Maybe it was the fear of rounding Race Rocks in the darkness of night with the weather station reporting 35kts! Maybe it was the stories of 50 + miles of motoring back to Victoria because the wind had evaporated and the crew couldn’t take it anymore! Maybe it was the fact that it was a holiday weekend and the end of the school year for my girls! Having participated in the AYC’s Northern Century a couple of times and loved the challenge of tide, currents, light winds, and navigating around the San Juan Archipelago, the out and back nature of Swifsure just didn’t seem like that big of a draw for me …
Guess I am more of a loop tour kind of guy! For some reason none of these conversations came up this year when I realized that I had the urge to do my first Swiftsure. It may have been the fact that my lover was going to be away leaving me with 2 of my three girls and I was compelled to steal 5 days of adventure before having to commit to being a single parent for 10 days!
Due to other obligations and commitments to family, I typically participate in 3 or 4 multihull events and I typically don’t have a “regular crew” if I chose to do other regattas. So, my first order of business was to attempt to find a competent crew. I did what I normally do two weeks before the unexpected regatta, I start letting everyone that I know that I am looking for crew, and preferably someone who has a bit of multihull experience, or at least sailed a hobie cat when they were a teenager. The Swiftsure crew bank on the race website seemed ripe with possibilities, but I was a bit late to that party.
I had lots of great conversations and in the end it came down to a couple of different factors. Was anyone available to help me deliver the boat to Victoria? This would carry extra weight in my determining the proper crew for the adventure ahead. Since it is labelled an international yacht race why not get several different nationalities on board. Jonathon Watson is a Canadian, Cal 20 sailor from the RVYC, works in a ship yard, and having a bit of local knowledge, sounded good. Jack Bucknall was born in Australia, holds a British passport, lives on a Newport 26 and works for a marine supply store. Both gents had a fair amount of enthusiasm, but no multihull experience. While Jack didn’t have any experience sailing at night he wanted to learn. Living on Bainbridge Island he was also a possibility for helping me cross the Strait on Friday. Jon sounded like he could steer the boat so I chose to register 24 hours in front of the deadline with my new found confidence.
Organizing safety gear was the next daunting task. As a first time Swiftsure participant, I was very grateful for the support of our NWMA Commodore Mr. Vince Depillis. Vince advised me to take a deep breathe, relax and set aside an extra 2 grand to outfit the boat. New safety regs for 2015, extra this for that, and that for this had me questioning if it was worth it. What is DSC anyway and why is it important in a radio. My 20 year old Uniden works just fine. A permanent depth sounder? Really? I draw 5 feet and when we see the bottom we tack/gybe or if we are concerned, we pull up the daggerboard/rudder. I’ll spare you the story of obtaining an MMSI number for sailing in US waters versus sailing in International waters and the Commodore will back me up on this one. The ambiguity was a bit confusing, and after about $1550 of new gear purchases, I was as close as I was going to get to “inshore/coastal” legal. I figured I’d plead insanity as the new guy if they questioned why I had a hatchet in my calamity pack, but wait, that’s required. Someone with more experience than I mentioned that if you are in the cabin and the boat flips, you could swim out the open transom and no hatchet is required … there would be none of that!
I launched Aliikai in Everett on Thursday afternoon and made it to Port Townsend for sunset where Jack met me as I entered Point Hudson boat basin. I got the boat tied up and told Jack that I would meet he and his gal Shwnrene at the Siren Pub for a beer and a meal. The introduction went well and after maybe a beverage or two too many, I told Jack I’d see him in the a.m. for the 0800 departure. He called to see what type of coffee I wanted (I was really starting to like this guy) and before I knew it we were following Freda Mae out of the harbour. The sky was sky was overcast and a bit of low level cloud moisture was present as we began to cross the strait with Victoria being our destination.
