Here is a good long look at one man’s perspective on some shorthanded offshore racing…
The Guadalupe Island Race is run every other year in late March by the Pacific Singlehanded Sailing Association, and has both single and doublehanded classes. The race is about 600 miles long and goes from Marina del Rey, past Catalina Island, past San Clemente Island, 300 miles due south to and around Mexico’s Guadalupe Island which is about 125 miles west of the Baja peninsula, and then back, 300 miles uphill, slogging to windward, to the finish line at Catalina Harbor on Catalina Island. Guadalupe Island is about 22 miles long and quite high (4500 feet or so). It is known for its elephant seal colonies and as a breeding ground for great white sharks. Most of the great white footage you see on TV is shot off of Guadalupe’s eastern shore.
The race is mostly outside the protection of the Southern California bight so It can get very windy with gales and very large seas not unusual at this time of the year. So you can have a great run down to the island but a brutal beat back. Unlike the other, longer Mexico races, the Guadalupe Island race requires participants to race back, against the wind and swells. To that extent, it is a more complete test of a boat and its crew’s seamanship skills, requiring vessels and crews to demonstrate their ability to windward as well as their downwind sled capabilities. While the slog back can be uncomfortable, it is tactically and physically challenging and has the advantage of finishing the race at or near one’s home port without the need to feed and house crew in Cabo or Puerto Vallarta, or pay for a delivery crew to get the boat home, often several weeks later.
I tried to do the race singlehanded two years ago in Tenacity, our J/133, but had to drop out when I lost my autopilot and electronics about halfway down to the island. I was looking forward to doing it this year before my advancing age began to take a bigger toll.
Race Prep: I blew out the top of my mainsail in heavy winds in PSSA’s 130 mile Bishop Rock race in late February so I had to frantically look for a replacement in time for this race. I fortunately found an old J/133 main that had been donated to Orange Coast College which I had modified for Tenacity in time for this race. I also broke the end fitting on my whisker pole so I had to spend half a day repairing that as well. Finally, my alternator/regulator also failed so I had to pull it out and have it tested. I then had to buy, install and test a new regulator. All this took a couple more days. With all the other pre-race preparations, it was a hectic time for me, but I got it done in time for the start. At times it seemed a lot simpler to just not do the race.
Race Motives – Issues and Demons: My eldest niece asked me why I would undertake such a crazy task, as a 600 mile open ocean singlehanded voyage to and back from a remote Mexican island and wondered if I had “issues” and/or “demons”. While I admitted to having demons, I explained that the solitude of being by myself on the ocean, just me and my boat, soothed those demons and made my land-based “issues” seem trivial. The real issue for me in this race was tenacity; not Tenacity my boat, but my own tenacity. I had dropped out of a couple of our recent longer races, to Begg Rock for lack of wind, and last month from the Bishop Rock race because I’d ripped my mainsail in a rising gale. In Begg Rock the wind had later come up and those who remained had a wonderful broad reach back from the rock in strong winds. In Bishop Rock I later figured out I could have finished the race under reefed jib alone. It turned out to be a classic race with a storm front moving through the fleet with accompanying strong winds and big seas. There is no worse feeling than not finishing a great race and hearing your buddies talk about it. I decided I needed to do a better job of living up to my boat’s name.
I wanted to do this race not only to test my own tenacity, but also because it could be my last opportunity to prove I was a true bluewater singlehanded sailor, a lifelong dream of mine. I have done a lot of crewed racing on Tenacity, including a Mexico race, and my wife Robin and I had cruised to the South Pacific and back on our old 28 foot wooden Eldridge-McInnis Samurai sloop back in the early 70s. However, my only singlehanded experience had been limited to day and overnight sails (once to San Miguel Island in my old Hobie 33), as well as overnight races with PSSA in Tenacity. The Guadalupe Island Race, 600 miles down and upwind, would be a true, multiday bluewater test for an aspiring but aging singlehanded sailor.
