Sure enough, Swiftsure was a blast. Getting the boat ready for the race gave me flashbacks of the pre-Transpac ordeal, but it seems she has the transformation from buoy-racer to ocean-racer down pat now. Matt, Brandon, Jay (sporting a plastic boot over his sprained ankle), Peter and I met at the WAC Thursday afternoon and piled more gear onto the boat
than I ever thought was possible, said farewell to the hundreds of onlookers and well-wishers (well, OK, maybe there were only a couple), and motored the boat off to… Ivar’s on Lake Union. Unfortunately, this idyllic destination had been ravaged by a recent change to the happy-hour menu, so after filling our guts with cheeseburgers and beer, we marooned Peter on the dock, weighed anchor and pushed on to the locks and –beyond– the Sound, whose brackish black waters kissed our hull well past dark. Peter would drive to Victoria and meet up with us there. We motored North for a couple hours and eventually the southerly filled in and we hoisted the chute. After a nice run up Admiralty Inlet, the weather turned fluky: clouds, rain, darkness, sunshine, southerlies, easterlies, northwesterlies… I tried to catch some sleep in the v-berth, but the tacking had me turning circles in the berth like a dog looking for a place to lie. We got in to Victoria in the late morning, cleared customs over the phone and took up our spot in the hive at the foot of the
Empress – Swiftsure Central. The mess of race boats at the dock the day before Swiftsure might be my favorite part of the race. Unfortunately I was too tired and busy to wander around gawking at the competition. First and foremost, we had to get beers & lunch at Garrick’s Head Pub with the Lunch Box crew, where they scared us with stories about how light their boat was, and how heavy the crew. Then there was the briefing for tides (horrific) & weather (howling), during which I fell asleep no less than seven times. Then the official check-in, picking up the Spot transponder, the skipper’s meeting, and an hour spent on the phone with U.S. Customs negotiating the terms of our return home. When I finally got around to taking a nap, I was awakened by none other than Tristan, Idefix‘s former owner. We caught up and I gave him a little tour of the boat (touring an Olson 30 is a pretty quick affair). We posed for our official portrait, which Jennie, Jay’s wife, had come to Victoria to take. Then there was dinner at the Sticky Wicket, and we all settled in for the night, most of us on the boat, and one unlucky soul in a cozy hotel room in the Empress.
Race day dawned beautiful and a lot quieter than the forecast 20-to-30-knots. For a couple hours we got the boat ready for racing and carted off all unnecessary items, sawed the handles off our toothbrushes, and left the dock just as the pandemonium of a hundred boats leaving a small marina all at once began. The wind in the starting area was almost nil, and starters would face a 1.5-kt current. As is typical, the first boats, headed off to Swiftsure Bank, got off easy with the last of the dying breeze, and the Cape Flattery start would have almost no wind. I planned on going for the slightly windier boat end, was about 15 seconds late, and as I ducked the transom of the committee boat, I realized that a 180-ft Navy ship has a much bigger wind shadow than the typical committee boat. Unfortunately, I wasn’t the only one who made this mistake, and we were soon parked in an ever-growing cloud of boats to leeward of the ship. Mercifully the committee realized they couldn’t start the next race with most of the sixty boats still on the line, and the later starts were postponed. Meanwhile, Lunch Box had started smack in the middle of the line, right at the gun, and was halfway to Race Rocks by the time we got enough wind to overcome the current, clear the bow of the committee boat, and get away from the line. The boats towards shore seemed to be getting significant relief from the current, so we reached down to the shore, and after about an hour of playing the fine line between current and wind, we seemed to be in the lead of our pack of boats, 2 or 3 miles behind the dozen or so boats that had gotten a clear start. As we got to Race Rocks, the notorious patch of barely submerged rocks and ripping currents that mark the start of the Strait, we were greeted by a surprisingly mild current, little chop, and a steady 10-12 kt breeze. I was relieved by how benign the conditions were, and since I was pretty tired after being on edge for the last couple hours, I turned over the helm and went down below to try and catch some sleep. Unfortunately, the rest of the crew took their job seriously, hugging the rocks, dry-humping them sometimes, seeking out as much current relief as they could. Waiting to tack ’til they could see not only the flowers on shore, but the mites living on the bees buzzing on the flowers on shore. Then tacking quickly and efficiently, and tacking again, and again, while the poor sailor down below tried to keep up, switching berths to the weather side on every tack. After an hour or so of this I gave up and came back on deck to see we were trading tacks with much faster-rated boats, and keeping up with them quite well. As we were sailing alongside an Olson 40, one of the crew complimented us on our sailing, and we informed him we had a sister ship several miles ahead he might want to talk to as well. I took a spot on the rail and Matt went down below to try and rest. It was quite pleasant up on deck. Instead of 20-30 kts with a 4-ft chop and possible rain, we were looking at 12-15 kts, a 2-ft chop, and beautifully clear sky. The swell of the Pacific could be seen and felt, and we were enjoying some great upwind racing. Eventually some boats started to peel off the pack and head across the Strait to the American shore. After a bit of hemming and hawing and the wind building to 18 with gusts to 20, we switched to the #2 headsail and headed across ourselves. We dodged a couple freighters and by sunset we were resolutely on the American side. The wind shifted to the southwest and abated, so we peeled back to the #1 and pointed the boat straight up the Strait. I have sailed Swiftsure only twice, but both times I’ve enjoyed of the rare sight of a Strait covered in sailboats and lit up by a beautiful sunset.
