The early signs were not encouraging. As we were riding out to the marina, the outside temperature registered 99 degrees on my car dashboard. The sweltering humidity made it feel like 115. Worse yet, Washington was under a severe thunderstorm alert with the Doplar radar showing only reds and yellows for a vast area just west of Gaithersburg and heading our way. My guess was that at 7:00 pm–the time of the start of the race– we would get hit by a terrific squall line, thunder, lightening, blinding rain, and the whole bit. This is the way it usually works, right?
Even more perplexing were the wind forecasts. All three of my wind apps showed the same thing: decent southerlies at 10-15 knots, dying around seven pm to two to three knots and moving to the southwest and then west. The only consolation was that at least we were not the committee boat.
And on top of all that, we were shorthanded. Maurice and Andy were out; and Marsha had cancelled at the last minute, leaving five of us to try to handle these conditions as best we could. This would be Ian’s third sail (not just third race) in his distinguished life, and it would be the first race ever for our newest crew member, Tyler, another Urban Institute person recruited by Embry. Tyler is the right demographic, however—around 30, young by our standards–has lots of cruising experience, and is gung-ho to race, the ideal candidate for a new crew member. Greg was on vacation, so this meant that Gerry would take over the lead foredeck position, a first for him, with assistance from Tyler, who had never handled a spinnaker in his life. Does this sound like the ideal situation you would choose to try to beat the likes of Glissade and Gitana, boats which have been whipping us all year? But there was at least one bright spot: our boat bottom was finally clean. Emily proudly notified me the day before that she had done her job and that we were ready to go. After the last racing fiasco when every boat in the fleet passed us on the last two legs of a drifter, I now understand why Alan refuses to race with us if I can’t provide evidence of a clean bottom. I am a total convert.
So we headed out early as is out custom—in part to provide some relief from the heat and also to get in some practice. The logical place to start would be a practice spinnaker set. The wind was out of the south at around 12 knots, perfect for a practice set; and Gerry had worked hard to get everything set up perfectly, which he did except for one small item, not tying a figure eight at the end of the spinnaker guy and sheet, the result of which allowed the lines holding the spinnaker to come lose from the boat resulting in the chute wildly flying above the mast as the wind suddenly increased to close to 20 knots just as the foredeck crew pulled on the halyard. I commented that at least there was no one on the race course to witness this calamity, to which Larry replied that every boat in the marina could see the chute flying wildly overhead. As we worked to bring the spinnaker in (lowering the halyard would not work since we would lose even more control and the sail would end up in the drink), I pointed the boat downwind, taking some of the pressure off; and the foredeck crew finally managed to grab one of the lines and pull in the spinnaker. Exhausted and probably terrified, Gerry and Tyler headed below to repack the chute, determined to try again. But by now the wind was howling at close to 25 knots, and the chop was nearing three feet. On a broad reach with no genoa up, we were surfing at over eight knots and were half way across the Chesapeake Bay before we got everything under control and tacked around to head back to the committee boat. I announced that no more spinnaker practice was necessary.
Now the attention shifted from figuring how to fly the spinnaker to how to survive. To their credit Gerry and Tyler insisted on getting all the spinnaker lines untangled and ready for another set if conditions permitted. Fat chance, I thought to myself.
This would have been an ideal time to use our number 3 genoa, but we did not have time to make a headsail change; and besides I could not help thinking about the weather forecasts predicting dying wind. So we decided to reduce our number one genoa by furling it in about 30%, a no-no for dedicated racers–not good for keeping sails in decent condition and not efficient —but, hey, we are talking about survival here. Most of the other boats were using number 3 genoas or had partially furled head sails. Mains were reefed as well—though not ours.
The race was the new course, about six miles, all port roundings.
