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A lesson in staying cool, calm, and collected on the 2024 Blakely Rock Benefit Race

by David Schmidt 23 Apr 08:00 PDT April 23, 2024
Dark Star, a Paul Bieker-designed Riptide 44, on the downhill leg of the 2024 Blakely Rock Benefit Race © David Schmidt

The table was set for a feast: a 12-14 knot northerly combed Puget Sound, accompanied by a flooding tide, and - a rarity for the Pacific Northwest in April-blue skies, mares tails, and sunshine. Our crew of six aboard Jonathan and Libby McKee's Riptide 44, Dark Star, had the mainsail and the J2 flying, and we were at the starting line for the Sloop Tavern Yacht Club's annual Blakely Rock Benefit Race (Saturday, April 13) in time to get a feel for the day's breeze.

Energy levels were high as we prepared for a short, three-quarter mile beat from the starting line, off Seattle's Shilshole Bay Marina, to a turning mark at Meadow Point, followed by what was shaping up to be an amazing downhill ride towards Blakey Rock, which is situated just off Bainbridge Island's south-southeast flank.

But, about an hour before of our Class 11 start, the DC power stopped flowing from Dark Star's lithium-ion batteries.

This meant no instruments, but—much more importantly—it also meant that we had no way to pump 250 gallons of Puget Sound's finest to weather, since Dark Star's water-ballast system requires juice. Upwind, that would translate to speed deltas of about 0.3 to 0.4 knots, and given that this was a handicap race, every bit of speed mattered.

The clock was ticking, but all heads remained cool, calm, and collected. We got the J2 and the mainsail down, rigged our bumpers and docking lines, and headed ashore.

Jonathan, Erik, and Mark worked out a plan: We'd hit the dock long enough to grab the voltmeter from the dock box, giving us about forty minutes to troubleshoot and fix the problem before our starting signal.

It would be tight, but we had the right people aboard. (I'm guessing that things would have gone even better if I hadn't accidentally dipped the male end of our shore-power cord into the drink at the dock as I rushed around in the mantra goes: "slow is smooth, and smooth is fast.")

That's when the comedy of dead 9 Volt batteries began: the voltmeter in the dockbox was cooked, as was the one aboard Chris's boat (Mark's wife). So, we swung into Plan C: head through the marina to Erik's J/105, grab his voltmeter, and hopefully have enough time to do some troubleshooting before the starting sequence commenced.

I've seen some impressive leaps from moving boats to stationary objects before, but none that touched Erik's move. (All judges gave him perfect 10s, even the Russians.)

Two minutes later he was back aboard, and we were making tracks towards the starting area.

Our plan was simple-but-demanding: Nail the start, push hard to Meadow Point, get the kite up, and then send Mark (who built his own airplane, which he and Chris have flown cross country dozens of times) and Erik (an engineer) belowdecks with the voltmeter and the toolbox.

Libby took the helm, Mark got on mainsail trim, Jonathan called tactics (while handling a million other things), Erik trimmed the headsail, and Chris and I took care of the foredeck. I tried to get the five-minute gun on my watch, but I was about 10 seconds late on the draw, meaning that I could only supply Libby and Jonathan with informational fog.

It didn't matter.

Libby and Jonathan worked an amazing start, and our trimmers kept us moving fast. We carried our port board almost all the way to the beach at Golden Gardens, banged a few quick tacks on the final approach to the weather mark, and hoisted the kite.

I glanced astern a few seconds after the A2 inflated: Mark and Erik were already belowdecks.

A small while later I hear joyful whoops from the cockpit: The lights were back on! (A wire had wiggled loose, possibly from our engine turning over, or from the small waves that had bounced us around a little bit earlier in the day.)

MacGyver jokes abounded as we set up for the first of three gybes that carried us to Blakely Rock. Chris did a darn good job up on the pointy end, hauling the soon-to-be-not-so-lazy sheet past the forestay.

Conversation was limited as we focused on speed and sailing the shortest possible distance.

We rounded Blakely Rock with a handful of J/105s, and began the uphill work back to Seattle. Thankfully the wind machine kept churning out the goods, we had a racecourse telltale (a TP52, and the only boat that owed us time) about a mile ahead, and several lifetimes worth of Puget Sound local knowledge (case-in-point: the persistent righty that usually resides off Seattle's Magnolia Bluff or the lefty in Shilshole Bay), all of which got leveraged hard.

We were sailing on port board as the TP52 crossed the finishing line, some 12 minutes ahead of us. I kept thinking that we were going to need at least three more putts to get home, but JM and Libby worked the heck out of a few thin lifting puffs.

We banged a single final tack and crossed the line, all smiles at our teamwork and perseverance in the face of what would have been a slower ride home if Erik and Mark hadn't successfully troubleshot the wires.

Our crew had a great dockside debrief, enjoying the warm sunshine and the camaraderie of longtime friends. While we suspected that we left little on the table that day, our conversation focused on the contributions that everyone made, and how we could sail even faster next time...not the results.

It wasn't until I got home later that night that I received the crew text from Erik with our report card: First in Class 11, first overall out of about 70 boats by a corrected-time margin of just 30 seconds. Given that the water ballasting contributed 0.3 to 0.4-knot speed deltas, this—plus fantastic driving, trimming, and boathandling—could have been the winning difference.

While the results felt sweet, the day's real reward was how our crew worked together to solve problems, sans drama, while having a great time.

Many thanks to Libby and Jonathan McKee for yet another amazing day of racing, and to Erik and Mark for ensuring we had that extra 2,000 pounds of brine on our weather rail for the uphill work.

David Schmidt North American Editor

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