Heineken Regatta: Santa Cruz Mid-winter race
NOTE: Click on the images to see in higher resolution.
THIS WAS OUR PLAN. We would do a series of spaced practices aboard my J42, Songline. The idea was for us to meet once or twice a month right up to the point where everyone would fly off to Saint Martin to do battle in the bareboat racing fleet. Our second practice was scheduled for the weekend of January 5 and 6, and then we would do our first real race by participating in the Santa Cruz Yacht Club’s Mid-winter on January 19.
Preparing for our Practice Race
During the first days of the new year I dropped by the SCYC to fill out a Monterey Bay PHRF form and sign-up for the remaining two mid-winter races. A racer’s club, my fellow members welcomed me back to the racing scene enthusiastically. One more boat on the line meant more fun for everyone. Greg, our club manager, called down to Monterey to get a provisional handicap number and came back with 72. I scanned the fleet rooster. There was no way we were going to be able to sail to that number!
A friend swung around on his bar stool and cast me an evil eye, ”Marc, You’re not going to show up on the line with that big Bruce anchor, solar panels, Bimini, and full dodger, are you?”
Good point! I spent the rest of the week stripping the boat of gear that I had accumulated during six years of cruising. With each trip up the dock, Songline rose another inch out of the water and my garage sank into abysmal chaos.
I monitored the weather as the clock clicked down toward the first weekend practice in January. Things weren’t looking good. Brad, team Boston’s leader, and I traded emails.
Subject: Marine Forecast for Monterey Bay
This looks particularly grim.
Yikes! Not much hope in that forecast. 20-30 ft. seas are really exciting—when you’re watching from the shoreline! Let’s cancel and regroup!
Subject: We Made a Good Call for this Weekend
For those of you on the east coast, we are getting POUNDED by the weather! If you haven’t looked check out the pictures below and you can see a storm almost Hurricane shaped bearing down on us. And the chart of the seas show we are already at the 20-foot swell level! Karen and I are hunkered down at home hoping the house doesn’t get blown away! We decided that even taking a ride over the mountain to watch from the shore is too risky!
Subject: SCYC Mid-winter Race
Last weekend, the water across the harbor entrance was 3 feet! The recent storm and swell was truly extraordinary! The harbor dredge is running all this week and I’m hopeful that they will get the channel open for race day.
Subject: BAD NEWS
I just got a rather cryptic notice (below) from the race committee Chair. Chair has definitely cancelled tomorrow’s midwinter, citing minus tide and increasing swell.
Practice aboard the Starship Enterprise
It was now clear that our January practice schedule was going to be a bust due to bad weather, but team leader Brad was undaunted. A self-confessed “geek”, he proposed that we all meet for a virtual practice session using a new technology called “Telepresence”. I was a little nervous about this one. Brad wrote:
Subject: Team Boston Telepresence Meeting
We are all set for a Telepresence Meeting for Team Boston on Monday, Feb 11 at 6pm EST/3pm PST. I will work with Captain Marc about the agenda. This will be the first time we will have the entire team in one (virtual) location!
I had only the vaguest notion of what I was getting into, but I put together some notes and slides, drove over the hill to San Jose, and showed up at Cisco Systems’ Building 9 at the appointed time.
It was a very Star Trek afternoon. As Brad had promised, it was a very convincing transcontinental crew meeting. I went over the racing rules and crew positions. With that kind of technology, we might be able to sail the Heineken without leaving the room.
Back on the Water at Last
Things came together nicely for February’s first practice. The team members based in Washington D.C. arrived on schedule. The Santa Cruz Harbor entrance was open and the weather for the February Mid-winter race was promising.
At 0900 Saturday, February 16, we commandeered three tables at Aldo’s dockside restaurant. I explained to the crew that, although we wouldn’t be racing with a spinnaker in the Heineken, we would fly one in the mid-winter race because…ah…err…uhm…because all the other boats would fly one? Just call it a sailor’s vanity.
To cover the spinnaker work, I brought along a few ringers: Lalaine on foredeck, Howard in the cockpit, and my first mate, Monica everywhere. That rounded out our crew to a nice crowd of twelve.
I warned everyone that since we had missed our January practices, they should expect the race action to feel very chaotic if not downright insane.
So why do it?
My reasoning was that the team should have at least one chance to experience the heat of action before attempting the Heineken with 100 or more boats competing. Trial by fire was the best we could do under the circumstances. “Tomorrow”, I promised, “We’ll take some time to sort out what happens during the race.” I crossed my fingers behind my back, “Just trust me”.
