This was the big one. Further than the Susan Hood, one third the distance of the LO300, but with just two of us on board. And it was a particular pleasure to share the responsibilities on board with Nauti-buoy (Shaun Berrington), who has decades more racing experience than I do, on all manner of boats in all manner of seas. Even though this was just the second time sailing together, our teamwork was solid as we switched seamlessly between helming and trimming every hour or so during the race. We flew the kite on two of the three legs (and almost hoisted again near the finish), and tweaked and fussed continuously to get the most out of the boat.
And it paid off! We earned a third place finish in our fleet, and only 7 boats crossed the finish line ahead of us (and some of those had PHRF ratings of -3, -11). On corrected time, we placed 13th out of 27 boats that flew spinnaker. Nice!
But the star of the show was the weather….
On the drive to PCYC on Saturday morning, it rained so hard that we could only go 60km/hr on the highway! Needless to say, we were in no hurry to get out into the elements to set up the boat. We got her prepped in drizzle, huddling down below to talk through the start, the route, the tech and the wind/weather forecasts. But as we left the dock, the rain stopped, and before the start a bit of blue sky peaked out. A beautiful day of sailing had begun!
There was a bit of breeze, enough to move and maneuver effortlessly, as we watched other fleets start before us (we were in the last start). But as our sequence began, the wind lay down. Fortunately, we weren’t far from the start line, and were able to keep the boat moving. But we were near the pin end, and had to approach on port, ducking some of our rivals before a slow-motion tack into some pretty bad air. Shaun trimmed fastidiously, and gradually we gained pace, stretched out beyond a boat to windward to catch some clean air, accelerated and began our climb to windward of the fleet. During this progression the wind freshened and we found ourselves in a nice spot heading to Toronto Island, with the true wind on the beam. We stayed just above the fleet all the way to the mark, so we never had to work to overtake slower boats from previous starts and the only traffic we had to deal with came as we converged on the turning mark.
Around we went and once again, we climbed to windward of the fleet into clear air, and then set our course 15 degrees above the rhumb line as we expected the wind to shift forward. The True wind angle was just a bit too hot for the spinnaker as the wind speed built to 10+ knots. With binoculars out, we could study the fleet as they daisy chained along the rhumb line. One nice treat — ARRRIBA, a 40 foot Beneteau First in our fleet, was behind us! After a few hours, the wind shifted aft, rather than forward — so much for the wind forecast! So we cracked off a bit and hoisted the kite. The fleet to leeward began to do the same, and the boats that hoisted first gained significantly on their rivals — and we were among them!
It was a hot angle, but we could hold it, and we didn’t need to give up our position to windward — just aimed at the CCIW spider and sailed on. A quick tally of boats ahead of us, and we could spot about 13 or so, including two that had stretched out way ahead of everyone else — those guys with the negative PHRFs!
Clouds appeared, darkened, dispersed, and the wind lost its mojo. Once it filled again, it was further forward, so we doused. Well timed! We weren’t long under the #1 when the wind sputtered, shifted 180 degrees and we found ourselves on the opposite tack close hauled and not fetching the spider. Drat, now the boats that had followed the rhumb line were to windward of us, fetching the spider with ease. What had been an advantage turned into a set-back within minutes. Such is sailboat racing!
But the wind had pity on us, for as it freshened, it also gave us a nice lift. A lift that — together with fastidious sail trim and a bit of pinching — was enough for us to fetch spider. So although some boats had slipped in front of us, we had not lost much ground to them.
And by now we had 20 knots of wind! Yes, we were grossly overpowered with the #1, but we only needed to suffer for about half an hour before we were around the mark, sailing very deep on course to Niagara.
With all that wind to manage, we had not repacked the spinnaker bag, so Shaun got us wing on wing with over 8 knots of boat speed while I got the kite ready. And once that baby was flying, we were tearing along, grinning ear to ear like Cheshire cats :-).
And Shaun rigged a preventer stay without delay.
Gradually the wind began to subside, and we were able to grab a quick bite and start to think about tactics. Once the wind got down to 6 knots, we started flying hotter angles and the big question was whether to go for shore, out to sea or to zig-zag down the middle. Without a compelling reason to go one way or the other, we chose to stay near the middle of the course. This choice gave us the opportunity chase down ARRIBA who had snuck by us in the wind shift up at the spider. The wind kept dropping, and we found ourselves completely becalmed within hailing distance of our rival. Shaun noticed that boats in toward shore were moving nicely, with their spinnakers filled. I noticed that their wind was coming from the opposite direction than ours had been coming. So, we jibed the kite (in no wind), and almost right away, the new breeze arrived at us, we filled and just walked away from ARRIBA. Nice!
And our reward was a glamorous sunset
About an hour after sunset, a full moon rose, but there was a bank of low-lying clouds that obscured the moon for the better part of an hour. We were able to aim right for the Niagara Mark with the spinnaker up, and held it well into the night sky. As the moon began to light the night, we spotted our 4s red flashing light, and doused early so we could round cleanly. The quiet, the moonbeam, the silhouette of boats ahead, and the music of water against the hull. That is the mystique of night sailing that we will never forget.
And we will never forget how much current there is at that Niagara Mark! With the full moon, we could clearly see a massive wake behind the marker. There must be three knots of current there. Wide berths are necessary when passing between the mouth of the Niagara river and this Mark.
It was shortly after 10pm. That means 75 miles complete in just 12 hours!
Despite the current, we rounded cleanly, and quickly got set up on a fast beam reach. The wind freshened and our boat speed climbed over 7 knots. We took turns having short naps and I brewed up some hot coffee. Out came Biltong and granola bars. Meanwhile a big boat astern kept making way on us sailing right down the moonbeam. We assumed this was ARRIBA, benefiting from a longer water line. Flashlight out, some adjustment in trim and we accelerated and were able to hold them off!
But about 9 miles from the finish, the wind began to slacken. This is a very familiar pattern now, that we experienced in the LO 300 and the Susan Hood. It ain’t over until its over. At first, our focus was simply to keep the boat moving as the wind got lighter, but then it began to shift directions as well, and we had to alternate between hardening up and footing off to stay roughly on course. Up ahead, we could see the lights of several more boats parked up in the failing breeze, while off to the southwest we could see constant flashes of big lightening high in the sky. Weather was coming, and with it there would be new wind. But would the wind come soon enough to get us off the water before the storm?
Becalmed, with just a whisper of wind up high.
Got the bag ready. Wait. Something fresh and cool on our right ears. Wind shift coming. No Kite. Tack. Moving!
By now with just a few miles to go, it was time to plan the end game. The new wind direction was so reminiscent of our Susan Hood finish, we aimed our course well below the PCYC turning mark and ghosted along. As we approached, we could spot other boats either becalmed, struggling to soak down to the turning mark, or up ahead following the game plan we had in mind. This gave us a point of reference for planning our last tack into the finish, but just in time. As we got nearer, a bank of fog rolled in and we lost sight of most of these other boats, the shoreline and even the light on the mark. iNavx reassured us we were indeed on course to finish, and not sailing into rocks!
Fortunately, this fog-blindness was short-lived and the mark re-appeared as we approached it, as did the shoreline, and we radioed in our finish at 4:21 am!!!
With the storm in the SW still approaching, we furled the jib, doused the main, made for port without delay, tidied up just as the rain began and got to the car before the sky opened. Only then did we begin to realize that we had gobbled up several boats in the last hour! There is no substitute for local knowledge :-).
And that is how Nauti-Buoy and I managed to race 100 miles in just under 18 hours.