Friday, January 15, 2010

Follow the Belgians

I’ve been sailing Snipes since I was a little kid. I won my first trophy at the tender age of five when my father handed me the tiller and let me skipper us across the finish line during the tune-up race of the Southwestern Championship Regatta. And no, I wasn’t an ultra-gifted natural athlete with an uncanny sense of wind shifts and direction. We were just so far ahead of the rest of the fleet that it didn’t matter if I steered us a little off course. Looking back on that day, I can remember that first thrill of victory, the glory of being the center of attention and the frustration of not being tall enough to see what was inside the cup perched at the top of the oversized trophy. I was hooked. Over the years I grew into an accomplished, and taller, crew, venturing around the country with my dad, sailing in everything from small local regattas to national championships.

In 1999, curious to experience sailing in other parts of the world, my father broke out his passport and with the help of the internet, secured a loaner boat and a crew to sail in a small local regatta in Cazau, in the south of France. Enthralled by the new challenges sailing in a foreign county presented, from language barriers to entirely new weather and water conditions, he decided that he should go again, and that this time, I should come with him. We made two trips to France together in the decade that has just fallen behind us, to sail in the Snipe Open de France, their national championships. It was a wholly different world of sailing. From wine flowing like water, to topless sunbathing sailors, to those Belgians, who inspired the catchphrase that now resides permanently in the Soltero family sailing lexicon, and is invoked frequently. Usually by me.

In August of 2003, we made our way, with the help of a rental car and my stellar map-reading abilities, from the bustle of Paris to Annecy, a tiny town nestled in the Alps, near the Swiss border. The first thing that is different about sailing in Europe, I noted immediately upon check-in. The local inn was a far cry from even your average Best Western. I’d elaborate, but then we’d run out of room for the stuff this story’s really about. The first morning of the regatta, still suffering from a mild case of jet lag, we readied our boat, borrowed from the lovely Romain family, and met our competition. Sailors from all over France, the UK and of course, Belgium. Yes, the Belgians. A married couple, who also happened to be retired professional ballet dancers. Yes, you read that right. And yes, I underestimated them, but not for long.

The weather started out calm, and the biggest challenge was remembering that when it came to sailing terms, we had to yet again, learn a new language. Starboard was now “tribord,” a word that was yelled with increasing gusto by a number of skippers as an unscheduled storm rolled in, as I now know they are wont to do on little mountain lakes, and the calm waters were replaced by some serious chop. By now, those Belgian ballerinas were well ensconced in the first place position and we were somewhere points south and east of the middle of the pack. We had taken a flyer. It did not pay off. Not to mention the fact that amidst the fray, we mistook a horn for a cancellation signal and accidentally abandoned the race before crossing the finish. Hello, DNF. The Belgians won.

The rest of the day was called off and we had to drop sails as we came in too fast to the dock, crew after crew, unfortunately me included, jumping off their boats into the cold water to guide their vessels safely in. After a hot shower, we headed to the dinner. The French drink wine, good wine, quite literally by the box. There was no soda, no water. We might have forgotten that our American tolerance might not be up to snuff. And hey, we’d had a rough day. The next morning brought back the sun, much to the delight of some of the female French crews, who were making ample use of it before the races began, as they stretched out on the dock, topless. You don’t see that everyday.

And as the races began, so did my new battle cry. “Follow the Belgians!” I said it, or possibly yelled it so many times it probably drove my father something akin to insane. But it worked, and since they were so good that there was no way to beat them, that second place was just fine with me. Needless to say, our mixed performance evened out and we finished the regatta somewhere in the middle of the pack, a lackluster performance if there ever was one. But the allure of shouting sailing terms in foreign languages, the thrill of crazy weather and heck, all that wine, had us ready to come back for more.

We didn’t make it back to the Snipe Open de France until 2006 and by then, we were ready for victory. Our second tour of duty together took us to another little town, this one in a basin on the southwest coast of France. Archachon was home to slightly better lodging that our last locale, not to mention a definite beach vacation vibe. It was August again, and the weather was balmy. We would be sailing on the ocean, on the outside edge of the basin. There was just one caveat. When the tide cleared out of the basin each day, it really cleared out. Leaving boats heaving on their sides in the wet sand. That first day, we had to wait until early evening, when a small river would appear, just wide enough and deep enough for us to sail on as we made our way out to sea.

Cue the crazy weather patterns. While it was balmy and barely breezy at the beach, the conditions where we were racing were a different story altogether. I was not dressed appropriately. My waterproof shorty coveralls were no match for the cold winds and the lashing waves. And those fingerless gloves that I thought would be perfect for such a nice August afternoon? They earned me ten bloody fingertips by the end of the first day. I am not kidding. It was worth it – after a respectable fourth place finish in the first race, we pulled out all the stops and crossed the finish line first in the second race. The last race of the day gave us a third and, unlike the prior trip, we finished the first day among the top contenders. But I couldn’t wash my own hair for the next few days, a task that was turned over to my mother, who had fortunately joined us for the trip.

It was approaching 10pm when we sailed back in, bloody and cold, but feeling victorious. And very hungry. The next morning, in order to avoid having to drag our boats back in through the sand at low tide, we started really early instead of really late. Armed with ten band-aids and a borrowed pair of full gloves, I was ready to get back to it, and hang on to our trophy position. We struggled a little on the second day, but in my defense, I was working with a wounded set of digits. During day three, we found our groove again and moved back up in the pack, earning a third place overall in the regatta and a personal victory after our previous performance in 2003. To be honest, I don’t think the French were all that happy to have us Americans in their trophy lineup. Nonetheless, they were ever so gracious, and invited us to return again, if only for another chance to kick our butts.

And even though the now famous Belgians were not in attendance at this regatta, I regularly resorted to my favorite saying. “Follow the Belgians” no longer meant that we should actually follow the Belgians. Fortunately, my father is very smart, and knew exactly what I meant. It means find the fastest boat, the one you know is going to win the race. If that boat happens to be you, this obviously doesn’t apply, and there’s no need to shout it out, unless, perhaps you want to yell it to the boat behind you as a helpful suggestion. Once you’ve found that boat, follow it at all costs. Do not take a flyer and try to get ahead of them. They are better than you. At this particular regatta, the “they” in question was a French father-son team. And they knew those waters a heck of a lot better than we did. But we “followed the Belgians,” and we persevered. And we’ll do it again.


  1. Fantastic story. Great piece. Geez, you should get this published somewhere...

  2. What a fun story. By way of "Kevin Bacon" I stumbled on to your blog! Looking forward to sifting through more of your musings! Cheers, Bob