One of the side effects of this discussion has been the increased focus of the crew to make sure that: we're checking the halyards and sheets for signs of chaffing, checking the sail trim more frequently, taking a more active approach to our preparation for approaching squalls, more thought about what sails to use (particularly during the night watches), more focus on driving the boat, more talk and thought about what to do should something go wrong (such as what steps to take to help stop a broach from happening), etc. Not that we were casual or complacent about these things before – we certainly weren't – but unlike before, it is now much easier to comprehend why this constant, focused attention to detail really matters during a 2308 NM race (this is the rumb line distance, actual distance traveled is much longer). Each 06:00 and 18:00 update provides immediate feedback on why these things matter. Even as this is being written, a redoubling of the effort to check that we're doing everything we can to eek every last bit of speed out of the boat is actively underway because we're ~2 hours short of potentially finishing ahead of one competitor and we have only ~100 NM to make-up this time.
At the same time as the 06:00 and 18:00 position updates, Gunnar provides an update on the latest weather forecast and the effect on Hal's estimated time and distance remaining for String Theory to reach the channel that leads to the finish line. Each of these updates brings with it an interesting dichotomy; against all measures team String Theory is on the verge of meeting or exceeding most of the goals and stretch goals we set for ourselves before we started the race, except for one – to complete the race in under 14 days (elapsed time). Each update brings news that the estimated time to finish keeps getting pushed back. So much so now that the latest time slot available in the team pool (created the evening of the halfway dinner) for the estimated finish time – 8 to 10 hours after Hal's estimated time for entering the channel – is now at least two hours too optimistic (Hal estimated that we'd be there by 08:34 July 19; instead we were still about 120 NM out at that time).
Fortunately, not completing the race in under 14 days wasn't due to any mistakes on our part. It was entirely due to Mother Nature and what she did (or did not do) with the wind – as evident by the fact that all boats this year are taking longer than usual/expected. It is still a little surprising to some of the crew members who have competed in one or more previous Vic-Maui's that this particular race may turn out to be the one that has taken them the longest yet... And the later than expected arrival time does come with some extra strong motivation for the crew to make sure everything is done to ensure it doesn't slip anymore – and it is regardless of any motivation we may have to end up with a strong podium finish – it is as simple as we're down to the last roll of toilet paper!
P.S. Day 15 – Land Ho (Even Though We Couldn't Actually See Land)
Figuring the Race to the Finish would be a busy one and that there wouldn't be time to write a blog entry once we landed in Lahaina (which has proven to be the case; so I apologize for this very late entry), I had prepared the blog entry for the end of the race with all but the paragraph describing our “Land Ho” sighting of Maui and Molokai on our way into the finish line. I had the fullest of intention of sending the blog off once that update had been completed so everyone could hear how our last day went as we were experienced it ourselves. But as the saying going, sometimes the best of intentions don't quite work as intended. It has taken until today to find both the time and an internet connection. Rather than rewriting history, I'll update the last blog entry via this P.S.
It was expected that Top Gun Watch would be the one on duty at the first sighting of the Hawaiian Islands at ~40 NM out. But not surprisingly - with the combination of the heat, the excitement of being in a race to the finish, and the anticipation of being back on dry land where our family and friends were waiting - Black Watch, unable to sleep, was also milling about both below and on deck for the noon to 18:00 watch. While the day started out sunny and reasonably clear with our usual 15 to 20 knot winds, as we progressed towards Maui, the sky grew increasingly overcast. Around the time we figured we should have been able to spot land, ~16:30 or so, the Hawaiian Islands were completed obscured by low lying grey clouds.
The intent was to send out the blog entry with the 17:00 Roll Call but by 17:00 we still couldn't see any sign of the Hawaiian Islands – despite being about ~35 NM out. It was just as well because at that particular moment our internet email service provider decided that it wasn't going to receive or send emails. The sea state and wind had started to pick up a bit as well but we weren't too concerned as we assumed what we were sailing into ahead was just another squall; albeit clearly a larger one then we'd seen thus far (gleefully pointed out by Top Gun Watch as it was expected to hit just as Black Watch was to take over the next watch).
As part of our continued effort to make up the 2 hours needed to finish ahead of one of our competitors, we put up the S3 spinnaker during the watch change to take advantage of the wind shift the squall was causing (we gained a 2 knot speed boost as a result). Also, due to the problem we were experiencing with the email service at watch change, it was more important than usual for us to monitor the single side band SSB radio Roll Call from 18:00 to 18:30. We needed to radio in our update and ETA to the finish line (we're penalized time if we don't make Roll Call and the ETA to the finish line is a mandatory requirement spelled out in the sailing instructions (race rules)). It was during the Roll Call that we heard our first hint of what was to come with an update from Kenetic about a tropical depression that had originated off the Mexican Baha peninsula and was now heading up the east coast of Hawaii.
