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2019 Rolex Big Boat Series at St. Francis Yacht Club - Day 1

by St. Francis Yacht Club 12 Sep 19:44 PDT 11-15 September 2019
Mayan and Water Witch competing in the first race of the 2019 Rolex Big Boat Series © Rolex / Sharon Green

If nature abhors a vacuum, sailors have detested windless conditions since the days of ancient mariners. Fortunately for the 79 boats gathered on the waters of San Francisco Bay to contest the 55th edition of the St. Francis Yacht Club's signature Rolex Big Boat Series (September 11-15, 2019)—the West Coast's most prestigious regatta—there's (historically) little reason to sing the lack-of-wind blues, given the Bay's notorious reputation for delivering breeze-on racing.

Unfortunately for these same sailors, today delivered one of the Bay's rare, windless mornings forcing the StFYC's Race Committee to make the difficult decision to downshift from the day's two planned races to a single afternoon race, allowing the fleet to press gang the gathering sea breeze into service while dodging the unseasonably warm onshore temperatures enshrouding the city.

"The forecast is uncharacteristically light this week because of the nice weather," said Graham Biehl, the StFYC's Race Director, who explained that, typically speaking, high temperatures in the city equate to light airs on the Bay. "So, we have plans to run shorter races. It's the reason that we have so many courses to choose from," he said, adding that he and his team have 43 racecourse permutations available. "We don't like to shorten courses—this is tricky for the racers—so we choose courses that are on the shorter side."

While the AP flag flew for several (atypical) hours from the RC boat, all competitors and organizers understood that the pain was ephemeral.

"Compared to a lot of other places that lose days to too little wind, too much wind or lightning storms, we have it really good on the Bay," said Susan Ruhne, Regatta Chair for the 55th edition of the Rolex Big Boat Series. "But I always tell people that days like this are a really good test of a crew's ability to shift into action when the wind fills in. Good boats are able to just go into race mode so that when the wind fills in, it's game on."

Which is exactly what happened at approximately 1400 hours, local time, when the call was made to send the eight fleets gathered for this high-level regatta on a single race, which started in light airs that gathered to deliver great racing come mid-afternoon.

While racing was tight across all classes, spectator eyes were riveted to the five-strong Classics class, which is a new addition to this year's Rolex Big Boat Series. This class is open to vessels that were built before 1955 and measure at least 48' on their decks. While the regatta's NOR contains no language requiring the yachts to be visually stunning, all five Classics competing here this week easily tick the "beauty" box, especially as skipper Beau Vrolyk and his crew aboard Mayan (1947), a 59-foot Alden-designed schooner built in 1947, flew a fisherman staysail between their sticks as the long-lined schooner set up for a great start.

"I'm thrilled that we are finally bringing Classic racing to the highest level on San Francisco," said Vrolyk. "Our Bay is the best place to race these old beauties, they enjoy strong winds and crush chop."

Crushing chop might not have been the game of the day, however Mayan—a yacht that was formerly (and famously) owned and extensively cruised by David Crosby of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young fame—is no stranger to big conditions. "Mayan's reputation was earned cruising, something she is truly wonderful at," said Vrolyk. "I think my wife Stacey and I were the first to ever race her. We've done our homework to bring Mayan up to speed, but the competition is not only beautiful, it's fast!"

While the Classics class enjoys the distinction of being the regatta's newest class, the venerable Express 37 class, which first competed in the Rolex Big Boat Series in 1990, has the equally proud distinction of having continuously competed in the last 29 editions of this prestigious event.

"The history of the Express 37 fleet is remarkable and synonymous with the Rolex Big Boat Series history of recent years," said Shawn Ivie, the owner and skipper of Limitless (USA 18513). "I love the class' history and pedigree, which why I am an owner today."

As for his odds of ending up on the northern border of the results page come Sunday's award ceremony, Ivie, who has won his fair share of sailboat races but who's only competed in one previous edition of the Rolex Big Boat Series, was realistic. "The competition is stiff in the Express 37 class," he continued. "My shipmates and I will be racing against Kame Richards' Golden Moon, Bartz Schneider's Expeditious, and Jack Peurach's Elan; all have over 10-plus years of experience racing San Francisco Bay. The learning curve is huge!"

Once the sea breeze finally arrived, the Race Committee selected courses that were heavy on tactical challenges but relatively shy on miles. This smart move ensured great racing on an afternoon when the ebbing tide opposed the westerly breeze, making for sluggish upwind and downwind legs. For the Classics, this meant starting off the StFYC's beautiful Race Deck and sailing an 8.8-mile course between the Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz Island. Mayan was first to cross the finish line, just edging past fellow Classics Ocean Queen and Water Witch. Terry Klaus' Brigadoon (888) took first place, followed by Vrolyk's Mayan (1947) and Dewey Hines' Ocean Queen (USA 177), the latter being a yacht that competed in the inaugural 1964 edition of the Rolex Big Boat Series.

For the Express 37s, this meant an 11.3-mile course starting on the Alcatraz racing area and featuring a downwind finish in front of the Race Deck. Kame Richards' Golden Moon (USA 18488) had the honor of racking up the Express 37 class' first picket. Golden Moon was followed across the finishing line by Bartz Schneider's Expeditious (USA 18478) and Jack Peurach's Elan (USA 87700).

"We always say that, while we can't conrol the weather, we can deliver world-class race course management," said Ruhne. "Today was a great example of this. We didn't like skipping the day's first race, but it was worth it to ensure fair and even racing across the Bay."

Racing continues tomorrow, Friday, September 13, with the day's first guns slated to sound at 1100 hours. The weather forecast is calling for even warmer onshore temperatures, but with San Francisco Bay's ability to deliver afternoon sea breezes and the StFYC's earned reputation for delivering great race course management, racers can plan on exercising patience before quickly pivoting into race mode when the wind gods finally relent.

For more information and full results, please visit the Rolex Big Boat Series' website.

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