To Race To Race Perchance to Win

BY Bill Walsh

The Wrightsville Beach Ocean Racing Association  generally hosts Olympic-course races and for the start “there is a 10-minute gun and a five-minute gun ” Dr. Murray Seidel explains “then a gun at the start.” With about three minutes to go he says the idea is to cross the starting line from the course side of the mark sail for about 90 seconds turn and hit the starting line about one second after the gun. Too fast and you have to go around losing out. Too slow and you’ve lost all chance to captains who have outsailed you.

To complicate the situation even more each skipper is eyeing the slot as close to the windward side as possible where the air is clean undisturbed by other sails.

“These boats weigh anywhere from 9 000 to 20 000 pounds or so and they are all cranked up and ready to go with everyone pulling their sails in real tight ” Seidel says. “All the crews are sitting on the rail feet dangling over. There might be just a couple of feet between boats; there is no place to go. Your heart is thumping because you are trying to keep position trying to keep the boat at top speed without going over the line early.”

For anyone who shares his company for more than a few minutes especially if the meeting takes place anywhere close to the Seapath Marina berth of his 54-foot ketch Sundance Seidel’s observation that “I am very pro-sailing; sailing is absolutely the greatest thing ever ” is … redundant perhaps even qualifying as overkill. It is immediately apparent that Seidel is an enthusiast through and through. Sailing especially racing “is the only thing that has kept me sane for 35 years ” the orthopedic surgeon claims. “No matter how busy I get in my practice the thing that keeps me happy and sane is doing this. You don’t think of anything else for those four or five hours. You can’t.”

But he occasionally takes a break from racing for more leisurely excursions and Seidel has had time to think about how sailing and especially the ocean racing that he loves are becoming part of Wrightsville Beach lore not its usual living. “Something went wrong ” he says. “We used to have 30 boats about 180 people. That’s a lot of people doing an active sport. And they would do it for five months out of the year.” Today there are only about a dozen active vessels in the Wrightsville Beach Ocean Racing Association and sometimes races get underway with as few as half of them.

Some of what went wrong is so insidious as to be beyond anyone’s control. For one sailing — racing — got pretty expensive. For another those who were enthusiasts of the sport simply got older and their thinning ranks were not being replenished — see reason number one. Crew members became harder to find Seidel says. People were working harder and a lot of them were starting to have families. Competition for time stiffened like a spinnaker in a 40-knot blow.

There were other reasons that could have been controlled — should have been controlled Seidel opines. “I think it is the same problem that is happening all over the East Coast ” he says; “all of the real estate next to the water has been sold.” And as it has been sold he says it has been residentialized. “In just the past year four marinas got sold here ” he says of the slope on which slips find themselves in the Lower Cape Fear region. “The residentialization of the whole coast has really killed boating.”

There were other factors Seidel says demonstrating the extent to which he has considered the problem while manning the helm on calm seas. The local ocean racing club “first started out with lots of different kinds of boats usually 26 feet and up. With a lot of different kinds of boats you need to get them together someway and we gave them ratings ” analogous to the handicapping system in golf.

“But the only way to have a perfect handicap system is for everyone to race the same boat and that’s what happened later and is part of the reason for our partial demise ” he says.

“What happened was people got into one-design racing. There was this idea that you could race cheaply; you wouldn’t have to buy so much stuff. You’d get one set of sails and that’s it. People got into J-24s which took the whole racing scene by storm. I’ve always felt that J-24s were our demise. Most clubs that got into this one-design stuff … didn’t go that well with people with bigger boats. They really wanted to do their own thing.

“At one point ” he says the Wrightsville Beach association had nine J-24s “but in the process a lot of people stopped competing. But you can only race in an uncomfortable boat and punish a crew for so long and people in J-24s started dropping out too.”

Seidel can enunciate the reasons. What he can’t do is fathom them.

Seidel agreed to this interview — nay instigated it — with an ulterior motive: “To let people know they can go out and cruise race with us. They don’t have to actually race; they can just cruise. We put some buoys out there and they learn navigation skills. They can learn more in one afternoon of doing this than they can in weeks of cruising by themselves ” he claims.

“I would just like to let people know that we’re here. So many boats don’t ever go out ” he says surveying Seapath on a beautiful afternoon with nary a slip left vacant. “It is a very strange thing. If you are sitting on your boat here and you’re not doing anything we can provide you with something to do. We can teach you how to sail better. You don’t have to race ” he reiterates “you can just cruise with us.”

There is an ulterior motive to the ulterior motive because Seidel is confident that sooner or later you will want to race. “We’ll set up a course and race and you’ll get to do more sail changes and more thinking about tactics and weather and those sorts of things in one day than you would otherwise in a season ” he says. “That’s what makes it fun.

“Plus ” he adds with a laugh “we get to raft up in Banks Channel. We have had some fun — 30 boats abreast each with six people boats tied to the sterns of those and we’ve partied. That was a lot of fun and it was a Wrightsville Beach institution.”

Institutions Seidel says should not be so easily dismissed. “A bad day on a sailboat still beats a great day anywhere else.”