Tales from the rail – the life and times of the crew of blue heaven

In August, 2002 I stepped up from a 13′ 120 pound Sunfish to 39′ 20,000 pound Pearson sloop. Based on good advice from my wife Priscilla she said “buy the biggest sailboat you will ever want so you do not get 2′ itis.” That means do not buy a 30′ boat and put a fortune into her and then decide you deserve a 32′ boat and start all over again. Over the eleven years we raced and cruised our boat Blue Heaven on Lake Michigan, no matter how high the waves or strong the wind, we never said the words spoken by well known actor Roy Scheider in the 1975 blockbuster ‘Jaws’. He utters the line when he gets a good look at the size of the shark that is circling the small fishing boat he is on. “You’re gonna need a bigger boat.”

Blue Heaven was named after the bar and restaurant in Key West. This provided an unlimited supply of boat name swag such as hats and T-shirts from their gift shop. Jimmy Buffett also sings a ballad by the name of Blue Heaven Rendezvous.

When we started our sailboat racing career it was difficult to find crew. The better racers already had a ride. I read a book about sailboat racing by local Chicago sailing legend Richie Stearns. He suggested that women make the best crew. What they lack in upper body strength they more than make up in intelligence, loyalty and willingness to learn. A good skipper will tack the boat in such a way that the crew can sheet in the jib almost all the way to minimize the grinding on the winch. This takes the pressure off the wench on the winch. For the majority of our successful racing campaign we had a crew of mostly women. As a result, our boat Blue Heaven became know as Blue Harem.

Sailboat racing as with any sport has a steep learning curve. The first few years were a struggle to figure out what we needed to make the boat go fast. New sails and a consistent crew are a start. Sails cost about $5,000 – $6,000 each and a racing boat needs a minimum of seven sails. This includes a main sail, three jibs # 1, #2, #3 and three spinnakers (chutes) a 1.5 ounce .75 ounce and .5 ounce. This is the bare minimum. You can add in a reacher, staysail and an asymmetrical spinnaker. How about a storm tri sail and a # 4? Code zero anyone?

As we became more proficient racers it became clear that the more we practiced the luckier we were in the races. A huge challenge for the BO (boat owner) is to cast the crew. I mean cast in the same terms that a movie director selects the cast of a movie. The crew must gel and the square pegs need to be culled for the good of the crew. If the crew is not having fun they will become less loyal. On Blue Heaven we raced with 8 – 9 crew. In order to get a minimum number of crew I maintained a crew list of 26 people. When we were racing a full program we raced Wednesdays, Saturdays and offshore in addition to the Mac, Queen’s Cup, Tri-State and NOODs.

The next level of proficiency is to get crew with a specific skill set. A key position is tactician. Often the BO tries to be the helmsman and tactician. In addition to these two tasks the BO tries to direct the crew in all their activities. This distracts from the prime directive of the helmsman – GO FAST. The best tacticians are wind whisperers. When they say go left or right they are channeling Wayne Gretzky – Nicknamed “The Great One”, he has been called “the greatest hockey player … Gretzky gave the advice to “skate where the puck’s going, not where it’s been”. ….. Let the puck do all the moving and you get yourself in the right place. The best tacticians are telling you where the wind is going to be.

Other key positions include the foredeck, after-guard and pit. The foredeck position is responsible for hoisting and jibing the spinnaker and all that implies as well as hoisting and lowering the jib. In the cockpit is the after-guard. They tack the jib and fly the chute. In the pit is the mainsail trimmer. The safest position on the crew is helmsman. It is hard to get hurt behind the wheel.

If a BO can fill all these positions with competent crew that are willing to practice, the boat will start to rise up the fleet pecking order. This process will take several years so be patient but be ruthless with your crew selection. Cull when you know it has to be done. Mediocre, unmotivated crew deliver similar results despite your six figure investment in the program.

The crew on Blue Heaven was magical. Yes, I culled a few over the years and several culled themselves. We had a successful campaign resulting in a full hoist of blue flags. Blue flags are for first place, red for second place and white for third place. If I calculated the cost per blue flag generated by my racing program, I would question my own sanity.

The real joy of racing a sailboat is the fellowship of the crew. The fun we had on the races, the overnights in distant harbors and party after party are the thing of dreams. Fortunately we kept a social log of our adventures. This log book is the infamous “Tales From the Rail” Often during the races the crew sits on the rail (side of the boat) for hour after hour helping keep the boat trim. It is during these rail riding times that many adventures were revealed. What follows is the unedited version of the life and times of the crew of Blue Heaven.