Don had the first hour at the helm and it was clear by the expression on his face and the way the boat was moving, he was having a blast and we were rocketing along (as Don describes it). The squall had hit by now so it was raining, the sea state had continued to increase and become more confused and the winds had continued to pick up. Tim took over at 19:00 and had pretty much the exact same expression on his face as Don. By this time, we were within 25 NM of the Hawaiian coast (the islands of Maui and Molokai) – and at another mandatory call-in point as part of the sailing instructions – but we still could not see the coast; there was nothing but dark grey clouds in front of us, right down to sea level.
Shortly after Tim took over and after three attempts in a row by both the wind and the waves hitting us just aft of broad side (about the worst angle to be hitting us) to round us up (i.e. broach), it was clear it was time to switch from the spinnaker to the #3 jib (our smallest foresail). This was a completely necessary move for safety reasons – not to mention for more mundane practical reasons such as the desire to save the spinnaker from shredding and the rig (mast, fore stay, back stay, shrouds, etc.) and the boat itself from damage but disappointing nonetheless because we were really moving at this point; 11 to 13 knots sustained with peaks over 14.
We were pleasantly surprised to see that the sustained boat speed was still about 10 knots (with peaks to 12) given the small size of the foresail, although with winds now peaking about 35 knots perhaps it wasn't that surprising. (I should mention at this point that the apparent wind angle – the wind the boat actually experiences – was only ~15 to 20 knots because of the angle the boat was traveling on with respect to the wind direction so we were well within the capability of the sail). With the sea state up even more, Tim was able to catch the odd surf which provided momentary speed boosts to boot although he was starting to spend more and more of his time working just to keep the boat on course. The large waves hitting us from just aft of broad side were hitting more frequently causing the boat to both try to round up and to heave from side to side. It was also around this time that we'd heard via the VHF radio that one of our competitors ahead of us had been called by the Coast Guard to assist with a dismasting (we assumed that the boat was part of the Pacific Cup race fleet that was crossing our course on their way to Honolulu).
It was dusk by the time the #3 went up and by then we were within ~5 NM from the Hawaiian coast, We still could not see land, just really dark grey clouds (almost black). Even so, shortly thereafter the shout went out – Land Ho – at about 20:15, not because any of us had actually sighted land, but because a light from a navigational aid on the coast of Molokai had been spotted. The visibility was such that we were sailing by compass and chart plotter alone; there wasn't a chance of actually seeing anything of use in front of us; even the light from the navigational aid was just a light glowing in the cloud.
By the time we could see the light on the traffic separation channel marker at the entrance to the Pailolo Channel between Maui and Molokai, we had basically given up on the notion of actually “sighting land”. We could now see the dim glow of city lights on Maui reflecting off of the clouds which would put us at the equivalent distance from “land” as one would be if they were about to sail into English Bay from the Straight of Georgia. The dim lighting from the city lights did provide us with one useful bit of information though - they back-lit a new set of clouds, very black, very low lying, and with a very flat bottom, directly in front of us.
These particular clouds certainly weren't a sign of smoother sailing ahead and, of course, by now we knew we weren’t in a squall but a full blown storm. The clouds ahead signaled that the storm was about to get worse. In addition to the wind, the really confused sea state and the rain, we were also being treated to a lightning show in front of us as we approached the channel (which perhaps should have been unnerving because we were, after all, sitting in a boat with a ~60 ft metal pole sticking up in the air). Time to be proactive and put a reef in the main (or in this case, we decided to go straight to two). However, just to make things interesting, given we were about to enter a channel with reefs on either side and we were now in a sea state with waves so high (~15 ft) and confused that maneuvering the boat head to wind wasn't an option, we set out putting in a double reef in the main with the boom still out as far as it could go on the starboard side (i.e fully powered up).
Excellent teamwork by all carried the day and the main sail reefs went in about as smoothly as they could have, just in time before the worst of the storm hit. And being still in full race mode – now only about 15 NM from the finish line – it was more important to maintain 9 to10 knots of boat speed than focus on the storm, despite the crazy sea state and continued hits by large waves just aft of beam. That was, after all, largely Tim’s problem and he wasn’t complaining (although none of us asked if he was just too busy to complain as he swung the helm from one side to the other side and back again, but that’s a minor detail (ok, I’m kidding, we did ask multiple times but each time it was a simple “I’m ok” or “I’m good”).
As we passed through the storm and into the channel the sea state calmed down almost immediately, the rain stopped, and the wind died down. At this point we could clearly (finally) see the lights, buildings, and even car headlights on eastern shores of Maui. Boat speed was still about 7 to 8 knots; still quite fast given the small sail area we had up but the comments made by more than one of us was that after days of 9 to 10 knot speed on average and 10s to 14s for the last few hours it seemed really slow (in English Bay, you'd be really happy with 7 to 8 knots of speed with a full main and your largest genoa).
The wind continued to drop to the point that we were getting concerned. With a double reef in the main and only a #3 headsail up, there wasn't a lot of sail area to catch the rapidly dying wind. However, the storm was still clearly visible behind us – lightening and all – and the risk was we'd shake out the reefs just in time for the storm to catch back up to us. With boat and wind speed still dropping as we continued deeper into the channel and with the finish line only about 3 NM away (about 40 minutes away at the speed we were presently going at) it was clear that the storm was likely staying put at the entrance to the channel.
