cactus and vipers

race report

cactus and vipers

Three years ago I was participating in the Leukemia Lymphoma Society Fantasy Sail in San Diego and I met some sailors from Arizona. Having done a large part of my sailing on a river, I was struck by the idea of sailing in the desert. This year, upon realizing that Phoenix is a mere six hour drive away, I decided that I would head out to the Arizona Yacht Club‘s big regatta to see what it was all about.

I arrived at the Pleasant Harbor Marina and RV Resort at Lake Pleasant which was not only where the regatta was being held, but was also where we would be staying for the duration of the event. My arrival happened to coincide with the start of the evening’s festivities (funny how that worked out, almost like it was planned). I can’t imagine what the RV crowd was thinking about the rowdy group of sailors carousing until all hours across the street. To say there was a serious potential for culture clash is a point that was put into specific relief when I went to use the shower and passed by the packed RV "community room" and was treated to a rousing karaoke rendition of "How Much is that Doggy in the Window".

The wind, which had been pretty amazing when I arrived, actually increased overnight and several of the boats had to be rescued as they had been blown off onto the street. Luckily, two things went right: there were still sailors up roaming around at 3am who were able to return and secure the boats, and the wind was not blowing toward the party tent or the 27′ trimaran that was left without chocks to hold it in place would have become the surprise guest at breakfast.

By the morning, the wind was back to manageable levels and the skippers’ meeting went off under chilly, crystal clear conditions. There is something to be said for sleeping within walking distance of the racecourse, certainly better than having to get up early and drive to a regatta. I was introduced to the PRO who turned out to be someone from Mission Bay Yacht Club here in San Diego. She is married to another PRO who had been my chase boat driver for an event last year. My "chase boat" for this regatta was a 20′ pontoon boat which was a first. There was absolutely no danger of us outrunning anything but we did manage to get around the course and position ourselves in good spots for shooting the various fleets (Buccaneers, Vipers, Catalina 22s, Multihulls, PHRF spin, PHRF non spin, and Portsmouth).

Initially, it was mildly disconcerting to be shooting photos of sailing with hills covered in cacti in the background. It seemed unnatural. Just as I was getting over the cactus factor, I was treated to one of the more bizarre things I have seen in sailing. At around midday on Lake Pleasant, the wind changes direction from a northerly to a southerly breeze. This directional shift is not abnormal, most sailing venues have something similar. On Lake Pleasant, however, this change happens so rapidly that it is not uncommon to have spinnakers coming at you from both ends of the race course at the same time. Or to put it another way, there are two windward marks. I also learned that the level of the lake (which is man made) actually drops 100 feet (about 50% of the depth) over the summer as water is released to generate electricity and the marinas actually move out into the lake with the water. The whole process is reversed in the fall and winter as they fill the lake back up again.

After a long day on the water, we were treated to a presentation by Maureen McKinnon-Tucker, a paralympic gold medalist in sailing in Beijing. A long time sailor, Maureen was out walking one day when she slipped and damaged her spinal cord which resulted in her becoming a paraplegic. After several years away from the sport, she was introduced to some other disabled sailors who were training for the Olympics and slowly but surely she got sucked back in. She met a sailor named Nick Scandone who was battling ALS and together they secured a berth on the US paralympic sailing team to go to Beijing. While she was training, Maureen’s 2 year old son was diagnosed with a rare brain cancer. The day he finished his treatment was the same day she got on the plane to go to China. Maureen and Nick put in such a dominant performance in their regatta that by the time the last race came around they had clinched the gold medal even if they sat out the last race. Maureen’s story is the kind of thing that if pitched to a hollywood studio, would be turned down because it was just too perfect a story arc with tragedy, adversity piled on top of difficulty, a potentially catastrophic twist that threw the entire endeavor into doubt, perseverance, and a transcendent moment of triumph. I also got within two feet of an actual Olympic Gold Medal and, in spite of Maureen’s earnest attempt to get everyone to take a turn with it, I was petrified that I would be the one to drop it and break the jade inlay.

Sunday was brutal. Because the Viper class had designated the Birthday Regatta as their midwinters, there were a number of out of town boats who wanted to make planes or drives home so the first start for the day was at 9:00am which meant that the race committee, and the photographer who was riding with the race committee, were expected to meet at the tent at 6:00am. In addition to the injury of having to wake up at 5:30am, insult was added when the race organizer realized that we couldn’t actually leave the dock until the sun came up so we stood around for an hour and a bit waiting for the first glow of light to show over the horizon. After a bit of racing in the morning, the wind pretty much died and boats began drifting past one another and yelling things like "If you retire, I’ll retire!" eventually the race committee called it a day and we headed back to the tent. While the scores were being sorted out, anyone who was interested was treated to the spectacle of one Viper trailer being lifted onto another Viper trailer with a very well engineered but homemade piggy back system so that two boats with their trailers could be towed back to Texas by one truck.

After about an hour, awards were handed out, people started driving away, a few group photos were taken, and I was in the car back to San Diego by 2:00pm. It may not have been classic yachts or insane 21st century America’s Cup multihulls, but this regatta more than made up for it with some odd scenery, great parties, and really fun people. Definitely going on the calendar for next year. View the entire photo gallery here. – Peter Howson.