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2019 Rolex Big Boat Series at St. Francis Yacht Club - Day 3

by St. Francis Yacht Club 14 Sep 20:46 PDT 11-15 September 2019
J/70 Cool Story Bro running hard for the finish, hoping to win a berth at the J/70 Worlds. © Rolex / Sharon Green

After two days of light-air racing, Mother Nature finally flipped the fun switch on day three of the 2019 Rolex Big Boat Series, giving all 79 competing teams the kinds of big-air grins that make San Francisco Bay a truly world-class sailing venue. The unseasonably warm conditions that plagued the first two days at this Grand Prix-level regatta mercifully gave way to cooler temperatures and a solid 10-knot sea breeze on the Bay that built during the day's two races. By the time the Race Committee's finishing gun fell silent, gusts of 25+ knots were reported by the Golden Gate Bridge.

"The breeze came back!" said Graham Biehl, StFYC's Race Director, the relief from the last two days of AP flags and wind holds visible on his now-happy face. "Thankfully the forecast materialized and we got in two races in a row."

While breeze-on conditions are especially helpful to the heavily ballasted Classics class and the larger ORR-A and ORR-B boats, the same relief visible on Biehl's face was evident on the expressions of J/70, J/88 and J/105 sailors, all of whom were more than happy to abandon their cerebral, light-air skills for the kind of heart-pounding, adrenaline-filled downhill rides that draw these One Design teams to this regatta, year-on-year.

"The Rolex Big Boat Series is a World Championship qualifier for the 2020 J/70 Worlds, and it's good to see a big fleet," said Biehl. The winning Open and Corinthian J/70 teams will both receive berths to the 2020 J/70 Worlds (July 27-August 2, 2020), which is being hosted by the California Yacht Club in Marina Del Rey, California. "We haven't seen much J/70 action on the Bay since the 2016 Worlds, which we hosted at StFYC, so it's good to see them lining up again."

Christy Usher, co-owner and co-skipper of Christine Robin (USA 898), explained that while some J/70 teams competing at 2019 Rolex Big Boat Series have already qualified for the 2020 Worlds, their prize berths transfer to the next fastest finisher if an already-qualified team wins top honors in either the Corinthian or Open divisions. "No mercy is being shown out there," said Usher, adding that every J/70 team entered the regatta to win, plain and simple. "Everybody wants to go to next year's Worlds because it's local—there's no hassle of traveling to Europe or the East Coast, so these berths are first and foremost in everyone's minds."

Scott Sellers, one of three owners of 1FA (USA 534), which is one of five Corinthian entries amongst the 14-strong J/70 fleet, reemphasized what makes late-summer sailing on the Bay so special. "Tight competition and screaming spinnaker runs all over the Bay are the most memorable parts of Big Boat Series," said Sellers. Harrison Turner, another one of 1FA's co-owners, agrees. "This venue is one of the most unique in the world that always delivers high quality racing," said Turner. "It takes a lot of local knowledge to sail the Big Boat Series...it really places a premium on doing your homework and drawing on previous BBS experiences."

John Brigden's Cool Story Bro. (USA 369) beat Usher's Christine Robin and Chris Kostanecki's Jennifer (USA 370) across the line for the day's first race, with a repeat performance during the day's second race, besting Peter Cameron's Kangaroo Jockey (USA 29), followed by Christine Robin. After a total of four races, Cool Story Bro. tops the J/70 class leaderboard, followed by Christine Robin and 1FA.

While the J/88 class isn't wrestling for berths to their Worlds, they are competing for top bragging rights in their second running as a One Design class at the West Coast's most competitive regatta.

"We definitely feel the pressure, every other team has been working hard to come get us," said Gary Panariello, skipper of Courageous (USA 77) and the 2018 winner of a Rolex timepiece and the Richard Rheem Perpetual Trophy, which honors the memory of former StFYC member Richard Rheem and his crew aboard Morning Star, which broke the Transpac Record twice—first in 1949, then again in 1953.

Still, experiencing pressure and having fun are by no means mutually exclusive entities.

"The best part of racing at the Rolex Big Boat Series is the wildly varying conditions," said Panariello. "Breeze on and more on, water flowing in every direction, heavy metal moving down through the middle of the race course and lots and lots of boats trying hard to get to the same spot." And then there's the matter of managing sight lines and real-time tactics while negotiating a six-strong fleet of identical boats. "Driving the boat downwind in big breeze is super exciting," continued Panariello. "The big challenge driving is that it's hard to see anything other than the big kite! You need to have great faith that the crew is keeping all eyes out of the boat."

Sadly, faith didn't keep Steve Gordon's Inconceivable (USA 9) mast vertical during the day's second race, as the fleet got pounded by heavy conditions on the inside of the Golden Gate Bridge. But, looking outside of the lifelines helped Courageous out-sail David Britt's Split Water (USA 78) and Jeremy Moncada's Juno (USA 20) to take the day's first bullet, while Split Water claimed top honors in second race, followed by Courageous and Jim Hopp's White Shadow (USA 23). Big-picture, today's results see White Shadow leading the hunt in the J/88 class, followed by Split Water and Courageous.

Meanwhile, amongst the 23-strong J/105 class - the regatta's largest One Design class and racing for StFYC's Commodore's Cup perpetual trophy and accompanying Rolex timepiece - competition was as stiff as ever. This began with the day's first starting line sparring in the Treasure Island starting area, and it continued through two races to culminate in a series of fast, close, downwind finishes off of the StFYC's Race Deck.

"It was really interesting and variable out there today," said Ryan Simmons, skipper of Blackhawk (USA 40), who reported seeing a puff of 30 knots when they were just to the east of the Golden Gate Bridge. "By the second leg of the second race we were seeing winds in the mid-20s, with bigger puffs. Driving was very intense and was all about turning down in the puffs."

Blackhawk's crew proved they are equally adept at winning in a breeze as they are in the light stuff by taking the bullet in the day's first race. Blackhawk was joined across the finishing line by Ian Charles' Maverick (USA 385) and Phillip Laby's Godot (USA 44), finishing the first race in second and third places, respectively. In the second race, Tim Russell's Ne*Ne (USA 003) earned the win, followed by Blackhawk and Rolf Kaiser's Donkey Jack (USA 26). After four races, Blackhawk leads the chase in the J/105 class, followed by Ne*Ne and Jeff Littfin's Mojo (USA119).

Sadly for the crews of Phillip Laby's Godot (USA 44), Steven Gordon's Inconceivable (USA 9) and William Woodruff and Sergey Lubarsky's Russian Roulette (USA 85), the gusty conditions during the second race proved stronger than their rigs, which succumbed to classic West Coast air loading. Thankfully, no injuries were reported at press time, however, there's no question that this mishap will sadly prove detrimental to both teams' hopes of seeing their names etched onto the Commodore's Cup.

Racing continues tomorrow, Sunday, September 15, with a scheduled Bay Tour course designed to give crews plenty of opportunities to air-out their upwind and downwind inventories one final time.

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

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