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An interview with Joe Doris about the 2018 Lake Ontario 300 Challenge

by David Schmidt 10 Jul 08:00 PDT July 13-17, 2018
All is quiet before the racing begins at the Lake Ontario 300 Challenge © Parker Media Management

The Great Lakes may be filled with freshwater rather than brine, but this sure doesn’t mean that these dedicated sailors don’t engage in serious distance racing, including the Lake Ontario 300 Challenge Race, which is run by Lake Ontario Offshore Racing. The “LO300” (July 13-17) was first sailed in in 1990 as a doublehanded event, but today it has become a regional classic for fully crewed teams and, in its new and current incarnation, regularly draws enviable fleets with its challenging course and its strong level of competition.

As with many distance races, the RC starts two courses. The full-boat LO300 (AKA, the “Main Duck Island Course”) stretches from the Port Credit Yacht Club (PCYC) in Mississauga, Ontario, down to a buoy just off Oswego, New York, around Main Duck Island, past the Niagara #2 buoy and then back to PCYC. The shorter, 190 nautical mile “Scotch Bonnet Island Course”, which is open to white-sail boats not running flying sails, heads east out of PCYC before turning at Scotch Bonnet Island, rounding the Niagara #2 buoy, before punching back to PCYC’s finishing line.

The LO300 features IRC, PHRF, and Multihull racing and will also include a singlehanded class, as well as a 600-mile course for seriously adventurous racers.

Interestingly, Lake Ontario Offshore Racing purports that, at 300 nautical miles, the LO300 is Canada’s longest annually contested distance race, however they also report that racers can expect to see wind at all angles and velocities, which can make for a cerebral contest.

I interviewed Joe Doris, event chair of the 2018 Lake Ontario 300 Challenge, via email, to learn more about this now-classic freshwater distance race.

What kind of registration numbers are you seeing for this year’s event? Also, are you seeing the usual suspects or are you also getting first-times entrants?

Registration for the Lake Ontario 300 Challenge is already above 80 boats including eight who have signed up for the bi-annual LO600 Challenge. We expect registration to top 100 in the final days leading up to this year’s event – an occasion that draws many repeat racers due to the unique aspects of the challenge.

We are also seeing quite a few new entrants this year ready to take on the challenge.

Strategy wise, what is the race’s traditional wisdom? Are we talking mostly rhumb line sailing or are there nuances to be leveraged?

One always wants to sail the rhumbline whenever it is possible, and for the past number of years, three to four of the five legs have been close to rhumbline sailing. The nuances that are to be leveraged occur mostly at the Main Duck Island rounding, playing the land breeze off Prince Edward County, and the biggest one: At what point do you head south towards the Niagara mark on the south shore as you play the typically upwind 120 nautical mile beat back up the lake.

Tactically, what are the hardest bits of the racecourse to negotiate?

The best way to approach this race is to break it down into five distinct small races – two distance legs, and three shorter strategy legs.

On the first, very short leg and say the first ten miles or so, you just want to worry about getting clear air, getting away from the city, and away from the typical Saturday cruisers. That is always tough.

How you play the rounding of Main Duck Island, and the beat back up the lake is always the toughest part of the race. Gains and losses of ten to 20 miles are very easy to win or lose if you play it right.

And of course, the finish. Goodness knows, when the sun sets in Port Credit in July, the wind absolutely EVAPORATES, literally two miles from the finish line. And everything you’ve worked so hard for over the past two or three days can vanish within site of the finish line.

From a racer’s perspective, what’s the best possible forecast and how likely are they to see that for at least some of the race? Also, what about the worst?

I believe the best scenario from a racer’s perspective would be a fresh southwesterly breeze. This will get you down the track at hull speed for most boats.

The southwesterly is the predominant wind direction but varies in strength with a typical dying wind in the evening. If the wind holds, that sets up a good upwind leg for the second half of the race towards to finish. This allows for some tactical decisions and passing lanes.

Worst case is light wind, which makes for very slow progress and the invasion of the ankle-biting flies. Not a pleasant experience!

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

We encourage all racers, first-timers and returning boats, to ensure they thoroughly review the sailing instructions on the LOOR website, and that they enter all the rounding mark coordinates into their on-board GPS system. Pre-programming those coordinates provides for an easier rounding in the middle of the night.

From a skipper’s point of view, select your crew carefully. Experience tells us that it’s better to have less experienced crew you get along with than experienced crew you can’t stand. A boat becomes a small space after two or three days.

Be clear with your expectations. If you are very competitive and intend to finish no matter how long it takes, be sure all crew understand and agree to that. Friendships have been lost when part of a crew had different expectations than others.

Safety is always first! Ensure you have approved PDF’s, jack-lines, harnesses and tethers, to name just a few items, to provide a safe environment and comfortable race for everyone onboard.

Have fun! The boats that do the best are those that focus on the joy of being on the water and working as a team.

Do you have your eye on any teams for a podium finish in their class this year? What about solo sailors?

The 2018 Lake Ontario 300 promises to be a well-contended race in both IRC and PHRF fleets.

The return of Spitfire, a well campaigned Farr 44 from National Yacht Club skippered by Jonathan Bamberger would be the early favorite.

New arrivals on the scene could threaten the top seed this year, including Suspect, a Perry 58.5 from BHYC, skippered by Brian Sims. Other expected contenders for the Sperry Cup and Gold Cup Trophy this year include some J/122s, J/120s Benneteau First 40s and a Soto 40. Hopefully some of our U.S. yachts show up to compete in the most challenging race on the lakes to add another challenge.

The Solo fleet has continued to get stronger every year since the Circumnavigation of a lake is so much more challenging than a traditional point to point long distance race. For a Solo sailor it takes a higher level of attention to the changing conditions, various legs. This year there will be three past solo champions in the [singlehanded] event, with some fresh competition as well.

Trying to predict this year’s Lake Ontario 600 Challenge is virtually impossible.

Can you tell us about any steps that the event has taken recently to try and reduce its environmental footprint or otherwise green-up?

We absolutely encourage the use of reusable water bottles, [and] we also have an announcement at the skippers meeting to highlight the impact of plastics in water and the need to recycle as much as possible.

It is not permitted to discard any non-biodegradable material into Lake Ontario and we have noted such in our Sailing Instructions.

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

Novice racers, professional racers and experienced offshore ocean racers continue to be amazed at what Lake Ontario can offer up over two or three days. Finishing the LO300 is not a given, since the inception of this race there has never been 100% of participants finish the race. The highest finish rate is 93% and the lowest finish rate was 30% in 2002.

Over the last decade finishing percentages have improved with [better] technology etc. but [they] remain in the 80-90-percent finish rate. The Lake Ontario 300 Challenge will always be the race on the lakes that is a victory to finish.

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