What a Fiasco!

By Kimball Livingston

There's no explaining the Three Bridge Fiasco to people who expect things to make sense. We're talking about a race sailed in the dead of winter, when you can't count on breeze on San Francisco Bay, but you can expect the currents to be running big-time. A bay, we call it, because the sea floods in, but the Golden Gate is also a drain spout for 16 rivers swollen with winter rain.

Racing the Three Bridge Fiasco, you have three marks to round. Each mark is at or under one of three bridges. The shortest-possible route (over the ground, not necessarily the shortest route through the water) is 21 miles, and it does not simplify things at all that going from a reverse-order, pursuit start, you may round these marks in any order or any direction at all. Time and again this race draws the biggest fleet for any race of the year in Northern California. Which only goes to show, if you declare a fiasco, they will come. Darned if the name isn't a brilliant stroke of marketing.

Myself, I see no point in sailing a cult race, which is what this has become, in anything less than a cult boat. That's what brought me together with Rowan Fennell, high priest of the Cult of the Moore 24, classic plastic of the first order. While planning our race (the 2007 edition of the Fiasco) and sailing it, I got the lowdown, and how, on a fleet that would consider it perfectly normal to gift newlyweds with a brand new jib. A jib that might look a lot like this one . . .

We were entered as one of 35 doublehanded Moore 24s, and the tide was working against us at the start and the wind was wimping out. The race promised to be quirky all the way, with lots of opportunities to blow a tire and hit the ditch. Rowan and I had independently assessed the strong ebb currents and decided that they argued for a counterclockwise circuit. From a cityfront start, that meant first laying Yerba Buena to port—Yerba Buena is a small island with the Bay Bridge passing through a tunnel between east and west segments—and then racing upriver to Red Rock, which is a big red rock (trust me on this one) near the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge and smack-dab in the river channel. Then, should plan and reality meet and agree, we would make our way down-tide to the final mark at the Golden Gate Bridge, and home.

Our assessment matched the general opinion, and we stuck with the game plan, but other people launched their own private fiascos by deciding to go where the current wanted to take them (the Gate) or uptide to Red Rock because, you see, there was this tempting wind line en route. For part of the way.

Most of the fleet went with us, but you couldn't count on anything. Rowan's wife, Vikki, who would otherwise have been in my spot on Paramour, sailed on Moore 24 #136 with Dave Albright. When a starting-line hole opened up around them, they lost so much time right there that they eventually finished two hours behind us.

I won't drag you through details of the agonizing crawl of that first stage, hugging the shoreline for current relief, occasionally gambling on wind outside and sometimes winning and sometimes losing. If you've ever had two flat tires in one day, you get it. Then, to reach the island, we had to abandon the protection of the cityfront and cross a massive flow of ebb in the channel. Once across, we had to hug the island for protection. How close? Up ahead of us, Melinda and Bill Erkelens in their newly-purchased Moore 24, Tortuga, were on their way to winning this show overall. Melinda's recollection of how close: "I could see the different colors of the starfish." In different boats, the Erkelens have won before, overall, and once in division. Bill says, "I was sitting down, braced for impact, thinking, 'We just bought this boat.' "

"Nobody" explores Yerba Buena in this fashion. Regular races just don't go there. But had we stuffed good old Moore 24, #75, Rowan was in the unique position of having another #75 in the barn. Because, you see, you can't explain the Moore 24 to people who expect things to make sense. Out west, the Moore 24 is known as a tough, capable, pocket rocket that has made many crossings to Hawaii. It is a preferred instrument for shorthanded ocean racing. Had it been promoted as astutely as the competition in its 1972-1988 run, there would have been a gazillion of these things launched instead of 152. And, perhaps, something would have been lost.

Moore 24s were born in the heyday of ULDB building in Santa Cruz, which was (how do I say this) a special time and place. It really is not so strange that Ron Moore's shop, "Moore's Reef," would have turned out two hulls numbered 75. The story has something to do with a bit of partying along about the same time, and really, is it such a big danged deal if somebody "had a Santa Cruz moment?" 75 is a nice number. In fact it's a very nice number.

We got through a heap of boats on the way to Red Rock (we bet good, and I'd best say we bet lucky) and rounded a few feet behind the new owners of #85, Scott Easom and Kermit Schickel. I didn't mind rounding on their tail because they had been way-doggies of us ahead at Yerba Buena. This was progress. What I minded is that we couldn't pass them, and they even pulled out on the next two legs.

In my dream, that never happens.

My good skipper Rowan, meanwhile, shared the helm and did all the hard work of getting sails up and down. Oh, that everyone I sail with could be such a saint. But he comes by it honestly, having grown up thinking of a Moore 24 as a second home.

In years past, the family kept #75 (pick a 75, any 75) upriver, where San Francisco Bay sailors go for summer cruising. It wasn't the prettiest, mostest Bristolest yacht in the water, but it didn't need to be for running onto mud shoals and jumping overboard to push off (draft 4 feet) and sailing on to the next tule-lined playground. Then Rowan grew up, crewed a lot of races, and got the itch to skipper. One step at a time, the boat was transformed into a class champion.

Which is how the Fennell family lost its upriver cruiser. Which is why they, and especially father Michael, were vulnerable when a Moore 24 showed up on eBay. The legendary, thought-to-be-lost, other 75. Fate is fate. Rowan has a twin brother; it fits, somehow. And so came the epic road trip to far-from-Frisco Missouri, And so there remained the mystery of whether or not one of the interim owners really killed to get #75 (and a warehouse full of other boats). There remained the thrill of discovering a boat that was still original, without a single extra hole in the deck. And there is now the satisfaction, for Michael especially, of having another upriver cruiser in the family.

A fiasco? We wound up 16th overall and 10th in Moore 24s. It mattered while we were sailing, not so much once we hit the dock. Some 140 boats made the finish ahead of the 1900 deadline. Thomas Jenkins and Eric Kownacki were second overall and first doublehanded Express 27—a considerable showing of 19 boats. Only 51 minutes behind the first-place Erkelens duo came Terry Cobb and his Express 27, Mirage, first singlehanded finisher. The Singlehanded Sailing Society of San Francisco Bay runs the Fiasco, but they liberally include the more-populous doublehanders.

Later, on the sidelines, I talked to Brad Butler, second in Moore's and a class legend from way up in Seattle, who proudly declared, "I haven't missed a race with the fleet in at least three years."

Butler once owned two Moore 24s but sold #85 to Easom and Schickel, he said, "After experimenting with our little AC-style program." Trailering #72 down for the first race of the year, Butler didn't pop a sweat in his standard 15-hour journey. He explained: "We have it down to an art. With an hour off for bad behavior, it's pretty easy."

Fifteen hours each way. Pick two lines and stay between them. For one race.

See? You can't explain this to people who expect things to make sense. But you can explain it to people who love sailing so much it hurts.

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