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An interview with Betsy Wareham about Round the County 2018

by David Schmidt 5 Nov 08:00 PST November 10-11, 2018
The Round the County 2017 attracted some serious hardware from the Seattle and Vancouver fleets © Image courtesy of Jan Anderson

My job as a sailing journalist has long afforded me the privilege of traveling to a wide range of different domestic and international regattas, but it was one that unfurled in 2010 in my virtual backyard of Washington State’s majestic San Juan Islands that often comes to mind when I daydream about a perfect weekend of sailing (so long as you don’t mind a spot of rain, of course). The Round the County sailboat race (November 10-11, 2018) covers some 76 miles and circumnavigates San Juan County, Washington, with an overnight stop in Roche Harbor, on San Juan Island. En route, sailors enjoy a chance to take in gorgeous coastlines, temperate rainforest-clad islands and distant snow-capped peaks, as well as plenty of cold, tide- and current-riven brine.

While the race always starts and finishes near Lydia Shoal in Rosario Strait (which roughly separates mainland Washington from majestic Orcas Island), some years see the fleet race clockwise around San Juan County while other years this flow is reversed.

In 2010, we sailed clockwise, first contending with some thick bull-kelp minefields and light, sticky airs before powering up for a strong finish into Roche Harborjust as the rain grew serious and steady. Sails were quickly and efficiently dropped and flaked, and our crew found ways to keep the body warm and the spirits sated as we feasted on crab legs in the cockpit that evening.

We woke up the next morning to azure skies and temperatures hovering in the high-30s/low-40s, the morning air punctuated by the most important element: steady breeze. Best yet, it was going in our direction, at least at first (it’s a circular course, after all), allowing us to hoist a big asymmetric and properly employ the boat’s water-ballast tanks. Speeds in the high-teens were our reward for some of the previous day’s light-air work, and plenty of smiles could be seen aboard Dark Star as we ripped past Waldron Island.

We crossed the finishing line some eight hours later under a full mainsail and number two jib, thankful to be done racing as the early November sky grew inky dark. Sure, the weekend was a bit wet and offered plenty of incentive to consider upgrading one’s cold-weather sailing kit, but it also offered the chance to experience one of the most scenic racecourses that I have ever laid eyes on, complete with heady winds, tricky currents and tides, and even a few Orca sightings.

I checked in with Betsy Wareham, race chair for the Round the County 2018 sailboat race, via email, to learn more about this decidedly Pacific Northwest event.

Can you give us some history on the RTC? How did the race start and how has it changed over the years?

Round the County started in 1988. My dad, Mike Wareham and Sunny Vynne (a well-known NW sailor) were having lunch in Friday Harbor, and they discussed the idea, “wouldn’t it be great to have a race around the San Juan Islands?”

My dad related this conversation to me and it stuck in my head. When I became the Fleet Captain at Orcas Island Yacht Club, I pitched the idea to the Board. I remember saying, “I don’t think we’ll do very well the first couple of years, but I’m sure this race will grow and be successful.” I also noted we didn’t want to grow too fast, or we wouldn’t be equipped to run the race.

The Friday Harbor Sailing Club heard what I was up to, and said, “We want to help!” The two big players from Friday Harbor were Hugh Lawrence and Bill Evans.

I’ve heard that the RTC suffers from the enviable problem of selling out almost immediately—is this correct? If so, how many boats will be racing in 2019 and how quickly did the scratch sheet fill up?

The race started with 13 boats, and two divisions, we now have 120 boats and 8 divisions! We “sold out” in three days this year, last year in less than 48 hours.

What’s the reasoning for racing clockwise one year and counterclockwise the following year? Diversity?

Originally, we thought we would run the race starting to windward at the initial start, but that made committee work too complicated! So we just went clockwise. My friend Savvy Sanders suggested the alternating direction idea, both for variety, and challenge.

It really is different going clockwise or counterclockwise, and people don’t remember their strategies as well with a two-year gap.

Recent years have seen a number of Grand Prix boats such as the Seattle- and Vancouver-based TP52s, as well as smaller, high-performance boats such as Longboard (the Bieker-designed Riptide 35)—how do these high-performance boats change the nature of the race? Or do they?

Originally we had few restrictions, other than a PHRF rating and Safety gear. Safety was a big consideration, as I have seen it howling in Haro Strait and there is nowhere to bail out there, so you have to be prepared!

We have had years where most of the smaller boats have not started or drop out due to wind conditions. Now with bigger and faster boats we have a max rating of 180 PHRF, we backed the starting time up so instead of the first fleet starting at 9:AM the last fleet starts at 9:AM. We start in reverse order, slowest boats first.

The committees at the halfway points of Patos and Cattle Point have to get on station almost as early as the start boat, as the big fast boats can potentially get there in less than two hours!

It can get windy on the Salish Sea in early November—what are the best-case and worst-case weather-forecast scenarios, and what makes these shine or stink for competing teams?

The San Juans are totally weird when it comes to weather…there are all these micro-climates and odd land masses that change what is expected here. You can go with the overall forecast, and its more accurate than in the past, but you just can’t tell!

We’ve had gear busting gales at the start turn into drifting matches and vice versa. We have had only one year where we used the short course times for both days of the race (That’s why this race is in the winter!)

What's the course record, what boat set it (also what year), and what kind of conditions and tide cycles and vessel do you think would be required to best this time?

It really is challenging sailing here. The record that was set the first year of the race in1988, by a C&C 41 owned by Tom and Barbara White, rated at 60, held the record [of] 8:53:47 for 14 years and was finally better by Icon, a negative rated boat, at 7:54: 29, in 2011, Braveheart bettered that record by another hour, 6:10:19, and that record still holds. The fastest corrected time belongs to Martha, a schooner, at 6:19:02.

Mac Madenwald has missed a few years but he and Pangaea were in the first race and are still competing today. I think my brother, Ian, and I may be the only ones who have not missed a year (but we rarely sail on the same boat!)

Can you tell us about any recent steps that you and the other regatta organizers have recently taken to “green-up” the regatta or otherwise lower its environmental wake?

As far as being “green” I think that is something we all strive for, and we are all more aware of. One of our club members is leading a push for Orcas Island YC in general to use less “one time” materials, like plastic cups and silverware, and try to use recyclable items, or better, reusable ones.

Many thanks to Jan Anderson for kindly allowing us to use her great imagery to illustrate this story. More of her work can be seen at

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