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Playing for keeps on Puget Sound

by David Schmidt 14 Jan 2020 08:00 PST January 14, 2020
Dark Star, a Paul Bieker-designed Riptide 44, on delivery home from the 2020 Duwamish Head Race © David Schmidt

I knew I was in for an adventure when I woke up at 0430 hours on Saturday (January 11) for the annual Duwamish Head Race, only to discover that NOAA had issued a small-craft advisory for the section of Puget Sound where our race would be unfurling. While this might have been cause for concern amongst some boats, I count myself incredibly lucky to sail aboard one of the fastest and best-skippered boats in the area and with a crew that defines the word "experienced", so my mind instead turned to thoughts of fast spinnaker rides.

We left the dock at 0645 hours on a unusually high tide that was following several days of hard rain (did I mention that I live in Seattle?) that deposited plenty of logs, branches and other flotsam in the water, so our skipper wisely stationed a rotating staff of crew on the foredeck with a spotlight to search for deadheads (meaning logs, not Grateful Dead fans...the latter were all back in the cockpit, your scribe included). We carefully threaded our way past several big logs and root balls, but even more impressively, the rains that were lashing the Olympic mountains to the West stayed put, giving us a (mostly) dry ride down to our starting line off of the city of Des Moines.

While NOAA might have been hyperbolic with their small-craft advisory forecast, the wind was piping at the starting line, funneling from behind Vashon and Maury islands. We hoisted our trusty J2 and a full main, with our Code-0 on the ready on the deck, knowing that the air would almost certainly lift once we cleared the starting area.

Paul, the boat's designer (let's safely call that introduction a massive understatement — he's one of the world's best), and Jonathan, the boat's skipper (ditto previous parenthetical comment but swap-out designer for tactician) collectively executed a flawless start, while Jay and Joe (both high-level skiff and One Design sailors) kept the sailplan firing efficiently. From my perch on the rail, near the mast (my job), all looked perfect, especially the sight of a TP52 and R/P 55 working to catch our great start. While both boats had our more modest 44 feet on waterline count, they engaged in a high-road battle that worked out well for our interests.

Erik, our intrepid tactical weather expert and an all-around great sailor, smartly advised that there would be an easterly component to the predominantly south-southwest breeze later in the morning, so the afterguard set us up for a low-road lane that proved to be key for several reasons (more later). Better still, we had clear air to hoist and unfurl the Code-0, and to pick and choose our own destiny.

This soon set us up to hoist the A2, and to ratchet up our VMG speed.

Things were flowing perfectly, with the wind, which was blowing at ballpark 12-15 knots, giving us ideal angles for fetching Three Tree Point and Alki Point Lighthouse with minimal gybes.

Our boatspeed was right where it should have been as we cleared Three Tree Point, making trees for Alki, when the cockpit handheld VHF crackled to life with the two most dreaded words in winter sailboat racing: "Man Overboard! Man Overboard!"

We quickly determined that the vessel in distress was roughly one nautical mile directly in front of us, separated only by the TP52, which had smartly abandoned their high-road tussle.

Instantly, our skipper and crew proved that their seamanship skills are even better their racing skills. The A2 was instantly doused, all eyes ensured that we had no cordage in the water, and the iron Genny roared to life. Paul dropped the throttle hammer, and Dark Star charged towards the stricken vessel. Soon, we could see the vessel's crew struggling unsuccessfully to pull their MOB back aboard via their port bow.

While we were a way away, our friends aboard Sonic (said TP52) were closer and also immediately dropped their sails and motored over to assist. They approached via starboard and transferred some of their biggest guns onto the little cruising-class boat. While I was too far away to see individual faces or rescue tactics, Sonic sails with many strong bodies who wasted zero time in pulling the MOB back aboard. Better still, Jan Anderson, the area's best sailing photographer, was instantly on station with her fast-running RIB and took the MOB back ashore.

Once the situation was clear, we spun our bow, motored back to our pre-MOB-crisis position, and quickly re-hoisted the A2. While there's no question that sailing on Puget Sound in January is playing for keeps with the cold water, we quickly shifted gears from crisis mode to performance sailing mode. I'll admit that it took me a few minutes to shake off the adrenaline rush, but our afterguard afforded themselves no such luxury and instead scanned the waters for the easterly shift that Erik assured us was coming, while calling for the Code-0 to be brought onto deck.

The shift arrived, and we wasted zero time capitalizing on this evolution. The Code-0 was deployed, our VMG spiked, and we soon rounded the marker at Duwamish Head. The J2 made a reappearance as we jib-reached over towards Blakely Rock Light. Better still, the heavy-looking rains to our north were staved off by the convergence zone that we were sailing through, and our sails stayed full and at fast angles.

While I've sailed on Puget Sound for over ten years, I've never seen the breeze cooperate so well with a racecourse. A few quick tacks were required to get around Blakely Rock, but as we started charging back uphill towards the still-distant finishing line, Bates (another fantastic sailor and friend) made the call that we'd be able to fetch the entire leg on starboard tack, provided we could clear Three Tree Point.

We peeled to our J3 as the windspeeds built with the growing white caps and as Kris (a renowned boatbuilder and excellent dinghy sailor) drove Dark Star hard and fast and just above Three Tree Point. We crossed the finishing line just after 1400 hours to the astonishment of all onboard, as this is a race that we've previously only finished after sunset.

While the racing was fun, the day's highlight came as calls for the A2 resounded once we cleared Three Tree Point for the fourth and final time, our bow aimed for the barn. As soon as we finished jumping the halyard, all crew to piled onto the port quarter as our fun meter started kicking off the day's best metrics. Jake, an accomplished all-around skiff and big-boat sailor, took the helm and promptly posted the day's best number: 18.2 knots.

The delivery home was quick, of course, and was punctuated by a debriefing that covered the gamut from the skipper's desire to increase D1 tension, to the MOB incident.

While I've sailed on Dark Star for a decade, taking this all in was a master class in both performance sailing and smart seamanship, the latter particularly aimed at the MOB incident. Had our friends aboard Sonic not been better positioned to help, I have zero doubt that we would have provided potentially life-saving assistance to a situation gone pear-shaped in cold, cold water.

Regardless of which crew helped make the save, with these kind of winter races, our community of sailors all looks out for each other, providing a broad safety net. At the end of the day, all Puget Sound racing sailors are fortunate to be a part of a community with so many well-sailed boats and safety-minded skippers and crews.

May the four winds blow you safely home,

David Schmidt
Sail-World.com North American Editor

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