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An interview with Fletcher Boland about the 2019 Marblehead to Halifax Race

by David Schmidt 3 Jul 2019 08:00 PDT July7-10, 2019
Racecourse action during the Marblehead to Halifax Ocean Race © Images courtesy of Craig Davis

When I think of really impressive light-air driving, I often think back on the 2005 Marblehead to Halifax Race. Our crew of ten was aboard Southern Cross, my dad’s modified J/44, and things were looking grim: cat paws were registering on the water, but these same zephyrs were not doing much to tickle the anemometer, which was stubbornly parked at 5-6 knots. Worse still, our strong fleet position, which we earned thanks to some clever navigation at Brazil Rock (thanks, dad!) and some diligent crew work (thanks, boys!) was slowly getting whittled away by a well-sailed J/122, which was more optimized for a light-air upwind battle.

That’s when brothers Chris and John stepped up to the helm.

Chris settled into his starboard driving position, gripping the destroyer-style wheel with his hands and his toes (the latter being a new trick for me), while John assumed the tactician’s spot and lit a smoke. While this is almost always verboten aboard any of my dad’s boats, even he could see the desperation as John, who wasn’t even a smoker, started mouthing and exhaling puffs to create real-time tell tales.

Unorthodox, perhaps, however the knot meter soon began reporting its pleasure. Far more importantly, Chris began staving off the J/122’s advance as we clawed our way up Nova Scotia’s southeast coast.

Impressively, and almost against all probability and VPPs, we slid across the finishing line ahead of our rivals as evening faded into night, and as John’s supply of smokes started wearing precariously thin. Fortunately, following this much helm and crew concentration, there was no shortage of rum once we cleared customs in what can only be described as a gorgeous and historic Canadian maritime city.

I checked in with Fletcher Boland, the manager of communications for the 2019 Marblehead to Halifax Race (July 7, 2019), via email, to learn more about this classic New England and Canadian distance race.

How many boats are you expecting at this year’s Marblehead to Halifax Race (M2H)? Also, how does this compare to the numbers and the competition levels that you have seen in recent years?

We are expecting 70-75 yachts to compete in the MHOR this year and have constantly been updating our registration website with the latest changes to the entry list. This is in line with the same number of entries as the previous couple of races. One change we have noticed is a shift towards more versatile, family friendly yacht designs and not as many exotic entries. Although last year the race record was broken by the Mills 68 Prospector, first launched in 2008.

In your mind, what are the toughest parts of the M2H’s course? Do any spots give navigators typically pause for concern?

The most challenging spot is typically the rounding of Cape Sable as the boats turn a bit more North and start minding the Canadian coastline. There are very strong tidal currents in the three-plus knot range that run around the cape and are responsible for the 30-foot tidal range in the Bay of Fundy.

A competitor yacht approaching the cape in calm conditions on a flood tide, runs the risk of getting pulled toward Fundy and drifting many miles in the wrong direction. Race veterans worth their salt should have a good story of battling the current, which sometimes involves trying to get an anchor set on the rocky bottom to avoid going backward.

The final approach to the finish line inside Halifax Harbor is known for fickle breezes particularly as the sun sets. There is nothing more frustrating then getting slowed to a few knots of boat speed on the last few miles when you know every second counts in the scoring system after 360 miles of racing.

What are the best-case and worst-case scenarios in terms of weather? Also, what is it about these conditions (wind direction, wind speed, wave height, etc.) relative to the course that inspires your answers?

The best-case scenario is a solid prevailing SSW-SW breeze for two straight days that sets most competitors up for a top speed spinnaker reach from beginning to end. This is the condition that we had in the 2017 race when Prospector beat the record. That condition also implies good dry weather which keeps crew’s spirits and energy levels high. You get a fast and fun race.

The worst-case scenario would be based around easterly winds which mean an upwind slog, sometimes for 100s of miles. Cape Sable area will have rough seas which adds a challenging dimension to this already tricky spot. These conditions will also likely bring wet weather and fog which make for a cold damp trip. It is best to keep the crew going with good hot meals and a bonus would be a yacht with a cabin heating system.

Can you explain the race’s culture to the uninitiated?

This is a great race for those looking for those looking for an international challenge. A perfect entry point if you have aspirations for offshore sailing or for experienced competitors who are looking to improve or defend positions from the last race.

The Boston Yacht Club and Royal Nova Scotia Yacht Squadron which have long history of partnership and camaraderie, work very hard to make this easy and fun for competitors. We walk you through every step from registration, inspection and preparations. We offer moorage for the competing yachts and good services to ensure everyone has a great race.

Both Marblehead and Halifax are great spots with plenty of yachting culture to soak in. This all comes together for a really good sailing event that has stood the test of time.

Is it just a happy coincidence that the M2H unfurls on odd-numbered years, while Newport Bermuda Races take place on even-numbered years? Or, is this an intentional move to ensure big fleets at both events?

It’s not an accident—ocean races of this nature take an enormous amount of planning and preparation, and for most people, every other year is more doable.

What’s the standing course record, and-looking at this year’s scratch sheet-are you seeing any potential history-book disruptors?

During the last race in 2017, Prospector broke the race record by two hours, and given the phenomenal conditions we had last edition, the odds don’t favor another record run. Though there are registered yachts that will be capable, such as the Volvo 70 Warrior.

Do you have any advice that you’d like to share with first-time racers? What about returning racecourse veterans?

For first time racers: Preparation is key, bring proper gear for extended periods in cold damp weather. Thermal layers, winter hats, cold weather sailing gloves, leak-free foul weather gear and good pair insulated sea boots will make you feel like a pro on this race.

For navigation make sure to get and current charts for Cape Sable / Nova Scotia and pre-index them for the hours you are expected to be on the race course. Fumbling around in the dark for current information at 0300 as you approach Cape Sable does not make the Navigator look good.

For Veterans: You know what you are in for. If 2017 was your first race, then I will tell you to expect tougher conditions. Spring is off to a very slow start here in New England this year and I am expecting a cold race with a good dose of fog.

Can you tell us about any steps that you and the other event organizers have taken in the last couple years to help green-up the regatta or otherwise lower its environmental wake?

This year we are working with Sailors for the Sea towards their clean regatta bronze level. This will mean more environmentally friendly changes for the race such the BYC's new compost program, adding more water bottle fill stations and implementing a 1:1 ratio of recycle bins to trash bins. We’re also setting up a bike share for racers to get around Marblehead in the days leading up to the start.

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

Organizing an international offshore event like this is a herculean volunteer effort but well worth it to support this classic event. We’re excited to see many new faces and the usual biennial contenders coming to the race.

Special thanks to Peter Fein, Past Commodore of The Boston Yacht Club, for his contributions to the weather and strategy questions.

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