Swiftsure Log - The Race Starts with a Bang by VInce DePillis

posted Jun 1, 2015, 2:25 PM by PacificNorthWest MultihullAssoc   [ updated Nov 16, 2015, 8:06 AM ]

It is a fair amount of work to do Swiftsure, especially the first time.  Lots of equipment to purchase, reservations to make, arrangements to complete.  (We need how many waterproof flashlights?  And how the heck do you get a MMSI number for your DSC radio if you are going to use it in Canada?  And the damn fire extinquishe  is out of date again!). It does get easier every time you do it, though. We have the equipment (mostly), we stay at the same hotel, we know where to go, how to check in, all that. Crossing the Strait on the way up doesn’t seem as daunting. Strange to think back to our first Swiftsure—everything seemed such a big deal, so strange and wonderful.  The 5th time felt more like a ritual, less like an adventure.

We stationed the boat at Port Townsend this year, and drove up Thursday night so we could get an early start for Victoria on Friday. We had solid wind crossing the Strait, enough to practice reefing.  Johnny Ohta, Jon Frodge and I have been sailing together on the Freda Mae for years, but Eric Lindahl was sailing with us for the first time, so it was good to have a chance to put the boat through its paces. We arrived in Victoria hot on the heels of Doug Barlow, and arrived at the customs dock at about the same time.

Victoria is a small city with a compact waterfront.  The Swiftsure boats make a show, crowded together in the inner harbor, flags flying, crowds walking the docks, sailors keyed up and boisterous. There is a buzz that no other race in the Northwest can match.

That night, we dined with the Multihull Fleet at the Royal Victoria Yacht Club, in a wood paneled room, with paintings of the founders on the wall, and trophies in cases, and a view of a charming harbor. I am conflicted about this—I hate banquets, I am uncomfortable with the pomp, and yet I hobnob with the best of them, and left thinking it is generally a very good thing to gather in celebration of a shared passion.

The Race

The race starts with a bang.  A really big bang from the cannon on a Canadian naval vessel that serves as one end of the start line. We are already keyed up. Sky is grey, wind is forecasted to build, you have a 100 mile race ahead, which can take a day and a half if the wind shuts down or the tides catch you at the wrong moment. 

The crack of the cannon echoes in my chest, catching me by surprise because we screwed up the start sequence. Crew scrambles to sheet in and get in position for the upwind drag race to Race Rocks. I focus so hard on the jib telltales I forget to blink. Boat goes quiet. Everyone settles in place, weight forward and out on the float.  Boat going well, high and fast, competitors not far behind.

For me, Swiftsure is about Race Passage, a pass just southwest of Victoria, between Vancouver Island proper and a formation of shoals and islets. The passage consists of an underwater ravine between the shoals and the mainland. The shoals protrude into the Strait, forming a corner the tide must turn as it floods and drains the Salish Sea.   The currents through Race Passage can run 3-6 knots—enough to stop a sailboat in its tracks. When the wind is strong (which is often because of the funneling effect of the promontory just north of the rocks), and runs contrary to the tide, square waves heap up in the passage.

Going west at the start of the trip, Race Passage is a manageable tidal gate. It is morning, crew is rested, and you are always going upwind, as the prevailing wind is from the west. The fleet is still relatively compressed, lots of boats within sight, and it is fun to tack close to shore, to fight the tide if it is foul, to ride it west when fair. The winds are usually moderate in the morning.

The return is different. It is usually dark. The winds are often 25 to 30, gusty and erratic, and you are under spinnaker. There have been several capsizes of multihulls on the return through Race Passage—involving skilled and experienced racers. No one has died, but any capsize is extremely dangerous. You cannot really win the race unless you keep your big sails up through Race Passage on your way home, and that is part of what makes the race so scary, at least for me. 

