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An interview with Vern Burkhardt about the 2018 Swiftsure International Yacht Race

by David Schmidt 21 May 2018 08:00 PDT May 26, 2018
Racecourse drama ensues at the 2017 Swiftsure International Yacht Race © Jan Anderson

In 2010, not long after I moved to Seattle, I was invited to sail the Swiftsure International Yacht Race aboard John McPhail’s nicely equipped J/160 Jam, and the forecast was calling for breeze and rain as I walked down the dock to the boat, seriously excited for my first local distance race. Neither the event nor its weather forecast disappointed, and we were in fresh breeze almost from the time we left the shelter of Victoria’s Harbor.

Conditions were rough, and by the time we cleared Race Rocks mal de mar had already claimed several of our crewmembers. Fortunately, I had stocked up on seasick meds ahead of time and was feeling fine, a mood that only continued its upwards trajectory when McPhail asked if I’d like to drive. Naturally, I said I didn’t mind!

Flash forward 12-15 hours, and we rounded Swiftsure Bank and headed back for the finishing. While this was a psychological boost to our crew in the cold and damp, I couldn’t help but notice that the westerly breeze that we were short tacking into on the way out had swung 180 degrees, giving us an “opportunity” to continue drilling our upwind skills.

While I remember expressing some surprise at the big wind shift, the rest of the crew was a lot less focused on the lost downhill ride and was instead focused on the fact that we had steady wind and had not been forced to deal with any “park-ups” (yet).

By the time we crossed the finishing line on Sunday evening, our crew was tired, cold and hungry, but we also had the great satisfaction of having sailed one of the West Coast’s classic racecourses in good style and in great company. A great time was had by all, and as a recent transplant from New England, I personally enjoyed a fantastic introduction to Pacific Northwest sailboat racing.

I interviewed Vern Burkhardt, event chairman of the 2018 Swiftsure International Yacht Race, via email, to learn more about this year’s edition of this classic distance race, which kicks off on May 26 from beautiful Victoria, British Columbia.

Can you tell us about the different courses that are offered and the kinds of boats that typically register for each race?

There are lots of options to choose from. Great international competition awaits sailors looking for an overnight race in one of the [race’s] four long courses.

The Inshore Classic is for racers and cruisers who want to participate in Swiftsure in a day race followed by a party at the Royal Victoria Yacht Club.

All of the races start at Clover Point off the Victoria waterfront, with the start boat being HMCS Nanaimo, a Kingston Class vessel supplied by the Royal Canadian Navy. Each of the six starts will be signaled with a gun sounding from HMCS Nanaimo complete with lots of smoke. The Four Long Courses:

Swiftsure Lightship Classic, PHRF and ORC divisions (138.2 nautical miles). From the starting line, leaving a mark at Swiftsure Bank to port, and crossing a finish line across the Victoria Harbor.

Hein Bank, ORC only (118.1nm). From the starting line, leaving a mark at Neah Bay to port, leaving to port the ODAS 46088 (located about five nautical miles bearing approximately 2380 M from Hein Bank, and crossing a finish line across the Victoria Harbor.

Cape Flattery for monohulls and for multihulls, PHRF only (101.9 nm). From the starting line, leaving a mark at Neah Bay to port, and crossing a finish line across the Victoria Harbor.

Juan de Fuca for monohulls and for multihulls, PHRF only (78.7 nm). From a starting line at Clover Point, leaving a mark at Clallam Bay to port, and crossing a finish line across the Victoria Harbor.

Swiftsure Inshore Classic (PHRF only):

Flying Sails

Cruising – flying sails and non-flying sails (you choose if you want to fly a spinnaker)

Legends of Swiftsure (new for 2018) – for boats that haven’t raced in Swiftsure since 2010 and for boats built prior to 1967

Six Metre Class (new for 2018)

The race area for the Inshore Classic will be from the starting line and covering the area from William Head to Trial Island, as far easterly as Beaumont Shoal and northerly to D’Arcy Shoals and Zero Rock, and crossing a finish line located in Cadboro Bay near the Royal Victoria Yacht Club. (The course will depend on the wind and tidal currents on race day.)

How are fleet numbers looking this year, compared to (recent) previous editions?

We are ahead in the number of boats registered compared to the last few years. As of April 4 there were 90 boats registered compared, for example, to 69 last year at the same date. So we are hoping to exceed 200 boats in Swiftsure 2018.

Here in Seattle we’ve seen an influx of fast, modern boats like TP52s and other furiously fast 50-footers and I believe that Vancouver has seen similar fleet additions. How do these newer, faster boats change the job of running the Swiftsure Race?

