We’ve been spoiled over the past year with Mike “Rail Meat” Hennessy’s lucid and detailed reports – many of them from the water – of racing aboard his Class 40 “Dragon.” Notes from Joe Harris, race organizers, and mid-race interviews with Ryan Breymaier and Ben Poucher may have picked up some of the slack, we certainly missed Mike’s wit and transparency during leg 1 of the Atlantic Cup. Now that he’s back on dry land, Mike explains, in his customarily excellent style. Enjoy. Photo of from onboard leg winner MARE thanks to MCM and Anarchist Ryan O’Grady, with more here. Plenty more news in the thread.
First, my apologies for the radio silence over the past several days. My INMARSAT went down early on Saturday morning and while the Iridium provided a back up for verbal conversations, I had zero access to data. No weather files, no position reports, no Sailing Anarchy! Now I know what Ben and Tim on Icarus feel like in every race…
It was an odd situation for me. The role the weather plays in my own routing decisions cannot be underestimated. Knowing your competition and their own strengths and styles and ultimately, positions on the course, is a huge advantage. Finally, the random scribblings you guys tolerate on Sailing Anarchy often times give me the chance to organize my thoughts and analysis in a way that helps clear my head in the race. None of that was here for this race. Given the navigational choices we made, that was perhaps a lucky break. We were all alone and had no reference point to determine if those choices were paying dividends, which meant that all we could do was sail the boat as fast as we could and hope for the best.
Saturday’s start was off the Charleston Maritime Center, headed South down the city waterfront. The fleet was hard on the wind, and we had to deal with the wash from 14 other boats after our less-than-spectacular start. After getting past the Southern end of the peninsula, we passed a turning mark (Potts Shoal #4 on port) and all of us dug in further to the South to buy some room on our next tack to the East and the harbor exit.
It was here that 40 Degrees’ mast broke. Even as we focused on making up for our start, the sound was like a gunshot. I could not afford more than a quick look, but what I saw was a stick broken above the first spreader, mast and sail over the side and the boat at a halt. The radio chatter pretty quickly confirmed that every one was safe, but it had to be a gutting experience for Peter and Hannah.
The fleet then had to beat out the harbor, dealing with three freighters and very restricted water. The investment in putting distance in to the south paid off as the first beat squeaked us past the thin water around Middle Ground and took us all the way down to Sullivan Island. Then a hitch up to the shores of Fort Sumpter and four quick tacks between two stone jetties that create a 400-yard wide channel extending 1+ mile or so out of Charleston to the ocean.
Clearing the end of the jetties, the fleet fell off to the North, hard on the wind and headed for Cape Hatteras. We put our plan into action at that point, which was a simple one. The forecast called for light air on Sunday, related to the high-pressure system that was moving over the east coast. Those kind of conditions play well to Dragon’s design, but we wanted to be able to use the Gulf Stream to our advantage, getting its 3+ knot push as well as the apparent wind it would create. So right from the start, we knew we wanted to get East. Far East.
Easier said than done! To get there, we were hard pressed on starboard tack under the solent all of Friday night. Most of the fleet opted for a more direct route and footed off for some speed. To compound our challenge we were headed, sending us in towards shore and Wilmington. We eventually tacked out on Saturday morning, as did the rest of the fleet. We crossed tacks with several of the boats, and it was here that we could have taken the easier route and reattached ourselves to the fleet. We thought that would be too much of follow-the-leader, and still believed that we were going to be hit with soft air on Sunday and wanted to get to the stream. So hard on it we went, heading still East. Winds remained NE’lies of 10 to 15 knots in speed.
Thing is, once you decide to head to a Gulf Stream that’s 40 NM offshore, there is no going back. If you try to turn back half way out there, the fleet will have left you for dead. You cannot just half-heartedly try to get there – you have to own it. And own it we did! We practically put up a mailbox and planted petunias in the East. We went so far East, we began to study Russian. In the history of warfare, nations that go that far East (see France and Germany) tend to get their asses handed to them. It was the kind of investment that involves putting your watch, car keys, 401(k) statement, and mortgage on top of the pile of chips — and it was far from a good bet. On Saturday, when I called Mom with an early Mother’s Day call, she could not help herself: She asked me what we were doing DFL. OK, she might have used slightly more polite terms, but she clearly thought her firstborn was displaying less than stellar decision-making.
It wasn’t until Saturday night at 2000 hours that we began to feel good about our longshot bet. We quickly moved from a 0.5 knot adverse current to a positive push, and shortly thereafter, we hit the peak flow within 1.5 NM of where I’d plotted it. We felt like the class nerd who asked the most beautiful girl in school to the prom, and she said yes. With that bit of naviguessing complete, we climbed on a conveyor belt that sent us North – with wings.
