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Chasing the Hard Novice

The Thistle National Championship regatta is filled with tradition. One tradition is an award called the "Hard Novice Trophy," awarded to the highest placing skipper who is sailing his or her first Nationals. This is the story of our chase for the Hard Novice at the 2007 Thistle Nationals.

We formed our current team in 2005 with the goal of competing at Nationals when the class made its west coast stop at Fern Ridge Reservoir, just west of Eugene, Oregon, in 2007. I started sailing in 2001, racing in 2002, and skippering my own Thistle in 2003. My wife, Deanne, our middle crew, grew up racing Thistles in the Pacific Northwest with her father, Harry Wingard. Doug Stumberger, our forward crew, has owned and raced J/24's and Thistles for the last ten years or so. Surrounding myself with more experienced sailors has helped push me up the sport's steep learning curve. Before Nationals we discussed our plan and expectations. Deanne predicted we'd finish in the top half of the President's Division. I thought we had a fifty-fifty chance of making the cut into the Championship Division, and Doug thought we would make the cut for sure.

Friday: The Big Top comes to Eugene

Despite a year of planning, a last-minute problem forced Deanne and me to pull the plug on the RV that we had lined up for camping at Eugene Yacht Club. Instead, I borrowed a 16x12 foot canvas-walled tent and a couple surplus Army cots from my father. The tent was nine feet tall at the peak and weighed seventy-five pounds. We christened our home for the week the Big Top. When we set it up in "tent city" at the yacht club, we looked like we had brought the circus to town. We did, however, find that the shade it created was popular with many of our tiny tent neighbors.

Tent city and the Big Top tent

The first folks we met on arriving were Jack and Kathy Finefrock from Ohio. They haven't missed a Thistle Nationals in over twenty years, and their three kids are now old enough to skipper their own Thistles. Despite our curious tent, they welcomed us like old friends.

Saturday: Measure, measure, measure

After helping measure in sails on Saturday morning, I put our toddler daughter Dana into her backpack and together we worked down the measurement checklist for our boat, #3669, named Weatherly. Our rudder passed the profile test but failed the thickness test, so during Dana's nap I sanded a few thousands of an inch of paint off each side. Later that afternoon we found that we had a near minimum weight boat, just three pounds over the 515 pound minimum. Doug arrived that evening and we enjoyed a glass of Macallan, the first of three single malt scotches we had brought for this event.

Sunday: Learning lessons in the practice race

The 2007 Nationals drew sixty-four boats. As is done every year, the boats are divided into four groups. Each group races against each of the other groups over the course of the first three races. After tallying the scores, the top half of the fleet is separated into the Championship Division and the second half competes in the President's Division. As is tradition, before racing began on Monday we went out on Sunday afternoon for a practice race.

Doug had warned me about how busy and competitive the start line would be, but I failed to really comprehend this and we started the practice race in the third row. We also got our first taste of being in the middle of a large, competitive fleet. Unable to find clear lanes and stay in phase with the shifts, we rounded the weather mark at the back of the fleet. But we had excellent speed off the wind and won back many of the boats we had lost upwind. After the second upwind leg, having worked back to mid–fleet, we called it quits and headed for the barn.

Monday: Start, start, start

Race one brought twelve to fifteen knots of wind, just what our team seems to do its best in. Sadly, my start in the first race wasn't much better than in Sunday's practice race. I didn't "pull the trigger" early enough and the boat to windward rolled over the top of us. The race was long, however, and we made gains on every downwind leg to claw back up to 10th. We were stoked. Race two brought more of the same but a finish position nearly mid fleet, in 17th.

With two good finishes in the bank, we were in decent position to make the cut, but we knew that we needed one more mid-fleet or better finish on Tuesday to get us into the Championship fleet. Back at the Big Top, the three of us talked wind strategy. We couldn't agree on much except that the middle never seemed to pay. Shortly thereafter Deanne retired and Doug and I enjoyed our second single malt of the week, a twelve-year-old expression of The Glenlivet.

Tuesday: Hoping for mid fleet or better

The breeze kicked up to nearly twenty knots for Tuesday's one race. I finally got a good start and we held our lane for a few minutes, quickly putting us in the front half of the fleet and giving us more choices. We worked the left side of the course and rounded the weather mark in the top ten. We were given nothing from our competitors and we gave nothing away. We hiked hard, worked the shifts aggressively on the second beat, and finished in 7th place. There were high-fives all around. We knew we had made the cut.

