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An interview with Dave Wilhite about the 2020 Double Handed Farallones Race

by David Schmidt 27 Mar 08:00 PDT March 28, 2020
Papillon at Mile Rocks - Doublehanded Farallones Race 2015 © Erik Simonson http://www.pressure-drop.us">www.pressure-drop.us http://http://www.pressure-drop.us">www.pressure-drop.us

Hands down, sailing out under San Francisco’s fabled Golden Gate Bridge is one of the coolest experiences that any sailor can have. Not only is the scenery dramatic, but once you're a few miles out, the onshore world melts away and you’re immediately into offshore sailing conditions.

While this experience is magical aboard any boat and with (almost) any crew, the feeling likely compounds itself when there are just two crewmembers onboard, surrounded by the rugged California coastline, and, after some time, the wide-open Pacific Ocean.

If this sounds enticing, the 58 nautical mile Double Handed Farallones Race could be the next addition to your bucket or annual to-do list of sailing events. The event, which is organized by the San Francisco Bay Area Multihull Association, begins just off of the Golden Gate Yacht Club (GGYC) and takes the fleet of monohulls, catamarans and trimarans out and around the Southeast Farallon Islands (skippers can opt to round in either direction) and returns to a finishing line off of the GGYC.

Given that the race is held annually in the early days of spring, skippers and crews must be prepared for conditions ranging from light zephyrs to heavy airs and accompanying seas. (If this is starting to sound like a great doublehanded adventure, you’re on the correct tack.)

I checked in with Dave Wilhite, race chair of the Double Handed Farallones Race (Saturday, March 28), via email, to learn more about this year’s event.

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

The Doublehanded Farallones [DHF] race is a rite of passage for sailors on the Bay. We know people who buy boats and learn to sail with the hopes that they’ll be confident enough in their skills to one day race the DHF.

The shorthanded nature of the race makes it a stepping stone towards ocean competence. And then, for the experienced ocean veterans in the fleet, it gives them a chance to stretch their legs at the beginning of the season.

This race is a test of human and boat not to be taken lightly.

In your mind, what are the racecourse’s toughest segments (or biggest challenges)?

The whole thing! The wind and wave state can vary a lot over the course, usually with light winds in the morning building to blustery conditions by the mid-afternoon. You have to pace yourself and stay aware of the conditions, not just the wind and wave state, but also stay self-aware of your comfort level on the boat, and communicate with your crew to make sure you are taking enough little breaks to stay in top shape all day.

The current flow through the [Golden] Gate [Bridge] and variety of wind and wave to the north and south of the shipping channel makes it tactically challenging. In strong NW winds beating out in the open ocean takes a lot out of you.

Sometimes the route and conditions you mapped the week before the race work, other times the wind isn’t where you thought it would be, or doesn’t fill in how you were expecting.

How important is previous racecourse experience (read: local knowledge) in performing well in the Doublehanded Farallones Race? Or, is it the kind of race that a polished and experienced double-handed team from another part of the country (or world) could show up and win?

It helps to have some local knowledge, for sure, since the best track through the [Golden] Gate [Bridge] depends so heavily on what the current and wind are doing at any given time, and a handful of the locals know all the tricks. Mistakes through the Golden Gate are hard to recover from. Sailflow can deal with open water but can’t accurately predict best path close in.

That said, there’s enough people that fly in to do the race that this year we’ve moved the skipper’s meeting back a day, to Thursday night, to make it easier for traveling teams to attend the meeting. As a group, BAMA members are open to share information in the spirit of camaraderie.

If you’re borrowing a boat for this race-make sure it’s seaworthy and well-equipped with safety gear before you go, and that both of you know where your gear is and how to use it in an emergency (see for example: sfbama.org/fs/Dramatic%20Rescue%20in%20DHF.pdf).

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, wave period, etc.) relative to the course that inspires your answers?

