Uphill Both Ways
“Orcas! Two-o’clock!” The call from the on-deck watch filters into the thin, relative warmth of the cabin on JAM, John McPhail’s J/160. I look through the cold, spitting rain at the sea’s tumultuous surface. It takes a few moments to spot the orcas’ distinctive white spots amid a sea of whitecaps. Then three majestic mammals appear, obviously interested in the parade of raceboats pounding into the stiff westerly breeze under grey, brooding skies. The male in the group stays on the surface a bit longer than his friends, perhaps to laugh at these foolhardy sailors bashing their brains out in this year’s 67th annual Swiftsure International Yacht Race.
The whales bring the first smiles seen aboard JAM since we started the race a few hours earlier. Around us, the Strait of Juan de Fuca (known on board as the “Strait of Wanna Puke-ah”) is rife with big, confused seas. The 25–knot wind—with puffs to 30—directly opposes the swiftly ebbing current. The boat falls off of a wave and then shudders as 17 tons of fiberglass and metal plow another hole in the water.
I take the wheel and try to settle JAM into a groove. We’re flying a reefed 3DL main and flat-cut #3 headsail. The boat feels balanced but the crosshatched seas are a nightmare. Finding a rhythm requires a funky combination of intense concentration, good predictive skills and a bit of self-deprecating humor.
I pull my bright yellow hood up over my thick fleece hat, hunker down a bit in the 47-degree temps and snicker at the idea that this is Memorial Day Weekend. June 1 is only three days away, and here we are dealing with winter-like conditions. A recent transplant to the Pacific Northwest from New England, I’m quickly getting “educated” about the local distance races. Like the big East Coast offshore events such as the Bermuda races or the Marblehead to Halifax, the Swiftsure is quickly proving that it can be a true gear buster. I’ve heard it can also be a complete drifter, with little in between.
Out and back: JAM’s course, the Swiftsure Lightship Classic—one of four Swiftsure races put on by Canada’s Royal Victorian Yacht Club—starts off of Victoria, B.C., and heads due west, down the Straits of Juan de Fuca, passing Neah Bay on the American side, for roughly 70 miles, rounds a Canadian naval vessel at station at Swiftsure Bank, and then spins due east, sailing back to Victoria, for a total distance of 138.7 miles.
Seems simple, right? The problem is that big tides rule in the Pacific Northwest, and local wisdom has it that races go a bit like this: the start, a drag race, a huge tidal rip that typically compresses the fleet (catching the back eddies is critical), a calm that stalls everyone except those fortunate enough to be riding a back eddy (Karma will catch them in their next life), a restart when the breeze picks back up, and the final sprint to the finishing line.
Depending on the length of the course and the conditions, a given race can have several compression zones and restarts, so picking the best line—or executing the best tactics—through the eddies is critical. Races have been won by crews that resorted to tactics such as anchoring in 300- to 500-foot depths to hold position until the tide changed.
Back on watch: Beep Beep Beep Beep Beep: My wristwatch alarm goes off at 2350. I have to be on deck in ten minutes. McPhail is pressing buttons on the GPS at the nav station, his face illuminated by the glow of his LED multifunction display. Sailbags and spinnakers are strewn about in a kind of roughly organized chaos, along with seabags, sodden foulies and sea boots. The smell of freshly brewed coffee stirs itself into the mix.
I pull on every stitch of clothing in my sea bag: a pair of Merino wool boxers, a pair of mid-weight Merino wool long johns, a pair of polar-fleece long johns, foul-weather-gear bibs, three wool shirts, a synthetic-fill vest, a fleece-lined bomber jacket, my foul-weather-gear jacket, two hats, a pair of insulated Gore-Tex gloves, two pair of wool socks, leather sea boots and my trusty PFD. When I make my way up the companionway steps, I feel like the Michelin Man.
