Last week I flew to Ohio. Thistle Nationals were being held on Lake Erie, at the port town of Sandusky.
No, Thistle Nationals is not a Scottish Dancing Competition or the highland games. A thistle is a seventeen foot sailboat, sailed by three people. You can read more about it here. They are light, fast, and tippy. On our three person team at nationals I was in charge of the bow, which means that I have to move around a lot and I frequently knock myself on various parts of the boat that stick out. My crewmate Dave was in charge of the middle of the boat. My skipper Wayne is the one who made the boat go.
Being from the East Coast, it seemed odd for Ohio to be my “vacation” destination, but I was drawn by the allure of competing in anything called “nationals.” I’ve always wanted to compete at the national level at a sport, any sport.
Making a Thistle move through the water at seven knots (about the speed of a fast jog) is an art form that involves quite a bit of cursing. As everyone knows, the louder you curse, the faster the boat moves.
“Take down the F$@@#!ing spinnaker pole!”
“I’m taking down the m#%$!!F*^#@ing spinnaker pole!”
And the boat glides on, so fast that it creates an unseen wake.
Wayne’s license plate on his van is in a frame that says “Thistle Sailing. Faster than fast.” Oh, also his license plate reads “Thistle.” Did I mention he is a little obsessed? This year he also happened to be Vice President of the Thistle Fleet. Unfortunately, that meant that he was in charge of 53 trophies. It seemed strange that there were 110 boats at nationals and 53 trophies. There are trophies for various categories: “highest finish for a skipper from west of the Mississippi”, “highest finish for a skipper over 60″, “highest finish for a woman skipper.” I assume that by creating so many trophies, the Thistle class meant to be inclusive and make sure that everyone who raced hard got a trophy. What it meant for Wayne is that he had to keep track of the placement of each skipper in each category. What it meant for me, as Wayne’s crew, was that I had to polish an awful lot of silver.
Thankfully I had help. Rather than polishing the trophies in the back room, we took them out into the clubhouse after dinner and polished them in front of everybody. We were awarded with free beers and appreciation.
Speaking of beers, at the same time that Thistle Nationals was going on, the self-proclaimed Flip Cup Nationals was also going on. I did not partake, but at night we could hear the cheers of the participants from our tents. “Why are they all yelling ‘USA’?” My tent neighbor, Tracy Jean, wondered. “Aren’t we all from the USA?” This question was never answered.
On the racecourse though, many of my questions about sailing were answered. For instance, I learned how to pee off the side of a dinghy when you’re out sailing for 8 hours at a time. I also learned to read the sailing instructions very carefully, and that the finish line is almost always restricted.
Although we did not get a trophy, I did have the pleasure of getting dressed up and handing out the trophies to the deserving winners. I thought that I knew which trophies were which, but when I arrived at the banquet at the yacht club and saw 53 gleaming perpetual trophies, as well as over 100 smaller trophies for the winners to keep, I freaked. I may have handed out a few wrong trophies, but everyone seemed fairly content with their extra shiny silver cups.
We didn’t do so poorly either though. We were 44th out of 110 boats. Sailing Thistles is hard, and the competition is tremendous. I couldn’t believe the skill of some of the other crews. There is so much to think about, between wind angle, keeping clear of other boats, getting room around a mark, preventing the boat from heeling too much, and a million other things. The smallest mistake can cost you 10 boat lengths, and you can never sail a perfect race.