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An interview with David Sutcliffe about the 2018 Vic-Maui International Yacht Race

by David Schmidt 28 Jun 2018 08:00 PDT June 28, 2018
2014-Vic-Maui-Yacht-Race © Vic-Maui -

If you live on the West Coast, especially in the Pacific Northwest, there aren’t a heck of a lot of offshore islands to race to, unless one casts his or her imagination wide open and considers the island chain that’s situation roughly 2,300 miles to the west-southwest, namely Hawaii. While this is still a bold undertaking in the year 2018, modern sailors are of course aided by electronic navigation and updated electronic charts, the International Cospas-Sarsat Programme (read: 406 MHz EPIRB and PLB distress-signal monitoring), radar, AIS, modern sat-comms (read: GRIB files and up-to-date weather-routing information), and modern life rafts, but this certainly wasn’t the case when Royal Vancouver Yacht Club member JG Innes first organized a group of four boats to race to Maui in 1965.

Impressively, three out of the original four boats that began racing crossed the finishing line under their own sails, while the fourth, Boo Paskel’s 73’ ketch Tatoosh from Seattle, opted to unfurl their iron sails, so they were already in Maui to greet the other finishers with well-earned libations upon their arrival.

Back then, crossing the 2,308 nautical miles of wide-open Pacific blue that separates Victoria from Maui was a serious undertaking that required considerably higher levels of self-sustainability, personal-risk acceptance and celestial-navigation proficiency than it does today. That sure isn’t to say that racing from Canada to Hawaii isn’t still a massive adventure—it absolutely still is. It’s just that contemporary racers can concentrate more of their time at sea on performance sailing and less on “where-the-heck-are-we” navigation, especially on cloudy days and moonless nights.

Take, for example, the finishing times involved for the 1965 race, which unfurled over (ballpark) 15 days, compared to 2016 when Jason Rhodes’ TP52 Valkyrie, skippered by Gavin Brackett, crossed the finish line in a blistering eight days, nine hours, seventeen minutes, and fifty seconds, taking line honors and setting a new course record. Valkyrie was closely followed by David Sutcliffe’s TP52 Kinetic V, which took the overall win. Interestingly, the third-place overall boat was Peter Salusbury’s Longboard, a Paul Bieker-designed Riptide 35 MK-II that finished racing in 10 days, 3 hours, 32 minutes and 35 seconds-not a bad time for a 35-footer!

I interviewed Sutcliffe, who is serving as the Vic-Maui Event Chair (and who has done six Vic-Maui races), via email, to learn more about the 2018 Vic-Maui International Yacht Race.

The “brochure” description of the Vic-Maui typically involves a two-day beat followed by some great off-the-breeze angles—is this accurate? If not, what should sailors be expecting?

It’s generally a one-day beat against a Westerly in Juan de Fuca Strait, followed by a multi-day reach/run on starboard down/off the coast, then a gybe to port, and a multi-day run to the Pailolo Channel, which separates the islands of Molokai and Maui.

Most boats take between 12 and 20 days to complete the course, which is 2,308 nautical miles on the rhumbline.

How are your 2018 fleet numbers, compared to the last few editions of this classic bluewater race?

The 2018 fleet is eleven boats, which is at the lower end of our typical range. The twenty-year average is about sixteen boats, and there were twenty-two boats in 2016, which marked our celebration of a Half Century of Vic-Maui.

Seattle and the Pacific Northwest has seen a recent influx of high-performance vessels including a smattering of TP52, an R/P 55 and some other flashy hardware, and I believe that Vancouver has also seen Grand Prix-level boats join the fleet. How does this impact the Vic Maui Race? Or, does it?

Most Vic-Maui boats are production cruiser/racers rather than all-out high-performance racing sleds. However, the sleds do compete and they are usually chasing the course record, which currently stands at eight days, nine hours, 17 minutes and 50 seconds.

In the 2016 Vic-Maui, a TP52, Valkerie broke the course record and took line honors, another [my] TP52, Kinetic V won overall, a Riptide 35 Mk II, Longboard took third, and a Santa Cruz 70, Westerly was fourth.

Vic-Maui is happy to have more high-performance boats in the region.

From a navigation/strategy perspective, what do you think is the single biggest racecourse decision that skippers and navigators will need to make, once they are out of sight of land?

The toughest call is usually picking the route down the coast and around the southeast corner of the North Pacific High. [Sail] too far right, not enough wind; too far left, [you’ll] sail too many miles.

Extra gybes to reposition laterally are to be avoided as they are very expensive in terms of race standings.

From a boathandling and teamwork perspective, what are the hardest bits that sailors should be expecting? Driving at night with big waves and spinnakers?

On boathandling, driving at night with big waves and spinnakers is certainly challenging, especially when visibility is limited by heavy cloud cover and no moonlight.

It’s a good idea to have some people onboard who are already experienced with helming and trimming in these types of conditions.

Regarding teamwork, a good friend of mine likes to say that no matter how long a boat is when it starts an ocean race, it gets two feet shorter every day until the finish. You want to be part of a carefully chosen team that becomes even better friends by the finish.

If you could give one piece of advise to first-time Vic-Maui sailors, what would it be and why? Also, what about for returning race veterans?

For first-timers, I’d suggest getting out and doing lots of sailing in different conditions, including sailing at night. Participating in Vic-Maui qualifying races like [the] Southern Straits, Patos Island, Oregon Offshore, and Swiftsure are great ways to build experience and bring the team together.

Vic-Maui is run on a two-year cycle, so with some advance planning you can do eight or ten overnight distance races as part of getting ready.

For returning race veterans, my own experience is that each successive ocean race you do allows you to take the boat preparation and crew development to an even higher standard. I’d say that more than fifty percent of how well you will do in an ocean race is determined before you even cross the start line.

For everyone, starting with a well-prepared boat and team allows you to have best possible experience during the actual race.

Can you tell me about any steps that the RVYC, the LYC and the Vic-Maui Race might have taken to help reduce the race’s environmental footprint or “green-up” the event?

Vic-Maui has been gradually ratcheting up our environmental emphasis in recent years. For many years, we have had prohibitions on harmful discharges at sea.

More recently, we have encouraged boats to develop environmental plans to manage waste and minimize impacts, and we have added “environmental stewardship” to our Notice of Race and to our awards program.

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

Vic-Maui is all about challenge, adventure, and teamwork. We welcome cruisers, racers, and everyone in-between to start planning now for their own adventure of a lifetime - the 2020 Vic-Maui!

Vic-Maui information is online at www.vicmaui.org; we are also on Facebook at www.facebook.com/vmiyr and Twitter at twitter.com/vicmaui.

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