straits jackets

straits jackets

This year’s jacket motto is "I Survived Southern Straits 2010". This traditional Northwest Easter regatta goes across and up and down and across the Straits of Georgia starting from Vancouver and finishing in Vancouver. The race is always a roll of the dice – some years it doesn’t blow and the most Vmg you’ll make is from the tidal currents that trek up and down the Straits to years where gales rip through and everyone gets to find out which boat bits they should have maintained before the fun started. Then there are the years where you get a little of both – drift some, have a gale for a while, drift for awhile and so on. Cold too – there is always snow on the mountain tops around Vancouver this time of year so it ain’t the Caribbean. The weather briefing at the skippers meeting on Thursday night had the Environment Canada guy explaining how their forecasting model was pretty good but not perfect and he expected the actual event to be worse than forecast and maybe you guys should go skiing instead.

This race always draws the big sleds from Seattle so the press gets to have a field day photographing and yakking about the big-boat royalty showing up and it is all in all A Big Production. Which isn’t meant to marginalize the seriousness of this years event – this year the Canadian Coast Guard was called out for 5 rescues, 1 boat sank, two sailors were in hospital with severe hypothermia and in critical condition, 2 masts were lost, 2 booms broke, 50+ sails were blown up, at least 12 people ended up in the water and there was gear carnage throughout the fleet. The forecast low pressure was 985 millibars and sustained 35 to 45 knot winds with 6-12 foot breaking seas in what is essentially a large salt water lake. The actual numbers really were worse – the barometer sank to 980 millibars, the highest gusts recorded at the weather buoys were 64 knots, the seas got really, really lumpy with cross seas reflecting off the shoreline of Vancouver Island and just making a mess of it all. Sustained winds on the course were 45+ knots pretty much over the whole area for the entire day with the 50 knot gust being the norm and some really good ones blowing through on top of that.

Not that that this year was spectacularly wild – there have been others, like Straits 2005 that got really, unexpectedly bad 18 hours into the race – but it was enough of a wake-up call to get everyone re-focused on the basics. Like don’t go out in more wind than you are comfortable dealing with. Which ended up being half the boats registered – all of whom are now being smug about no damage and no injuries and no second-guessing. Too bad, because everyone who went out now has a set of heroic sea stories that will be appropriately burnished by time into "No kidding, there we were and…." (complete as appropriate). Everybody listening who wasn’t there will do the "ooh ,ahhh" thing and remark on the superior skills and Iliad-ic bravery of the storyteller. You can cadge drinks for 2-3 years in yacht club bars over these stories so they really are worth something.

Three separate starts, the first for the big boats doing the 120 mile long course that is a Victoria-Maui qualifier, the second start for the go-fast guys on the 90 mile medium course and then the third start for the slower boats on the short 60 mile course. All the courses go back and forth across the Straits and the longer ones have a sausage along the east coast of Vancouver Island to get the length up. The start area is just off downtown Vancouver in English Bay and with the wind blowing from the southeast at 25 knots it is a siren song meant to suck you into going out in the Straits. Yes it is blowing but the seas are flat and it doesn’t seem to be such a big deal. The big boats go off and pop their kites and start heading west the 6 miles to Georgia Strait. Everybody is thinking, "cool, we get to make a fast passage" – dream on Grasshopper, the real race starts 6 miles west where there appears to be little blue box cars running to the northwest out in the Strait.

Our 1D35, Radical Departure, was in the second start and our nemesis the 1D35 The Shadow was right in our cross hairs at the start. We both get across the line at the gun at  the weather end, avoiding one moron on the wrong side of the line on port trying to get back to the start line while the whole fleet is descending on them at 10 knots on starboard. Some fairly colorful sailing ensued but once we got clear of the mayhem we got the kite up about 30 seconds after The Shadow did. Which meant they had a 200 yard lead – we did 10 knots while they did 16+ so the accordion took a deep breath. Behind us, we could hear a lot of crashing and banging and one really loud riiiiipp as someone’s kite blew out. We settled in for a Nantucket sleigh ride and the pre-scheduled broaches which came and went at a nominal rate. As we got into the really strong winds out in the Strait we managed to pass The Shadow and life was good. A couple of 20 knot bursts during the big gusts and we had settled into becoming legends in our own minds and we were all sitting there readying our trophy acceptance speeches. The final kite crash was one of those operatic things with the fat lady just wailing while we laid over on our side and bits and pieces started jiggling their way loose from the hull – enough of the kite stuff, let’s try the jib.

