Crouching on the foredeck under our full spinnaker as we crossed the finish line in Victoria Harbor, I tussled Porter’s blond hair and said, “We did it, buddy. You’ve finished your first Swiftsure.”
He looked into my eyes, paused, and then thrust his arms wide for a hug while belting out a loud, unprompted, “OH YEAH!”
It was a moment I’ll never forget.
Porter might not remember that exchange with me, or the race for that matter, and that’s fine. But in that moment, I realized we’d given our child a special life experience unlike many others, and I know deep down that something about what we did — and how we live life in general — will stick. What that is, I’m not sure yet, but sailing is full of teachable moments, and at two years old, he’s got a lot of it left to do.
Simply put, the Swiftsure International Yacht Race is a Pacific Northwest classic. With several long courses to choose from, the race takes competitors from a starting point outside of Victoria Harbor, westward out the Strait of Juan de Fuca towards the Pacific Ocean and back to the harbor. We chose to do the 101.9-mile Cape Flattery Course, which has a turning mark at the entrance to Neah Bay, Washington. Swiftsure is notorious for either having very little wind, a lot of wind, or both. And the tidal currents encountered throughout the courses are always a major factor when planning race strategy and tactics.
When I signed us up for the race I knew we’d be outmatched by just about every boat in the fleet, let alone our division of six. While Yahtzee is fast and capable, she’s also our home, which means we probably have a more extensive library of children’s books aboard than any other boat, and our old, blown out sails can’t compete with the new performance sails of our competitors. But that doesn’t matter to us. And it’s not the point. Jill and I have raced Yahtzee quite a bit and make room for it in our cruising schedule because we enjoy the camaraderie of the race events and simply getting out sailing. On top of that, the goal in doing Swiftsure was to see how we would do as a family (with crew aboard for help) during a longer distance race.
Whenever we race, we always try to bring friends along for the adventure, and Swiftsure was no exception. We put out a bunch of invites, and when the RSVPs came back, it was our good friends Mike and Mark who rounded out the able crew of Yahtzee for the Cape Flattery Race. And when they jumped aboard at the marina in front of the Empress Hotel in downtown Victoria, I had no doubt we’d make a great team.
For a great blow-by-blow recap of the race, including lots of great images, visit Mark’s blog. Here are my highlights (caution, it may get a bit heavy on the sailor jargon).
The Start: Weaving our way down the start line off Clover Point on port tack, I called for the sails to be trimmed when I noticed a potential way for us to snake through the dozens of boats working up the line towards us on starboard tack. I knew this was a gamble, as they all had right of way over us, but the way the line was set up, they’d all have to flop over onto port eventually anyway.
We had good boat speed and as we sailed in through the crowd, I picked my spots carefully while keeping one eye on my watch. With a minute to go I saw an opening, had the guys trim on for speed and said, “We’re racing!” We hit the line moments later at full speed just as the gun went off. Above us on the line, most of the starboard tack boats we’d passed through were either tacking over to port or just getting up to speed on the new tack. We absolutely nailed it!
Strategy and Tactics: In yacht racing there is a distinct difference between strategy and tactics, but they are interdependent: strategy is the plan you make before the race and tactics are the changes you make to the strategy based on outside factors encountered along the way.
My strategy for the race was simple — finish. Since this was our first Swiftsure, I did some work on currents and where to be and where not to be on the course, and for the most part that worked out all right. Based on the current, I knew we needed to squeeze through Race Rocks, hug the coast of Vancouver Island and then jump across towards the Washington side and Neah Bay. I was also well aware that since I’d never done the race before, it would be hard to put a really solid plan into place before the race. Enter, tactics.
What this boiled our race down to was tactics. For the most part, we made the right calls on covering the closest boats in our division and finding wind. But there were also some notable moments where we should have tacked due to massive headers and times when we just flat out didn’t get the current or wind that other boats nearby were getting. In racing, there’s not much you can do about that.
There were also times when we weren’t able to cross shipping lanes due to oncoming commercial traffic. And I’m not one to press the issue when a 700-ft freighter is bearing down on us. This forced us to tack away and in the process cost us some serious time. In retrospect, we should have stayed on tacks longer to just avoid the whole mess.
