Stu Johnstone goes for another boat ride with Dr. Laura, and lives to tell the tale…
The forecast for this year’s Santa Barbara to King Harbor 80nm race was a bit challenging, if not forbidding, for the 93 entries in this year’s race. In fact, the weather forecast created a somewhat gloomy outlook on what is regarded as one of the best mid-summer offshore races all year long on the Southern California sailing calendar. There was talk amongst a number of crews on the smaller boats that if Anacapa Island was not reached by sunset, it was perhaps time to consider the “iron genny” option and simply head for home. For veterans of 20+ SB-KH races, the prospect of rounding in the lee of Anacapa at night (which can be either a 30 minute scenic tour or 3 1/2 hours of drifting hell) was not to be taken lightly.
What this scenario could lead to was sailing’s version of torture- a mind-numbing exercise of staring at sails and red-lit instruments far too long, fueled by too much Red Bull, leading to hallucinations of “heffalumps & woozles” (pink & green Dr Seuss elephants) crossing the horizon in front of you due to lack of sleep for 24+ hours. In other words, drifting across Santa Barbara Channel to Point Dume that would lead to drifting across Santa Monica Bay in 0-3 kt whispers of wind towards the towering cape of Palos Verdes that might take until noon the next day! Sailing a proverbial “glass out” all night long was not appealing to many.
While most years the starts can often have light airs for the first few miles headed to Anacapa Island about 25nm offshore at a 140 degree course, the breeze often picks up quickly and with 15nm or so to go to that first turning mark, winds seem to have a habit of whistling down the northern side of Santa Cruz Island and blow from 15 to 20 kts and, in some instances, 20-30 kts! Conventional wisdom for the race seems to be sail rhumbline to Anacapa, then choose an “inshore” course in the island’s lee if light or an “offshore” course (1-2nm) if breezy.
Once clear of the island, shoot straight across to Pt Dume on port tack for 32nm at 80 degrees, gybe once onto starboard, then head straight for King Harbor for 22nm at 100 degrees. There are some variations on the strategies, of course, like head right towards KH after rounding Anacapa, or gybe back in under Pt Dume to Malibu for localized “point acceleration” of the breeze, or simply gybe on the lifts from Pt Dume to KH for 22nm and hope no one in either corner (LAX Airport beach to the East or Catalina Island wind bend to the South) blows past you.
This year’s sleigh-ride was on-board Dr Laura’s latest, the J/88 she named “CRAZY 88”. For many of you not “in the know” about some of SoCal’s cast of characters that sail offshore, Dr Laura may be one of the most interesting and enigmatic personalities of the California offshore fraternity. While renowned on public talk-show radio (right-wing, homophobic, anti-choice, Schlessinger is an out-of-touch relic of an era that is thankfully rapidly fading into the past. – ed) to her fans across America as simply “Dr Laura” sailors in SoCal simply know her as “Doc”.
Doc has learned to love sailing as an outlet for her competitive drive- for her it’s therapy. It’s the thrill of sailing as a team member with a good crew and her passion to succeed combined with her fierce determination enables her to drive for hours on end at a remarkably high level.
Given the fact that her offshore skills have been strongly tested in big boats (J/145, J/125, Kernan 47, etc), Doc was looking forward to sailing her tiller-steered J/88 in its first SB-KH Race. Amazingly enough, she was worried that the boat might not be big enough, and fast enough, to finish by midnight (I think she was worried she might turn into a pumpkin and have to go to sleep!). Nevertheless, as her crew assembled before the start of the race (Wendell Liljedahl, Sam Solhaug, Julia Langford & Stu J) on the Santa Barbara YC docks, it was apparent the various weather models might be a bit “off”.
Prior to the start, every forecast (NOAA NAM/GFS, Sailflow’s proprietary models, Europe’s ECMWF, and even Clearpoint Weather’s highly accurate 1nm/ 5nm models was showing a “micro-Low” forming over the Channel Islands early Friday Am and moving south-southeast and consuming all winds in the area like a giant vacuum cleaner (despite showing very strong offshore flows from the Pacific High just 15-20nm offshore). Based on those forecasts, some boats even dropped out beforehand. Nevertheless, the majority of the fleet headed off into the unknown, prepared to sail like lemmings into the abyss (the starting line) towards Anacapa and into the proverbial Twilight Zone (the gap in the Channel Islands formed between the enormous Santa Cruz Island and Anacapa Island itself).
By the time that Doc’s J/88 CRAZY 88 took off at 12:15 pm, the winds had not changed much, necessitating the use of the LM1 jib for maneuvering at the start with a Code Zero ready to roll. A Beneteau 40.7 was in our midst on the wrong side of the starting line yelling “starboard” at everyone (they were supposed to be on the “left” side). Such is life sailing PHRF.
With a great start near the starboard pin, Doc focused hard to sail fast and maintain clear air. Less than 5nm after the start, the breeze kept accelerating in velocity from the WSW and we managed to lead our class boat-for-boat for about an hour. Soon, one of the primary competitors that was clawing well to windward of rhumbline, a Tartan 101 called Mistral, set their Code Zero and rolled over us before we set our own C0 flying. Nevertheless, after another hour of sailing in a very slowly building westerly, they faded off into seeming oblivion to leeward, at one point bearing 90 degrees to leeward of us while we sailed with a C0 and staysail at 110 TWA doing 6.5kts in just 7.0kts TWS— an apparent wind machine the J/88 is!