Back up and off at 14’s and 16’s and…..wahoo! 19’s. Lumpy, lumpy, breaking seas throwing the boat all over the place but enough vertical to make for some real fun. At one point this big set of waves converged into something pretty spectacular and we rode them until they crashed with the bow out over the front of the wave and the stern on the crest while the boat speed spun down to "0" because the paddle wheel was out there reading airspeed. You should have seen the crash when the wave and us both fell into the trough; it was classically elegaic. With punctuations of knockdowns 1D’s rapidly pulled out into a horizon job on the medium course fleet and caught up to the long-course boats. We sort of knew things weren’t going well up front because we started passing big boats that were under bare poles or hove to and pulling down torn sails. But what are you going to do except keep the pedal to the metal? A few hours of this and we were 5 miles east of Vancouver Island and pulling away from The Shadow which caused them to park their sense of disbelief and they put up a kite again. Boy were they ever moving – they got to the scene of the accident in record speed. About 200 yards above us and doing something well over 16 knots they did a barrel roll, a half Cuban eight and a snap roll followed by an extended period of laying down in the water shrimping with the kite. We all said, boy aren’t we glad we’re not on that boat.

Right after which we did a hammerhead stall, a spin and a ground loop. We got the boat back upright and took off again with the resurrected Shadow about 200 yards behind. We looked up and the leech of our main was starting to tear. Uh oh, this doesn’t look good, but hey it’s a race and keep going until it tears. Meanwhile The Shadow has done their imitation of our last really good dippsy doodle and we end up a quarter mile ahead. Smug is a pretty accurate description of how we felt – right up until the next crash at 18 knots when the main said "bye now" and then we spent a few minutes trying to get upright and the main down, which we did. Meanwhile The Shadow is gaining on us between crashes so the race is still on. We know we are going to withdraw but we’ll fight like hell until we get to the turning mark and have to go to weather, which just ain’t gonna happen with just a jib.

We’re still dong 14’s with the jib so we aren’t getting sucked in all that fast but it is inevitable and as The Shadow draws abeam we do another aerobatic maneuver and the jib parts company with all of the rest of the boat and a lot of itself. Now we get to practice basic heavy weather seamanship and get the wreckage back on board an tied down and the diesel started. While all of this is going on The Shadow catches up to us and blasts past thinking to themselves how lucky they were to not be on Radical Departure. About 200 yards later they do a barrel roll and their main and their jib blow up. I call this the 1D35 Time Release Capsule. Just add a little salt water, a good size gust and they disintegrate. It’s like the two of us sailed into the no-go zone and the wind gods said "ok, you guys are through" and that was the end of that. We motored into Nanaimo surfing off these big lumps of water and tied up at the Government Dock and then it was time to watch most of the rest of the fleet stagger in after the Race Committee called it all off at 1600 hours.

A couple of the long course guys, David Surcliffe’s Beneteau First 47.7 Kinetic IV and Gunnar Jonsson’s C&C 44 Turicum, made it all the way to the Ballenas Island turning mark and a few of the short course boats made it to their turning mark at Nanaimo but basically most of the fleet had retired for damage by then. The current rumor is that only 4 boats were left standing when it was called off. We got a phone call that the Commodore of the host club, David Chard, lost the mast on his Dufour 38 Radiance and Julie Kadar and Dorothy Cunningham’s Benetau First 38 It’s Magic saw the stick go into the drink and stood by while one of the only BC Ferries still running hove to and provided a lee while Radiance got their ship in order and underway. Ian Lloyd’s Schock 35 Fancy Free also had the rig go over the side and at one point were seen going like hell  forward with the white sails up while the kite was in perfect trim behind and going backwards and half under water which pretty much wins them the Unique Trim Trophy.

We were sitting in the harbor bar and watching the carnage on the new arrivals and toasting the event when we saw an ambulance pull onto the Government Dock to pick up some of the crew of Clint Curries Incisor, which had sunk. Tony Brogan’s J-30 Radiant Heat had retired and was motoring to Nanaimo and saw what looked like a rig standing up in the water with no boat attached. They went to investigate and found Clint and his 5 crewmates hanging onto the overturned hull. All were hypothermic by then and Clint was unresponsive when they got him aboard and one other guy aboard. The other four were pulled from the water by the Caost Guard after they arrived on location. Life is sometimes just a thread and if Radiant Heat hadn’t been damaged when and where it was and been lucky enough to have seen an anomaly and smart enough to go to investigate this could very easily have been a different story. The water is stinking cold, the seas were rough and breaking and the crew of Incisor didn’t have a radio or flares available. Fortunately, all recovered in hospital and went home.

There is going to be all kinds of second guessing about this race(see the SA thread here) and everyone who opines will be convinced they’re right. The real bottom line is that this is a sport – a hobby where you can be terrified at 10 miles an hour but is still just a hobby and if you want to do your hobby where Mother Nature gets to call the shots you can just count on things going awry. Interestingly, boats didn’t break during this – all the carnage was to gear, some of which was undersized for the conditions, some of which wasn’t maintained and some of which was just used incompetently by the operators. I guess the take-away is that if you are going to play with the big dogs you better come prepared for a real fight.

By Saturday morning it was all over, the weather was great, the sun was shining and a good 20 knot breeze blew everyone back to Vancouver from the Island. How quick it turns. – Peter Lagergren.