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Wildfire smoke, Middle Sea Race, Route du Rhum, and Canadian Rolex winners

by David Schmidt 25 Oct 2022 08:00 PDT October 25, 2022
Outrigger canoes and other marine traffic ply the waters of Bellingham Bay during a 'low-smoke day' in mid-October; the `fog` in the background used to be trees © David Schmidt

It's not every day that you get to battle through a persistent high-pressure zone to get to the great breeze on the other side from the 'comforts' of dry land. Yet this is exactly what the Pacific Northwest experienced over the last few weeks. A massive high-pressure system parked itself offshore, blocking fresh airs coming in from the Pacific. This would normally be considered standard-issue summer weather, however the wild card this year was that this all unfurled in October, during a time of intense dryness in the North Cascades (our last significant rainfall here had been in early August).

The result, of course, was horrible wildfire smoke.

If you've sailed in Maine in the summer, odds are good that you have experienced the state's trademark pea-soup fog. Imagine this same dearth of visibility, but from smoke, not fog. This was our world for several days, as our air-quality index (AQI) spiked to somewhere around 220 (PM 2.5).

I thankfully have a stack of N95 masks at my house, which were in full rotation when it was time to take my dog around the block for his constitutionals. These masks, plus a portable HEPA air filter that I could set up in my garage gym, got me through the nasty air, but the experience wasn't fun.

Like many sailors, I spend more than my fair share of time studying weather models on Predict Wind, but I can't say that I have ever studied how quickly isobars are moving over my roof.

But, just like anyone who has experienced a multi-day lull while sailing offshore, I was struck by how quickly mindsets changed once the new airs arrived. In the span of about 12 hours, our AQI dropped from the low 200s to around 50, and it was like a light switch being flipped: runners, pedestrians, maskless dog-walkers, and little kids on bikes all emerged within hours. I was one of those runners and one of those maskless dog walkers, and while it felt absolutely wonderful to be outside in clean, fresh air again, it demonstrated how quickly the human brain can adapt to wind shifts, once the weather gods deliver.

We could ponder how and why the smoke got so bad on the West Coast, as well as what the future of this beautiful stretch of North America might look like in the face of intensifying climate change, but we will stay on topic and empathize with the sailors who are contesting the Rolex Middle Sea Race.

While these sailors (thankfully) haven't been contending with downright unhealthy levels of wildfire smoke, the winds have been light and progress has been slow in this race, which is considered to be one of the "classic" 600-plus nautical mile races (along with the Bermuda Race, the Sydney Hobart, and the Fastnet). As of this writing, the four leading boats, all MOD70 trimarans, were sailing at speeds between 11-13 knots (read: slow by their lickety-split standards), while the big monohulls, all a good ways astern of the trimarans, were also posting low double-digit speeds.

A glance at the weather reveals winds between 5-15 knots coming from all different directions on different parts of the course, while a glance at the different yachts' GPS trackers reveals the art of keeping boats moving in thin ribbons of air.

Sail-World wishes speedy and safe passage to all teams participating in this classic offshore contest.

Meanwhile, also in Europe and also involving fast boats, singlehanded sailors, and big offshore adventures, the race village is opening today (Tuesday, October 25) for La Route du Rhum, which is set to depart from Saint-Malo, France, for Guadalupe, on Sunday, November 6. According to the latest reports, 138 solo skippers will be racing aboard Class 40s, IMOCA 60s, Ocean Fifties, and Ultim 32/23s.

"The extremely even level in the Ultim 32/23, Ocean Fifty, IMOCA, and Class40 classes is outstanding," said Francis Le Goff, La Route du Rhum's race director, in an official race communication. "The best in each class, the favorites of each class, are present which bodes well for some very good battles on the water."

Racing begins in less than two weeks, so stay tuned to for the latest La Route du Rhum news, as it unfurls.

Meanwhile, back on the North American continent, Sail Canada hosted their annual Rolex Sailors of the Year awards for the 2021-2022 sailing season. Sisters Antonia and Georgia Lewin-LaFrance, who compete in the 49erFX class and in SailGP aboard the Canadian-flagged team, took home the evening's top prize. The sisters were specifically honored for collecting a bronze medal at the 2021 49erFX European Championships, posting a sixth-place finish at the 2021 49erFX World Championships, and finishing in third place at the 2022 Kiel Week.

"Thank you to Sail Canada for all the support and this prestigious recognition," said Antonia and Georgia in an official Sail Canada release. "To our sponsors, supporters, family, friends and coaching team: thank you for getting us here."

Additionally, ILCA 6 sailor Sarah Douglas and ILCA 7 sailor Tom Ramshaw were presented with the Gallagher Skippers' Plan 2021-2022 Female and Male Athletes of the Year Awards (respectively). These awards are given to current members of the Canadian Sailing Team with a strong record of achievement. Douglas, it should be noted, was the female recipient of the previous two Sail Canada Rolex Sailor of the Year awards.

Finally, there's good news for sailors who are campaigning for the Mixed Two Person Dinghy event (read: 470s) at the Paris 2024 Olympics. Mat Belcher, Australia's most decorated Olympic sailor, is retiring from Olympic sailing and will take over as CEO of Zhik, which manufacturers sailing apparel.

Belcher, it will be remembered, took gold in the Men's 470 class with Malcolm Page at the London 2012 Olympics, followed by a silver medal performance at the Rio 2016 Olympics with teammate Will Ryan. Belcher and Ryan then earned gold at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

While this marks the end of an era for one of Australia's best Olympic class sailors, it's great news for Zhik (Belcher recently completed a double master's degree program and has been involved with some business ventures, in addition to helping raise his family of four children), and for other 470 sailors who have been struggling to find a clear lane somewhere astern of Belcher.

Given how long we in the Pacific Northwest had to wait for clean air this fall, and how good it felt to get out for a run once the rain and winds returned to this normally mossy land; one can only imagine that this news is a good thing for all involved.

May the four winds blow you safely home,

David Schmidt North American Editor

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