SHTP Part One – 19 June 2010
It’s a beautiful morning in Tiburon. I wake up around 06:30 after a rather poor night’s sleep on the boat, and walk up to CYC’s beautiful century-old clubhouse for a shave and a long, hot shower, my last for a while. I check the weather and it looks like it’s still blowing in the 30s off the coast. My dad arrives and takes me out to breakfast. I contemplate my plate for a while, thinking about the gale and breaking waves awaiting me outside the Bay, and how I’m going to have to work hard to keep this food down. We return to the boat to find a small crowd on the dock – mom, who’d gone on a last minute shopping trip for me, and aunts, uncle, cousins from the Bay area, here to wish me farewell. Since yesterday there’s also been a steady flow of well-wishers, mostly sailors from the SSS and CYC, walking the docks. Some of them have done the race before and are curious about which route I’m going to sail. Frankly I’m not so sure at this point, and I’m too distracted by the rush of last-minute preparations and the thought of surviving the first couple days outside the gate to think much about it. I’ve been planning on reaching as high as comfortable across the gale to get out of it fast, heading a bit south of the rhumbline, and assessing a couple days out to see if I should stick close to the rhumbline or duck further south.
It’s nine o’clock and things are definitely getting frantic in the small marina. We were warned that boats would be towed out whether they were ready or not, and the first tow would be at 09:30. I manage to say goodbye to a couple of the other racers, pull out the sails I’m going to be using (#3 for the start, #4 for outside the gate). 09:30, Hecla is being towed out. Run the sheets, put away the mainsail cover. Ronnie hoists his mainsail and sails out, and everyone in the marina applauds. I cheer him on, envious. Sailing out of your slip for an ocean race is a pretty classy move, and I’d like to sail out, but I’m not ready. (Ronnie later told me he wasn’t ready either, but Don Grey, the owner of Warrior’s Wish, untied his lines, pushed him off and told him something along the lines of “get your main up, you’re sailing out, you pussy!”). I hug my family, and already the CYC’s launch is coming up to me and it’s time to go. One last goodbye, I tell mom not to worry, and we’re off the dock. This time I’m the one the whole marina is cheering on, and I feel like I’m in way over my head.
I get the main up and set the whaler loose, put on the autopilot, and slowly begin to wind down. I have over an hour to my start, and it’s a beautiful morning. For the first time in a year, I don’t feel rushed. This is it, there is nothing more to do, and really nothing more I can do. In an hour I will be starting a 2120-mile singlehanded ocean race. Whether or not I am ready is irrelevant, I am here. Alea jacta est.
I set about to explore the starting area. There is a sharp wind gradient – it is blowing 12 knots or so by Angel Island, perhaps 8 knots at the pin end of the line, and markedly less close to shore. Out on the Bay I can see whitecaps, and boats heeled well over. I’m beginning to doubt the wisdom of putting up the #3 for the start, but I want to get ahead as soon as possible, and figure it’s worth the effort of a sail change. I also want to look sharp and powered up for the Latitude 38 photo boat. This is a decision I’ll regret for the next four days…
There is also a strong ebb current flowing through the start area. It will be great to have it carry us out the Golden Gate quickly, but for the time being I’m worried it’ll carry me over the start prematurely. I have a bad memory of a windless Summer Vashon Race where I got carried down the course before ever crossing the start line.
“Transpac Race Committee, good morning, this is Idefix seven four two niner six, checking in.”
“Idefix, SSS Race Committee. Good morning Adrian, and have a great race”.
I never realized an hour could go by so fast. Fenders and mooring lines are stowed. Jib is hoisted and sheeted. The starting area is starting to fill with racers, photo boats, and onlookers. John Denny sails by on his Hobie 33, Por Favor. He will be starting the Pacific Cup in a few weeks, and I socialized with him a bit on the dock in Alameda. I give him a wave. Ronnie sails by, and I yell out “Dude, let’s sail to Hawaii!”. His main is reefed. Good idea. I take a reef.
“This will be the five minute warning for Division A.” A countdown, the gun sounds. I set my race timer, and start positioning myself for the start. At the skipper’s meeting, Bob Johnston, the race committee chair, gave us the “guys, this is a 2000-mile race, don’t be over early” speech, and Ronnie and I have been talking trash and joking about how we’re going to nail that start line. How do I do this again? I haven’t started this boat in a race all winter. I think back to laser racing on Union Bay, and move over to the right side a bit to give myself plenty of room for a starboard tack reach down the line. One minute left. In the excitement of the moment I forgot about the wind gradient and I’m stuck in light air. I’m going to be late. Oh well. The gun sounds, and I drift languidly towards the line. Bandicoot and Taz!! have nailed the start, and are sailing off to Hawai’i. Warrior’s Wish is drifting a couple boat lengths behind me. The under-30 crowd has just been put in its place by the greybeards. Eventually I get a bit more wind and cross the start, about a minute late. Thirty seconds later the boat is heeled over twenty degrees, spray flying, and I’m trying to keep her upright for the photo boat.
This is only my second sail on San Francisco Bay. The first was two days ago when I brought the boat over from Alameda. I’m falling in love with this place. I’d like to bear off and sail around Alcatraz, and Angel Island, and go anchor in a cove somewhere where I can smell the eucalyptus trees, and spend the day watching the Bay and the city. I round a headland and the Golden Gate Bridge comes into view, and the sight of the bridge brings me back to the very obvious task at hand.