We were greeted by an ebb tide running into the left over seaway from the previous days blow and so began our journey. Sometimes there is no escaping the washing machine of Salish Sea tidal collisions and luckily, it only lasted an hour or so before we were into smoother water and a building breeze. By the ½ way mark the boat was moving nicely and Jack was enjoying the double digit speed as Aliikai paced the true wind speed on a tight jib reach. It wasn’t long before we were touching 15 kts and flying off some fairly decent sized waves created by the chaos of the Straits massive hydraulic events. Things were getting rather exciting and I was teaching Jack the finer points of apparent wind angles on multihulls. The forecast was not for breeze over 20kts, but we were already there and I was faced with two options … 1) show Jack how we put in a reef, or 2) show him how well the boat does when it is overpowered. We were rapidly approaching the Vancouver shoreline or so it seemed, so I chose the latter, and told Jack to come sit next to me on the windward float and enjoy the ride.
We talked about the “death zone” on multihulls where you go from upwind sailing to downwind sailing, and how we were sqarely “in it”. Jack wanted to know when it’s too much and time to reef and I told him you have to trust the helmsman , since he is ultimately in control. Somehow the conversation to reef early was confused with getting the boat fully powered up. I don’t think these words were very comforting to Jack as we launched off another huge wave and disturbed a raft up of about 500 seabirds that had congregated in the upwelling waters. We saw 17 + on the GPS and before we knew it, the sea smoothed out and the breeze was backing off. Jack had passed the first test and while I believe he got more than he bargained for, I wasn’t sure if he was starting to trust the helmsman or think that I was a crazed speed junky with no concern for others wellbeing!
The next challenge was clearing customs at Raymur Point. Seeing as I am a known avocado smuggler in the USA, and that my WA state lifestyle has me on some sort of watch list when entering Canada, we were instructed to sit tight at the customs dock for further inspection. Turns out, Jack too, draws special attention from border agents – birds of a feather I guess? Knowing that the distractions of the raft up in front of the Empress would have been many, it was good to have some quiet time at the customs dock to make all the final preparations to Aliikai. Having our 3rd as a local, paid off, in that we sent Jon to the skippers meeting seeing as our detention wound up lasting almost 3 hrs. The view of the inner harbour from photos just isn’t the same as experiencing it first-hand. The energy of Swiftsure immediately took hold as we tied up on the inner float adjacent to the sea wall with the 10 other registered multihulls.
I must say that there is nothing like the excitement of owners, skippers, crew, spectators and the general public at large, when it comes to the fanfare that is Swiftsure in Victoria. Lots of smiles, hellos, comparing and contrasting boats, answering questions, friends we have not seen in a while, the making of new friends, and a general sense of all that is great in the world. We checked in with registration and Mark Gumley helped me confirm that the skipper’s meeting was only to remind us that we were going to sail out to Neah Bay from Victoria and return!
We closed up the boat and it was time to head to RVYC for the all multihull dinner that John Green is famous for organizing. What a special touch! I don’t know of any other group of boats that get to have such a special event while at Swiftsure. It is definitely one of the largest single gatherings of multihull sailors in the PNW and what a good time it was. The hospitality of RVYC was amazing and the opportunity to honor each other and learn a bit more about all the boats participating was a special touch. I know my crew appreciated the opportunity to hear from so many other excited multihull sailors and owners. We returned to the inner harbour, took a quick wander around the docks and with the last song being played by the band at the Swiftsure Center, it was time for this skipper to try and get some shut eye. Since I never get to spend as much time on my boat as I would like, I am always happy to sleep aboard, but ear plugs at regattas are required. If the crew is more organized than I am, I am happy to find accommodations with more creature comforts, but …
We left to dock at 0745 for the journey to Clover Point and our 0910 all Multihull Start. The start line was plenty big enough for our 11 boat start. We were somehow 1 minute early for our start, so we did a quick circle and were able to cross the line on port tack close to the committee boat. When the cannon went off, I thought Jon was going to toss the winch handle over board as it startled all of us. With the entire fleet to leeward of us and clear breeze, we were off on our first Swiftsure with Race Rocks as our first destination. We all sailed parallel to the Victoria waterfront till we hit the shore and then tacked towards Race Rocks.