The Practice Race
The SCYC Mid-winter races consist of two round-the-buoys events. The fleet is a hodgepodge of big and little boats, all very well sailed by Santa Cruz racers. As we entered the starting sequence, I resolved to stand back a bit and let those who had the series at stake take the front row. We snaked our way into position for a starboard start and stood two boat lengths off the line. At the gun, I called out, “We’re racing”, and Karen and Anna cranked in the 150% Genoa.
The swell was big but the water smooth. We tacked to port in 8 to 10 knots of wind and tuned the boat for speed. We were near the back of the fleet but moving well. Maybe Songline could sail to the 72 rating after all. My spirits soared as we settled into racing mode. Brad took up a lee-side driving position. The cold winter breeze funneled through the slot. “Remember”, I chided him, “Shut up and drive the boat.”
Songline points like the devil and we started reeling in some of our competitors. Howard coached the cockpit crew to prepare to tack on the lay line to the weather mark. With so many unknowns among the crew, we played it conservatively and over stood the lay-line by a boat length. We tacked, the foredeck helping the big 150 around, and lined up the mark. I called out, “Okay Lalaine”, you and Mike get the spinnaker ready for a bear-away set.”
When rigged for racing, Songline is a complicated boat—much more so that the bareboat we would be racing in Saint Martin. The strings got pretty tangled on the first beat. Everyone was frantically pulling and stacking lines when all of sudden I heard the voice of an old sailing friend call out. “A LITTLE CLOSE THERE MARC!”
I ducked my head down to leeward and under the big jib. There was Tom Connerly’s Moore 24, Wild Fire. As we rolled him to weather, the little 24-footer was blanketed by our sails and popped up, just missing our rig. I grabbed the wheel and feathered Songline up just in time.
“Sorry, sorry, sorry, Tom”, I yelled. The hairs stood up on the back of my neck! That was almost ugly.
We rounded the mark and went for the hoist. Not surprisingly, we hour-glassed the first set, but the wind was light enough to sort it out. “Sheet and guy IN” I shouted, “Pull down on the foot!” POP! The chute filled in the building breeze. Songline kicked up her heels. (APPLAUSE)
We pulled off the jibe with reasonable aplomb and broad-reached to the leeward mark.
We left what we hoped would be enough time to set up for the next beat. The two-boat circle was open.
“Jib up”, I called.
“Make ready to go to weather”, I hollered.
Then I gave the command to drop the spinnaker and all hell broke lose. The jib halyard had been crossed over the spinnaker halyard and was stuck tight aloft. The chute rotated around to leeward and headed for Capitola Village. Howard yelled, “Marc, follow that chute!”
I grabbed the wheel from Brad and steered the boat after the chute, checking for sea room. Once the situation was stabilized, Howard took the helm and I went to the pointy end of the boat to help sort things out. We dropped and unhitched the jib, unwound the halyard, and got the Spinnaker down.
I looked back and saw the fleet sailing away. “Okay team”, I said, “There’s only one thing worse than finishing last and that’s not finishing at all. Jib up! We’re still racing!”
We made good speed on the second beat and finished the first race DFL. Team Boston had had a good lesson. Racing sailboats is all about not making mistakes. We had made more than our share in the first race and paid the price.
Our second race went better. Since we were committed to a second tier start, we started on port tack and sailed in clear air all the way to the lay-line. The wind had built to over 15 knots by this time and we had a very slow set at the weather mark. But once the chute was up, Songline gave us a thrilling ride. We executed the rest of the race without major mistakes and ended up with a respectable mid-fleet finish. Not bad for a bunch of lubbers.
On Sunday I put a small jib on the roller furler and announced that we were going to settle down and practice the racing basics. We did starts, beats, roundings, and reaches. We practiced sailing downwind without a pole.
Then we practiced reefing and unreefing while maintaining boat speed because that’s the name of the game when sailing a bareboat with a 130% roller-furling jib in Caribbean Tradewinds. Team Boston sailed faster and better than I had yet seen.
We’ve got two more days of driving practice ahead of us and then it’s off to Saint Martin. I’m going to do my best to chronicle our activities on and off the race course while we’re there. I hope you’ll come back to follow Team Boston’s fortunes in the Heineken 2008 Regatta.
TEAM BOSTON BATTLE FLAG