Land of the Giants

Just wound up a tour of wine and trees along the northern California and Oregon Pinot Noir redwood route. The trees, frankly, were more mind-blowing than the wine. As I didn't have my laptop along you've all avoided my effusive descriptions of swirling glasses of grape juice lovely on the nose, bouquets redolent of honeysuckle rose, firm finishes with notes of tobacco, nice legs, hints of manure, and all the rest of that clobber. Spare me. The idea of a wine-tasting in Napa seems to be to pour a glass and then explain to the drinker at length what one is likely to find in it should one prove sufficiently sophisticated. Best wine-pourers quote of the trip, at a winery named Envy: "This one is like sticking your whole face in a puddle of jam." Delicious. Oops, I seem to have gotten some stuck in my beard. Do I get a wet-nap with that? More on the trees later.


Twelfth in a field of nine

Having on two recent weekends been off to the races, albeit automotive ones, and gone sailing aboard Anthony Chase’s yacht, Salomé, it seemed high time to combine the two pursuits, and so last weekend Anne, Anthony, Evan and I headed back to Mamaroneck for an ostensibly casual Orienta Yacht Club club race. The prediction was for winds up to twenty-five knots, gusting thirty, a terrifying and pessimistic prediction, for I cannot remember ever sailing in such near-gale conditions. Salomé, a tender, whippy boat, is much better known as a light wind performer, a vessel that will sail effortlessly down the Long Island Sound on a balmy breath of breeze when others are reduced to firing up their ghastly diesel engines to move through the water at all.

The friendly flotilla

All around us in the harbor was a flurry of activity as competing captains busied about their decks, fired up their engines and began heading out the channel that leads to the sound. Joining the convoy we left the harbor behind us and wasted no time getting the sails up, reefing down one, as there was already quite a blow and the forecast called for increasing winds. We were chagrined to see that many in the field were flying kevlar sails, high-performance, ultra-lightweight rigid canvas made from the same space-age material as bulletproof vests.

Kevlar, Schmevlar

With an hour or so to spare before the one-o’clock gun we tacked back and forth, practiced a controlled gibe and worked on our maneuvers. Proper positioning at the start is critical; it is not, of course a standing start, and ideally one should find oneself sailing full speed towards the line at just the moment the starting gun sounds. If crossing early it is necessary to come around again, a devastating self-inflicted handicap. As the moment approached we found ourselves jockeying in a clump of some five boats, all needing to get around and downwind to get across. While others tacked, Evan masterfully called for a controlled gibe. Suddenly we were through; first out of the starting blocks, or, perhaps, second.

Feel the froth coursing off of our stern, suckas

Running before the wind we had the illusion that the conditions were not so bold; the windspeed of course was masked by the direction of our travel. The larger boats, with their grotesquely expensive sails, began to pass us, but, being lighter and shorter, we felt our first place position secure, as the boats are ranked and handicapped, and only the much bigger boats were out ahead of us. We even fended off an attack from the Patagonia, who tried to slip past downwind of us, only to find us thieving her wind before charging off ahead.

Captain Chase surveys the scene as Evan steers and Anne soaks up some rays and the Patagonia renews her challenge

It was upon rounding the first marker that we first felt the fury of the wind. On a “close reach” with the sails pulled taut, the deck promptly canted over at an alarming angle, until the starboard toe-rail was well in the water. We were humming and throbbing along. Anne and I clambered up and sat with our legs dangling out off the port rail, Antarctica veterans relegated to little more than ballast. The first mishap was a near broach, as Salomé proved too flighty to weather a massive gust that took her and turned her right up into the wind until it seemed we were pointing nearly back towards the harbor and our mooring.

Uhhh; how did all your dudez get ahead?