Swiftsure has always appealed to high-performance fast boats as well as boats with a heavy displacement ratio.

The original course, the Swiftsure Lightship Classic, goes to a turning mark on Swiftsure Bank which is at the mouth of the Strait of Juan de Fuca. This 138.2 NM course is always a fun challenge even for modern sleds like the TP 52s.

Two years ago we introduced the Hein Bank course for boats with an ORC handicap, and many fast boats have chosen this in preference to the Swiftsure Lightship Course. So having newer faster boats has not posed any difficulties for us. It has just added another element of excitement watching these boats race against stiff competition. Boats entered in the Swiftsure Lightship Classic and Hein Bank courses are the first of the six starts, so the majority of heavy displacement boats are not competing with the sleds for clean air at the starting line.

Another way we have dealt with the introduction of smaller “high-performance” boats such as J/120, J/109, J/35 and several other J/Boats, Aerodynes, Olson 30’s, Ross 930’s, and Farr 30’s is to have a Heavy and a Light Class in the Cape Flattery and the Juan de Fuca courses. This helps to ensure any boat has a chance to win.

Weather and tides are obviously king when it comes to racing in the Pacific Northwest, but do you think this influx of newer, faster designs could spell a new course record in the not-so-distant future? Also, how big of an ask is a new Swiftsure course record?

As in any sport, records can and will be broken.

I’ll first talk about monohull boats. Braveheart holds the record for the Swiftsure Lightship Classic course with an elapsed time from start to finish of 15 hours, 8 minutes, 2 seconds in 2007. The second fastest record for this course goes to Coruba, which had an elapsed time of 16 hours, 48 minutes, 52 seconds in 2005. And third fastest is still held by Pyewacket with an elapsed time of 16 hours, 45 minutes, 39 seconds in 1996.

Flash holds the fastest elapsed time record for the Cape Flattery course at 12 hours, 51 minutes, 13 seconds in 2007. Yummy has the record, set in 2005, for the Juan de Fuca course at 9 hours, 18 minutes, 53 seconds.

In the newest course, the Hein Bank, the record is held by Glory with an elapsed time of 11 hours 51 minutes 45 seconds in 2015. Perhaps the fastest elapsed time for each of the three years this course has been raced shows that Swiftsure is always a challenge. Glory had the fastest elapsed time among the fleet in 2016 at 16 hours 4 minutes 51 seconds and again in 2017 racing for 20 hours 22 minutes 8 minutes. Glory’s elapsed time in 2015 was about 58% of its elapsed time in 2017!

Among the multihulls, the record holder for the Swiftsure Lightship Course is held by the late Steve Fossett’s Stars and Stripes, which finished in 14 hours, 35 minutes, 29 seconds. For the Cape Flattery course Dragonfly holds the record at 9 hours 3 minutes. The crew on Dragonfly was hoping to beat their own record in 2015 but missed it with an elapsed time of 9 hours 9 minutes, 1 second. Perhaps in 2018?

For the first time, a foiling 35-foot multihull is registered to race the Cape Flattery course. Duncan Gladman’s Dragon will, no doubt, be a strong candidate to set a course record.

Typically speaking, what are the most challenging bits of each racecourse? Also, why is it always so rough around Race Rocks?

To do justice to your short question would require a long answer, and of course it will vary each year depending on winds and tidal currents.

Typically, but not always, the wind will be quite light race morning and it will be a beat up the Strait of Juan de Fuca and a spinnaker ride home when the westerly fills in on Sunday–for the longer courses, that is.

The first challenge is the start. You need to be aware of a potential reverse current as you get close to Clover Point at the start line. And of course you don’t want to get blanketed by the large Royal Canadian Navy boat which is the start boat, nor do you want to end up squeezed out at the spacer mark, a RHIB which is standing station off the start boat.

The next challenge is to get through Race Passage with favorable current or at least neutral current if possible. Or have sufficient wind to buck the flood tide if you don’t have positive current. If this is not possible, or you think you can’t make it through Race Passage you may choose to go south of the passage but that is always a gamble.

A lot of pre-race planning goes into the question of when to leave the Canadian side of the Strait of Juan de Fuca and beat across to the US side. Wind and tidal current are the key considerations, and perhaps also where your direct competition has decided to go.

After rounding the mark at Neah Bay (Cape Flattery course) or at Swiftsure Bank (Swiftsure Lightship Classic), the usual route is to head home in a relatively direct line keeping in mind that the Strait of Juan de Fuca curves to the left from the perspective of the rounding marks.

I’ve been talking about typical tactics, but perhaps it would be better to say race pre-planning is key.

