Racing the Russians

It wasn't easy. The Russian crews could not have been nicer. Sailors, after all, are sailors. but the officials, in spite of gold toothed smiles and protestations of kameradschaft , were distressed by the American's showing on the first day of the Black Sea Regatta. This was the seventeenth year that the Regatta had been held in the waters off the City of Odessa. This was the first year that any but Socialist boats had competed. This year the Russians were faced with three hot US teams, two from St Mary's College, which takes its racing very seriously, and the third a pick up team of old Citadel sailing buddies from Charleston and other cities of the Confederacy. Things started out hot and rapidly got hotter. Ultimately both sides came away with a deeper understanding of the problems and pluses of the other. But there were some very tense moments when the thaw of Glasnost lost out against the Cold War of suspicion.

In strange boats and strange waters, using all Soviet gear, three American crews came in one, two, three in the first of five heats. The Russian sailors against whom they were competing were excited and pleased at the results. The Russians, so long cut off from sailing in the West, watched and learned and, as sailors do the world over, gossiped and compared. As the Americans, one by one, overtook and passed them the signs of approval and encouragement were matched with smiles of good sportsmanship.

But on the second race the referees of the Black Sea Cup and the officials of the Odessa Yacht Club so delayed the American crews at the start that any chance of winning, or even of a fair race, were left behind at the gun.

At the gun the three Americans were still held inside the Club waters as Immigration (!) officials lazily checked passports while the Russian boats were half a mile away at the starting line. The Russians held that any foreign boat leaving port, even for a race within Odessa Bay, would have to be cleared out as if they were leaving Russian waters. Oleg, one nifty Russian sailor, pleaded that the race be delayed until the US crews were released and in place. The chief referee agreed to wait. He then turned around and fired the starting gun while the US boats were still at dockside in the grip of molasses slow officials. Suspicions arose that the delay was intentionally arranged to give the Russian boats a leg up. It was a reasonable assessment considering the problems of language and differences in culture.

When the gun went off Oleg begged the director of the Club at least to be allowed a motor boat to tow the US yachts, already late, to the starting line. The answer was,Nyet ! with no explanation.

It seemed to the Americans at the time that the Russian aparat had decided to win the race at all costs. If the Soviets were being unfair their tactics were as transparent as a bottle of Stolychnaya and as effective as a bucket tied to the keel.

In another official move that was perceived by the Americans as detrimental, it was decreed that each US boat (not the Bulgarian or the Rumanian or any other Socialist boat) would have to carry one Russian as crew. The American crews had sailed together since childhood and needed a non-English speaking supercargo about as badly as the USSR needs more bureaucrats. The two St Mary's boats agreed. They argued that in spite of the difficulty of carrying a Russian sailor, they wanted to show their appreciation to the Russian sailors who were panting to sail with them.

Squeaky, the US skipper of Maestro, was less inclined to be cooperative. An unitiminated southern boy from Charleston, Squeaky knew how to say no. He simply said, Nyet ! , and sailed off. Nobody raised a finger. The Russians are great at creating obstacles but lousy at enforcing them.

Oleg, who had been to the US with his crew for the Block Island doings and who had come to love and respect American racers, nearly blew a glow plug. Last seen, after this 'race' was started, he was complaining loudly and demonstrating his distress by putting his hand under his tee shirt over his heart and pounding away. His Russian heart, he said, "was bursting with frustration and anger."

In a moment of peasant's revenge or of utter ineptness, take your pick, the goodwill and affection so carefully nurtured between sailors who held in common their love for racing, was soured by what appeared to be a clear attempt to encumber the Americans. In this land of deep suspicions, paranoia is easy to come by. The efforts of the People to People Committee, who had brought the Americans here, the efforts of countless Russians and the expenditure of scores of thousands of dollars was being wasted. We could all have stood at home.

But class will out and there must be justice because Maestro, starting half and hour late creamed in first . The team from Charleston had picked up its half hour handicap and then some. Ultimately the win was taken away from Maestro and give it to the Russian boat Bravo who finished half an hour behind Maestro. That means that the Committee had to correct over an hour for Bravo to win. No mean feat.

Odessy, one of the St Mary's boats, would have had a chance in that race but the sails the Soviets had laid on them were hopeless so Odessy took to hunting for wind where no one else did. Dangerous stuff, taking flyers like that, but they had little option since Maestro and Arizona were both faster boats.