Our ‘Saturday Night Special’ of sailing in 10 to 15 knots of breeze in light rollers, still under solent and hard on the wind, lasted well into Sunday evening. We rode the stream up past Cape Hatteras, where we made a conscious decision to exit to the west towards the New Jersey coast, thinking that the sea breezes might still be needed to get us the rest of the way home. Thing was – even after our exit, we were still getting a sizeable push. As a result, we ultimately chose to forego the coast and stay out there. The wind clocked and we flew the Code 5 for about 6 hours. Then it clocked more and we flew the A2 for the rest of the race. That unlikely hot date not only danced all night at prom – she went to the after party with us too.
Ultimately, I found out after the fact that the Gulf Stream vaulted us from DFL to a shot at 5th place. The 5 boats that we were competing with at the front of the pack had only been able to pick up the Stream as they approach Hatteras, but they all made the wise choice to continue riding the stream when they got to Hatteras, even if it meant heading Easterly for a while. On Dragon, however, we had no idea. By Saturday morning I’d lost the Inmarsat, and with it, any ability to download weather or position data. So while we knew that our Gulf Stream run had been fun and productive, we had no idea what it had done for us. What I did know was that it had to have helped, but otherwise we were flying blind.
Monday morning, well north of Hatteras but still in the Stream, we found ourselves about 5 miles behind what we could tell was another Class 40 but had no idea which one. We spent the day chasing what turned out to be SevenStar, with no luck. Meanwhile, unbeknownst to us, Ecole was creeping up on the coast and closing in on us.
The entire drama for 5th place played out in the approach to New York harbor. By the way; what genius decided to name one of the bottom features outside New York harbor the “Fingers” and another feature directly to the east “The Glory Hole”? I’ll wait for another time to share some of the cartographic wordplay we enjoyed with that one.
Ultimately, our situation with SevenStar hinged on the gybe into NYC. We played it very straight, simply sailing to the layline gybing in. In the meantime, SevenStar had preceded our gybe, just outfighting us into the finish line. Ecole, however, used their inside position to take a shorter run up past False Hook, pipping us as well. The sailing through NYC harbor was challenging though very rewarding. Dodging shipping traffic was made all the more “interesting” when we had to deal with a breeze that dropped to 4 knots and filled to 13 knots multiple times, all the while veering through 60 degrees of direction over and over. The distraction of sailing towards one of the worlds most iconic skylines, lit up at night, and passing under the skirts of the Statue of Liberty was something very special. The worst, however, was completely misjudging the finish and swooping for the Manhattan shore right at the Battery powered up in 12 knots under the kite. What could I possibly think would happen if I approached a Western shore with Easterly wind, where the shore had 300 foot cliffs? Chalk that one up to sleep deprivation…I hope. The small pack of spectators were treated to the sight of us drifting over the finish line, using the tide as a substitute for the limp spinnaker hanging from our masthead.
We ended up with seventh. While we fought for fifth, and frankly would have loved first, it is difficult to be too upset at a mid-pack finish in what is a fleet of very well-prepared boats and extremely talented sailors. Even more cool was the ultra-tight finish, and the wide distribution of design talent and age in the top ten finishing boats.
- Mare – a 2011 Manuard design
- Campagne – a 2011 Pogo S2 / Finot design
- Bodacious Dream – a 2011 Farr design
- Gryphon Solo 2 – a 2010 Lombard design
- Eole – a 2010 Lombard design
- Seven Star – a 2006 Pogo 1 / Finot design
- Dragon – a 2008 Owen Clarke design
- Transportation Coherence – a 2006 Nacira design
- Icarus – a 2007 Rodger Martin design
- Initiatives – a 2007 Simon Rogers design
After more than three days of racing, less than 4 hours separated first from tenth. In those three days of racing, positions changed almost constantly between the entire fleet including these top ten boats. Of the top ten, eight designers are represented and six years of design evolution are represented and yet the racing was tight and exciting across the fleet.
If there is another sailing class in the world that provides this kind of diversity, this kind of design longevity, and this kind of exciting racing all in one class…I can’t think of it.
If any of you are in North Cove in NYC or in Newport, please stop by. It is a friendly group with some really cool toys, and you are all welcome to check them out. I will be down in NYC around 5 pm on Tuesday for an hour or two to continue sorting the boat, and then again on Wednesday and Thursday nights for about the same time frame. Friday we are going to be there mid-day and doing the pro-am race in the afternoon. Check in at the Atlantic Cup site (and vote for Dragon!!), check out Dragon’s Facebook page here, and Tweeters, please follow along here.
PS – I would be remiss in not thanking Merf Owen. You could not ask for a better teammate. He works his ass off to make the boat go fast, and approaches any problems with the simple perspective of how to fix it. It was a rare pleasure to get the chance to sail with him again. .