As we headed toward the starting line, the wind was holding at close to 25 knots with all boats healed over and fighting for position. With excellent timing and count down reporting from Gerry, we managed to hit the line at full speed about two seconds off the gun. Gitana was just above us and Glissade just below. A perfect start. But since we were getting some bad air from Gitana, we tacked over to port just after Glissade did. This gave us good, clear air and put us slightly higher than Glissade. The surprising thing to me was that we seemed to be pointing higher and going a little faster than Glissade. That had not happened much this season.
The other thing that happened as we tacked around was that the wind began to diminish. First we unfurled the genoa a bit, and then after five minutes let it all out. The boats that required a change in headsails were now disadvantaged.
Since all the other boats were staying on a starboard tack, I was reluctant to stay on port with Glissade because a big header (adverse wind shift) would have killed us, so I tacked back on starboard to stay in the middle of the pack and to my astonishment discovered we were well ahead of the other starboard boats. Nice feeling, but there was still Glissade to worry about; and if they got the lift (favorable wind shift), that meant we got the header. But we seemed to be pointing well, and boat speed never got below 5.5 knots, often getting close to six knots. After a while we tacked back to port in order to be able to take advantage of the famous Holland Point lift, only to find Glissade roaring up on starboard about 20 boat lengths ahead. “How do they do it?” I thought. We were sailing faster and higher just moments ago, and now they were clear ahead. Must have gotten a lift. Oh well, we were still in second place, well ahead of everyone else.
As we got closer to the weather mark, I got a better look at the transom of Glissade and to my astonishment realized that they were not Glissade at all but rather Julip, a very fast Spin A boat, which had started five minutes ahead of us. Where could Glissade be? I very quickly glanced over my shoulder and saw what appeared to be Glissade at least 20 or 30 boat lengths behind us. “Wow,” I muttered, “this is not a bad situation.” No one else was even close.
When we got up to the point where Julip had passed us, we could see they were going to clear the mark, so we tacked back to starboard, which put us clearly on the lay line. My mistake was not directing the foredeck crew to set up then. That would have saved us a lot of time later. But within a few hundred yards of the mark, the foredeck crew scrambled to get the spinnaker on deck and started attaching all the lines. The 64-dollar question was—was it going to work this time?
There was another challenge. Heading toward the down wind mark, the Spin A Fleet , which had started five minutes before us, split up and sailed in completely opposite directions. Two or three boats headed left and the others right, but this was not a matter of sailing broad reaches and gybing on a dead downwind course. Our charts showed that mark C should have been a broad reach, starboard tack—in other words all the Spin A boats should have been heading right. We could hear conversations on the radio regarding the actual race course, and “J Long” was confirmed. So we figured we would take our chances and follow the boats headed right, which turned out to be the correct choice. The boats going left were using last year’s course descriptions.
Getting the spinnaker up and flying was not all that pretty—five guys stumbling over each other doing what it normally takes seven to do—but we did it. The chute filled, and we were headed directly to mark C on a broad reach, going about six knots in what now was a 10-12 knot breeze. The other spin B boats were way back. We jibed once and then doused well in advance of the rounding since we had to point up to make the mark. Glissade and Junkanoo were gaining on us a bit, but Gitana was so far back you could hardly see where she was. After the rounding we headed up wind again to mark A and the finish line and managed to regain any ground lost on the previous leg. The wind was continuing to diminish and was becoming fickle, but miraculously we were able to maintain almost six knots on a close reach to the finish line—and got the gun. And this time there was no “correcting up” by Gitana. We had just completed one of the best performances in Carolina Blue’s sailing history.
This was a night of many lucky breaks—wind settling down to near perfect conditions, storms never making it, and a second chance to get the foredeck work right– and extraordinary crew work, two crew members being pretty green. The racing this year may not be as competitive as it has been in the past since Leap Frog and Avenger are no longer racing, but it is competitive enough. And for the crew of Carolina Blue, who have suffered losses, disappointments and indignities over the years, the sound of a cannon when crossing the finish line is one sweet sound.