Armed with a crew of eight, the Limerick, a Schock35 sailboat, left the dock of the Somers Yacht club and prepared to set sail in one of the season’s first races.
Though many of the boat’s competition still sat on their trailers in the parking lot, Jim Kelley, skipper and owner of the Limerick, rarely turns down a chance to race.
With almost 40 years of experience sailing, Kelley said, “when you’re hooked, then you’re hooked.”
Kelley and his crew relaxed on deck, cracking jokes and listening to Jimmy Buffet on the 35-foot vessel’s sound system as they waited for the setting sun to bring the evening thermal that would carry the boats up and down the race course on Flathead Lake.
Without a hint of a breeze in the air, Kelley predicted the wind would arrive 20 minutes later, right at 8:35 p.m.
As one of the fastest boats on the lake, the Limerick sails in the A class — the first and longest race.
As boats left the dock and took their positions, Kelley pointed out the only other A class boat in the race that night, a smaller trimaran.
In Kelley’s 40 years as a sailor, he has sailed in several races off Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, spent a season racing around the Virgin Islands and traveled to race at Tampa Bay, Florida.
Anytime he travels, Kelley tries to swing by yacht clubs to see if anyone needs an extra hand on deck. He said he’s good about bumming a ride.
Despite nearly four decades of racing, Kelley’s experience pales in comparison to his first mate’s 57 years of experience.
Liz Maul was almost born sailing, growing up in a family of sailors and later marrying one. After years of sailing in everything from tiny dinghies to 45-foot schooners, Maul moved and settled in the Flathead 20 years ago and has raced with Kelley since.
The crew’s front man, Justin Young, began sailing with Kelley 15 years ago at 8 years old when his father crewed with Kelley.
Kelley laughed, remembering an overnight race Young accompanied he and his father on as a child.
“He went below and slept the whole way,” Kelley said.
Young now works above deck for almost every race, staying at bow to lift, lower and move the sails into position.
He described the thrill of sailboat racing as like any kind of race.
“You want to be first. You want to be the best,” he said.
Young and his wife were expecting their first child any day.
“I’ve got to have this crew raise their kids right so I can inherit their kids as crew,” Kelley said.
“It’s a lifestyle,” added Nigel Cini from his seat at the stern, his accent drawing out his words. The Australian native provided much of the comic relief for the night.
AT 8:35 P.M. on the dot, the flags on the sails started to flutter as the breeze began to pick up and the club boat appeared to signal the start of the race.
The joking, smiling nature of the crew became all business as they raised the sails and took their positions.
At one minute to start, the crew tacked, turned a full 180 degrees to cross the starting line just as the horn sounded.
The team took off, their only competition starting off behind and on the wrong side of the Limerick to find good wind and catch up.
The boat cruised at a steady pace of about 5 knots over smooth water and under clear skies.
Sailing conditions were nearly perfect according to Maul, but Kelley said his crew has sailed through brutal weather and injury to finish a race.
On a Tuesday night last summer, his crew was out on the water getting ready to race. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky when lightening appeared over the ridge, forcing officials to cancel the race.
Kelley’s crew was just pulling down the sails when a sudden 45-knot wind slammed into the boat. Then it started to hail.
The crew took cover below deck, but Kelley was still at the helm steering the boat into port when a chunk of hail fell and struck his eye.
He managed to bring the boat in despite his injury. It was not until three days later when he noticed a small blind spot in his right eye that he went to the doctor as was told he had a detached retina.
Later in the same season, Kelley suffered a hit to the head when the boom swung around and knocked him out.
“I laid there bleeding all over the deck, and I just told them to finish the race,” Kelley said. So they did. And they won.
TRAVELING IN a zig-zag pattern to make the best use of their wind, the crew tacked as they approached the first floating orange marker, rounding it in a tight circle. Straightening out, they started downwind toward the second marker, raising their secondary sail, or spinnaker, as their competition began losing ground.
The skill with which Kelley sailed was a product of years of practice, but he said that does not mean bad things don’t happen.
Kelley said his worst race was just two years ago when he sailed too close to an island and struck a rock 6 feet under the water. The collision caused major structural damage. The mistake cost around $42,000 and the rest of the racing season.
“Things happen,” Kelley said. Despite his many injuries and obstacles, He says it’s still worth it.
“The thing about sailboat racing for me is no matter how much stress I’m in and everything that’s going on all week long, as soon as that horn sounds for the race to start, at that point you’ve go to concentrate on that and the rest of the world goes away,” he said.
Another full circle and the crew was on its final lap, the little trimaran not far behind but still straggling.
Jackets, pants and pullovers began to emerge from below the deck as the sun set behind the western ridge and the temperature began to drop.
Kelley kept yelling directions to tighten and trim as the crew moved about the boat, fully focused.
The mountains were fading from pink to purple as the boom swung a final time to catch the remaining wind that would pull the boat across the finish line to the sound of the finishing horn, victorious.
Seconds later, Chavalah Tannel disappeared below deck and emerged with an ice-cold Corona beers for the captain. The race over, the crew passed and clinked their beers, relaxing and laughing as Jimmy Buffet boomed from the speakers once more.
The Limerick docked with another victory under her sails, the crew gathered around the club’s massive fire pit to await their fellow sailors and plan next week’s race.
Reporter Mary Cloud Taylor can be reached at 758-4459 or firstname.lastname@example.org.