As the light left us, so did the wind. When we were only a couple miles from the mark, it died almost completely, and we were left fighting the current, watching the lights of boats that had already rounded drifting easily downstream back to Victoria. Thankfully it was dark enough we couldn’t see Lunch Box float by in the opposite direction. We eventually managed to round the mark-boat without hitting any rocks, hoist the chute, and start our own drift home. We decided to cross the Strait while the flood was with us and headed back towards the Canadian shore. We drifted across the shipping lanes like a turtle crossing a freeway in the dark, then things got pretty boring. If someone had been awake on deck, they might have seen Jay sleeping with his forehead on the spinnaker sheet, the tug of the chute as it starts to luff occasionally waking him up so he can trim it. I was asleep over in the lifelines, occasionally waking up to the feel of the hiking stick slipping out of my hand and catching it just in time to keep the boat from luffing up.
I was eventually relieved and managed to get a solid three hours of sleep in the sleeping bag in the quarterberth. The wind was up to a handful of knots in the morning, and we were gliding along under spinnaker a couple miles away from the shoreline. We could see half a dozen boats hugging the shore, and with the binoculars made them out to all be faster rated boats than us: J/109, Farr 30, First 40.7, X-119, Farr 1220, and a trimaran, to name a few. We seemed to be in good position. Behind us a boat with a teal spinnaker was cause for quite a bit of amusement, as it kept losing ground to the pack, and seemed in general to be royally screwed. Matt explained how while I was sleeping, the crew had headed for shore, but seen boats getting stuck in wind holes all night, and opted to stay a couple miles out where the wind was better. The boat with the teal chute had been sailing close by and blundered right into one of the holes, but Matt, Brandon and Peter had been quite attentive and managed to navigate the boat around them.
The wind gradually increased throughout the morning, and by noon we were surfing on 2-ft chop and the remnant of the swell. I made the mistake of not sending us inshore when the wind picked up, and we ended up on a reach from the middle of the Strait to Race Rocks, probably fighting a fair bit of current. The Farr 30 and J/109 took off from the pack of boats we had been shadowing, but we managed to stay ahead of the 40.7 and X-119. The current was with us at Race Rocks and we flew through them going at least 12kts over ground. As we rounded the rocks we kept our eyes peeled for Lunch Box ahead, but she could not be seen. She must have finished an hour ahead of us at least! The X-119 and 40.7 (Dominatrix and Bravo Zulu, respectively) started a series of dueling jibes, and after watching Dominatrix get an edge by steering to the east of the layline, we followed her, only to watch half a dozen boats pass us. This mistake was somewhat tempered by the thought that we would still correct over all of them. Eventually we came within a couple miles of the finish and it was time to hail the Race Committee on the radio. Then, just as we are about to finish, who do we hear but Lunch Box calling in, still minutes away from the line! We all turn around and there they are, in the one place we would never have thought to look for them: behind us! I’m pretty pleased about this new development, and barely notice as we cross the finish line right behind the boat with the teal spinnaker: Penetration, a San Juan 34, which has just beaten us by almost an hour on corrected time. And we thought they were in trouble!
At the inspections dock we see we are also behind a Laser 28, a slower rated boat, which is also in our division to boot. Finally, about an hour after we finish, we see the Pearson Flyer Tenacious, icon of the Seattle sailing scene, come rolling in, to which we owe a boatload of time. We end up with 7th overall, 5th in the “light” class, and 3rd in division. Not bad against a field of 60 boats!
But there is little time for celebration. So naturally we run up to Garrick’s Head with the Lunch Box people to knock back a few beers and hamburgers (sound familiar?), before loading up the boat with all the gear we’d stashed in Peter’s car and passing out for a few hours of well-deserved rest. At 20:00 it’s time to leave, and the forecast for the return trip
is for a 25-35kt gale in the Strait. Out comes the gale gear: thermals, wool sweaters, fleece jackets, foulies, wool socks, fleece socks, gore-tex socks, rubber boots, neoprene gloves, fleece hoods, WYC beanies, life jackets, harnesses, tethers, headlamps, #4 jib, rig up the reef lines, secure the stores, empty the bladders, here we go! Race Rocks is reporting 31 gusting to 37, it’s going to be a wet ride! We follow Lunch Box out of the harbor and into a wild gale, with gusts up to… fifteen knots! Half the crew falls asleep from sheer boredom, and I shake out the reef and pole out the jib. The wind eventually picks up, occasionally hitting the low twenties, but it’s nothing to write home about. There’s some decent waves though, and the sea is aglow with phosphorescence. We dodge a couple cargo ships, Jay gets dunked by a wave and covered in phosphorescent plankton, we pass within a couple boat lengths of Lunch Box in pitch black darkness, and at Admiralty Inlet I turn over the helm and go to bed. The wind eventually dies and we end up motorsailing most of the way through Puget Sound fighting a nasty ebb, before reaching Shilshole at 10:00. The boat is back at the dock on Monday, Memorial Day at 12:00, and I have probably had 15 hours of sleep since Thursday, for 52 hours of sailing. All in all a good weekend, made even better by Peter’s awesome meal preparation! It’s nice to have a ship’s cook to make sure everybody is well fed!