Friday, March 26 – Day 1: The race started at 3pm so most of the morning and early afternoon was filled with last minute tasks. My start was conservative. It looked like a close reach to the west end of Catalina Island so I stayed on starboard tack. This proved wise and I fetched West End in 4 hours. The wind held at about 12-18 knots from the northwest through the night and I was well south of San Clemente Island by dawn Saturday, about 110 miles south of the start line, averaging about 7.5 knots. If that pace held, I would round Guadalupe Island by dawn the next day, Sunday. This seemed important as a storm front was forecast to move through the following Tuesday or Wednesday.
I had settled into a sleep routine of 20 minute naps controlled by alarm timers when I was close to land or other boats, and longer periods of up to an hour or two when clear of land and traffic. For a singlehander, keeping up on your sleep is critical, so frequent napping becomes part of your routine both day and night.
Saturday, March 27 – Day 2: As predicted, the wind veered to the north and became much lighter on Saturday. I felt it was too light and too lumpy to risk flying (and wrapping) the spinnaker so I gybed slowly downwind trying to keep my boat speed up without hurting my VMG. At one point it got so light for a couple of hours that I considered withdrawing from the race, but Tenacity whispered to me, “Not this time boss, this race we’ll finish”. So the wind picked up and we sailed on. By 3pm I’d covered about 149 miles in the first 24 hours, but only about 39 miles since dawn, about a 4 knot average. Not bad for 24 hours, but about 50 miles less than I had hoped for. The wind stayed light through the evening, then about 9pm picked up to about 10 knots for the rest of the night. I made good speed all night with my poled out, high cut, #2 roller furling genoa.
Around 2am, as I settled in for one of my one hour sleep periods, I heard a loud bang and the rattling sound of a piece of hardware hitting the deck. This was not good so I went on deck with lifeline attached to my jack lines and my headlamp on. I found that the shackle holding the tack of the roller furling headsail had come loose which would prevent me from reefing that sail. I managed to lower the sail a foot and found a spare shackle pin which I used to reattach the headsail to the roller furling drum. That was a close call. If it had happened going north in heavier weather, I wouldn’t have been able to reef that sail and getting it down would have been a real challenge with only me aboard.
Sunday, March 28 – Day 3: The wind stayed light through Sunday morning, still from dead astern. I tried various sail combinations and finally settled on the poled out genoa with a light air staysail hoisted in the slot between the genoa and the mail sail.
By now there was a feeling of really being truly alone on the open ocean. The sea was that deep, special blue you never see near land. I was about 100 miles from the coast of Baja, and San Clemente Island to the north and Guadalupe Island to the south were both also about 100 miles away. Hawaii was the nearest land to the west, some 2000 miles to the southwest. This isolation creates a sense of solitude that is hard to find on land – no TV or radio news or talk, no internet or email; no companions; just you and your boat bobbing along in the open ocean, with lots of time to think and reflect while waiting and adjusting for the inevitable changes in the wind and sea.
Occasionally I thought I could hear voices which I knew was impossible. I finally figured out that my increasingly poor hearing was causing my brain to attempt to sort out background noises as possible conversations, so all the squeaks, groans and the wind and sea and other sounds of a vessel under sail were being sorted through as possible voices in the background. Fortunately, I never got to the point that I was answering the voices. After the race, someone told me I what I was hearing was the legendary sirens of the sea. I guess if I had struck up a conversation I might still be out there following the lure of the sirens.
The wind finally picked up around 1pm and I had idyllic sailing conditions the rest of the afternoon. By 3pm, my progress for the second 24 hour period was still only 94 miles, half of what I had hoped for. If the winds had stayed strong as they were the first night of the race, I would have rounded Guadalupe Island before dawn on Sunday. I was running well behind what I had hoped which meant I would not get back to the finish at Catalina Harbor before the predicted lows and fronts came through with their strong winds and bigger seas.
I had great sailing the rest of that afternoon and evening. I cleaned up the boat, retightened that genoa shackle, hoisted the Mexican and U.S. flags as I was now in Mexican waters, took a shower, made a great dinner, opened a bottle of wine and toasted the sunset with a gin and tonic, with plenty of fresh lime to ward off scurvy. It was one of the nicest sailing days in my experience. I felt rested and well prepared for the upcoming long slog north.
