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Offshore Racing to Havana

We called it quits at midnight, about 20 miles north of the Dry Tortugas. For Russ Hoadley, owner of the Catalina 425 Blue Heron, and his crew, the first St. Petersburg-Habana race in 58 years was over.

Since late afternoon we’d been inching down the Florida coast in what was usually more or less the right direction, south, but sometimes north, east or west, depending on the whims of the fickle zephyrs that whispered coyly and then melted away without so much as a teasing sigh to fill our sails. Kite up, kite down: genoa down, reacher up. And vice-versa. So it went. Around us, the lights of some of the other 70-odd boats in the 284-mile race, which had started the day before on February 28, glowed red, green or white. Every so often, word of yet another boat retiring came through the VHF in a burst of static.

It was not the lack of wind that forced Hoadley’s hand, though; it was the promise of too much of it, from the wrong direction. The weather router who had counseled staying inshore to fetch a better breeze on the leg down the Florida coast had also warned of the arrival in the early hours of Friday of a fast-moving front that would whip the Florida Straits into a wind-against-current frenzy. Hoadley, having sampled the narrow entrance to Marina Hemingway once before, was not keen to risk being caught there with breakers setting across the channel and a hungry reef licking its lips to leeward.

Had we been cruising, the choice would have been clear; when you’re racing, not so much. The experienced crew, comprising Rick Jastremski, Bob Hoadley, Compton Williams, Gerry Douglas (the boat’s designer) and yours truly, was certainly not averse to a bit of the rough stuff, but the thought of arriving off Hemingway in 30-plus knots of wind, possibly in the middle of a moonless night, didn’t exactly fill us with joy. Being at sea in a heavy blow is one thing; trying to make landfall in one, quite another.

So that was that, and it was engine on for the next 17 hours as we slogged across a largely windless Florida Straits, passing a few boats in the racing class whose lightweight laminated sails did a far better job of catching what little wind there was. As dusk fell on Thursday evening we motored through the cut into Marina Hemingway, where we were treated to some easygoing inspections from a succession of smiling, joking police officers and immigration and customs officials before immersing ourselves in the solaces of the long-distance sailor; rum drinks, beer and food, firm ground under our feet and a hot shower.

At least we’d had a comfortable ride, with excellent food, a cocktail now and again, and cold beer in the hottest part of the day; it was a different story for most of the crews in the spinnaker A and B classes, who together formed most of the finishers in the race. Multihull star Lloyd Thornburg, forsaking his record-breaking MOD 70 trimaran Phaedo3 for a Carkeek 40 called Fomo, edged out Douglas Fisher’s TP52, Conviction, in a struggle that went right down to the wire.

In the PHRF classes, most boats scored resounding DNFs: of the four finishers in our 12-boat Cruising A division, the Oyster 745 Graycious and the 84ft Frers maxi Metolius disappeared from view on the first afternoon, their towering rigs capturing enough of the breeze to propel them toward and across the strait before the wind died away. As to what two maxis and the 122ft topsail schooner Lynx were doing in a class loaded with 40- to 50-foot cruisers, that’d make an excellent question for the handicappers.

And the predicted front? It was building up by Saturday, a full 24 hours later than predicted, having obviously dawdled about on its passage down the Florida coast. By Sunday it had strengthened enough that most boats were forced to stay in Hemingway a couple of days longer than expected, and it was still blowing hard when Blue Heron left to head home to Tampa the following Wednesday. With the wind on the beam the boat fairly rocketed across the strait, a taste of what we should have experienced going the other way. And just maybe, a taste of what to expect next year…

Photos by Peter Nielsen

June 2017

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