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The art of knowing when to hoist the iron Jenny

by David Schmidt 4 Dec 08:52 PST December 2, 2017

Sailing in the Pacific Northwest on the waters of Puget Sound is a bit different than racing on many other bodies of water. For starters, we have massive snow-capped volcanoes and mountain ranges virtually ringing the brine, and our hillsides are shrouded with massive evergreen trees, which are fueled by the constant rainclouds that punctuate the otherwise-green roll of the topography and by the brilliant sunshine that streams down from the heavens for at least a month or two each year. Dig deeper and one quickly learns about the summers' big high-pressure systems and the fact that most of our racing is done during the cold, wet months (all ten of them!), as this is when we are blessed with breeze.   At least, that's what the brochures all say.

This past weekend's Winter Vashon Race, which is hosted by the Tacoma Yacht Club, in Tacoma, Washington, was a perfect example of times when the (metaphorical) brochure lied, but when great fun could still be had, provided that one knew how to approach the situation.

As the old song goes, "Once in a while you can get shown the light, in the strangest of places if you look at it right".

Given that the boat lives in Seattle, some 30 miles north of the starting line in Tacoma, our skipper wisely made the decision for an 0445 hours dock call and an 0500 hours departure to allow sufficient time for the delivery across and down Puget Sound before banging a right and pressing through Colvos Passage, which separates Vashon Island from the mainland Kitsap Peninsula.

The morning was dry, inky black, but not terribly cold, especially on the wind chill front (more on that, later), and we made reasonable time motoring into an ebbing tide under a blanket of thick, pregnant-looking clouds. The morning smells of coffee and eggs did their best to combat the bleak message contained in the weather report, which called for max daytime winds of less than five knots and a steady drumbeat of raindrops.

Still, our crew is a close-knit one consisting of many sailors who have been on the boat for more than a decade (if not longer), and it doesn't take much to get the good-time stories rolling and for the jokes to start flying. While we all tell our friends that we sail year-round aboard this boat for the times when Mother Nature delivers numbers north of 20 knots on the fun meter, the simple truth is that friendship and camaraderie are an even more powerful magnetic force on our crew than raw speed (but we sure love that, too!). Simply put, if I'm going to suffer in the rain and cold on Puget Sound, there's no other group of scallywags that I'd rather shiver with than these lads.

Fortunately, the carbon-fiber decks were still dry as Fritz spun the wheel to starboard and the boat's bow found the entrance to Colvos Passage. Up on the bow, my friend Morgan and I searched the glassy, glassy water for the telltale ripples created by errant logs (a byproduct of the logging industry and the region's steep hillsides), but fortunately these hard-to-spot marine mines were absent from our view.

Instead, our horizon contained nothing but the flattest water this sailor has ever seen in Colvos Passage.

The rains found us as we arrived at Tacoma Yacht Club, well early of the starting sequences, and our crew took turns layering-up belowdecks. I've gone on mountaineering trips where significantly less Gore-Tex, fleece, synthetic insulating layers and merino wool was packed per person.

More hot coffee was poured, and soon it was time to hoist sails and get serious about the starting sequence, a proposition that was compounded by the fact that it was, at times, difficult to determine what direction the "wind" was even blowing from (ever seen rain-induced puffs?), given the current's influence over the racecourse.

The RC began their starting sequences, and we soon had our bow pointed back towards Colvos Passage as our trimmers struggled to keep the sails flowing in the thin, thin "airs". Our crew worked to maintain optimal vessel trim, with most of us forward of the shrouds on the foredeck's leeward side, and the game of inches began as all boats worked the currents to link the thin ribbons of breeze.

Time began its pointless march, marked only by the rising numbness in my hands as the rain eventually out-persisted the aging seams on my Gore-Tex ski gloves (one of five pair that I had packed...this wasn't my first dance with this particular race), which occasionally required wringing.

Despite a favorable current, we were within a nautical mile of the starting line when my hands reached that point of discomfort that calls for a fresh set of hand warmers and "the next victims" (e.g., the next set of gloves to be drenched). Hesitant not to break the always-high concentration levels around me, I quietly kept wringing-out my gloves and applying a series of five-minute rules.

Glancing around, I suspected that others might have also been nursing some less-than-ideal rain gear, yet not a single grumble rang out, even as the rain's staccato tempo began increasing its urgency.

I'll be honest: things were getting pretty miserable, even if no one was flinching.

Then, just as it was almost time to go and victimize my second pair of gloves, a call rang out from the helm. "Would anyone mind if I started the engine and lowered the sails?," queried our skipper, himself a veteran of many miserable watches aboard IMOCA 60s, Volvo Open 70s and Classe Minis, not to mention lifetime spent sailing on Puget Sound. A thin-but-quickly-growing chorus of 'no's' rang out (full disclosure: my voice was an early participant in this roll call), and the iron jenny was unceremoniously fired-up, the sails dropped, and many a soaking-wet sailor piled belowdecks for some dry layers (read: fresh victims) and perhaps a nip of something warming.

Soon, the tunes were cranking, laughter was restored, and our VMG reached its best numbers of the day was we enjoyed a tide-assisted push through Colvos Passage.

Then, just as Seattle's skyline began hoving into view, the on-deck crew noticed a thin breeze and the engine RPM were instantly cut to zero as the call for our big kite came down the companionway. Quickly, gears changed from delivery mode to sailing mode, and we were soon seeing speedo numbers approaching seven knots, certainly not fast for this boat or crew, but-given conditions-it sure beat motoring...or worse, "racing".

We all took turns trimming and grinding the kite as different drivers logged practice time. While we were all aware of the racing fleet miles astern, we were also aware of the fact that we were likely enjoying the best breeze on the entire southern stretch of Puget Sound at that exact moment, our kite filled and our crew happy.

Sure, it wasn't the day that any of us expected, but-given the weather report and the unfurling real-world conditions that we were experiencing-this was just fine with our motley crew.

After all, if fun isn't at least part of the equation, what's the point in going sailing with a bunch of your good friends? While I'm certainly not advocating throwing in the towel at the first sign of adversity, I did learn a big lesson this weekend in the fine art of knowing when to hoist the iron jenny.

May the four winds blow you safely home,

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