To a novice racer like myself, a race start at Swiftsure always seems like pure chaos with ~190 boats all jockeying around the start line vying for their own idea of a perfect start with the odd (out of place) spectator boat, camera boat, or race committee boat thrown into the mix just to make it even more chaotic. String Theory was in the second start (Div 2) for the Swiftsure Lightship Classic course (otherwise known as the long course at 138 NM). After watching/waiting for the big boats to get out of the way (i.e. start), we worked our way to our position on the start line and with the blast of the 40 mm cannon from HMCS Nanaimo we were off on the race; or more specifically off on the start of the race within the race. While the primary goal is usually to be faster than the other sailboats, in the case of Swiftsure it is not uncommon that the primary goal is to first beat mother nature at her game at Race Rocks. This year, the timing of the flood tide was such that the faster one could make it to and through Race Rocks (the entrance to the Strait of Juan de Fuca), the better off you were in avoiding getting stuck (or worse, pushed backwards) by the strong currents through the narrow passage.
With the wind strength just at the limit of our #1 jib, we made good time to Race Rocks (and arrived there in the top third of our division) but found that the currents through Race Rocks were already very strong. From watching other boats ahead of us, it was clear that trying to make our way through the middle of the passage was a no go so the only option was to hug the shoreline and make use of the back eddies created by the ins and outs of the shoreline. And hug the shoreline we did. The second any boat tacked too far out into the passage, any progress forward was quickly lost by the currents pushing them back. So it became a game of who could hug the shoreline the closest to make headway as the sea room available between the shoreline and the current flow through the passage wasn’t more than a couple hundred meters wide.
After at least a dozen short tacks back and forth, and holding our own against our competitors, we made it through Race Rocks… only to find that the need to stay close to the shoreline was still there as the flood currents in the Juan de Fuca strait in general were now flowing strong. So in order to not just hold our own against our competitors, but to gain on them, it became a game of who dared to ride the tack the longest into the shore to maximize the benefit of the push provided by the back eddies. Fortunately for us, we had a daring team and a trusting skipper and as a result there’d be times where we’d be so close to the shore that two young kids could easily play a game of catch between one kid on the boat and one kid on the shore (or at least it seemed that way). Talk about exciting sailing!
And exhausting. The short tacks to and from the shore continued to be very short. The second you ventured too far out into the strait, you’d know it because forward speed dropped precipitously. And you’d also know it from judging your progress against your competitors. With each short tack you got correct, you’d pull ahead, for everyone you waited too long, you’d see them pull ahead. We continued playing this game of cat and mouse with the shoreline, with our competitors, with small islets, and the odd fisherman, all the way up the coast to just south of the entrance to Sooke harbour. There, a wind line could be seen in the not too far distance that suggested that even stronger winds were on the way. And just to confirm our thinking that a switch to the #3 jib would be a good idea, a strong gust of wind pushed us over to the point that the leeward cabin top windows were almost in the water. Fortunately a small island was placed perfectly to provide just enough of a wind break to allow us to execute a fast sail change to the #3. And it couldn’t have been more than 30 seconds after the #3 went up that we were hit by the wind line with winds that were just perfect for our #3. Have I mentioned it was an exciting sailing day of racing yet?
We continued on with our #3 and with slightly longer short tacks all the way up the west coast of Vancouver Island to just beyond Jordan River where the flood current in the strait had finally weakened to the point where it made sense to lengthen the tacks to a more “normal” length. We continued in this fashion until about China Beach at which point the wind had started to die down and thus a switch back to our #1 was in order. It was also this point where we decided to leave the coast and make our way as directly as possible towards our turning mark (how far to travel up the coast and/or when to cross to the US coast is always a debate). Along the way we were also treated to a show by a pod of killer whales that passed about 200 metres in front of us. Absolutely amazing!
Not too long into our decision to change direction and head directly to our turning mark that it became apparent that the hundreds of short tacks that we had made earlier in the day and the changes from the #1 to the #3 and from the #3 to the #1 had not been too kind to our #1. A small tear in the leach line sheath for the #1 grew to be a significant tear after only a couple of tacks; caused by the now exposed leach line getting caught on the spreaders with each tack. A sail change to prevent further damage was definitely in order but with the winds continuing to die, putting the #3 back up with not an option so out came the #2 cruising jib; a less than ideal sail for the wind conditions…
With the #2 up, an attempt was made to repair the #1 on deck and then again down below but a combination of the wrong sail repair materials on board and a wet sail that made sticking anything to it impossible thwarted the repair attempts. The wind continued to die down and discussion was had about putting the #1 back up because by this point the #1 could be hand tacked but in the end it was decided that it wasn’t worth risking further damage to the sail.
By just after sunset the wind had all but died and although our turning mark was in sight at just a few NM away, our time to the mark went from less than an hour to several in a short period of time. A recently received updated weather forecast didn’t improve the outlook; very light winds throughout the night and for most of the next day.
After a frustrating night of trying to make it to the mark, which turned out to be out of position by over a NM AND it also had the wrong indication lights on it because the correct indication light had burned out earlier in the day (which the race committee had neglected to tell anyone), we were finally around the mark just before dawn and on our way back to Victoria. Surprisingly (and happily) despite having only our #2 available – which was absolutely the wrong sail for these light wind conditions – we were still in the middle of a closely packed DIV 2 fleet. With the wind dying now to almost nothing, we switched to our wind seeker and made our way back to the west coast of Vancouver Island in hopes of finding stronger wind there due to the shore effect. While slightly better there and with progress that appeared to be slightly better than most of our competitors, progress was still slow. Another grim weather forecast received at noon combined with the fact that we had over 65 NM still to go, it became clear the best option was to fire up the iron spinnaker and call it a race.
In the eight hours of motoring back, the strongest wind speed we saw was 3 knots with an average of 1 to 2. While it was disappointing that we had to withdraw from the race, we at least had the after-the-fact confirmation that we made the right choice. Some of our competitors chose to stick it out much longer; presumably hoping for the wind to pick up again in the evening as per the latest forecast, but in the end, of the 23 boats in our division; only three actually completed the race.
So to wrap things up, while in the end the 2014 Swiftsure proved to be another “driftsure,” Saturday was an exhilarating day of white sail racing with a fantastic team. And we also learned valuable lessons about: how not to switch between the #1 and #3 (or vice versa), the need to improve upon our sail repair kit, the need for modifications, reinforcements, or repairs to our #1, #3, and main sail; and race and course tactics for getting us as quickly as possible up the Juan de Fuca strait. All which will prove to be invaluable experience for the main event in July; the Vic-Maui!