I mentioned that tidal currents are a key factor in Swiftsure. Dr Richard Dewey, Associate Director of Ocean Networks Canada at the University of Victoria, produces hourly tidal current charts for racers to use for Swiftsure. In fact, he produces five sets of charts that enable racers to use irrespective of which course they are racing. The areas covered are Oak Bay: Victoria to Haro Strait, Juan de Fuca East: Victoria to Race Passage, Juan de Fuca East: Victoria to ODAS 46088, Central Juan de Fuca Strait, and Juan de Fuca Western Entrances. The 2018 charts have been posted on the website under the race-info page (Currents During Race).

I almost forgot; you asked why it is so rough around Race Rocks.

It is due to a venturi effect. Water increases in velocity as it passes through the constriction of Race Passage. So when the wind is blowing against the current in Race Passage, as when we are returning to Victoria under spinnaker with a westerly and it is an ebb tide, we experience rough seas and an increase in wind velocity.

One thing that surprises new racers is that after getting through Race Passage while heading for the finish line we can have a surprising increase in wind velocity a considerable distance east and north of the passage. Unsuspecting boats have rounded up or had a full knock down if they are carrying too much sail. Caution is the key word when going through Race Passage when the current is flowing, and especially when it is current against wind…always a challenge.

Any advice for first-time Swiftsure racers? What about for returning racers?

Arrive in Victoria on Thursday May 24th if you can as we will be having a reception for racers at the Prince of Whales dock in the Victoria Inner Harbour (beside the Ocean Magic vessel). Spinnakers Brewpub and Guesthouse will be hosting racers to beer and we will also be serving Mount Gay Rum Dark and Stormy cocktails.

Also, plan to join in the fun of the Friday May 25th dock party in the Inner Harbor. This will be a first and from 1900 to 2100 [hours] the great Midnights band will be playing from a barge.

And for both first time and returning racers I strongly recommend they attend the free seminar being presented by Mike Turner, World Sailing’s International Judge on Friday May 25 from 1400 to 1500 [hours] at the Distrikt in the Strathcona Hotel, 919 Douglas Street in Victoria (a short walk from the Victoria Inner Harbour). Mike will cover rules around the Swiftsure racecourse. The topics will include: 1. rules and tips at the start line; 2. rules concerning obstructions and calling for water; 3. rules concerning the VTS system; 4. a general forum based on competitor questions

Another bit of advice I would give is sail competitively but be safe. Ensure you are familiar with the Traffic Separation Scheme in the Strait of Juan de Fuca and be aware that there is commercial traffic including freighters and passenger ships. And race boats cannot impede commercial traffic.

Also, ensure you carefully read the Notice of Race applicable to your race (Four Long Courses or Inshore Classic) and read the Sailing Instructions which will be posted on the Race Info page of the website by May 15th. In case racers don’t get an opportunity to read the Sailing Instructions online we will provide each person in charge–the skipper–a copy of these SIs when they check in at Swiftsure Centre.

I recommend that every crewmember read the SIs; don’t just leave it to the skipper and navigator. For example, in the Four Long Courses there are requirements to file reports to the Race Committee when crossing specified longitudes.

Can you tell us about any steps that you and the other event organizers have done to “green-up” the regatta and reduce it’s environmental footprint?

To begin, I think all racers can be proud that they are using green power: the wind.

The Swiftsure Committee strives to reduce our environmental footprint. For example, with 2018 we will carefully assess what we put in skippers’ packages to reduce waste. We encourage our volunteers to commute to the Inner Harbor by public transportation if such is available to them. Even the beer glasses that Spinnakers Brewpub will be using will be made of recyclable materials. Swiftsure and Trotac Marine will give skippers a thermal tumbler to encourage use of a reusable cup.

The Sailing Instructions for 2018 will indicate that no garbage is to be dumped overboard during the race. Swiftsure collects all garbage, recycling what we can, when racers in the Four Long Courses come to the Inspection Dock after they finish the race.

Anything else that you’d like to add, for the record?

The Royal Victoria Yacht Club, the host of Swiftsure, is looking forward to having racers join in the 75th running of the Swiftsure International Yacht Race. We are proud to invite racers to come to Victoria and compare their racing skills with the best racers in our part of the world.

Our focus is on having a well-run race and we work hard to ensure that racers have fun. It’s all about the racers!

I would like to add that we have added the Legends of Swiftsure course to the Inshore Classic, hoping to have some old classic boats come to Victoria for Swiftsure 2018. And we will moor them at the docks in the Victoria Inner Harbor so the public and racers can admire and appreciate their history.

Finally, if anyone has any questions about Swiftsure I encourage them to contact me at

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