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A perfect day of winter racing, Transatlantic Race news

by David Schmidt 18 Jan 08:00 PST January 18, 2022
Racecourse action at the 2021 Duwamish Head Race © Captain Jan Anderson;

The roads were icy, but far less treacherous than I feared as I eased onto I-5 southbound at 0500 hours on Saturday, January 8, the bow of my car aimed at Seattle's Shilshole Bay Marina, some 80 miles to the south.

Amazingly, this motif of the day was somehow exceeding (or utterly obliterating) expectations continued throughout our team's entire experience with the 2022 Duwamish Head Race, which runs from Three Tree Point Yacht Club in Des Moines, Washington, up to the Duwamish Head turning mark in Seattle's Elliott Bay, then west across Puget Sound to Blakely Rock Light, before turning south again for the finishing line. And that's to say nothing of the delivery south for the race or the return ride home. Fortunately, the coffee was strong and there were zero supply-chain hiccups involved in its delivery.

The day took an unexpected twist when our bowman called with news that his wife wasn't feeling well and that - out of an abundance of caution - he was stepping off the boat, but Chris still turned up at the 0645 hours dock call, heavily masked, with a huge pot of home-made potato lentil soup for after racing.

I had plenty of time on the long delivery to Des Moines to consider how much better off our entire world would be with this damned virus if more people thought like Chris and took the high road, even when the price is lost day of fun.

As we approached the starting line, Jonathan, our skipper, prepped our crew of five (including him) on the day's mission. We typically sail with about eight or nine on Dark Star, Jonathan's 44-foot carbon-fiber rocketship, but today everyone would need to cover extra bases. While there was ample responsibility to go around, the breeze was steady from the south-southwest at roughly 12-16 knots, the waters were flat, the tides reasonable, and the rain non-existent. (This latter point was of special celebration, given the absolute hammering that the Pacific Northwest has shouldered since the start of the rainy season in October.)

Praise be!

Given that the starting line was short and our class fairly big, we opted for a conservative port-tack start, letting some of the smaller boats go first, knowing that we would easily roll them to leeward and get ourselves into a clear lane within a few minutes of the starting gun. Our angle out of the gate was a bit too hot to hold a kite, so we used our J2.5 and full main to work past the fleet before hoisting our A2.

The kite went up sans incident (a happy moment for me, given that I was covering bow and mast), and we soon started making great progress towards Seattle's Alki Point. The breeze was impressively consistent (not exactly a hallmark of Pacific Northwest sailing) and there were no "parking lots" or "restarts" as we slid north, our VMG bolstered by an ebbing tide.

Jonathan carefully picked the spot for our final gybe into the turning mark, and our crew pulled off a smooth letter-box drop that, while conservative in the 12-14 knot breeze, was a good call given our short-handed status.

Our J2.5 was soon pulling nicely, and Seattle's busy city-scape began sliding astern as we close-reached our way to Blakely Rock Light to the west. All was going smoothly, when we spotted some debris in the water, including a submerged-but-vertical tree. At the helm, Alyosha did a great job avoiding all the visible bits, but a few minutes later our SOG began plummeting and the steering got weird.

That's when Jonathan called that we had caught something on our rudder.

This might have been cause for concern on some boats, but the solid teamwork and calm atmosphere aboard Dark Star paid dividends as Alyosha simply kept driving, Mark ensured that laminar flow kept happening on the mainsail, and AnaLucia, Jonathan, and I wrestled with a long and annoyingly flexible stick.

We somehow dislodged the unwelcome appendage and our speed immediately ratcheted up by several full knots.

We crossed the finishing line hours earlier than I think I've ever finished a Duwamish Head Race previously on Dark Star (and I've done my share of them), and our small crew enjoyed a round of handshakes, a couple of chocolate-chip cookies, and perhaps the errant adult beverage as we used our J2.5 to clear Three Tree Point. Then, we hoisted the boat's cruising spinnaker and launched into what proved to be the best part of our day: The delivery home.

