Springtime is in the air and mother nature loves to throw curveballs. The calendar suggests the weather in Northern California should be switching on foulie weather to shorts and t-shirts. The annual OYRA season opener, a 21 mile jaunt from the Berkeley Flats up through the North Bay and turning right at Point San Pablo is a greatly anticipated downhill jaunt to the warmth of the Napa River and the party ready Vallejo Yacht Club. The nearest holiday is generally Cinco De Mayo, and festivities often resemble a mini version of Ensenada waterborne assault, sombreros, flip flops, and proper beachwear as boats ease down San Pablo Bay with colorful kites capturing the gentle breezes and pulling the fleet in like moths to a flame.
The Mare Island Strait, the final destination is notorious for its sediment capturing abilities, gathering tons of suspended earth particles from three directions, the Sacramento Delta, where water from winter runoff finally slow in the river Napa River mouth's eddy, San Pablo Bay, where the prevailing westerly's constantly agitate the settle mud on the shallows and the Napa River itself, where thousands of acres of exposed soil in the area's vineyards shed their top layers during seasonal downpours. The result is a constant battle for Vallejo's Marina's to keep water under the keels of the boats in their harbor. The Vallejo Yacht Club is scheduled for its next dredging this summer which should put 10' of water below its docks at MLLW. As indicated, it is an ongoing battle for the YC and this year’s silting problems led to a reschedule of the Great Vallejo, moving it up a week, just to provide the most float per boat available.
Saturday's week early start was greeted with mild winds and glorious sun for the schedule 10:00 start. As the 170 plus boats gathered on the Berkeley Circle, the remnants of the previous days front eased and the relaxed completely, forcing race officials to fly the AP for an hour. Depending on where you got your forecast, the day would bring light and variables or a solid NW jumping into the mid to high 20 knot range. At 11:00 there hope for wind increased and the RC started three classes, PHRF 1, 2, and the J-111's.
The three starting classes eeked out gentle march to the weather turning mark in glassy conditions and sought patches of breeze and any remaining flood to assist them up river. The ultra light RP 44 Tai Kuai and Farr 36 Racer X made the most of the ghosting conditions and slid into lead position followed closely by J-111's Aeolus and Madmen. A torturous 55 minute followed for the remaining boats were forced to cool their jets for a second AP followed. For the three fleets already moving, finding wind and favorable current was the deal maker or deal breaker. At times you were golden and making tracks then moments later, a nice ferry wake and your sails collapsed. I would say 'sprinting out to the lead' but it would be a bit of an exaggeration, the lead boats worked their way past Raccoon Straits and into the North Bay where, it appeared, the NW's were beginning to take shape .
A couple miles back, the pennant on the RC boat also began to rustle, perking up the hopes of the remaining 150 or so boats. In the lead, the Farr 40 Racer X and the RP 44 Tai Kuai found the Northeasterly first as it cascaded over the Marin hillsides and onto the bay, the initially gentle breeze grew rapidly as the crews disengaged their leeward side positions and gladly moved to the weather side. We now had a race!!!
As the top boats reached Red Rocks and the San Rafael Bridge somewhere just past noon, PHRF 3 and the Express 37's had just begun approaching the first weather mark. This is where, in normal years, you would set the kite and begin your downhill sleigh ride. Not this year.
The Northwesterly built fast and furious, and crews having rounded that first mark would have to get used to the port rail, because that is where you were going to be for the immediate future. No stripping of layers, no gybes, and for the most part, very little tacking. It would be a tight beat strait to Red Rocks, the San Rafael Bridge the Brothers and Point San Pablo before easing the sheet and the glorious ride to Mare Island! As the first three fleets made their way past The Brothers, it became apparent that kite flying would need to be postponed until a more northerly position was acquired unless you had in your quiver, a ridiculously flat asymmetric to deploy. A number of quick sets were quickly abandoned after rinsing off the decks and the lower half of the kite. By now the winds were gusting into the low 20's, and unless your boat was loaded with talent, another mile or so of prudency was not a bad call.
As the first three fleets exited the Point San Pablo area and spread out in the navigable waters of San Pablo Bay proper, spinouts and roundups notwithstanding, the breeze mellowed into the 15 -20 knot range for the 7-8 nm's towards the Carquinez Straights before compressing and accelerating making for some white knuckle moments leading into the Mar Island Strait. Jennifer Canestra, sailing aboard the J-111 Topsy Turvy provides a bit of insight:
'Overall the trip was great fun. Frustratingly light and fickle winds at the start and then the wind filled in like a light switch. We set the kite again after rounding the brothers, but as the wind built we had to change down to a smaller kite. The A2 was actually doing really well with good speeds. As we completed our last gybe towards the river, the boat broached. I was still on the low side after over-hauling the kite around and the boat disappeared from beneath my feet. I simply went straight through the bottom lifelines and wasn’t able to grab hold of anything in the process. I was wearing a Spinlock Deckvest with Hammar auto-inflation. Since it wasn’t really a ‘splash’ landing, I don’t think I went under far enough to trigger the auto-inflate mechanism, but the manual inflate worked just fine. I heard the crew call for 'Man Overboard' so I just waited calmly as I watched them douse the kite and turn the boat around. The crew executed a textbook maneuver, plucked me out on the first pass and it was all over in less than five minutes. Ohana had front row seats to the action. I went down below to change into some dry clothes and then got back on the rail for the final gusty stretch up the river to VYC. Click here
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