The radio crackles. Division B has started. I hadn’t given much thought to the other divisions, since I wasn’t really expecting to do all that well on corrected time, but it would be a major embarrassment for a boat from another start to catch up with me before the Gate, and I tell myself I need to hold them off at least to the Farrallones. The boat is moving through the chop surprisingly well, and I manage to catch up to Taz!!, the smallest boat in our division, before tacking to stay in the center of the channel. No shipping traffic in sight. Race Committee reports an outbound container ship crossing the Gate in an hour and two Japanese Navy Vessels inbound and expected in a few hours. The wind is a steady 18 now, there’s plenty of chop and I’m wishing I had the #4 up. The Olson 30 can handle plenty of wind, but it’s designed to race with 5 or 6 big people hiking on the rail. Sailing her shorthanded means carrying way less sail area than usual to keep her on her feet, unless I’m going downwind.
The boat sails out of the sun and into darkness. We are under the bridge. It’s so high up, it’s as if it weren’t really there. I’m in the center of the span, right where I want to be. Taz!! is not far behind me, and Warrior’s Wish is rounding the headlands, maybe a mile behind. Boats from the other starts are thankfully still out of sight. Only Bandicoot is ahead of me. The cat-rigged boat is showing its prowess in this lumpy beat, and I worry that it will only be faster when we start reaching. Meanwhile, I’ve taken in a reef, but I’m still overpowered, and decide it’s time to switch to the #4. To do a peel, I have to set it up while I’m still on this tack, and a rocky, unfamiliar shore is looming ahead of me. I crawl up to the foredeck and fasten the tack, feed the sail, bend the halyard. The boat plows into a wave and I commune with the ocean. The foredeck of an Olson 30 is a wet place in chop, especially when there is someone’s weight up there! I’m wearing foul weather gear, but I forgot to seal up the wrists and my forearms are damp. Back to the cockpit. Hoist the sail. Tack. Back to the foredeck to douse the old sail. Another wave. This time my foulies had rode up one of my ankles and my boot fills with water. Stuff the sail down the hatch and crawl back to the cockpit. I’m thankful for the handrails I installed on the foredeck and cabintop before the race.
Another tack, the Japanese Navy ships are coming through. No problem, I have time to clear out of the channel. Has it been an hour already? Time is flying by, but I’m so focused on the race and navigating in these unfamiliar surroundings that I’ve completely lost track of it. Behind me, Warrior’s Wish has caught up to Taz!!, and I’m expecting him to do the same to me soon. The Mount Gay 30 is a beautiful machine, with a deep fin & bulb keel, and I expect it to be much better at powering upwind through these waves than my Olson 30. Hopefully the upwind leg will be short. By now, I am thoroughly soaked by waves, the dampness has spread inside my foul weather gear, and I’m getting cold. I kick myself for starting with the #3 and doing a sail change on the foredeck right after the start. I’m 2 hours into a 2-week race and half my cold weather gear is wet.
I spot the first set of channel buoys that mark the passage across the San Francisco Bar. I’ve read about all the dangers of the Bar and know I want to stay in the channel. There is no traffic, so it will be easy, tacking from buoy to buoy. Bandicoot is doing the same ahead. Hecla passes me down the center of the channel, leaping off of waves. I wave to Jeff, wishing I too could be dry and comfy (Jeff later assured me he was neither). I sail past the weather buoy we were warned about in our weather briefing, narrowly miss one of the channel markers, and set off across the Gulf of the Farrallones. I consider easing the sheets and bearing off onto a close reach for a little more speed and comfort, but I know I should get away from the shore as fast as possible, which means staying close hauled for a couple more hours. The steep chop of the Bar is slowly turning into longer ocean swells, which helps a bit, although every third wave or so sends spray all over the boat. The wind is blowing 20 to 25. I go down below to warm up a bit, and decide I might as well change some of my wet clothes out. By the time I’m done, the motion of the cabin has overwhelmed me, and I lean out the companionway hatch and let loose my breakfast into the cockpit. I suddenly feel much better, and lean back into my berth for a rest. This is my first bout of seasickness in over 20 years of sailing.
By the time of the evening check-in, I am close reaching WSW at 7 knots, and have cleared the Farrallones to the South. I am a little nervous about getting the HF radio working, since I’ve only used it a couple times, but manage to make contact with Jeff on Hecla, who will relay our positions to Race Committee for the first few days. The other boats report their positions. I am two miles ahead of Warrior’s Wish, and pleased that I’ve managed to hold off Ronnie for so long. I can see his tall rig in the swell behind me. Bandicoot and Mirage are missing at the check-in, and I’m disappointed, because I’m sure they are doing well and would like to know where they are. I last saw Bandicoot before sunset, to the North of me, slightly ahead. The only boat to report ahead of me is Hecla. I figure this is not a bad start, but I have a rough night ahead. The wind is showing no sign of abating, and neither are the waves. Occasionally one will break on the boat, soaking me and spurting water down the companionway into the leeward berth. I am freezing cold, and my feet are still soaked, since I have no change of boots. I can barely keep any food down, and snack on a cereal bar. I’m having an easier time than the autopilot keeping the boat going straight, so I spend much of the night hand steering, occasionally retiring to the cabin for a short nap. I’m keeping an eye on the faint light that is Warrior’s Wish, and in the pre-dawn darkness, I see him cross behind me, headed straight for Hanalei. Part of me wants to head up to cover Ronnie, but this isn’t a match race, and I know that I would probably lose in a boat-for-boat battle. From talking to Ronnie before the start, I know he’s been considering a rhumbline course. It sounds appealing, but the weather charts seem to indicate the wind will shut down over the whole course, and I’m worried the rhumbline, while shorter, might have less wind overall. I’ve decided to head a little further south, so I can have slightly stronger wind in the middle third of the race, which will help keep the boat surfing. This more southerly course early on also results in a slightly deeper (and thus faster) reach for the first 2 or 3 days.
Read Part Two.