That evening Deanne called her parents to give them the good news, and over pizza and beer we joked that we might as well pack up and go home after having accomplished our main goal. But there was a lot of great racing ahead, and we were now definitely in the running for the Hard Novice Trophy. Checking the results board that night, we were pleasantly surprised to find ourselves in 20th position (out of 32 boats in the Championship division), ahead of several excellent northwest sailors who were also candidates for the Hard Novice. Alex Kimball from Seattle was just a few positions ahead of us. Alex had a long racing resume but was relatively new to the Thistle, and we had done pretty well against him in fleet racing in Seattle. We thought our chances were looking pretty good.

Wednesday: Racing with the big dogs

Race four turned out to be a real eye opener for us as far as the level of competition we were now in. There were the same number of boats on the line as the first three races, but they were the best finishers out of the four divisions. I started poorly and we were never able to get and hold a clear lane. Downwind we were fast but too far behind to make up any positions. We limped home in 28th place. We dejectedly sailed back to the start area for what we assumed would be another good whippin'.

My second start wasn't any better, but to our good fortune, we were able to tack away onto port early. This pretty much guaranteed we would work the right side of the course and we were blessed with a big right-hand shift near the top mark. As the wind clocked to its most right direction for the beat and lifted us directly onto to the starboard layline, we all let out a "Whoa!" as we realized that, at that moment, we were leading the race. The shift didn't last, of course, but we remained lifted and had our best weather mark rounding, in fifth place. We couldn't hold on to it, however. We made poor choices on the two remaining weather legs, spending time in the middle of the course while we lost boats on both sides of us. Our 17th place finish was respectable for our team, but losing twelve positions to get there sure didn't do much for our morale. We felt worse about the 17th than we did about the 28th in the previous race.

After our optimism of the day before, Wednesday night's results brought us down to earth. Alex Kimball had had a great day, posting two top-ten finishes. We were falling behind in the chase for the Hard Novice, but ended the day on a high note when Doug revealed the third and final Scottish character: Lagavulin, a smoky single-malt from Islay, the most famous of Scottish islands.

Thursday: Chasing the Westerly

At Fern Ridge in the heat of summer, when the Northerly doesn't fill during the day the westerly often fills in the evening. As was the case for the 2002 Nationals, Thursday's race was sailed in the evening westerly. The course was set shorter than on previous days and brought us closer to the windward shore. With twelve knots of breeze and relatively flat water, we knew before the start that everyone would be fast.

A rigging problem kept us occupied before the start, so we didn't have time to do more than sail to the race committee boat and start. We thought the pin end of the line would be favored, as did many of the competitors fighting for a pin end start. What we didn't know was that the wind was left at the pin and a bit right near the boat. In effect, both ends were favored. Our speed off the line was good, and I was able to hold our lane. And only a single boat crossed us--Alex Kimball, who had port-tacked the fleet and was on his way to a top five finish.

The short course and smooth water created mayhem at the first weather mark. We rounded in about 15th, with a solid line of boats ahead of us and behind us on the starboard layline. Just after rounding the mark a leeward boat without luffing rights pushed us and another boat up nearly to head to wind. This foul cost us quite a few positions that we were never able to get back. We ended up crossing the finish line in 23rd, but were scored as 22nd when the boat that had fouled us withdrew. This finish knocked us back to 22nd in the overall standards. Alex's fourth place finish pushed him into the top ten for the regatta, and with only one race scheduled for Friday, we knew that our chase for the Hard Novice was over.

Friday: Wrapping it up

The winds were fickle on Friday morning and the seventh and final race was postponed and eventually cancelled. The day was still full, however. The boat needed to be de-rigged and packed for travel. We decommissioned the Big Top and needed a wheelbarrow to pack it to the boat for its ride home. (Yes, it's that big.) We enjoyed lots of chatting between the chores with our new friends from across the country. When it was all done we rewarded ourselves with a beer or two at the Thistle Nationals banquet and awards ceremony.

In the end, we were happy with our results in our first Nationals together as a team, even if we didn't win the Hard Novice—that went to the Alex and his crew Susanna Carr and Annie MacLean, who finished with a 9th place overall. If we couldn't bring home the hardware, it is good to know it was won by a local northwest team. It was a great week getting to know sailors from all corners of the country. I can see what keeps people in the Thistle class year after year with such great camaraderie and well-run regattas. I would particularly like to thank Jack and Kathy Finefrock and their extended Thistle family for welcoming us into their corner of tent city.

An even bigger thanks needs to go to my teammates: my wife, Deanne, and our forward crew, Doug. These two fine sailors have endured my tantrums, taught me much of what I know about sailing, kindly reminded me to "shut up and drive", and created a sailing team that is a joy to be a part of.