Things were to go from bad to worse. Inexplicably, once back on course, there seemed to be rather more boats abaft than adraft, or however it is that sailors put these things. Nobody was behind us any more, save a sort of antique wooden showpiece collector's item kind of a vessel, a blue-hulled tub that might once have danced friskily along the waves during the period between the great wars, but was now somewhat long in the tooth. The wind was furious. We eased the sails, then trimmed them, to little avail. From the second mark we were forced to beat upwind, and our fate was sealed by an inopportune tack which had us on a straight collision course for a grotesque party vessel fast at anchor, its decks crawling with recreational fishermen. Tacking again to avoid this unpleasantness, we watched the competition recede onto the distant horizon. We considered inventing a pressing engagement somewhere out East, an overlooked barbecue, perhaps, requiring our immediate presence in the Hamptons. Instead, valiant in completion if not in victory, we pulled finally across the line and headed for the calm waters of Mamaroneck harbor to eat crow along with the celebratory post-race pizza.


Fourteen months, some of them at the South Pole

Will Brubaker writes from McMurdo that he has signed a fourteen month contract with the Raytheon corporation to freeze his fingers off tweaking diesel engines. This is the longest contract offered to United States Antarctic Program workers, and it includes, midway through, a daunting polar winter. I think Will is a loon, and told him so. Nonetheless his blog should make for interesting reading as he goes slowly barmy over the next thirteen and a half months. Perhaps in his defense he ends a recent email with the following quote, from Maine writer Katharine Butler Hathaway:

"If you let fear of consequence prevent you from following your deepest instinct, then your life will be safe, expedient and thin."

Good luck, Will.


Gentlemen, start your engines...

I've been threatening for at least two or three years to accompany my main man Joseph on an auto-racing expedition. Somehow a few years ago he was bitten with the high-speed auto bug. Ever since, on both weekends and lazy summer afternoons, you are likely to find him wriggling about on his back underneath his car, in the vacant lot behind his shop, greasing and tweaking and machining and futzing with his Silver 1985 Volkswagen Golf, aka "the beastmaster of Douglass St." Car culture pretty much gives me a rash, the internal combustion engine being in my opinion the second most pernicious invention of modern man, coming just after the television, and so for years I have managed to postpone, obfuscate and seek out subsequent commitments to avoiding fulfilling the proffered role of assistant grease monkey. This last weekend I had finally run out of excuses, so I packed my toothbrush and off we went.

Representing Gowanus, Brooklyn: Car 77, loaded and ready to go.

Eastern Pennsylvania's Poconos, about two hours west of the George Washington bridge, are a true middle-American backwater, with none of the granola-chomping and cappucino-drinking rural sophistication of upstate New York. For our lodging we found ourselves submerged in classic motel flavor. One wonders how often the mildewed neon "NO" on this sign is ever illuminated.

Faced with architecture and furniture like this, I felt like I was working as a location scout for the next David Lynch movie. As one might expect, an inevitable posse of drunken and vaguely sinister yay-hoos chose 1AM as the appropriate moment to take their party outside our screen door for a few more hours of slurring, hooting and hollering.

Like a big, bald head: just after dawn the sun rises over the world famous Pocono raceway, from which, soon, the exhaust fumes of over-torqued big-bore engines will begin drifting upwards.

The competitor's tunnel to the inner circle. It may seem an obvious observation, but this scene is all about vehicles. I'm not even referring to the race-cars; there are flotillas of enormous pickup trucks hauling vast trailers equipped with entire machine shops; there are bicycles on racks, for zipping about the vast spaces of the race-track; people bring motor-scooters to putter around on. Some install entire encampments, with "E Z Up" Tents, folding chairs and barbecues sizzling away, conveniently near rows of quick-pouring five gallon jugs of spare gasoline.

Joseph "the Toothless Wonder of the Gowanus" Fratesi suits up, preparing to take no prisoners in the EMRA ST-5 class.

McMurdo flavor: Car 77's homage to Antarctica, courtesy of Will and Marsha. [Update: from McMurdo Station, Antarctica, Marsha, forgetting that last year when I shoplifted my Hagglunds bumper stickers from her satchel I was myself a FNG, writes: "The FNG's are buying them like crazy..." pronounced Fin-jee]

Stay the hell out of my way or I will run you over, chew on your pistons and spit your ball bearings out onto the grassy verges of the median strip. I will show no mercy and will crumple the rusting carcass of your inferior excuse for a car beneath beneath my wide, slick "Hoosier" tires.