Dragonfly led the way with Freda Mae, Bad Kitty, Blue Lightning and Mail Order Bride (MOB) close at hand. The ebb tide sucked us all through Race Rocks quite nicely in the 15 kt breeze from the WNW. Having never sailed in these waters, we tended to stay in the outbound current lane and felt that there was more pressure along the Vancouver Island shore. We were keeping pace with MOB and tracking with some of the other monohulls we typically sail with. It was a beautiful day to sail out the Strait with good breeze and an ebb tide to help us along our way.
We hung up a jib sheet on one of our tacks and in the excitement to sort it out, our dagger board downhaul was released. It took us a while to realize that we just weren’t going to weather as we had been. I thought that maybe we didn’t have enough power to punch through the chop that was developing with the outgoing tide and the opposing 15 kt breeze. Why were we having such a difficult time pointing with boats that we normally hold our own with? Freda Mae was ahead and to weather, Mail Order Bride to leeward and ahead with a fair amount of separation between the two when we split the difference and set up for a long starboard fetch towards the WA shore. Why are we going sideways? You would think it would be such a simple solution to solve eh? After losing so much ground to leeward, we eventually discovered the source of our lateral motion and got the dagger board down. One can only guess that we sailed a good 10 miles in this compromised state and gave up a fair amount of distance. By this time we were directly astern of Mail Order Bride by a couple of miles.
While we never had to alter course for any commercial traffic, I was happy to have a new radio that not only had DSC, but AIS and GPS as well. It is quite an organized effort to keep the fleet updated as to inbound and outbound commercial traffic. As a first timer, it is also of interest to note how well the RC keeps track of who’s who, on what course, and whether you are in bound or outbound and were you are in reference to completing a ¼, ½, ¾ or the complete distance of the course you are on.
The sun slowly started to disappear behind the cloud bank as we continued across to the WA shore and the cooling effect of the North Pacific was starting to take effect. We all put on an extra layer, had a drink and some food, and settled in for the next phase of the race. The ebb was slowing down and the mellow ocean rollers were starting to dominate the sea state. At one point I looked down to leeward and saw what I thought was a large dead head, but when it disappeared below the surface, I realized that it was the greenish barnacled snout of a large humpback whale. At the same time I realized that the two 31s Dream Chaser and Sauterelle were to leeward of us as we approached the WA shore. We started tacking up the shore toward the turning mark at Neah Bay as the breeze was beginning to fade. Mail Order Bride was on the offshore phase of her approach and we were just in the process of tacking back out when we hooked into a large port tack lift that had us pointing right at the turning mark. We eventually sailed out of it, but not before it allowed us to cut our distance in ½ with MOB and double our distance from the chasing 31s.
We rounded the naval vessel that is the turning mark in Neah Bay at 1700 hrs and reported in. We gybed onto port and set the kite in about 6-8 kts of true wind and headed back for the Vancouver shore where the breeze was reported to be blowing around 20 at Sherringham Point. We were barely making 6 kts and grateful that the flood tide was with us. I told the boys I needed to close my eyes for a few, so I assumed the position on the leeward net just aft of the cross beam and took a 15 minute power nap. Knowing that the calm was not going to last, I warmed up some soup for the boys and we all fuelled up knowing that as soon as we reached the Vancouver Island shore, we’d be racing again. We checked the tracker so see that Dragonfly was close to finishing followed by Bad Kitty. The two 31Rs were already back in the breeze ahead of us on the Vancouver Island shore, and we could just make out the red and white kite of MOB on the horizon ,as we carried along on port gybe desperate to keep the boat moving.
We saw MOB gybe away from the beach as the pressure slowly started to build one knot at a time as we approached the gorgeous scenery that is the west coast of Vancouver Island. As we neared the beach, we got a little header and the boat started surging towards double digits. We gybed out to stay in the deeper water and flood tide and it seemed that we were off. However, the wind seemed to head us and the pressure subsided a bit. When we gybed back towards the beach our angle was off and a few of the monos that we had passed were back in front of us.