This time, the tide favors us, the wind was perfect, and we clear Race Passage second in our class of 11.  The sun is out and we delight in the sight of our competitors powered up, screaming along. The most beautiful of all is the mighty Atalanta, 60 feet and twenty tons, with two masts, and at the top of each mast a flag flying, so proud and festive. We cross close enough to hear the gentle roar of her bow wave.

Once you clear Race Passage, you head out into the Strait proper. It is a big body of water—maybe 20 miles wide, 75 miles long. Winds usually westerly, with plenty of fetch to build up a real swell, which we don’t see down in the Sound.  As the fleet spreads out, the sails get smaller and smaller.  It’s a little lonely out there.

The wind continues to be solid, maybe 15 knots true. We have a constant swell. In the trough, the crests are at eye level or above. You feel like your boat is in the ocean, not on top of it. The wind built some so there was a chop on top of the swell.  Challenging, wonderful sailing, especially for the helmsman, who has to steer actively to take best advantage of the waves. We are doing 9-10 knots upwind, changing helmsman every 30 minutes to keep everyone sharp and engaged.

As we get into the middle of the Strait, the sun vanishes and the murk increases.  Can’t see the sails of our more distant competitors, and the shore becomes indistinct. We carry on, putting on additional layers to stay warm. The lighter doesn’t work, so, no hot food or drink for us, but we were making miraculous time, pushed along by a powerful ebb tide.

As we approach Neah Bay, the halfway point in the race, the wind lightens. We round third in our class at about 5 pm, set the spinnaker, and point the boat northeast, back toward the Canadian side of the Strait. Winds are moderate, and it is a relief to be going with the waves and wind, not as cold, and the motion of the boat easier, even though we are going faster. To make matters even better, the tide changes just as we round, and we are riding the flood home.

The overcast deepens, and the Canadian shore is obscured by fog. We can see only one of our competitors--Blue Lightning, a similar boat to ours, and a boat we would like to beat. They rounded maybe 20 minutes behind, and raised their big white spinnaker, with the blue lightning bolt in the center. They usually catch us down wind, because they carry a bigger spinnaker and sail more aggressively. I expect to see them get ever larger in the rearview mirror. Johnny says it will take 2 hours for them to catch us.

Having another boat close to you on the course, especially when it is a direct competitor, adds much interest to the proceedings. The helm focuses harder on keeping speed, the trimmers react more quickly to each curl of the luff, and off watch guys pay more attention to weight placement. 

To our surprise, the blue lightning bolt doesn’t seem to be getting any bigger.  We gybe in synchrony, wanting to stay between them and the finish, trying to avoid a split that would let them luck into better conditions and pass. But it is becoming obvious that we have legs on them down wind. We have a new spinnaker this year, moderately sized, but cunningly shaped, and made of a light polyester fabric that does not stretch as much as the typical nylon. Maybe that is the difference this year? In any case, the lightning bolt is becoming smaller, and after an hour, it became hard to pick them out in the gray. We will sail our own race to the finish. 

As we make our way east along the Canadian shore, the wind builds. We are quickly doing 15 knots, then 16 and more. Hard to know what the true wind is. The boat is humming, reacting instantly to millimeter movements of the tiller, throwing a wake like a speedboat, overtaking the swells in big swoops of speed. Everyone wants a chance at the helm. It is a magic carpet ride with Robin Williams as chauffeur. It is like skiing powder on a really good day, or driving a motorcycle fast on a curvy road.   Your mind empties of everything other than the sensations of the moment.   Focused, engaged joy.

And this is where we separate the winners from the participants.

To go fast downwind in a trimaran, you have to sail it hot, meaning at an angle to the wind. The more acute the angle to the true wind, the more the apparent wind comes forward, which allows you to steer deeper relative to the true wind. It is a virtuous cycle of speed. But the hotter you sail, the harder you press the leeward float, driving it through waves. If you go too far, sail too hot and too hard, you stuff it. The bow knifes deep into the water, the stern rises, the apparent wind increases and swings aft, and…  over you go, in a diagonal somersault. The great majority of capsizes in these boats occur while racing, under spinnaker.

