James Clappier (a/k/a IshmaelHatesThatDamnWhale) gives us the story behind his third straight handicap victory in the multihull class of the white knuckle Lauderdale to Key West Race. You can see video from the ultra-fast SeaCart 30 here, and catch up on the thread here. Pics from James’ GoPro – anything else would have been doused and destroyed – and results are here.
The leeward ama disappears in whitewater as another puff hits us, and Flight Simulator jumps down the face of a 6-foot breaking wave. I bear away to follow the apparent wind as it shifts forward, the Corsair 28R still accelerating. Slamming into the back of the next wave, the bow wake from the main hull is several times higher than the pulpit and the nav lights put on a Vegas-style fountain light show of red and green. Spray engulfs over half the boat as the akas and folding beams catch the wave tops, adding streaks of bioluminescence to the spectacle. Shaking the water free, the trimaran drops into the next roller, and so continues our sleigh ride. This is why I get up early in the morning to go sailing!
Rolling out of bed at 5 a.m. with a 4-hour drive ahead is never appealing, but 24 ounces of Red Bull later and I’m headed south over the Skyway Bridge. The lure of big breeze, possibly record breaking conditions for the top IRC boats, has me stoked. My ride is the Corsair 28R Flight Simulator, owned by Tom Reese from Youngstown, New York. Rounding out the crew is navigator Richard Stephens, Phil Styne, and myself. I had been on the winning multihull for the last two years and really wanted to pull off a hat trick. In 2009, I raced with Richard on his Corsair 28CC Trevelyan, my first time sailing a multihull bigger than a Hobie 16, and we had a great race. I had chugged my first glass of darkside Kool-Aid and was looking for a refill. The next year I got my chance, sailing on Tom’s C28R with Richard as navigator. It was another year of perfect multihull reaching conditions and we took another first overall in the multihull division.
The sun is rising in my eyes as I speed across Alligator Alley toward Ft. Lauderdale. The blinding light is reenergizing after only 4 hours of sleep. With less than an hour to boat call, I nudge the cruise control up another 5 mph and crank the stereo to help stay awake. I’ve got to be alert, especially with 160 nautical miles of hard running and reaching head of me. The last two years of the race had great conditions and 2011 was shaping up to be even better. The Ft. Lauderdale to Key West Race is one of my favorite overnight distance races. Even at night with a ripping breeze, the water is surprisingly warm, and the promise of cold drinks at the finish is enough to deal with the perpetual taste of salt from flying spray.
Waiting for our start, we hoist the biggest kite for a practice run and compare our speed to the Seacart 30 Sundog. They owe us 108 seconds a mile, which works out to about 4.8 hours corrected for the 160 nm course. It’s a lot of time, but they look fast as the boat accelerated quickly with every puff. The multis start last, and it’s always fun to go ripping past the monohulls. We hit the line slightly ahead of Sundog and closer to the pin, but they heat up and streak ahead. The winds are lighter than forecasted and we’re forced to sail deeper in displacement mode until we find a little more pressure offshore and get the C28R planing. Working to stay in the strongest breeze, we play our angles and gybe on lifts for the best VMG to the Miami Sea Buoy.
By 1530 we are cruising at 13 knots and pass the Class 40 near the Miami Sea Buoy. The wind and waves have built nicely, with 20 knots from the northeast and 4-6 foot rollers. Flight Simulator is effortlessly hitting 15 knots while surfing and 13 knots is beginning to feel slow. The leeward ama is on the verge of submarining and spray from the aka support beams shoots through the tramp. After a few hours of trimming, I am relieved to go take a nap below decks. I pass out in full foulies; the wet ride has only just begun.
