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meat is murder

Dragon - 1 (1)Mike “Rail Meat” Hennessy reveals the secret sauce behind being the only overall winner in the short history of SORC’s Miami to Havana Race.  Turns out it’s all about adversity.  Photo of a local taking ‘selfie with dragon and Morro” during the Saturday ‘in-port’ race in Havana Harbor thanks to Mr. Clean, and title thanks to one of the most influential albums in history.  Race chatter here
Just getting to the start line of this race was an epic of Homeric proportions, with canceled flights and snow storms providing me the opportunity to drive from NYC to Charleston in one 13-hour effort last Monday night. Charleston offered one of the first opportunities far enough south of the storm to allow an actual scheduled flight to make it to Miami, and fueled by caffeine and questionable food choices, I made it in time for a 6:30 am departure on Tuesday.  After meeting up the crew, a low key and warm party at the Coral Reef Yacht Club, and then a team dinner I was finally able to get some sleep.
It was a 10 AM start, with winds from the NW in the low teens. We were initially blanketed by Metolius which let Long Bow jump out to a lead in the left lane, but some smart choices about the gybes to get east of Fowey put us back into contention and just behind Simon Says as we started legging it down the reef line.
The first leg of this race is a necessary drag race south, hugging the reef in an effort to keep out of the Gulf Stream to a point around Islamorada where the rhum line then diverges from the coast and heads out across the Florida Straits. In this section we saw the wind build and shift west, necessitating a switch from kite to solent and finally two reefs in the main and the  trinquette (the smaller inner forestay sail) as the wind built into the mid-twenties and far further west than forecast.  We had been playing cat-n-mouse with Long Bow, but they hung onto their kite for a bit too long (wipe outs) then switched to a Code that quickly became too much sail, then had some troubles with their take down all of which let us leg it out on them by a bit.
The first real choice in this race comes at (or somewhat before) Islamorda, deciding when to transition from the drag race of a first leg and into the second leg that takes you across the Stream.  Go east early to get across the Stream and play the weather forecast for a favorable angle in the third leg to the finish?  That worked well for Trebuchet last year when they set the benchmark time.  Or down the rhum line, maximizing your time in current but offering the tempting shortest distance and the likelihood that you cover your competition?  Or stick with the reef, sacrificing distance but minimizing your time in current?  It is this choice that makes this a navigators’ race, and tactically as challenging as any distance race that I have done.  All the marbles, on one decision.
In 2016, we won the race based on unexpected weather.  The forecasts at the start called for a N to NW that would swing to a NE about halfway through that meant the rhum line was favored in the routing models. And that is what the majority of the fleet followed.  But as we approached Islamorada around 7 in the evening, I pulled down fresh weather that showed the shift coming much later than originally forecast, which favored holding the starboard gybe for a much longer period, hugging the reef all the way to Key West and even beyond before gybing over.  The weather allowed for us to stay out of the current, but had that the original forecast held, we would have been forced to make the choice to go down the rhum line.  Instead, we went past Key West before Ashley Perrin called the lay line from 80 miles out and the rest was history.
This year was a different story.  The Tide Tech models and SST (surface temperature) observations pointed to a conventional Gulf Stream that met up with Florida at Key West and offered only a mile or two of relief between the northward column of water to the east and the coral ship breakers to the west.   But we knew something different.  Our participation in the Cuba Cup from Montego Bay to Cuba / Key West in late February pointed to a Stream that was much further south in the Florida Straits, one that was very close the coast of Cuba and with a wide gap of relief between the Stream and the southern keys.  So, on March 12, when Kyle Hubely left Stock Island to deliver Dragon north, he headed straight south out to find the western wall of the Stream.  Almost 40 miles south. Then he turned and followed the western wall until it met up with the Keys just north of Marathon, measuring current every few miles and marking up the chart.  We knew for a fact where we had to hug the rocks, and where we could free out selves from the reef and start to cut the corner without paying a penalty.  All we had to do was see what the weather would allow us to do.  Meanwhile, any boat taking the rhum line or the easterly route would actually see adverse current for almost the entire way across the Straits, never getting the usual relief that comes on the south eastern side of the Stream.   This year’s conditions meant the Stream dictated a course that split the difference between last year’s tactic and the rhum line choice, and then weather and our reconnaissance allowed us to execute with a level of precision that was a distinct advantage.
The weather cooperated beautifully.  The actual winds went west and blew 25 to 28 much of the night which lured much of the fleet into the more physically comfortable ease down the rhum line. Meanwhile, we stuck to our plan and did a very shy reach along the curve of the reef until 1 AM or so when it dropped to high teens / low twenties and allowed us to get into the solent near about the time we reached our mark at Marathon Key where we also could ease off bit-by-bit and follow the western wall of the stream.  That ease gradually took us into the Code then the Kite as the move freed us into reach and then run.  It also traced a gradual curve away from the Keys and towards Cuba, all while maintaining the same board.  By the end of the race, we spent less than 4 hours in the Stream.
A forecasted shift to the NE ultimately did show up, but very late in our final run into Havana and we were able to gybe into port board and then downshift into the solent as it pulled forward.  In total we did two gybes up at Miami, and one gybe down off Havana for a total of three maneuvers.
We sailed right up the channel and dropped the sails as we approached the Customs dock where we saw Simon Says still clearing all the formalities.  When we got to the dock and found out how their quadrant issues allowed us to be right behind them, we got our hopes up.  The J125 Raising Caine did an awesome job and was close on our heels but we owed them very little time and felt pretty comfortable as we put the boat away.  More worrisome was Detroit’s Chico 2, where we owed the 1D35 a ton of time.  As we watched them finish, we ran a quick calc of TOD, and thought that we might have lost to them by about 20 minutes.  It was not until much later when we got a chance to see the TOT results that we found out that we beat them by that same approximate 20 minute margin.  They had a tough crew and raced an excellent course.  If we meet up again, I will be sure not to underestimate them.
It could not have happened without a great crew.  Kyle Hubley is doing a thousands of miles of double handed racing with me on Dragon this year, including this race.  We were joined by Mark Washeim, long-time sailmaker for the beast, as well as Nick Halmos who is the former owner of Cutlass, a sister ship to Dragon that is now First Light (and is for sale).  Rounding out the crew was Jen Edney who put down her camera for once to stand watches and pull various bits of string, and Evan Langford who at 18 has a shared claim to a victory for his very first offshore race.
Hats off to the competition, and a huge thank you to Chris Woolsley and the SORC for hosting what is a tactically challenging and completely excellent race.  They are learning something new each time, and it has and (I am sure) will continue to improve.  The event is on its way to becoming a Classic and if any of you are mulling over a trip south for some warm weather winter sailing and a shot at the podium in 2018, I highly recommend it.  Dragon will be there to defend, and we have no plans of taking anything for granted.