Late that afternoon, Guadalupe Island appeared off my port bow at about 47 miles. I intended to go wide of the island so when I gybed toward the south end I would have a favorable and safer broad reach sailing angle. I arrived at a point about 20 miles west of the north end of Guadalupe about 11pm, dropped and stowed the pole and staysail, and gybed about an hour later. I had a fast and windy broad reach to Isla Afuera, a small island we had to round just south of Guadalupe Island, and arrived there at 4am. Rounding the 400 foot high cliffs of Isla Afuera was a spooky experience in the bright moonlight. I could hear the deep bellowing of elephant seals, and a large shark swam slowly past close to my port side. Once in the lee of Guadalupe itself, the wind died but the sea became weirdly turbulent with tiny waves that seemed to be going only up and down.
Monday, March 29 – Day 4: As expected, the wind went light behind the main island and it took me about three hours to get clear of the island into steady winds. I had intended to tack back out to the west when north of the island but the wind was from about 300 degrees magnetic which allowed me to sail due north. The wind stayed strong and favorable throughout the day and Tenacity leaped to the challenge, By 3pm we were about 40 miles north of the island. We had made some 124 miles in the prior 24 hour period. The wind and seas grew steadily stronger and bigger through that afternoon and evening. By 3am we were 110 miles north of Guadalupe Island which was wonderful progress. Unfortunately, by then I had a fully double reefed mainsail and was past my third reef point on my roller furling genoa. The wind was now up to 30 knots and Tenacity was banging into and off of big waves. Water was accumulating on the lee floors and things were coming out of racks and bunks and shelves and falling into th e lee side water. It was impossible to cook so I was eating bread and butter and an occasional banana,. My IPOD and laptop modem ended up in the lee side wet mess, destroying both. Fortunately, I moved my laptop out of danger in time. A small briefcase bounced forward out of my aft bunk into the mess totally soaking a bunch of files.
By this time, it was getting difficult to move about. I would clip on to my lifeline tether as I came up the main hatch. To make a traveler, mainsheet or jib sheet adjustment, I needed to walk or slide along high side using the lee sides of the cockpit seats or back of the cockpit coaming as a foothold due to the high angle of heel. It was near impossible to sit on the leeside to adjust sheets as it was too difficult for me, due to my arthritic knees and shoulders, to get back to the high side, so I got pretty adept at crouching above the lee genoa winch, hanging onto the dodger with one hand while releasing or winching a sheet with the other while standing on the lee side of the cockpit seat or coaming.
The increasing chaos was beginning to make my tired brain worry too much imagining and ruminating over every conceivable possible negative scenario. I couldn’t sleep so I got up and jammed myself into the highly heeled chart table seat and tried to work things out. If the wind increased much more I could fully furl the genoa but had run out of reefing options on my mainsail. It is a difficult sail to get down in normal weather and even double reefed would be a huge handful for me if I needed to drop it in 35 to 40 knots of wind. I decided that if things got too bad in the next few hours I could fall off and head for Ensenada which was about 6 hours away. Or, if things got a lot worse later than day I could head for San Diego.
The 3am weather report was not too negative, so it looked like I still had plenty of options. Besides, Tenacity seemed to be loving these conditions. She had made great progress for us and was handling the weather and big seas well. I decided I was in good hands and went back to my wet bunk and fell asleep for a couple of much needed hours despite the banging and crashing and occasional squirt of salt water in my face from the leaking hatch above my head. Occasionally I would awake, but I could tell from the pitch of the wind sounds in my bunk that the conditions hadn’t worsened.
The lesson in this to me was that I needed to react to fear but learn to control anxiety. It is vital, particularly for singlehander’s, to learn to separate fear from anxiety. Fear is based on an immediate, real problem that requires immediate action. Anxiety is fear of the unknown, or what might happen if things get worse. Anxiety is limited only by the imagination and needs to be addressed and controlled because it can prevent you from functioning and sleeping. A singlehander, isolated from human contact for several days, can easily fall prey to anxiety and dangerously use up his or her reservoir of rest and sleep in pointless worry.
