SUNAPEE - Terry Fletcher is heading south toward the islands of Lake Sunapee, mulling over the three or four passageways he can take. He can't see where the other guy is. He checks the wind, checks the clouds, checks his crew, searching for clues to what lies ahead. He'll just have to choose.
"You have no idea where the rest of them are until you get to the back side," Fletcher later says of the end-to-end racing competitions on the lake. "You don't know whether they were in the doldrums or they got great wind or what happened, and then all of a sudden you get around to the back side and you're like, 'Oh man, I didn't make a good choice.'
"It's basically a crap shoot - and it's fun."
From May to September, passersby can see as many as 20 sailboats, including Fletcher's, racing on Lake Sunapee every Wednesday evening and every other Sunday afternoon.
Fletcher is the captain of the the Lake Sunapee Cruising Fleet, a nonprofit, volunteer organization dedicated to the sport of sailboat racing on the lake. Anyone with a boat at any sailing level is welcome to join, and the fleet is always looking for new members. Sunapee's sailors are a competitive lot, to be sure, but at the end of the day, what keeps them coming back is the bond they've forged over the shared love of sailing.
"When I first joined, it was about going out and racing the boat," said fleet member and scorekeeper George Morin, who comes to Sunapee all the way from Bedford to participate. "But over the years, I've developed a lot of friendships up there in the group. It's just a great group, and it's turned into friendships and camaraderie. It's a very important part of our lives."
Competitive but fair
Because of the variety of sailboats in the group, the fleet is divided into two divisions, based on the size and speed of the boat.
Faster boats are in Division 1, slower and wider boats in Division 2. The boats are given a handicap, based on a formula that takes into account factors such as speed and size, to level the playing field. In other words, Fletcher said, he might cross the finish second, but if he's second to a bigger, faster boat, depending on the handicap and how far in time he was behind the leader, he still could be the winner of his division.
The fleet holds about 20 races a year, most of which consist of triangular courses set up around buoys spaced a little more than a mile apart. But three times a year, the fleet holds what's called an end-to-end, in which they race each other from one end of Sunapee to the other and back again.
Fletcher said those longer end-to-ends are more laid back. The shorter races, however ... well, they're competitive.
"We're all out there to win," said Morin. "I mean, we're a friendly group, but still it's competitive. So when you're on the race course, you're strategizing."
Reading the wind
What started out as a great plan at the start of a race can quickly fall apart if Mother Nature has her way with the wind or a competitor makes a better choice of passageway. But that's part of the fun. More than a quick cruise on a pretty lake, racing is strategy, requiring a keen knowledge not only of what your boat can do but also of the physics of nature.
"That's part of the thing as far as lake sailing, is trying to project and predict where the pressure is going to be and where the next wind is going to come from," Fletcher said. "And the next thing is looking up in the clouds. You may think I'm crazy here, but you can start to see which directions winds may be coming. If you see bad weather, then you head toward the bad weather because, inevitably, the bad weather will bring a pressure increase in the air. So you want to go toward that as opposed to thinking, 'Bad weather? I don't want to go near that.'?"
At the same time, Fletcher said, you have to keep your eye on boats on the water that aren't racing, on flags, on anything in the picture that might tell you what wind lies ahead.
Another thing to keep an eye on, Fletcher said, is where the other competitors are. "If you're out on what's called a port tack - and that means that the wind is coming over the left of the sailboat - and you have the others that you are competing with below you, you're in a controlling position," he said.
"I can continue and sail the same tack that they are as long as they are below me, and I can sail for miles and miles and miles and miles that way, and you're not going to pass me unless you've got something special because I am in a controlling position."
But if he goes the other way into a header, well, all bets are off. The boat that was behind can come up and gain control.
Another strategy involves incorporating the rules of the water. By taking advantage of the right-of-way rule, for example, one boat can force another into a position where its captain has to give up the right of way, costing the opponent time.
"I'm going to push that every single time I possibly can, because that makes me faster and you slower," Fletcher said. "The big thing is using the rules to your advantage, using wind direction and knowledge to your advantage, using your crew to balance the boat, to try to get as much speed as you possibly can.
"There's also the matter of stealing wind. With the leader of a sailing race traveling downwind typically positions his sail perpendicular to the wind, Fletcher explained, a savvy pursuer will move up on the leader's stern.
"All of a sudden, the wind is going to hit my sail and not your sail," he said, putting himself in the pursuer's position. "You slow up, and I speed up. So anything I can do to try to control the wind, that's what I want to do; I want to steal your wind. I want to make your life miserable out there."
In a good way, of course. Because when an evening race is over and the scores are tallied, everyone invariably heads to the potluck hosted by a rotating roster of members to relive the race and relish what a glorious night of sailing was had by all.
"It's probably one of the most beautiful times out on the lake that you can possibly have because it's got that evening glow that is just unique about that time of night," Fletcher said. "Most people are home, and they're eating dinner, and you're out there, and you've just got the lake, and it's your private playground. And it - it's special."
For more information on the Lake Sunapee Cruising Fleet, visit www.lscf.us.