on board


Signed on to do the Pacific Singlehanded Society’s Double Handed Guadalupe Island Race with Ragtime. We’re all influenced by our childhood; I’m pretty sure the allure of this race goes back to seeing the Guadalupe Island Race trophy at Balboa Yacht Club as a kid. It always seemed like a cool trophy and an unusual, off the beaten path location.

Mark Ivey agreed to race with me; we knew each other and the boat from doing LA-Tahiti together. Race prep was normal, but less food to worry about. Left a few sails behind, the Light #1, carbon #4 and the A4; took the race storm jib and A6 instead. I figured if it got to the point of using either small sail, we needed to go down a double notch in size too.

The PSS group is very friendly and tight. The skipper’s meeting degenerates positively into a dinner with all of the crews at one table (remember, SH/DH racing is a lot less food). Buddy teams, husband/wife and solo guys, plus the few shoreside members that will be running the race. It’s different from the atmosphere of a Cabo or Transpac, mellower, and good.

The start was 3 PM Friday, rabbit start, no committee boat needed. Others were cautious about Ragtime in the mix; our goal was to start cleanly and without drama. Compared to Syd-Hobart or even Ensenada it was pretty straight forward. Course is port rounding of Guadalupe and its islets, choose your own way around Catalina and San Clemente Islands. We knew we were going over Catalina and likely San Clemente to get outside and stay away from the light night offshore stuff on the inside track.

We were able to lay Catalina after getting lifted on the way over, but we cut it a little too close. The weather lee and choppy backwash ground us to a halt at the West End. Took an hour to bust out; in the interim, the first boat behind almost overtook us. Carried the JT3 through the night; our first spin set seemed like a better idea in the daylight. Mark and I had agreed on a strategy of 95% power and conservative sailing to make up for the optimism of taking a 65 footer on a 600 mile DH race. The set went well and we carried the chute all night pretty much down rhumbline. Modest breeze, 10-16 knots.

Our watch system was casual, sort of go until you need a break. It’s unrealistic to declare you’ll for sure still be good at 3 hours, but you just as easily might be going strong stretching it to 4 hours on another watch. This race marked my first solo gybe of Ragtime with a chute up (and my second, too).

Rounding Guadalupe was awesome. Catalina topography, but twice as tall, and steeper, more cliffs down to the water’s edge. There is a small panga fishing village, a army base, and a airstrip. All of this 90 miles off the Baja Mainland. Three islets at the south end with a real mix of currents, wind changes, and dead zones. One of the islets is a dramatic vertical tree stump, darker than the others. Ancient volcano fumaroles pock the landscape.

By this point, we had seen two whales, hundreds of dolphins, seals, some sort of large, sustained feeding strike near Guadalupe (Great White?), and albatrosses, gulls, and other seabirds. Great sunrises, sunsets, , moonrises, and sets. A great series of nature’s moments.

Our rounding was reasonable, but not super fast. Chute down, back to the JT3, through a few light patches, then the Light #3 (left the #1 behind to keep it manageable), then the Carbon #3 as the wind filled in and we started the long port tack back. Expedition showing a few tacks (35 miles total) on starboard, but we decided to go for it and see how it played out – a little lifting and we could lay the finish (Cat Harbor, Isthmus/Catalina Island backside) 290 miles away.  That’s mark looking happy at the rock.

Wind built from there – 8, 10, 14, eventually 20-24 and gusting 30 as we got north. 100 miles below the border we were shadowed by a US Coast Guard cutter and called them on the radio. Gave them our info, they confirmed with race control that we were legit (and maybe crazy) and they agreed not to board and complicate our race. Contact #1

As the wind grew, we eventually went to a reef. Neat trick with a crew of two and a 900 SF main. Adjusted the autopilot to keep the jib feathered, and went for it – all went well, and the smaller main was a good idea.

The course home evolved into a loose steady beat. Somewhere around the extended border line, Mark saw flares and called me up. I jumped on 16 and called the USCG San Diego. We guessed the flares were military training, but it was an eery flashback to the Syd-Hobart sinking of Georgia that we were part of. Got word it was a heli training op. Contact #2.

After that, I could not get away from the radio. PAN-PAN-PAN, live fire op’s near our latitude. Contact #3. Securite, more Pans, a Navy cruiser doing starboard circles with a 5 mile stand off request, night vision towed targets, and several more contacts. Under a full moon, there was a ominous missile destroyer nearby; around 4:30 AM they went lights out and looked like a 300′ shark fin circling lazily.

As we entered the San Clemente/Catalina channel, we were all hand driving in 20+ knots. This was a knot faster than the autopilot and much less pounding and flogging of the main. Mark took over driving when I was tired enough that the numbers were blurring out. When I came back up, he was being whipped by wind and rain, and yelled back to me that he "felt like the reverend in Caddyshack". Three violent squall fronts came down, each fully darkening the sky and whipping the ocean surface.

The squall lines were followed by a fogline; it became surreal wondering what else was going to get thrown at us. A cruise ship was wandering about in the area as well. We finally got to the East End of Catalina and conceded a tack for five miles on starboard. Our 300 mile layline call was barely off.

As we got to Cat Harbor, a unfamiliar entry, I joked to Mark that the last trial would be the Cat Head Light would be out (our finish line was a bearing of 300 degrees to the light). Sure enough, we found the solar panels on the hillside, but no light.

We called in our finish (3 days, 16 hours, 4 minutes), took a 7 AM celebratory shot of aged rum, and headed out to go around the West End and home to Alamitos Bay.It was a proud feeling to have completed the race in a well coordinated way, and I am sure we both finished with a great deal of respect for each other’s commitment to sailing well, giving our all, and doing it under control and safely at the same time.

Single Hand and Double Hand races are a different niche. There is maybe more camraderie and interdependence – you know the only likely help are the other boats that will be around you. Ragtime’s speed put us in a different realm, but behind us, a close battle was playing out between three boats with the same rating for second to finish and second place corrected (Ragtime took line honors and should correct out to 1st, Double Handed). We’re hoping for Eric Lambert’s Runaway to take 2nd; this would make likely the only 1-2 Spencer finish in the Northern Hemisphere this year!

Thanks to the PSSS leadership for putting together a interesting race. My respect to the competitors going at it Solo and DH on offshore courses like this.

More race info and ragtime pic credit: http://www.pssala.com/

Chris Welsh
USA 7960