wing-in-winged it to the mark, planing and screaming. I love winging, holding the jib sheet out away from the boat, opposite the main sail, carefully hooking at least one foot under the hiking strap and then hanging the rest of my body out over the water, as we zoomed along. There were three DNF (did not finish) capsizes in the second race, and we finished before two other boats, for a 21st. I fell a few times and got knocked by the boom a couple of times, and at least once got caught under the boom vang (a wire that runs from the boom to the mast, forming a triangle, and keeps the boom parallel to the boat).

My hairiest moment was when the guys asked me to go up to the bow to fix the jib tack fitting, which had come undone. And there was also a leeward spinnaker takedown, where I had to climb under the boom to do it. I tried not to think about getting stuck under the heavy boom during a capsize; it was a tight squeeze. The best thing to do is to trust your skipper and crew (in this case, my husband, Gary, and the illustrious Craig Smith), and I had no worries there. I tried not to get tangled in lines, just in case—you know, no Gill rescue knife—and just kept wiping the salt water from my glasses so I could see what the hell I was doing. My hands, feet, and arms were soaked (so I was very happy later to get on shore and dry off). Even Gary (who doesn’t drink) shared a sip of the rum—yes, there was some left—on our victory lap. After that ordeal, survival alone was sweet indeed!

So, the racing was spectacular. We did the best we could and learned a lot. If there was one thing we learned in the 2013 East Coast Fall Series, it was to show up and stay up. We brought that ability to Midwinters and came in 32nd overall. Not bad for beginners! We’re excited to continue to compete, learn even more, and take more risks, with the idea of moving up gradually in the pack. Who knows? Regardless of the outcome, though, we’re having a great time and also challenging ourselves. It’s all about the journey. After all, we could be sitting around the house watching television . . . (anyone who knows me knows how funny that idea is).

Tom Hubbell said, in his first email to Coach TCA sailors, “Social—yes, sailing is social. If you miss this, you missed a major point.” Well, the officials of the Thistle Class Association, in conjunction with the St. Petersburg Yacht Club, were no slackers in this regard. Social events were planned for every evening, culminating with an Awards Dinner that came with the cost of the regatta. (The overall price tag was $200 for the sailing plus tickets for skipper and crew to the awards dinner. Two other dinners that week, a Southern BBQ on Monday and Scottish Party on Wednesday, were add-ons at $25 per head.)

So, not only did we all sail and learn together each day, but we also drank and ate together each evening. (Yes, there was a lot of drinking. Hey, we’re sailors; what do you want?) In addition to the included and additional events, there was a “pay-on-your-own” party on Monday at The Hangar Restaurant on the grounds of nearby Albert Whitted Airport. On the Tuesday and Thursday evenings, sailors enjoyed videos and a complimentary keg of beer in the Regatta Room of the Yacht Club. Tuesday’s videos led to a light dinner in the adjoining lounge and dancing to the local band “Dazzled.” Because that Tuesday was also Mardi Gras, the lead singer distributed shiny purple and green beaded necklaces to men and women alike. (Were the Thistle Class colors purely coincidental?)

Wednesday was the traditional Thistle Class Ceilidh (Scottish Party), held at the Yacht Club, where sailors enjoyed Scotch whiskey and Scottish food. There was Scottish dancing and Scottish joke telling, much of it with Scottish accents. Some sailors wore kilts. If you didn’t have a kilt, a tartan plaid scarf or shirt would do. Anything to show your Thistle Pride! Are you afraid of getting dragged onto the dance floor? Then, slink off to the bar downstairs and hope no one notices. But, most of us stayed and either participated or lent moral support by way of applause to the brave (read: drunk) dancers. All in all, it was one fine Scottish evening. We have an idea for kilts that we’re saving for next year . . .

True confession: We missed beer and videos at the Yacht Club on Thursday. We tried to get there (I swear!) but an intriguing restaurant adjacent to our hotel called Cevíche kept calling to me all week and finally lured me in early Thursday evening. Craig and a bunch of other friends followed, and I think the beer-and-videos gang landed there as well, when the Yacht Club event broke up. The place was so exotic, the tiled tables so seemingly authentic, that by walking in there, taking a table (each one had a differently colored tile pattern), and drinking the sangria, you felt as though you had stepped right back to the time of Ponce de Leon (explorer, and namesake of the adjoining hotel), and found yourself contemplating the exploration of a new world. This is what we’d been doing all week, anyway. We told the hostess we’d be there for only an hour—that beer and videos awaited us just down the street—but, alas, somehow we were still there three hours later. There must have been something in that sangria. Well, everyone had a good time and there seemed to be no repercussions (demerits?) for missing the “official” social.

The final evening event was the Awards Banquet, on Friday. This would be the last time we’d all be together, which made it bittersweet. The past presidents (even the women) were decked out in presidential blazers, and everyone got gussied up for the dinner (which boasted a fabulous prime rib carving station). Old friendships had been strengthened that week, and new ones were forged. As we enjoyed the evening, we wondered if we’d make it back the following year. What we did know was that we would surely like to! There was not one thing we could think of that would give us pause. It was simply a wonderful week-long event, stimulating both intellectually and socially. And, we got a workout, besides! Finally, it meant warmth and sailing in the winter. What more can I say?

Beginning our journey back to Philadelphia the next morning, we of course were sad to leave St. Pete and all of our new friends. (As Dan Reasoner posted, truthfully, on my Facebook page: “Now comes the sad part.”) The idea that mounds of snow still stood in our yard at home didn’t help one bit. But, after visiting with my sister and her family, who live just north of Tampa, we got on the road. And, as an added bonus, we were able to meet up with Craig once again in Jacksonville as we passed through that evening and share one more secret stash of rum, grab a great sandwich (at the Sonny’s BBQ that Craig had been pining for all week), and relive some of the wild times we had just had. And, in the end, we made it down to St. Pete and back to PA again between snowstorms.

Then, once home in PA, we could watch the winter subside and the spring take shape, all the while thinking: We sailed in Tampa Bay in shorts and tank tops just last week! (And then) just last month! Ah, and now I’m in shorts again in May, writing this, and the memories are just as sweet!

Robin Bonner is editor of Empty Nest. For more about Robin, see About Us.

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