going back, then to the front
John Casey takes us deep into Florida…
Let’s go back, way back, to the beginning of April 2012 for the Miami-Key Largo yacht race. The MKL is a 50-mile drag race starting just off Key Biscayne in Miami, finishing on the west side of Barnes Sound just racing in what is referred to as the ‘inside.’
This year’s installment is not quite like any I’ve ever been a part of. We arrived on Thursday to step the stick on the carbon Marstrom 20 and the jitters of the competitors were already starting to resonate. As I walked around the Miami Yacht Club I overheard conversations of, "this is going to be a crazy year." And, "Is that forecast for real?"
Yes, the forecast was for real…..30 knots in the morning building over the day with squalls. It pretty much spells disaster for the beach cat fleet if we’re stuck in 40+ knot whiteouts with shoals on one side and mangroves on the other.
Since the race started at 8 AM on Saturday morning, we arrived at around 5:30 to get set up. Not many teams were in a hurry to get the rags up, and there were a lot of people milling about checking to see who was actually going to brave the monstrous conditions. On the way to the boat park Bret and I decided we were going to do our normal routine like it was any other day. Since this is basically Bret’s home distance race and he’d never won it, it was mandatory that we give it a shot. Our unirig mainsail was the first to go up. As we went through our preparations, one by one other competitors came up wishing us luck and explaining why they weren’t going to make the trip. I didn’t blame them; it was a nasty day that will be ingrained in my memory until I have one no more.
We pushed off to sail under the bridges to the start with an hour to spare. As we sailed by Miami proper the light of the day bounced grey off the building windows and small puffs rumbled through the streets. When they hit our ‘small’ Landenberger sail in the quiver the boat leaped forward towards the start line beyond Biscayne Bay Bridge. Little did we know that is as far as some boats made it that day.
When we arrived to the start with 15 minutes to spare, it didn’t look too bad out there. The gusts were around 20 and we could see them coming in from Key Biscayne. But what about that low light and dark streaked cloud on the southeast horizon reaching down like the trident of Neptune himself?
We were joined by plenty of more stable monohulls and trimarans, and about half the catamaran fleet, including the other yellow Marstrom 20. We have a competition! As the inevitability neared we decided to start well down on the west side of the line. It was a death reach to the first channel, with shallows on either side. The other Marstrom set up above us and we were off, us with a narrow lead. Right after the start a squall came through with a sprinkle of rain that felt like we were driving through a Love Bug storm with our heads out the window. We decided to take it easy and sit on the deck until the squall passed. "We have a long way to go." we said to each other. Mike Phillips on the other Marstrom had other ideas. When I looked over they were twin stringing absolutely flying. I couldn’t see the yellow of their hulls, only spray, with his crew at the daggerboard and Mike just behind him. I looked over at Bret and he told me don’t even think about trapping out because, "It’s just a matter of time." It’s hard to watch a boat go by and not do anything about it. In the end we made the right decision. Only a few minutes after the start they tomahawked so hard I think I heard the water cry. It was a nasty pitchpole that broke the carbon fiber mast right when it hit the water. I wasn’t looking. Bret told me they flipped and when I looked over I saw the hulls already going inverted with the black curved daggerboards sticking up in the air. It immediately reminded us what could happen out there and we were just as capable of going down the mine as them.
The rain persisted and conditions worsened with squalls ripping across the fleet. I trimmed the main while Bret had the traveler and helm. The Marstrom 20 mainsheet has only so much throw until it’s all the way out, not a lot actually and I was wishing I had more. Luckily the curved traveler track allows for quite a bit of throw for the traveler and we communicated to be sure I always had some throw if a big blaster rolled through. Many did. This 260 lb. catamaran is pretty hard to control in 35+ knots. We couldn’t stop for fear of flipping over backwards so when we ‘heaved too’ we were still going around 15 knots.
While we were on the reach there was a Sprint 750 trimaran closing on us. When we were in the exposed part of the bay the waves were short period and large for the bay. Every time a big one rolled through I had to hike out to flatten the boat out, with the sail eased almost all the way out. In this section the trimaran rolled us. We couldn’t take it. We did feel pretty slow and we were sure our leeward daggerboard was weeded. Soon after they rolled us they decided to drop the jib since their leeward hull was pretty pressed with the mainsail full out. While they dropped the jib I stretched down to the leeward board, pulled it up and put it back down. As soon as I did the boat shot forward with vivacious speed. Clamoring back up to the high side with the wind whistling in my ears and the waves pelting my body I sat just behind the windward board and watched us fly by the trimaran at 27 knots sustained on the GPS. This was the only time ever I’ve had the wind knocked out of me by a wave.
Not long after we couldn’t see the trimaran or any other boat for that matter. Then another squall came. It was complete whiteout. We sat as calm as we could with the 20 foot boat leaping forward with each change in wind strength. It was too dark to see with my glasses on so I took them off. But the rain and spray was too much for my eyes so I put them back on. I did this more than once throughout the day. When the squall subsided I could look around finally. Land wasn’t too far away in front of us which really wasn’t what I wanted to see. That meant we could be on the wrong side of the channel. We found out we were. We did a bear away in 20 knots and I looked down to see a sandy brown color of water, unlike the green-blue of the channel. It was shallow! I jumped down and pulled the leeward board just before the rudders kicked up. It could have been disaster. After the bear away we were pointing west toward the finish and I could see the silhouette of trees on East Arsnicker Island in the distance.
What was more pleasant to see was a very delineated break in the clouds to the west. The end of the squall! I told Bret we didn’t have far to go until we were out of the worst. We could see the rays of sun peeking through the other side. It was really flat so I got on the wire and we shot over the bows of the fleet in the far black distance.
Finally we saw the arc of Card Sound Bridge after we broke free of the clouds hold. We had finally outrun it. As we double trapped toward the bridge we looked behind us at the white cloud with a very dark bottom. It looked like a hand karate chopping the fleet behind us. After the bridge the wind came back up to well over 25 knots but we were used to it by then and flew to the finish on the west side of Card Sound. What a ride! We were just happy to be finished and in one piece. The M20 isn’t really made to sail in conditions like that, so we were pretty happy to make it there first and safe.
Not everyone had as much luck as us, with sailors getting separated from boats and close to carnage. One A-Cat tumbled miles from the skipper through Midnight Pass, and we didn’t see him for hours after we finished. Luckily he made it home okay. There is also the video of a Hobie 16 flipping multiple times in the Multihull Forum.