It was Maestro that got the Soviet goat. In the third race, a hundred miler, Maestro took an early lead and was gone . . . shot out of a cannon. It was a clean start, no shenanigans on the Committee boat. But the Committee boat had shot off the 10 minute and the 5 minute flares at the same time. None of the Russian crews seemed upset but it puzzled the hell out of the three US crews. The flare episode, an act without reason or logical explanation, caused suspicions that perhaps the problem was not evil intent but pure ineptness on the part of the officials. Some Americans more inclined to doubt the charge of unfairness were reduced to charging the Committee with lack of organization and experience if not downright stupidity.

The Americans were determined to keep not only a sharp eye to weather in this race but an even sharper eye to the Committee. It was like the boxer who, after a bad round, was told by his trainer that the, "other guy didn't lay a glove on you." The fighter then advised his trainer to watch out for the referee, "cause somebody out there is beatin' the bejasus outta me."

This time the Race Committee somehow succeeded in giving Maestro, the major threat to the Russian boats, different instructions from all the others in the race. Maestro had been instructed to hold course for a "three second light" . . . in writing. The others were told to look for a Committee boat stationed on an unlighted mark. Maestro, half an hour ahead of the pack, found the committee boat but no "three second light" so they held on course in the pitch black night till their keel 'discovered' a spit of land across the bay to be known for all time as Teddy Turner's Point. Having to make up twenty miles hey still came in seventh.

All the other boats, those with the good instructions, rounded the committee boat. It's damned hard to win a race with multiple instructions. Maestro again dropped out of first. Maestro, at this point, had been first boat by far to 31 of the 34 marks in the race . . . and they were not winning.

It had become clear to most by now that the Committee was simply so inexperienced and so disorganized that it could hardly find it's stern with both hands. The suspicion of evil intent started seeping away. The Americans were no longer up in arms over 'unfairness.' Now they were embarrassed, as were their Russian hosts at the depth of the confusion that reigned in the Race Committee.

The fourth race was thirty miles in broad daylight in sight of land. Under these circumstances the Americans figured that there was little that the Committee could do to take away a win. The US boats whipped across the starting line like it was a ski slope. Maestro, with the best sails and the most experienced crew, was gone with what little wind there was. It was 1,2 and 3. It was getting boring. No matter what was thrown at them the US boats backsides became the marks, as long as they were still in sight, for the Russians.

What happened ? The Committee canceled the race. They had mistakenly laid out an extra mark. Embarrassment on both sides deepened and the Americans were about to be defeated not by fast boats but by fumbling referees.

By now the eighteen Americans on Maestro, Arizona and Odessy had taken as much as sailorly flesh and blood could stand. What to do. What to do. Half said let's go home. Half said let's beat their tails anyway. All agreed that, anyway, winning would be no great honor and losing no great defeat. They were racing not against the Russian sailors, who to a man were as furious as the Americans were, they were racing against a Race Committee made up of incompetents. No matter how well the Americans sailed they were going to have the Cup snatched away from them.

It was heartening to watch these young men (and one nifty young woman from St Mary's) gird up their loins and come back into the fray after repeated rebuffs and frustrations. They had raced four races, had won them all and had been finessed out of victory. Their Cup runneth away from them There were still two races to go.

For this observer it is a genuine pleasure to report that by the fourth race the Committee had finally gotten it all together. The last two races were as pure and as perfect as any in a Western circuit and laid to rest the paranoia that had characterized the earlier races.

Ultimately Maestro won the Regatta after having survived blows of ill fortune that would have sunk a less game crew. Odessy survived the worst luck of all. In the fourth race, out of twenty four boats, only Odessy rounded the correct marks. They should have had that race and might well have taken the Cup but it was argued by the Committee, with cogency, that they, the Committee, were at fault in issuing instructions that only one boat out of twenty four understood. Bad luck for Odessy but the admission of error by the Committee further cleared the air. The last tendrils of the fogs of suspicion were drifting off.

In order to take the Cup, Maestro felt that they needed firsts in the last two races and that is what happened. They were not easy races, not easy between the Americans and not easy against the Russians. They were hard fought battles in light air and the Russians just missed, not by much, cutting the mustard. They will be formidable opponents in the future.

The most heartening aspect of the Regatta was the good sportsmanship demonstrated by both sides. Even before it became clear that the Committee had more thumbs than the usual issue, the Americans pushed back their anger and concentrated on winning the races, yard by yard, mile by mile, breath of air by breath of air.

The best sailing team won. All agree of that. But the real winners were peace and friendship. We came to understand that Russians do not have tails and they that Americans do not have horns. A small victory on the larger scene of world events but one which will echo long and loud around the streets of Charleston and in the cloistered halls of St Mary's College.