As the sun sets, we are in the company of the much larger IRC boats. After trading gybes with Vela Veloce a few times, the course allows us to heat up a bit to the next mark and we charge ahead into darkness. The wind is now gusting to over 25 knots and the waves have started to break. It’s my turn to drive and the moment I’ve been waiting for. I haven’t steered a boat at night since Pacific Cup, but everything comes flooding back within minutes. Flight Simulator is totally lit up and the waves are now more like a whoops section. Even near the edge, the C28R inspires confidence and lets you try to push a little harder.
Sliding down the face of an unusually large set wave, I stuff the leeward ama and center hull hard into the trough and the port half of the boat is covered in whitewater. The rudder only half ventilates and a quick wiggle of the tiller reattaches flow. All I have to drive off is the luff of the kite, compass, weather helm and angle of heel. Heavy spray now constantly shrouds the leeward ama and the occasional blast of water to the face from the akas keeps me on my toes. I can tell we’re hauling ass by the sheer amount of water flying over the boat and Richard confirms my suspicions. I have the new top speed of the race, just over 20 knots. Not bad for a trailerable 28 footer!
By now it 2030 and we’re on the limit of holding the spinnaker to the next mark, time to change to the screecher. The sail change goes smoothly, but I feel slightly underpowered. We decided to hold off on resetting a kite for 5 minutes, and when the next puff hits, our instincts prove correct. The screecher and full main are the perfect sail combination; Flight Simulator screams through the night, but back under control.
The wind ratcheted up another notch, the screecher feeling like the spinnaker a short time before. We downshifted a gear, hoisting the jib and furling and dropping the screecher. But that quickly turned into a wrestling match, the 2:1 halyard so twisted it seemed like someone had spun it in a drill. I had to pull it completely through the clutch and deck organizer before I could get all the assholes out of the line. With this complete we were able to get it lashed on deck, but there was still massive amounts of friction on the halyard. With my turn off watch, I ducked below decks to get another hour of sleep.
At 22:30, I was woken up to help reef the main. The angle to the next mark had us sailing on a beam reach, right in a multihull’s zone of death. If you head up to much, the rudder gets lifted out of the water and ventilates and you might spin up and flip. If you head down too much, the leeward ama’s bow might catch and the boat could pitch pole. Bearing away to unload and slow the boat was necessary, but with a reef in the main we could keep more power in it and balance the helm. From this point on, it felt like we were in a wind tunnel with a fire hydrant. I took the mainsheet and sitting all the way aft in the cockpit, began constantly trimming it to help the driver steer. Each blast of wind required a big ease to keep the rudder from ventilating. My turn to drive came again and the boat still felt balanced and fast. The waves had calmed a little as we got in the lee of the Keys and Flight Simulator was holding steady at 15-18 knots. Saltwater spray burns your eyes, but you strain through it, needing all your senses to keep the boat pressed without losing the rudder.
The distant orange glow of Key West had been growing steadily and soon we are preparing for the short beat upwind to the finish line. Ideally, we’d like to put a second reef in the main, but it only has one reef point. Rounding the Key West Sea Buoy, we turn upwind with the main twisted to spill off power, sailing mostly on the jib at 8-9 knots of boat speed. The race committee finishes us at 3:35:29 and greets us with a hearty “Welcome to Key West!” We thank them and begin to put the boat away. It had been a great race and everyone worked together to push the C28R as hard as possible. But how far ahead did the Seacart 30 finish? And what about CatNip, the 35 foot cruising cat we owe 90 seconds a mile?
The next morning we got the results: 6th boat across the line and 1st on corrected in the Multihull Division! This was my third year in a row to do the Ft. Lauderdale to Key West Race on a Corsair trimaran and my fastest and most fun blast down to the Keys. Getting first was really just the icing on the cake. Every year has been better than the last and I hope the race continues to grow. Sailing at night on a reach in big breeze so much more exhilarating than racing windward-leeward courses in daylight. It requires navigation and seamanship, as well as giving crewmembers the opportunity to try positions on the boat they don’t normally fill. I’d like to say thank you to the Race Committee, who are volunteers and stay up all night finishing boats. I hope to see you next year!