Having a couple of surfers aboard I got to learn about some of the more popular surf breaks in and around the strait with Jordan River being one of them, about 6 miles west of Sherringham Pt. It was close to 2000 hrs and Sherringham Point was reporting 23 kts of breeze and Race Rocks about the same. The boys mentioned a reef, but if this was 23 kts with the boating reaching along at 15 kts as we passed Sherringham, I couldn’t have been happier. I asked Jack if beam reaching with the kite was a bit more comfortable that tight reaching with the jib? He smiled as the boat sailed along easily in the rolling ocean swells with was no concern of being overpowered yet (Aliikai has a rig almost as tall as the 31R’s so 20 kts downwind tends to be reef time for us).
Somewhere after Sherringham Point we headed out into the Strait on starboard gybe and went for a long blasting reach till we could gybe back towards Race Rock. With none of us having sailed through Race Rocks before, let alone at night with the kite up, there was a bit of apprehension on the part of all of us. I could see the white flashing light of Race Rocks and was trying to ascertain whether to go to weather of it and through the Race or stay outside where there was room to run if the breeze blew up when we arrived. We were still fully powered up with a full main hitting 18 kts, but in no danger of stuffing a bow. One comment was that the light was still 6 miles off, and my reply was that we’ll be there before we know it as the GPS read a steady 16 + kts. Still without a clear picture and things getting dark quickly, we raised the jib and doused the kite to navigate through Race Rocks. We gave up a bit of speed, but at this point the crew was happy to slow the boat down and regroup as we slid forward on the ebb tide that was just beginning to push through the nozzle between Race Rocks and the shoreline.
While there were still some strong puffs moving across the deck, the 2 31R’s and MOB were ahead of us somewhere or already finished with only 10 miles to go, and I wanted to get the boat back up to speed. With the wind aft we had to relaunch the kite, but the crew was a bit hesitant, so I compromised with the skreecher. We could see stern lights in front of us and nav lights behind us amidst all the bright lights of the Victoria shore line. Our angle for the finish line was terrible so we heated it up a bit and would gybe when we hit the shore to cross the finish line. The radio chatter with the race committee was overwhelming as it appeared there were boats from all 4 long courses converging on the finish line in a lightening breeze.
We finished our 1st Swiftsure Cape Flattery course a few minutes after 2300 hrs in just under 14 hours .. The accomplishment didn’t really hit us until later. We slowly made our way to the inspection dock which was anti-climactic, for all the angst it created in prepping for the race. Hot soup upon arrival was a lovely touch and much appreciated by all! When we parked up for the night, I couldn’t help feeling a bit sad to know that all the other multi’s who had finished ahead of us were cleaned up and put away for the evening. How much earlier had they finished in front of us? While I wasn’t so interested in how we finished, I was just excited that we had finished and wanted to share in all the adventure that we had all just taken in. Eventually the other 31’s made their way to the dock. I thoroughly enjoyed the late night /early morning camaraderie that took place with every sailor you walked by who had a big smile on their face and a story to tell! Thanks John and Cam for your post-race hospitality. Eventually the day’s activities overwhelmed me and I succumbed to the exhaustion that was telling me it was time to get horizontal.
I chose to stick around on Sunday and have a proper end of our 1st Swiftsure celebration with my crew before heading south for home. We spent a glorious day in Victoria celebrating our accomplishment. When we eventually did look at the results, it was icing on the cake!
I would like to thank the Swiftsure organizing committee for running an outstanding event and John Greene for hosting a fabulous Multihull gathering at RVYC. My crew of Jon Watson and Jack Bucknall, thanks for joining me aboard Aliikai for what was a very successful 1st Swiftsure for all of us. Happy summer to all and hope to see you and more at the PNW Multihull Championships at the Cowitchan Bay Regatta the first weekend of August!
Douggie B – NWMA Fleet Capt
F28R # 49