Fast forward to the approach into the Anacapa turning point, and so far, so good on relative fleet position. All things were good on crew comfort, especially Doc’s home-made PB&J’s (peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for the uninitiated) using potato bread— the best combo ever!
Meanwhile, the Mistral boys way off to leeward practicing the “zero-to-hero” strategy looked like their gamble might pay off. Unusually, the breeze did not keep accelerating on the approaches to the Anacapa turning point, puffs never seemed to climb above 15 kts TWS. It was fantastic conditions for the J/88 as with our A1 chute and staysail flying we were surfing off wavetops at up to 10-12 kts consistently and giving the J/120 headaches just in front of us. The “high road” fleet of boats that included the J/105s, J/109s and a host of others in class were feeling the effects of having to bear off using A1/ A2 kites with lower AWS/ AWA and, therefore, much lower relative boatspeeds.
By the time CRAZY 88 hit the Anacapa left turn, Mistral planed across in front of us and was ahead by at least a mile and we were still in the hunt, we hoped, for a top three position in class. While a number of boats around us turned left in under the lee of the island fairly quickly, we rode a long 13-15 kt wind streak about a half mile past the island before gybing. We’d set the A2 “whomper”, a giant PHRF maxi-size chute, and were flying downwind on a favorable headed starboard shift. Once on the other side of the streak, we gybed in the lift and rode it for at least 2-3nm down the backside of the spectacular cliffs of Anacapa before having to head up and maintain speed to “shoot the gap” between the two massive rocks that form Anacapa island. By this stage, we caught the J/120 POLE DANCER and the 1D35 DEJA VU, both inshore under the island in no wind.
As the breeze filled beneath the gap in the island, those two took off. Since we were outside of them, we then settled into a pure VMC/ VMG course scenario keeping the big A2 Max full with staysail flying at around 145 TWA and steadily flying down the large Pacific swells at 8-9.5 kts in a wind that varied from 8-13 kts TWS. We basically felt like we were on a skateboard zipping down the swells and placing the bow where it felt best and fastest.
And so it went for the next 30 odd miles to Pt Dume. The J/120 ultimately pulled away and a bit to leeward by a mile or so. So did the 1D35. That was our world until the fog settled in near Pt Dume. Approaching Pt Dume at dusk, we took one gybe onto starboard and headed back across Santa Monica Bay. We lost track of the blue chute flying on Mistral, we last saw them going left into Malibu and perhaps the beaches of Santa Monica.
The fog was dense enough that all forms of reference from a steering perspective were literally gone. Toss in a quartering swell. No horizon. No sky. No moon. No stars. Yes, a “detox, de-sense chamber” in real life— better than anything imagined by any NSA/ CIA interrogation unit! Just a blanket of darkness enshrouding the boat and only the gloom of the bow lights on the chute and the glow of the red-lit instruments guiding you. Disorientation was easy, next step was a descent into the darkness of Dostoyevskyian madness.
To say that Doc had never been “instrument-rated” may be a bit of an understatement, she had done little steering at night offshore despite years of sailing (remember? Her M.O. was sunrise-to-sunset). Many of you that have done offshore races know that feeling of “hallucinatory tricks” that both your eyes and mind can play on you— a result of physical fatigue as well as intense concentration. Mental relaxation can often help you overcome such situations. Focusing on just steering a basic compass course, Doc managed to lock into a “fast, comfort” mode that was loosely based on the fastest TWA of around 135-145.
The further we clawed our way down towards the finish line at KH, the more the wind kept dropping and the more we kept passing boats that simply lost all ability to keep sailing good VMC/ VMG angles with their spinnakers (many twice our size). Throwing in five gybes in the last two miles, we finally clawed our way around the white flashing light at the harbor entrance, doused the A1 and finished under the LM1 jib not having any idea of how we did. We presumed the worst, of course, because there was no way to track what happened to anyone else.
Doc was elated but somewhat subdued. Glad to have finished the race around 2am, but clearly exhausted. So were the rest of the crew. Wendell having trimmed the chute for most of the 14 hours. Sam and Julia for having executed about 40 gybes nearly flawlessly (no joke, we lost count after 25 gybes) and Stu for frying a few thousand tactical brain circuits along the way. It was an amazing effort. And, it’s fair to say that Doc quickly achieved her “IFR” (instrument-rating) certification in offshore racing!
As we departed KHYC around 2:30am Saturday morning, we discovered that we’d won our class, boat-for-boat and on handicap. Doc’s response? “Thank God, Lew (her husband) won’t kill me now!”, she said cracking a smile. Though her husband Lew doesn’t sail, he supports her passion for sailing with friends and is always happy to know the effort was worthwhile and the crew made it home safely.
The post-mortem? Wow, having buried the 1D35 and the J/120 with less than 12nm to go, why didn’t we simply go for the “zero-to-hero” move and go way south for a “one gybe & in” approach? If only we knew what was happening for breeze just south of us. With no wind sensors in the area, it was a tough gamble to make. We knew at least 90% of the fleet was to our left towards the LA beaches, not offshore. When we saw those two boats disappear behind us going south on starboard tack downwind, it was hard to imagine that more breeze lay south and to leeward of our position. So, we persevered and played every shift we encountered. In the end, the crew of Doc’s J/88 CRAZY 88 were proud of their hard work. But, how did those other two boats beat us in by an hour? The mystery remains and the story to be told another day.
– Stu Johnstone.