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A Q&A with Dean Conti and Charles Hendrick on the 2022 Duwamish Head Race

by David Schmidt 5 Jan 08:00 PST January 8, 2022
Racecourse action at the 2021 Duwamish Head Race © Captain Jan Anderson; www.janpix.smugmug.com

The Pacific Northwest is easily one of the prettiest places in the world, especially when the sun is shining and the snow- and glacier-covered mountains are visible. The trouble, of course, is that the area's great summer weather comes courtesy of big high-pressure systems that deliver sunshine but rob us of wind. Enter winter racing, when the weather can be decidedly worse but the wind is (typically) more predictable (sometimes). It took me a season or two to adjust to this calendar when I moved to the area in 2009, but after experiencing my first Duwamish Head Race (2011), I quickly saw the logic. (Especially when my wife and I went skiing the next day.)

While Puget Sound is home to several great winter races, including the Southern Sound Series (SSS; this involves the Winter Vashon Island Race [December], Duwamish Head [January], Toliva Shoal [February], and the Islands Race [March]), I've always enjoyed the Duwamish Head Race (January 8, 2022), which is hosted by the Three Tree Point Yacht Club, in Des Moines, Washington.

The race starts and finishes off of Three Tree Point and takes the fleet north to Seattle's Elliott Bay and a turning mark at the head of the Duwamish Waterway before crossing Puget Sound, rounding Blakely Rock Light, and then punching south back to the finishing line.

While I've seen everything from nuking winds to absolute parking lots, not to mention mornings spent chipping ice off the decks, for those of us aboard Jonathan McKee's Riptide 44, Dark Star, the 2020 race was perfect: steady wind for our whole course, only a little bit of rain (memories can turn golden, but I think it was less than 10 minutes), a chance to fly a variety of off-the-wind sails, and a final beat that we laid sans a single tack. We were back at the dock well before sunset.

Little did we know that this would be our last fully crewed race for well over a year.

Fortunately, the band is back together, and your humble scribe is really looking forward to seeing what the weather gods deliver for the 2022 event.

I checked in Dean Conti and Charles Hendrick, who serve as chair of the 2022 Duwamish Head Race and commodore of the hosting Three Tree Point Yacht Club (respectively), via email, to learn more about this classic Pacific Northwest winter event.

Can you please tell us a bit about the Duwamish Head Race, its history and culture, and the kinds of teams and sailors that one can expect to find here?

CH: The SSS has a long history in the area started sometime in the 70s and has seen many strong sailors and crews. The SSS attracts sailors that want to do well over the varied conditions and circumstances that [the four] races have to offer. The series offers a chance to throw out one race, it is a best three out of four.

So, I think you find sailors that are in the "long game" competition for the series. Clubs also put [three] boats into a "team" competition as well.

But the Duwamish Head is the most northern race (closest to Seattle) than all the rest and it is the beginning of the year. So, I think you get a 10 to 20 boat bump in registration from Seattle area sailors that want to start out the year with this race and don't necessarily think about the series,

Vashon Island got over 55 registrations, which hopefully will predict 65 to 75 for [the] Duwamish Head]. To put this in context over the decades, 200 boats were registered in the early years of Duwamish Head.

DC: We have always had the full spectrum of racers, hard core to cruisers. The winds frequently give us a windward/leeward race with plenty of tacking and gybing with a tight reach to Blakey Rock.

[The Duwamish Head Race] has to deal with more ferry traffic than the other three races [In the SSS], so that keeps you on your toes. Based on my experiences competing in this race for 30+ years with Chinook and now Equus, [my Jeanneau 519] I estimate we see Orca 10% of the time.

Weather-wise, what kind conditions can sailors expect to encounter on Puget Sound in early January? What are the best-case and worst-case weather scenarios?

CH: Well, anyone that has lived in the area knows that the waters [can] go from placid to raging in a matter of hours. So, we spend a lot of time looking at the weather forecast to prepare the Race Committee, as well as the sailors. Duwamish Head has been canceled for too much wind and not enough wind.

Best case vs worst case depends on your boat and perspective, the big boats have an easier time of it compared to some of the smaller boats.

What you described, "2020 event, for us (Dark Star) was a magical event," was not necessarily "magical" for others. The last portion one to two nautical miles of the race gets exposed to a long fetch from Tacoma to the Des Moines finish, I was in my 32.5 ft Aphrodite with the my largest jib and was greeted by 30 knot winds and 3-4 waves from the southwest when we hit this stretch, short but it hammered us; [we] had to get the jib repaired because it was flogging itself to death.

DC: As with all racing in Puget Sound, we can suffer from zero to too much wind.

I remember one year the race was cancelled with high winds causing a significant safety issue at the entrance to the marina. Did not want to take a chance with the fishing pier only a few feet away.

At 34,000 pounds, on Equus we like 20+ knots and contrary current to really get after the competition. In light winds we just watch everyone walk (or run) away.

What about tides? How big of a roll do they play in the Duwamish Head Race?

CH: Local knowledge is always key when racing in [the] Duwamish Head, particularly in lighter air. Knowing the which eddies to avoid, which eddies lines to catch is very important in light air. Knowing where the air will pick up quicker in lulls is always an advantage.

Bigger boats are lot more comfortable in big air and smaller boats tend to be more responsive in light air, but the conditions level the field.

Entering Elliot Bay can be a challenging to get to [the] Dolphin [Aid to Navigation, which is a turning mark]. Incidentally that Dolphin, the Duwamish Head mark is the only place that the race can be shorted (the SIs mention Blakley Rock as an alternative but it is not practical).

DC: There are a number of areas where local knowledge is beneficial.

The current can be quite strong particularly at the points. Going deep to the left or right usually does not pay. Lifts and current velocity/protection at Three Tree Point can produce gains.

The run to Duwamish Head from Alki Point can be very tricky depending on the wind direction. You have to constantly monitor the conditions to decide to stay right or to make a circle route to the left.

There is also the effect of water leaving the Duwamish River at the turning mark.

Don't cut too close to Blakely Rocks, especially on the north side! On the south bound trip, you need to monitor the north flowing current out of Colvos Passage. Stay close to Three Tree Point.

In heavier conditions you can go directly to the finish from Three Tree Point. If it's light you may have to make the great circle route to the right to the finish. Sometimes we joke that you need to go to Tacoma before gybing or tacking to the finish line. It can be very light the last few hundred yard so reaching in can work well.

If you could offer one piece of advice to visiting and local teams, what would it be?

CH: Enjoy the race, don't get to hung up on the results.

How many teams are you expecting? Do you have any teams that you are eyeing for podium finishes? What about any dark horses who you think could prove to be fast, once the starting guns begin sounding?

DC: There will probably be five club teams. As a side note the TTPYC team won the team trophy three out of four years before Covid.

Can you tell us about any efforts that you and the other regatta organizers have made to try to lower the regatta's environmental footprint or otherwise green-up the regatta

CH: No, if your readers have any suggestions on what we can add to our SI's, please send us those comments.

Is there anything else that you'd like to add, for the record?

CH: Hope to see you in the race!

Many thanks to Captain Jan Anderson for the great images. You can see more of her work at janpix.smugmug.com

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