JAM is sliding through the water at a modest five knots, carrying her A-sail as deep as we dare without accidentally gybing. An hour earlier, the 10-15 knot headwinds had rotated, precipitating a full-on sea change. An almost-full moon bathes the high cumulus clouds in milky light and millions of stars punctuate the inky heavens. Long-period open-ocean swells gently lift the boat. A few miles off our port bow is the Canadian navyship, our turning mark.
“OK, let’s talk about our takedown,” says McPhail. “We’ll hoist the #1 headsail to blanket the kite and then do a mailbox drop.” We quickly go through our to-do list of individual tasks. Headlamps are switched on as people take up their stations and we begin hoisting the headsail.
“Stop, stop!” Kerry Sherwin yells from the bow. “The feeder for the headfoil is broken! The sail has pulled out of the track!” Half of the headsail has been hoisted, and we still have a full kite to contend with. The afterguard exercises a combination of patience and good humor, and calmly overstand our position as we sort things out. On some boats there would be yelling, perhaps even finger-pointing, but on JAM there is only a constructive team working together.
Our rounding completed, we start back for Victoria. But as I steer, the wind starts clocking eastward until we’re beating again. Still, the seas are peaceful rollers, the breeze comfortable, and the sky beautiful with all the trimmings of nature that make night sailing so spectacular. Gone is the battle between the helm and the seas. The wheel feels light and steering is an absolute joy as we point toward the Washington coast, the steep, snow-covered peaks of the Olympic Mountain range painted ghostly pale by the moon, still high in the night sky. Memories of the afternoon’s drubbing quickly subside, and I fall in love with sailing all over again.
Parked: “All hands on deck! I want bodies on the rail,” McPhail calls out some 10 hours later. “We’ve got some wind!” I fight off my weariness, don my gear, and step out into a steady, hateful rain and a thin breeze that’s building by the minute. Predictably, it’s blowing from the east. Our course to waypoint remains 090.
“What’s going on?” I ask Sherwin, the watch captain.
“We’ve been parked here for the last two-and-a-half hours, sailing in circles,” Sherwin says. “The tide’s ebbing, and we’ve been sailing backwards. But it’s getting better.”
The water looks almost greasy in spots, stained by the struggle between the changing tide and the constant outflow of melting snow and rivers. Slowly, the wind gathers, and we’re soon sailing in 15 knots of air and flat seas. The overcast sky spits down a thin rain. I tuck JAM into a deep groove, careful not to turn her big wheel more than is absolutely necessary. The tide has gone slack. From the helm it feels as though the watery hand that’s been clutching her hull has finally relinquished its grip.
Watches fade into watches, the miles slowly reel off and a deep, bone-chilling cold sets in. Our bowman and cook, Steve “Cookie Galore” Case, keeps a steady stream of piping hot coffee mugs rolling from the galley to the deck. Tom “Jonesy” Jones keeps the humor light with tales of his wayward life. It might be raining and frigid, but it’s hard to feel too low with such diversions.
“Race Rocks!” bowman Chris Gross calls out a few hours later, pointing to a small island cluster that is just appearing through the murky rain. These islands, as their name implies, are a rock-strewn funnel through which great currents flow. Catch it right and you catch a conveyor belt; suffer the ebbing tide and you can battle for hours for safe passage.
Fortunately, the tide is favorable and a considerable tactical discussion ensues. Julia Bos, an Oceanographer in real life, is our secret weapon and helps read the current and tide patterns from a scientific perspective. Her knowledge, coupled with McPhail’s and Jonesy’s experience, positions JAM perfectly, and we blast through the rocks at 11-plus knots over the ground—impressive given that our windspeed is a modest 10-12 knots.
An hour later we cross the line. The engine is fired up, and the adventure concludes. By the time we’re tied up, the cold has relented and layers come off for the first time in what feels like ages. We learn that 66 of 170 boats retired from the race, and two were dismasted. It feels good just to have finished. By the time we sit down to a last crew dinner, talk is already circulating about next year’s Swiftsure. A selective sailing memory is a wonderful thing.
New England's Figawi Race makes ups the other half of SAIL Magazine's Tale of 2 Races