A bright spot was our crew work and decision-making on sail changes. When the wind piped up we made the right call by reefing the main once, then twice, instead of doing a headsail change, which would have cost us far more time.
Fortunately, now that we have one successful Swiftsure in our wake, I feel a lot more comfortable and confident in planning the strategy for next year. Tactics are always a work in progress.
Night Sailing: When the cloak of darkness was pulled over the racecourse, the feeling was palpable. Our senses slowly dimmed, then changed, and for a time, steering and trimming became more difficult. But as our eyes adjusted, so too did the enjoyment of sailing at night.
By this time, we had rounded the mark at Neah Bay and were sailing northeast under spinnaker and full mainsail across the western entrance to the Strait. A trail of phosphorescence was left in our wake and we all remarked multiple times that we wish we could just change course, head west into the Pacific and keep sailing. It was that good.
At 2 a.m. and now reaching ever eastward into the Strait, I went off watch to rest. I drifted in and out sleep for a bit, listening to the rush of water beneath the hull, and after some time got a restless feeling like I needed to get up and check out what was happening on deck.
Sure enough, the on watch crew were tracking two ships and a tug towing a barge. The tug and barge was a threat, so I hastened my effort to get in my foul weather gear, life jacket and harness, and made my way on deck. We have radar and AIS (Automatic Identification System) aboard to help spot ships and other boats while operating in the dark or fog, but nothing compares to your own eyes. So when I was able to see what was going on, it was clear that we needed to make a change, not a drastic one, but a change.
We altered course to the north and let the tug and barge pass our starboard side. He knew we were out there too, and several times put his spotlight on us to get a better look.
It wasn’t long after that when the first glimpses of morning appeared in the east, and as the sun inched its way up, the cloud cover began to retreat. It had been a magical night of sailing and the finish was getting near.
The Crew: Mark and Mike were absolutely awesome, and from trimming sails and steering to going forward for spinnaker work, we all shared the duties. They helped talk through tactics, look for lines of wind and current, and at times suffered through my bouts of indecisiveness, “Should we do this? Or this?”
They were also rockstars on their night watches; dutifully watching for ships and other boats, steering and helping with jibes. Most importantly, though, Jill and I knew when we invited them to join us that we could trust them with our home and family. And that’s saying a lot. Thanks guys, you’re welcome aboard Yahtzee anytime!
Helmsman, Mainsail Trimmer, Jib/Spinnaker Trimmer, Foredeck, these are jobs on a racing sailboat. But the person with the toughest job aboard Yahtzee, and the one who shined brightest, was our Safety Officer, Snacktician, Childcare Provider, Helmswoman, Night Watch Captain and all around Badass Mother — Jill. I don’t know many people that can be down below for hours while beating to windward in heavy seas and manage to take care of children, cook and navigate without getting seasick, or at the very least, pissed off. I’m so proud…and fortunate.
Porter and Magnus have been raised on Yahtzee since they were hours old, so I don’t think they could really tell a difference when we were underway. Porter definitely understood that we were racing again and ventured out on deck several times, much to the crew’s entertainment. The day after the race he woke up and said, “Dada, race?”
Back in Victoria: When we entered Victoria’s inner harbor around 11:30 a.m., the sun was shinning bright, quickly warming up the day. Before going to our berth in front of the Empress Hotel, we stopped at the post race safety inspection dock where we were greeted by smiling volunteers with bowls of delicious soup — a Swiftsure tradition.
The looks on the faces of the volunteers waiting to congratulate us on finishing were priceless when they saw the boys. “These have got to be the youngest sailors on the race course. Do you mind if I take a picture?” one of them asked in amazement.
From there we took our place amongst the finishers in front of the Empress, cracked a few cold beers that had been diligently waiting for us in the cooler and toasted to a race well done.
We ended up getting fifth out of six in our division, and since my biggest goal was to just finish strong as a family, I’ll take that as a victory. Distance racing is for us.