The mail sail reefs came out just in time for the wind to continue to drop. Boat speed was still about 5 to 6 knots, but now it felt like we were ghosting along as the wind was light (or more specifically felt light because it was coming almost from behind us) and the sea was basically flat. This particular situation, one of the wind appearing to be about to die to nothing and being within sight of the finish line, brought up memories of 2012 Vic Maui race for those crew members on Team String Theory who were in that race and were stuck for over 3 hours at this very point; often moving backwards because there wasn't enough wind for the boat to overcome the opposing current. Not a pleasant thought and not a moment anyone wanted to relive.
Fortunately, as we were making moves to put the genoa back up, the wind picked up a little – really more a series of light puffs – just enough to keep the boat moving at anywhere from 4 to 8 knots and across the finish line at 22:15:44 HST. What a way to end the race, both with the last few hours having the strongest winds and worst sea state we saw the whole trip and with us basically ghosting across the finish line not more than an hour after passing through the storm. What a memorable and dramatic finish to a fantastic two weeks of racing with Team String Theory!
And just when you think there couldn’t be more to the story, Team String Theory was treated to an absolutely amazing reception at dock side by our Lahaina greeting party. The lays we and the boat were adorned with were beautiful, and there was an absolutely huge selection of home cooked food at the party: BBQ ribs, pulled pork, spaghetti with Italian sausage sauce, boiled eggs cut in half complete with a toothpick mainsail with String Theory printed on the sail, and I could go on – three table’s worth of food and drinks to choose from actually – all of it fantastic (boy did we wish had skipped our dinner earlier and brought more of an appetite then we did). The String Theory welcome poster was a particularly special touch as it was hand painted and quite beautiful. Team String Theory would like to send out a special thank you to our greeting party. Such a wonderful welcome, complete with all of the personal touches, made a memorable race just all that more memorable and special.
Of course, by now you've probably heard through the Vic Maui website blog or from friends or family that the “squall” we passed through was actually tropical depression Wally. Our competitor, who we thought was heading out to help a dismasted boat, was actually the boat that had been dismasted. To their credit not only did everyone on their boat escape without injury; they were able to jury-rig a sail and enter port under their own power, crossing the finish line at a respectable 4.5 knots or so, taking line honours for second division. Fantastic seamanship on their part given they only had a third of their mast left. And from reports we heard the following day from boats still competing, we figure we made it into the channel before the worst of the storm actually hit. One boat saw wind gusts up to 60 knots at the top of the mast; we only saw 42 knots. Another boat reported that it blew out its mainsail. And at one point they were also surrounded 360 degrees by lightning strikes and even had a corona discharge occur on the boat (basically one level below being hit by lightning). Quite the storm!
What is important to record in this blog is that there are two people Team String Theory owes a tremendous debt of gratitude to: John (Mort) and Marie. John and Marie are why Team String Theory exists and a huge component of why Team String Theory has exceeded the goals it set for itself. While it took a team effort to sail String Theory from Victoria to Maui, without John and Marie first providing a competitive boat for us to sail (String Theory herself), the 1000s of combined hours John and Marie spent: preparing her for the race (proactive maintenance, modifications, upgrades, additions, participating in various race committee inspections), working out the cabin logistics and its organization for 9 people, provisions for 18 days (again, we're all quite sure we're been the best fed crew in the Vic-Maui race), and all of the other planning, logistics, blood, sweat, stress and tears that goes with preparing a boat and putting a race team together for a 15 day race across the Pacific, we would have never even made it off of the dock. Please accept a heartfelt thank you from all of the Team String Theory crew members for all that you've both done for us.
And on a more personal note, Mort has been heard multiple times on this trip saying that one of the key motivations behind all of the effort he has put into making this race happen for Team String Theory (including providing String Theory herself) is simply so that he can share the experience with the good company of others; otherwise what's the point? Well, without hesitation, I can say that all of the members of Team String Theory consider themselves very fortunate to have been able to spend the last two weeks as Mort's crew (company); we couldn't have had a better Skipper (and host) at the helm of Team String Theory.
Signed: Before Attempting New Activities Nay Adventures Bring Real Energy And Determination
P.P.S. – The signatures at the end of each blog entry are an anagram of “Banana Bread.” This is a play on a PACE (Plan, Assess, Communicate, Execute) anagram label maker sign that was made up and stuck to the bulkhead over top of the door to the forward state room the day before we left Victoria. By accident, when Marie went to make the PACE label, she hit print instead of clear which caused the last thing in the print queue to print: “Banana Bread.” We didn't feel this label should be wasted so we stuck it up over top of the door to the aft head and challenged the crew to come up with inspiring Banana Bread anagrams. As this blog is a team blog with contributions made by all team members, the various Banana Bread anagrams the team came up with seemed like a natural choice for signing off each blog entry.