Women's Team Climbing Steadily towards their goals at J/24 NAs in Canada

By Erica Beck Spencer   Skipper, Sea Bags Women’s Sailing Team

This past September (2016) the Sea Bags Women’s Sailing Team traveled North of the US border to Mississauga, Ontario for the J24 North American Championship held at the Port Credit Yacht Club. This event included three full days of racing and was an excellent opportunity to race at the venue of the 2017 J24 World Championship. Forty-five teams, primarily from the US and Canada battled it out in varying conditions to become one of the top teams on this continent and many tried to qualify for worlds. For the United States many of the leaders in the fleet had already qualified and we were one of many teams hoping to be one of the six teams to qualify who had not already done so.  The US sailors there were all excellent and qualifying was going to be tricky. Teams like Angel of Harlem, Spoony Tactics, and Velocidad hadn’t qualified yet… Qualifying was going to be a serious stretch for our team but that was our goal.

On the first day of racing, our six-women team headed out early with the promise of about 9-12 knots of breeze. We anticipated needing to wait for breeze for a while and we were right.  Many of the team members went for a swim in a warm Lake Ontario.  Check out this flip into the lake by Kim!  As soon as the shoreline had popcorn clouds above it we knew the breeze would fill in, and it did. We quickly got back into gear, got the genoa up and sailed up wind to make sure we knew the correct tension for the halyard and to get our minds into racing mode. Transitioning from lounging and waiting for wind to racing is tricky, but the women of team Wait For It were ready and back in gear quickly. Friday was our best day. We had three races in the top half of the fleet, but did take a scoring penalty in race three for a breech of a down-wind port-starboard interaction.  Frankly, the boat on starboard was going slightly faster than I thought he was and I made a mistake. I should have gybed to stay in front of him instead of trying to cross him.  We were happy with our best race of the regatta—a ninth. A ninth at our second NAs—not too shabby!  We came off the water in 14th place and were very happy to be this high in the standings, even if only for a day.

Day two, Saturday, was breezy.  In a previous blog post I wrote about beginning to overcome my fear of driving in big breeze (link to this).  But on Saturday I had another first—driving in big breeze with big waves. I know what you’re meant to do—pinch up and drive up the front of the wave and bear off a little and drive down the back of the wave at an angle.  But this is tough to do when the waves are very close together. In the first two races we were able to get off the line with the acute guidance of our tactician Hillary Nobel. I’ve never had a crew be able to get me up to the starting line as well as Hillary can. The team was happy with a 19th in the first race of the day, followed by a less exciting 31st. 

In the third race, the waves were getting bigger and bigger as the breeze increased and we were handling them after a nice start. But about ½ way up the first beat we started climbing up the biggest wave I’ve ever driven up, I said, “Oh s@$T!” It felt like I was climbing a wall. What I’m about to describe is something I didn’t know was possible. I was flipped off of my skipper’s seat forward into the trimmer’s territory. My back hit the leeward edge of the cockpit near the winch and my breath was totally knocked out of me. I was able to grab the tiller and release the mainsheet before I was capable of telling Charlotte to let out the jib. Without even needing to discuss what to do next, Charlotte climbed back to drive and Kim took Charlotte’s trimming spot. I was able to catch my breath while hiking from the rail before taking the tiller again to finish this race in 20th.  As challenging as it was to race up wind in these waves it was exhilarating to scream downwind while surfing the waves.  Our friends on Bash recorded going 14.5 knots (check out their stats in the photo). That’s crazy fast.  I’m not sure if we went that fast, but I’m almost positive we went the fastest I’ve ever gone on a J24.  It was crazy. My crew rocked these conditions. I couldn’t look around—I stared at the tip of the mast and kept the boat under it while holding the tiller with two hands. Kim Calnan and Katie Drake were our eyes in front of us and behind us. They reported the approaching waves and changes in velocity and balanced the boat perfectly.  Whenever we felt slightly out of control, I did what Mike Ingham told me to do, and trimmed the mainsail a bit. Charlotte rocked the spinnaker. Of course, Jess Harris rocked the bow as she always does and got the job done. These women are fearless, strong, dependable, and damn good at what they do in all conditions. 

 Photo Credit: Ron Medlin, Jr.

Photo Credit: Ron Medlin, Jr.

In the fourth race of this day we were covered at the start and then the genoa car broke.  We had boats above us so we couldn’t tack. After some quick thinking on Charlotte’s part, we took the genoa car from the windward side and used that to stay on starboard tack. We then moved the jib car back to the genoa car track and used that without a jib car on port tack. It wasn’t a permanent solution but it could help us finish the race.  After doing half the race we we’re nearing last place and decided that this race would be our drop anyway, so we decided to abandon the race.  My team and I knew that I was seriously hurt and that once the adrenaline stopped running I’d be feeling some pain. 

Sunday was disappointing because the race committee was only able to run two races.  We did well in both of them and really wanted a third race.

We didn’t qualify for worlds, but I couldn’t possibly be more proud of this team. We were the only all women’s team and we finished solidly in the top half. We finished 20th which isn’t bad considering this was only our second North Americans and our third international event, and that this particular team of women had only sailed together for three day. There are very few sports in the world where women and men can compete at the highest levels. Only at the Olympic level do men and women not compete against each other. And we did all of this with one bad race, one broken rib, and one shredded jib car. We are going to get better. We’re climbing steadily every time we race.