Lined up and ready to go. Getting the maximum speed out of a car moving around the track requires a constant, strenuous battle against mechanical and physical forces, the interaction of the vehicle with the road, as they are expressed back to the driver through the controls of the car. Fratesi's mentor, Roberto Lorenzutti, the shadow of whose name is still visible on the hood of the VW golf, describes learning the line, or the route around the track, as similar to an orchestra practicing a concerto: the track is the music, and the driver can move the car around it harmoniously, giving emphasis here, relaxing just there, opening up at just the right moment, or dissonantly, fighting against the camber, arc and flow of the asphalt, jangling jarringly around its curves. I knew Joseph was driving well not only because he was constantly passing lame-asses in more powerful cars, but because just to the left of my field of view where I stood watching the cars coming around the track was a slight slope in the track, a spot where he seemed effortlessly to slide the car from left to right in exactly the same way on every revolution, initiating the move, it seemed to me, within a precise and specific centimeter.
I fear, dear readers, that I have failed to exploit the multi-media capabilities of the blog format. To really convey last weekend's experience I should have included audio recordings from the track. The gruesome, incessant whine of the unmuffled engines, their deep, throaty coughing and roaring as they doppler around the track is both horrifying and impressive. Note here, at the edge of top speed, the air under Joseph's back right tire; not, he says, a desirable condition, however exciting it might look.

Car 77 prepares to slice, dice, mangle, skin and peel car number 8. Joseph says it is easy to catch cars, but very difficult to pass them. Nonetheless he was getting around the inside and outside of all manner of vehicles last Saturday.

The entirety of the pit crew: Gatorade bottle-polisher, coffee runner, nitrogen tire pumper-upper, jackstand wielder and lone team supporter. On TV one always sees a dozen and a half strapping lads humming about the cars in the pit like a swarm of bees, four or eight pneumatic socket wrenches firing at once to get the tires changed out in seconds, new fuel injected under pressure into the gas tank, the whole operation over in a the blink of an eye. All surrounded by last year's cheerleaders urging the proceedings along. I had always thought life in the pits so energetic and glamorous. Instead, the main focus of my job was apparently to make sure a tote bag with a couple of bananas in it didn't get soggy during a brief rain shower.

I didn't have a fireproof codpiece, so I wasn't allowed onto the track side of the pit to refuel the beastmaster. Here Larry from Long Island helps out, gassing Joseph up in pit number 27. Larry and his brother Cory co-drove an orange and black BMW to victory in the ST-5 class, just edging out the Fratesi phenomenon.

Hooded and crouched, Joseph appears to be an aspiring suicide bomber bidding the world and his car adieu, but in fact he is checking tire pressure and temperature after a few savage laps, trying to determine how much rubber will be holding the road once the gummy rubber tires have had a chance to warm up.

The Darth Vader of amateur racing, a chopped Ford F-150 pickup truck, which, Joseph says, "bears no resemblance to the original." Little more than a few flimsy panels hanging off of a tubular frame, these beasts drive in the big bore class. They sound, as Joseph puts it, "like someone banging on sheet metal with a hammer.... The first time I drove in an enduro race and one of these came up behind me, I almost pissed myself. You're thinking: what the hell is that? I was so freaked I drove right off the track."

With awesome and ominous thunder clouds rolling in, race officials ended the two-hour enduro race half an hour early.

A podium finish in both the sprints and the enduro! Double Silver. Fratesi displays the fruits of victory and enjoys a complimentary Yuengling.


The Bridges of New York City

Captain Chase called on Friday afternoon and announced that he was unexpectedly staying in the greater metro area for labor day weekend, so how about going for a sail? Within minutes I had convinced him to spend the whole weekend tooling around New York harbor on his comfortably appointed yacht, Salomé, with me as first mate, and so early Saturday morning we headed up to Mamaroneck, NY, and set sail for the 79th st. Boat Basin. It was just coming on high noon.