My wife’s favorite conditions are four-foot swells every 12 seconds and seven to 12 knots of breeze from the south, since smooth, low waves and low-moderate wind reaching is super-efficient for a multihull. In these conditions she can leave the fleet on the horizon in short order, catch the ebb on the way out and the flood on the way in, have the boat put away before the sun goes down and not lose any energy to anxiety about the conditions. Also, there’s virtually zero chance of seasickness.

Personally, I prefer more lively conditions, say six-to-ten-foot swells and 15-20 knots [of] breeze from the northwest. Surfing home in these conditions is fun, fast and challenging, although as the wave heights it’s sure to get your attention!

It’s not unusual to get low-pressure fronts in March, with sustained winds in the 30’s and 12-to-18-foot seas, sometimes in close period and often with more than one set. A low-pressure front combined with an ebb can make for breaking waves over the bar, so you have to be realistic with yourself and your crew about the conditions. It’s possible the best call is to drop out and go home.

Fortunately, weather forecasting has improved over the last decade, and it’s possible to see (and visualize) with pretty good accuracy what the conditions will be about three days before the race.

In the fateful race of 1983 winds started from the east and as a cold front passed immediately shifted to the southwest and then veered to the south, which stranded the bulk of the fleet offshore struggling to stay off a lee shore overnight.

Looking at the entry list, are there any teams that you have shortlisted for podium finishes? Also, any dark horses that have caught your eye?

We just opened registration so not yet, but I will say the Moore 24 and Express 27 fleets bring out some really good competition [in the] One Design [classes] where finishers are [sometimes] overlapped after 11 hours of racing!

The trimarans Mama Tried, an Open 8.5, Hammer, a Seacart 30 and a couple of F31r’s are all capable of taking the race. It’s a safe bet that the first finisher will be a multihull.

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

BAMA has kept records but at this point we are in need of a historian to sort them out…. The best I can tell is: The course record for multihulls is Tomcat, a Formula 40 sailed by Zan Drejes. The course record for monohulls is Mongoose, a Santa Cruz 70 sailed by Stan Honey.

[I’m] not completely sure, but I recall both finished under five hours.

While we understand that the Doublehanded Farallones Race is mostly an offshore race, can you tell us about any steps that you and the other event organizers have taken in the last couple editions to help green-up the regatta or otherwise reduce its environmental footprint?

We’re in our third year of reducing the length of the race instructions, which down from 72 pages, we hope by now has saved some trees!

But, more importantly, the race itself connects the racers to the sea, with regular sightings of murrets, seals, sea lions, pelicans, whales and the occasional shark. I think the willingness for someone to speak out in defense of a natural resource increases with exposure. It’s like we’re growing our own little pocket of, uh, kelp huggers. We are giving [reusable] water bottles this year as our swag.

The race course itself is pretty special - the Farallon Islands are part of the Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary. The Gulf of the Farallones is a very nutrient-dense patch of water. The abundance of food attracts migratory marine predators from as far away as New Zealand and Indonesia (see: news.ucsc.edu/2011/06/costa-topp.html; news.ucsc.edu/2011/06/images/figure-1.jpg). The Farallones marine sanctuary is home to at least 25 endangered species (see: farallones.noaa.gov/about).

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

This race has been attended by a who’s who of Bay area ocean racing. The afore mentioned Stan Honey, Commodore Tompkins, Dee Smith, John Kostecki, Mark Ruddiger, Billy and Melinda Erklins, Chris Corlett, Chris Watts, Rob Moore, Ian Klitza, Peter Hogg, Carl Schumacher, Jim Antrim and many I’ve failed to list have all done the race.

[During] one of the more lively race years, the first finisher and the last finisher came in to the club to thank the race committee. Both pairs of crew were equally pale and soaked through with saltwater.

They summarized the day: Skipper of the F-31: “There were rainbows in the spray over my bows almost the whole way home."

Skipper of the Cal 20: “Twenty-foot boat, twenty-foot square waves... Not a good idea.”

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