Tuesday, March 30 – Day 5: By dawn that day the wind had moderated to 25 knots. By 1030am the wind had headed me toward the coast and gone lighter so I tacked out to sea toward the west. I decided to stay on that tack all day so if the winds picked up that night I would have an easier time heading north. It was a difficult and slow sailing angle but by 6pm, when I tacked back to the north I had made almost 50 miles of valuable westing. I was now about 100 miles south southwest of the finish line at Catalina Harbor. The winds were down to a comfortable 20 knots and I was getting lifted favorably toward San Clemente Island. I took a sponge bath, brushed my teeth, changed my socks and had a wonderful hot dinner of my wife’s beef stew. Life was looking much better. The end was in sight except for the storm front expected that night.
By 230am I had made 55 miles more progress toward the finish and it looked like I would be able to sail in the lee of San Clemente Island protected from the big seas and strong winds, now a steady 25 knots with higher gusts. About then a Navy warship decided to cross close across my bow after sitting motionless well off my port side for several hours. I turned off the autopilot and headed up to pass astern of him. Unfortunately, the autopilot wouldn’t turn back on so I heaved the boat to on port tack by backing the genoa and went into the stern lazarette with my tools and voltmeter hoping to resurrect the autopilot. My attempts failed but when I emerged from the lazarette, I noticed Tenacity was making 5 knots fore reaching toward the east end of Catalina Island while hove to! So, I went below and got some much needed sleep knowing I was headed roughly in the right direction.
Wednesday, March 31 – Day 6: By dawn I was well rested and started tinkering with the sails and helm and managed to have Tenacity steering herself close hauled toward Catalina. About 1030am I tacked over and had her again steering herself a few minutes later. The winds were strong the rest of that day, 25 knots plus and the seas were large and impressive. After a couple more tacks, I steered the rest of the way, arriving at the finish line off Catalina Head at about 240pm. It took me half an hour to get the double reefed mainsail down and secured then another 45 minutes to get hooked up stern first to a mooring in the inner harbor. I poured myself a stiff gin martini with several olives to ward off scurvy, called my wife and Chuck our race monitor, then made myself a fine breakfast (at 5pm!) of bacon, scalloped potatoes and two eggs over medium. I then took off my gear, downed 4 Ibuprofen for my aches and pains and slept for 11 hours straight. Before dawn I got up for an hour, took some more Ibupr ofen and then when back to bed and slept for three more hours. I fixed the autopilot on Friday and arrived back in Marina del Rey on Saturday. I then spent several hours cleaning up Tenacity who had sailed like the racing filly she is and who deserved to be put to bed dry, clean and warm.
It was a great feeling to finish what proved to be a very challenging race. Two days later I was told I had won the singlehanded class. While good news, competition with my peers was not why I was in that race. I had sailed the Guadalupe Island Race to find tenacity and found she was a good sailing companion. I was also proud of Tenacity my boat, and I think she of me. To quote Whitall Stokes, a fellow singlehanded competitor and friend, we do these races to experience the sea and to test our mettle. Going to sea in the face of bad weather to test and hone our seamanship skills is what our organization, PSSA, is all about. This race proved to be a good test; our skills were well honed, and our mettle found sound.
While we were small by most race standards, we are a close knit and merry group: Chris Welsh and Mark Ivey joined us on Chris’ wonderful, 46 year old, but still fast, Spencer 65, Ragtime, which won first to finish and doublehanded class honors. Eric and Robin Lambert on Runaway, a smaller Spencer 34 took second. Other participants were Frank Ross and Brian Rademaker on the Olsen 30 Prankster, Brian Hobin and Tracee Cummnings on Thriller, a Tartan 10, Rod Percival and Chris Laubach on Rubicon III, a Contessa 33, and finally, my fellow singlehanders, Whitall Stokes on Slacker, also a Tartan 10 and Todd Thibodo on Solace, a Pacific Seacraft 31. These smaller vessels were the real heroes of this race as they took a real pounding. Thriller was buried by one very large wave, then hit by two others which knocked out their autopilot and damaged their tiller. After noticing flexing in one of their bunks, which indicated possible structural damage, Brian and Tracee wisely retired to Ensenada, the closest port. Two other vessels retired during the race and two others withdrew on the day of the start.
We band of brothers and sister who sailed this race together will not soon forget the 2010 Guadalupe Island Race. It was one not to be missed and will be talked of, exaggerated and bragged about by us and others well into our futures.