Once out on Long Island Sound a light breeze propelled us gently westwards towards the Throg's Neck bridge. Watching the tide charts and anticipating the vicious currents of Hell's Gate in the upper reaches of the East River, we reluctantly fired up the diesel for a bit of motor-sailing, lest, thanks to our languid pace, the day slip entirely through our fingers. Soon we were passing Riker's Island. On the horizon the Empire State building, homesick view of the lonely incarcerated, presided over a cluster of midtown Manhattan buildings. The jets of LaGuardia roared over our heads before we reached the churning waters of Hell's Gate, where the end of the sound collides with the East River in a turbulent unpleasantness of standing waves and wakes that bounce back and forth between the stone walls of the river channel.

The tide was rushing out, and Salomé positively churned down the East River sluice, passing at a breathtaking ten knots the parking-lot like traffic of the FDR drive, a line of cars cramped and fuming off our starboard side. We zipped under New York's best and most beautiful bridges, the Queensborough, the Williamsburgh, the Manhattan and lastly the majestic Brooklyn. Passengers on the passing Circle line tours waved with envy.

Captain Chase

At Five PM or so we shot past the Battery, jousting with the Staten Island Ferry as we spied my beloved Red Hook tucked into the Brooklyn shoreline beyond Governor's Island. The tide was still running hard, both in the East River and the mighty Hudson, so we had ample time to admire the skyline of the business district and ponder the void where the twin towers once stood. In fact, now northbound, we appeared not to be moving at all. Under full power and with the mains'l set, we imagined that a tortoise strolling up the west side esplanade must make more progress. A planned rendezvous at eight at the Boat Basin, a mere ninety blocks or so north as the taxi drives, seemed suddenly optimistic. As we fought our way to Houston St. it was nearing seven. There, amongst the bobbing boats of a small mooring field just to the south of the enormous parking garage where, decades ago, I parked the once-trusty Buick Skylark, we spied an unoccupied mooring. We pulled in and tied up, tired of beating our bow against the outflowing Hudson. Thank goodness for cellphones. Plans have changed, we announced. Meet us at the parking garage at Houston St., not at the boat basin. We're sorry, that's how it goes; put it down to the vagaries of a life at sea. Stay on land if you don't like it! We rowed ashore to purchase provisions (beer) on Varick St., wandering a city newly discovered from the water, fresh-eyed like conquistadors. Back aboard: twinkling lights, an evening slack-tide sail, grilled olives, salume and prosciutto.

On the morrow, Joey Atlas arrived just after dawn, with bagels. Up went the sails and off we drifted, slowly, downstream. There was not a puff of wind. Rigging the spinnaker pole and hanging that voluminous, parachute-like sail in a futile attempt to eke out some progress, we considered our options while watching the unruly acre of silk sink until its front edge was dragging in the water. Some voted for anchoring and swimming in the sandy-bottomed waters of the Bay Ridge flats. Others for anchoring and eating snacks. But Joseph smelled wind. And indeed, just when the rest of us had resigned ourselves to parking the ship and tucking into a relaxing gourmet lunch, a stiff breeze materialized from out of nowhere. Or rather, out of the direction of Sandy Hook, New Jersey. We are not here to eat, commented Joe, who by now had taken over the tiller and was gazing intently at the wind indicator atop the mast. What a maritime Mussolini he turned out to be.

"Il Duce" of the high seas: Mussolini in a beanie

As the wind rose the commands came thick and fast: "Trim the main!" "Ease the jib!" "Ready about!" "Hard a Lee!" Salomé responded well, like a perky pony, leaping forward before the breeze, pointing her nose hard to the wind as we tacked towards the Verrazano Narrows. Slinking for'ard to avoid this tyrannical tirade, I lay in blissful sunshine at the foot of the mast, staring up at the taught, full sails. Once under the mightiest of bridges, we came about, and launched the spinnaker anew. Now she filled easily and pulled us foaming through the water. Ahead two Staten Island ferries crossed paths, and as we turned the corner of Bay Ridge the New York skyline came back into view, capping off a glorious voyage.

The spinnaker flying in the Atlantic Ocean, just outside the Verrazano Narrows Bridge