It was a wild, wet ride, but we sailed fast.
Today was the Windjammers’ annual distance race, where they stretch things out with a longer course down the bay. This was our second race with Fortuitous and my second race ever as skipper, but our first time sailing with two reefs. It was a bit gnarly out there.
The forecast was for something like 12kts, gusting to 17, but it was more like sustained 20+ with recorded gusts to almost 30. Storm clouds loomed all around us, and although there were moments when we were sailing in the sun, we were also occasionally sailing in light rain. We would have had the foulies on anyway, because the northeast wind was kicking up enough waves that we were consistently taking spray over the bow. We got some limited video before we put the jib out, but things were pretty hectic after that and we weren’t really in a position to do much photography. I wish I would have remembered the GoPro.
We didn’t actually have the second reef rigged, so Jen and I worked on that while Sailor Steve filled in as relief skipper. We sailed around for a bit on just the tiny reefed mainsail with the wind shrieking in the rigging, and I made sure that the crew was cool with this, and that they still wanted to race. Everyone was in, the crew strapped up with life jackets, and we made our way to the starting area.
As the horns sounded and the flags went up and down during the countdown, we worked into nearly an ideal position to start the race, much to the chagrin of Mystique, the Irwin 32. I don’t think they expected me to assert my rights and squeeze them off the starting line at the committee boat…at least not until I started yelling “LEEWARD BOAT.” Perhaps I went a little Walter Sobchak for a Windjammers race, but I didn’t come out for a promenade.
I expected that Mystique would duck behind us, but they tried to tack away and got fouled up. We rode the line until seconds before the horn, trimmed in to accelerate, and then immediately crossed with speed as it sounded—I think the first boat over. We had to tack to avoid shallow water and turned off to the east. Lorelei, the Sabre 34 and Elenora, the Freedom 35, momentarily appeared to be ahead of us, although they were to the south and we still had the shortest path to the windward mark. We tacked to the north first, thinking that Lorelei was about to tack down on us. We barely made the layline and weren’t sailing that fast as we pinched to sneak by the mark, but were still the first there and jibed around to make the long downwind run to BB.
Because of the alignment of the wind and bay the downwind leg wasn’t dead downwind and we couldn’t sail directly to the leeward mark because the point at Laurel Harbor stuck out into the course, so we were on more of a beam reach at first. We unfurled the headsail completely for more power and Sailor Steve and Jen trimmed to allow us to make our best speed south. Steep chop on the quarter made it difficult for me to keep us going in a straight line, but the bigger boats with much longer waterlines still took several miles to catch up to us.
At 40, we were able to turn more downwind and attempted to set the whisker pole. Our “new” pole has a very small jaw, and getting it onto the sheet was difficult—made more challenging by the heaving wet deck—but Jen and Steve eventually got it and we were hauling. I’m not sure if that’s when Steve cut his leg and got blood on the boom vang, but you know you’re into some serious sailing when you sail home with a bloody vang. The big boats eased past us, as expected, but we were holding our own for only having 22′ of waterline.
Given our difficulty setting the pole I didn’t want to wait until we were right on the mark to take it down, so we pulled it early and trimmed the best we could. Keeping the sail filled certainly wasn’t a problem. We also partially furled the headsail again so that we wouldn’t get killed beating back. We were a couple minutes behind Lorelei at BB, but they had technical difficulties and were flogging just past the marker. I tried to do a 180° tack between them and the mark, which went poorly, causing us to stall and turn back the way we came. This was a little chaotic, and I’m not sure if I’m remembering it correctly, but I feel like I talked the crew through what I intended to do and that they pulled it off perfectly: a jibe, coming close hauled on port, building up speed, and then tacking to starboard.
By this point, Elenora was way ahead, chugging along under their huge main, but they were also very far out to the east. I figured our only shot was to try to sail the shorter course to the west (and hoping that we could make it through the shallow water in front of Laurel Harbor), so we stayed on starboard tack, close hauled. Steve got up on the rail to try to keep us flat, enduring sheets of water being thrown over the length of the boat as we cut through the waves. This was intense racing. Even with two reefs and half a jib, we were heeled so much that the bilge access panels were knocked out and thrown around with everything else that had wound up on the cabin sole.
I was watching the depth sounder click toward zero, and it became clear that we weren’t able to point high enough to get past Laurel Harbor, so we had to tack out—and then we had to do it again. We lost time there, but I think it was on this leg that Jen and Steve really started to establish a rhythm on the jib sheets. Our tacks and jibes had been smooth all along, but on that leg the boat and crew was operating as one machine.
At 40, we could crack off onto more of a close reach. We couldn’t actually see the committee boat because of the waves and background clutter, but we could see Elenora, and when she sharply turned to the east we figured that they were crossing the finish line. I asked Jen to start a clock, knowing that we had about 10 minutes of handicap time in the bag. We then proceeded to tweak everything we could think of, trying to wring out the last hundredth of a knot as we barreled toward the finish. The tells were streaming. The boat was like a train. We sliced through the water at 6.3kts, alone in second place with the rest of the fleet on the horizon behind us.
In the end we finished second, 35 seconds behind Elenora on corrected time. I’m not usually much on moral victories, but to only be 35 seconds back in a 10 mile race is fantastic, especially since we were the smallest boat in the field and heavy conditions usually favor the bigger boats in PHRF racing. The crew was awesome, and made it a joy to sail in some challenging weather.
Sailboat racing is such a crazy combination of chess match, team athletic sport, and machine tuning. There’s the romantic sort of sailing, with sunsets and umbrella drinks and exotic ports of call, and I like that, but the real magic for me is sailing in the pocket—when the boat stiffens up, all of the forces are balanced to produce nothing but speed, and you viscerally know you’re getting all of it.