Papillon was one of the 11 finishers, and boy, it certainly was a March race. In like a lamb, out like a lion!
We had a good start, got out the gate well and then hit the lumpy seas and no wind that existed right off Pt. Bonita. We got offshore a bit before our progress started to shut down, so we headed north and to get out of the worst of the flood. That was when the wind really died. We were seeing 1-3 knots of wind. Often from behind as we got pushed backwards by the big swell.
After loosing steerage several times going north on the port tack, I decided to go back on a starboard tack as I thought that it might be more favored vs the wave train. This turned out to be true, but I had to swing through a huge tacking angle to get anywhere (I needed to keep the apparent “wind” between 40 and 60 degrees to go anywhere). I crossed Millenium Falcon and Native. Native tacked with me, the Falcon kept going. I believe that they got stuck over in the wind hole that we barely escaped. After a little, we were able to head out to sea again and then we were off to the races as the wind filled.
Native was being sailed very well, they really kept the boat moving. Plus, the extra mass and waterline length helped them to keep their sails full. We were sailing with an Olsen 30, Dragonsong. As Native started to walk away, we switched to our genoa and actually started to sail with our sails full more often than they were flapping. For the next hour or so, it was a wonderful sail in about 8-10 knots of wind. My crew, Andrew Hartman, who had been violently seasick several times fell asleep on the leeward float (tethered of course) and dosed for about 45 minutes.
We were still with Dragonsong at this point. Then the wind started to build and we pulled away. As the wind continued to build, I decided that we probably were not going to reach the islands with the genoa up. So we swapped to the jib and tucked in a reef at the same time. This turned out to be a very slow process as we were crashing over 8-10 foot waves and we both had limited maneuverability due to the tethers. Dragonsong caught and passed us. With a reef in and the jib up, Papillon was much happier and we quickly caught and passed Dragonsong. We started to reel in a sportboat in front of us, probably Comfotably Mumm, a Mumm 30. But then the wind continued to build. We were pretty tired and I was worried about the backside of the Islands, and also about reefing when we were going downwind on the way back, so I decided to be conservative and throw the reef in early. We hove-to which made reefing very easy. Papillon was very stable hove-to and I was not thrown around like I had been when we were sailing during the headsail change..
Heaving-to meant that our big advantage over Dragonsong was gone and they passed us again. However, once again, Papillon was happy, we took off with a balanced helm and reeled in Comfortably Mumm. We stayed way wide of the islands and took off downwind. The first 7-10 miles or so were easy, then we hit some kelp. It is amazing what a sound hitting kelp at 15 or so knots makes. We got some on the rudder and the daggerboard, but did not want to try to get it off, so just kept going, only slower. The rudder started to vibrate and I learned after we had pulled the boat that an inch in diameter peice of kelp had managed to spit the leading edge of the rudder and wedge itself into a 2 inch long gap. This explained the vibration.
We went a bit south of the lightbouy, and were a little south of the first channel markers. At this point, we were getting very tired, we were cold due to the spray, and we were hungry as we had not eaten enough in the big seas. Suddenly, Andrew said, there is a breaking wave. And then we saw another, and then another. This was at about 6:30 PM, which was max ebb at the gate, a max ebb of -3.6 knots. I quickly drove the boat up into the channel so that we would not be in the breaking waves and could just watch the show.
Shortly after entering the channel I felt the stern get lifted up much faster than usual. I tried to point the boat straight down, but the rudder would not drive the boat and we rounded up. I shouted to Andrew to blow the jib sheet (which was cleated and not in the self tailer) and I dumped the main. I saw our leeward ama sink and sink while feeling the boat lift up. Andrew was having trouble dumping the jib due to an override, but some miracle happened and it eased about 2 feet before it bound up again. That was enough, the boat came down, the wave broke past us, and we headed back downwind. The one plus was that Andrew thinks that our kelp decided to drop off at that point, it had had enough.
At this point Andrew decided to just watch astern to act as the wave watcher and he gave me a heads up on when a breaking wave was going to hit. Through a combination of playing the mainsheet and focused driving, we were mostly able to just surf down the waves. There were some where I could see the entire front 1/3 of the boat just hanging over space, wondering what the ride down the face was going to be like. And some broke into the cockpit from behind.
There was one set in particular that was fun. Andrew called the first wave, it broke before it got to us and we rode it, then he said “It has a brother”. The next wave also broke just before it got to the boat and we rode it. Then he says, “And there is a little cousin”. I am thinking, Ok, we dealt with the two big brothers, how bad could a little cousin be? Well, the little cousin decided to build and break while we were riding it. It was a complete sledride with our stern in the midst of the break. After it went past I shouted, “That wasn’t a F*!#*ING little cousin.” Andrew calmly replied, “It was a Samoan family.”
Latitude reported that the Coast Guard said that the waves were 12-14 feet 8 miles out. Those seem small in comparison to the ones at the bar, so the bar ones were maybe 14-18? Maybe a few bigger? It was just hard to say. And the winds were certainly high, we were seeing 25 knots apparent with a wind angle of 90 to 120 degrees. Given our speed through the water, I can believe the mid 30’s wind speed, but 40 knots as the Coast Guard said? Well, that certainly would be a lot.
Eventually we got past Point Bonita, ate some powerbars, and pointed the boat home. Of course, Dragonsong, who we thought that we had dropped hours before, shows back up and we pass within a boatlength of each other yet again and they beat us to the finish.
What went right:
- We threaded the needle between no wind too much current and escaped early on.
- We had good upwind speed.
- We sailed a conservative race and were safe. We made decisions that kept us tethered even if it made for slower racing.
- We had beautiful weather, got a wonderful view of the islands, and came home with a great story to tell.
Where we could have made improvements:
- After the start, I was trying to get my big hiking stick set up to drive from the tramp and lost focus numerous times, squandering considerable height to windward vs the Falcon. I ended up ditching the big stick and went with a smaller one that was easier to control.
- It is unclear to me that changing to the genoa actually got us anywhere. While we definitely were faster for a while, I believe that we probably lost it all in the sail change, plus some. Also, I got really beat up on the pulpit changing the sail and lost my favorite hat to boot.
- While our reefs were done safely, they were really slow, we need to work on our reefing speed.
- Heading home I had the jib over-trimmed for much of the way. It was just a lapse of focus, we were so happy to not be bashing through waves anymore! However, it really slowed us down as Comfortably Mumm just walked away from us.
- After surviving the channel, we just kept pointing down the center of the channel, completely forgetting about the ebb. We were focused on bodily functions, eating, and being happy to be done with breaking waves. So, we were very slow in comparison to Dragonsong who made up probably 2 miles by going down the south edge by mile rock.
- We chose not to launch the spinnaker at the end and therefore gave up the last 13 minutes to Dragonsong, who did (we crossed one last time at the bridge).
The biggest place for improvement was in poor assumptions made prior to starting. –I thought that we would finish quickly.– I had said that we would not go out if the forecast was for greater than 10 foot waves on a 10 second interval and 25 knots of wind. I knew that the winds were supposed to get higher than that in the evening and that the waves would probably awful across the bar in at max ebb, but thought, I have a fast boat, I will not have to worry about those conditions. Luckily, Papillon took care of us and I had a great crew in Andrew.
So, I am happy to have finished, happy that the crew of Heatwave was saved, happy that all of the boats that did not answer roll call were just out of radio range, and happy that Sweet Jane’s EPIRB was set off by accident not on purpose. Listening to all of that radio traffic while heading home was certainly sobering.
Thanks to Randy and the rest of the race committee. They did a great job with lots of stress throughout the day. It was a DHF to be remember!