The wind sure can be fickle. Just ask any C-scow racing skipper.
Joe Schaub of Lake Maxinkuckee, Ind., relied on decades of experience sailing the upper Mississippi River in order to choose whether he wanted to zigzag up the gustier Iowa side or settle for the less choppy water near Illinois.
He tacked his Spinrift VIII with the unpredictable puffs of wind against Iowa's shore to tie for first place at Saturday's Polar Bear Regatta, which continues this morning. He says he probably could have been just as successful going the Illinois route.
"You tend to play one side against the other," Schaub said. "There are better wind shifts on the Iowa side, but the current is also stronger. It's a balancing act. Hope you guess right."
Even after coming back to the same pool off Davenport for every year except three since 1977, Schaub still has not quite figured the mighty river out.
"It's unusually tricky," he said.
The Quad-City stretch flows east-west and Saturday's 20-mph wind came from the east. But the unfriendly wind and clear skis and sun glistening off the glassy surface made for the perfect conditions for the regatta's 55th year.
A pair of buoys off the shore from the Lake Davenport Sailing Club marked the starting line, and the three-quarter-mile oval course stretched upriver to Lindsay Park, Davenport. Dozens of cat-rigged sailboats loitered behind the invisible line until a horn blast sent them into a running start.
Bob Hummel of Davenport, a sailing instructor, steered and zipped his motor boat between and around the racers, offering judges an extra pair of eyes.
"Keep an eye on the boats," he commanded into a radio. "If someone goes over, let me know right away and I can send a committee boat out there."
Trained skippers know how to use the wind to pick up speed, Hummel said. Saturday's gusts were apparent by the white caps dancing off the waves and the dark spots in the water.
"Sails can only go 45 degrees into the wind," Hummel said. "If you turn into the wind, it flops like a flag and you go all ziggy-zaggy."
Sometimes a boat that ends up facing directly into the wind is pushed backwards. Hummel said when that happens the boat is "in irons."
At one point Hummel followed closely as several boats chased one another into a turn. Skippers caught the wind and healed their boats on their sides as they hung out the side sticking out of the water. Then they tacked 90 degrees, ducking their sails as they shifted from the leeward to the windward side, and they let their sails out as they started the chase all over again.
"Four boats are all going after it," Hummel said with excitement. "It's a mess, isn't it?"
Part of the tactic is to get in each other's way to take the wind out of a competitor's sail. "It's the name of the game," Hummel said.
Otherwise, a skipper is at the mercy of an unpredictable puff. One boat did eventually capsize during one of the hour-long races.
"A beginning skipper would not go out in this," Schaub said.