When you are on the helm, you feel invulnerable, you steer down in the puffs, keeping the boat on its feet, bleeding off the speed, heading up in the lulls, reveling in the acceleration, and your mastery. When you are not on the helm, you can focus a bit more intensely on the potential for disaster. As a skipper, I am somewhat unusual, in that I share time on the tiller equally—so I have plenty of time to consider disaster: an upside down trimaran, with four 60 year old, arthritic guys in the water, at night, in the waves, potentially trapped under the nets and sails. I have always been a worrier, and exceedingly cautious.

The guys know the dynamic. As the speed rises, past about 16 knots, especially in waves, I tell the helm to slow down—to sail deeper. The guys bridle a bit at times, but know the drill. And in those decisions, the decision to keep a large margin of safety, instead of taking the speed to 18, 19, 20 knots, is where the race is won or lost. 

Dusk is approaching, we are sailing alone, close to a lee shore. We are already sailing quite deep and still going fast. We have everything up. At this stage last year, I had already reefed the main, and taken down the spinnaker, but it was later in the day that time. 

I start thinking about a sail change. At this stage there is a bit of a discussion, as usual, with Johnny and Frodge inclined to hold full sail longer. Frodge prevails on me to keep the big spinnaker up a while longer. There is no doubt that the prospect of Race Passage has me spooked. The internet tells us that there is 28 sustained at Race Passage. Which means gusts are higher still. 

Well before the Passage, I call for a change—one reef in the main, take down the big spinnaker, and raise the little spinnaker. Leave the jib up. Looks like we will make it through the Passage at the tail end of dusk. It takes a while to get all this done, but I made the call early enough so that we are lined up perfectly once the change is complete. I want to start the run through the Passage well to the north, on the windward side, so that if we get hit by a big gust, we have room to bail out to leeward. 

Johnny is on the helm. He is a great helm in big air, fearless and steady. The water is flat, as we enter the Passage. The wind builds again, and the boat is flying, planing, rushing towards the lights of Victoria. Gusts hit, but we just accelerate, head down a little, under control, smooth as butter. Night finally falls as we clear the Passage. I am perched on the float, exhilarated, relieved, proud. We pass a couple other boats like they were channel buoys.

And it looks like there will not be a repeat of last year, when the wind completely shut off a mile from the finish, leaving us drifting for hours in the middle of the night. The wind drops but does not die as we near the line. Frodge calls in to alert the race committee that we are approaching the line. We haven’t heard any of our competitors call in. Shortly before the line, we hear Blue Lighting call in. Frodge raises the main all the way—probably made no difference, as we cross well before them. 

In the confusion and relief and joy after the finish, I almost hit an unlighted channel marker. Eric pushes the helm over just in time. We finished 3rd of 11, our best result ever in this race.  We are on the dock by 11pm, in bed before midnight, happier than I have been in months.

Post script

Eric and Frodge drive home from Victoria, so Kristin, Johnny, and I sail back to Port Townsend (motoring just a little while to get to the customs dock at a reasonable time). Kristin picks up the car there, and leaves Johnny and me to bring the boat back to Seattle.

The wind is light, but we sail the whole way. Even when the wind is nothing but a breath, and the water glassy, we keep moving, helped by a flood tide. And this is the most magical part of the trip for me. To sail a bit of water that I now know like my backyard, to talk intimately with my close friend, and to stay absolutely quiet and still as we glide through sunset into the dusk.  

As we approach Shilshole, night falls, a sliver of moon is out, and the wind increases.  We rush through the dark, the lights of the marina bright ahead. We milk it to the last possible tack, greedy for more, delaying the moment when we must turn into the wind, and drop the sails.  

But that moment does come. We put the boat away and load up the car, and drive along quiet Shilshole Avenue. Still entranced, I find myself driving at about 20 miles per hour, reluctant to press down on the accelerator. 

It was a very good trip, overall. 

P.S.S

Check out this short YouTube video of the horde of boats.

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