The kite filled, and Dark Star immediately responded, with our boatspeed instantly hitting the low-to-mid teens. A wild-looking silvery light played out on the nearby hills and towns as we caned it north, laughing, smiling, and truly enjoying some of the best sailing that I've done in years.

We were preparing for the final gybe that would take us from Bainbridge Island's Rolling Bay to Shilshole Bay Marina, with all hands in position, when somebody spotted the whales. We immediately hit the pause button and enjoyed a lovely showing of what we believe to be two fin whales tail slapping.

We nailed our final gybe, but I'll admit to feeling a bit sad as Mark and I pulled the cruising kite's snuffer down, ending what I can only describe as a purely magical day of sailing.

While we took line honors and ultimately finished in third place in our class, our post-sailing debriefing didn't focus on this. Instead, we talked about how we all stepped up to sailing in a shorter-handed configuration than we had been planning for (even that morning), and how - when the stick did get wrapped - we all stayed cool and analytical.

Granted, a lot of the boat's culture and impressive calm stems from Jonathan's fantastic top-down/ground-up leadership style, but, driving back home that evening, I realized what an amazing learning opportunity the day presented. Yes, we had perfect weather and great wind, but we also encountered a truly random and unavoidable problem, and we simply worked together as a cohesive team to get it sorted quickly and safely. And that's the exact kind of lesson that our entire crew can carry forward and help infuse into any crew that we find ourselves part of in the future.

While our Duwamish Head Race was only (ballpark) 30 nautical miles, I can only imagine that similar seamanship lessons have been playing out on the much larger stage of the RORC's Transatlantic Race, which also began on January 8 with 30-plus boats headed off on the 3,000 nautical mile push from Lanzarote, in the Canary Islands, to a finishing line off of Grenada.

Comanche, the 100-foot VPLP-designed maxi that was skippered by Mitch Booth and navigated by Will Oxley, took line honors and set a new monohull course record of just 7 days, 22 hours, 1 minute, and 44 seconds, which is an improvement in over two days over the previous record.

"Comanche is an absolute weapon in the open ocean; the benchmark in non-foiling offshore monohulls," said Booth in an official race report. "The team are just so privileged to have the opportunity to race this boat with the full support and trust from the owners. It's just a real thrill to be on board. The Comanche crew is a mix of very experienced offshore sailors, grand prix inshore sailors and a few newcomers. We are not in set roles; everyone is trimming and on the helm. We are mixing it up, having a great time. It's been really fun sailing together. Setting Atlantic records is iconic and very special. Comanche now holds records for both easterly and westerly routes."

The racing was just as intense in the multihull classes, with three MOD70 trimarans fighting for line honors.

Ultimately, it was skipper Giovanni Soldini and his Maserati crew that arrived first, with a time of just six days 18 hours, 51 minutes, and 41 seconds. Impressively, after 3,000 nautical miles of racing, Maserati bested the other MOD70s, Argo and PowerPlay, by just (roughly) 20 nautical miles.

"That was really fantastic," said Soldini in a race press release. "To do a transatlantic race like that with three boats 20 miles from each other is just amazing. We had a big problem the first night as straight away we broke the port rudder [after hitting an unidentified floating object]. However, in the second part of the race, luckily the angle was such that the starboard rudder was in the water."

This bit of luck, and a great navigation decision to round Barbados to the north, worked in tandem for the Maserati crew. "We decided to sail to the northwest and for sure it was a good idea," said Soldini about his team's navigational decision. "We crossed behind [PowerPlay and Argo], but stayed in good wind, which shifted right, allowing us to stay at maximum speed and come down to the rhumb line."

Sail-World congratulates Booth, Oxley, Soldini, and all other Transatlantic Race finishers on a great race.

Shifting gears, we also wish The Southernmost Regatta (January 17-21, 2021) good luck as they try and reinstate mid-winter racing off of Key West, Florida. Don't miss Sail-World's interview with Martin Kullman, regatta chair of this new-but-not-so-new event, and stay tuned for news from the Conch Republic, as it becomes known.

May the four winds blow you safely home,

David Schmidt North American Editor

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