Sailing to Catalina Island is no mean feat. Racing singlehanded or doublehanded around the back side of the island in the open ocean is a whole other animal. My mind was working overtime a few days before the Pacific Singlehanded Sailing Assocation (PSSA) race around Catalina Island. Will it be a good day? Will I have enough gas to travel halfway around the Island if something breaks? What if the wind dies completely? Nevermind all the rigging and racing setup. What’s the wind going to do on the day of the race? And more importantly, what’s on the menu for lunch and dinner?
Most of those thoughts had fled by the time I left the dock at 0800 for the 1100 start off Palos Verdes. I was enjoying the motor out of the harbor, the water glassy on this sunny day. My J/29, Ginger Lee, hardly left a wake as we made 6.5 knots out the channel alongside Cassiopeia, a new Hanse 37. As we motored out together, I heard the coxswain calling out cadence as an eight-man Cal Yacht Club rowing team flew by in a determined stride. I thought about the race, sail plan and wind conditions while motoring out to the head of the breakwater.
Joining up with the other PSSA boats, we formed a procession like pelicans in their early morning ritual, riding the wave tops in formation as we headed south toward Palos Verdes, some 15 miles ahead. I gave a friendly wave to the starting boat, aka the “rabbit,” which on this day was a Newport 41, a classic and timeless C&C design. There were 12 boats entered in this race in all—six in the singlehanded class and six racing doublehanded.
With all the boats simultaneously preparing and completing final sail adjustments, I decided that the light #1 genoa would be the right sail to start with. I also made sure my main had its reefing lines run and ready, expecting a windy afternoon as predicted by NOAA. I also rigged up another spin sheet and an outside jib lead on the port side just in case a wind shift would let me crack off at the West End.
I already had all the course positions plotted into my trusty handheld GPS. In fact, I think we rely far too much on GPS, but that doesn’t stop me from using it as much as the next sailor. Heck, at this point I’m not even exactly sure anymore what the magnetic course is from Palos Verdes to the West End of Catalina. My GPS tells me everything: course, speed, VMG, even the expected time of arrival. I have paper charts and a slide ruler, but who uses those anymore?
PSSA starts are very exciting, with all sorts of things going on at the same time. The right-of-way boat, or the rabbit, starts on port tack and everyone must pass her stern. The problem is that you can have really fast big boats going for the stern of the rabbit while other quick and maneuverable smaller boats are competing for the same space and position. This, in turn, can make for some friendly pre-start, shall we say, banter.
Generally, though, everyone is courteous and seamanlike at the start. There is no need to be aggressive at the beginning of a 41-mile race.
As luck would have it, I was the third boat to cross astern of the rabbit and tack over onto port, heading north by northwest. My competition, just ahead of me, was Biohazard, an ultra sporty 21ft Mini 6.5 with a 40ft mast. Make no mistake, this boat is fast and has clocked over 20 knots surfing downwind. The other boat just ahead and to leeward was Rubicon III, a Contessa 33, that always does well in all sorts of conditions. This is a very well sailed boat, and an even better skipper to compete with.
About a third of the way up the first beat heading toward the west end of Catalina, several boats tacked onto starboard. Now the fun started. Should I do a loose cover or stick to the game plan? I stuck to the game plan till I couldn’t stand it anymore and tacked onto starboard to keep contact with my competition: at least until it looked like the wind was getting light again up ahead, at which point I tacked back onto port to take my chances.
By the time I tacked back over onto starboard again, I was aiming at Parsons Landing, the point of land just below the West End. My GPS told me there were six miles to go. All looked good until 30 minutes later, when I found myself lifted above the West End, with the competition all inside of me and able to lay it. Luckily, there was more wind farther out, and I reached it in a narrow third-place overall.
Suddenly the wind went light, really light, and the pod of boats set about sniffing out the next puff in all directions—on port, starboard and—from close-hauled to beam reach. Bummer! Now what? I watched a few boats decide enough was enough and retire. Now I was in second place, but contemplating dropping out and motoring to Cat Harbor, when the wind suddenly started to fill in and the pod of boats became like slow-moving rockets, each blasting off and catching the new wind at a blistering 3 knots. It was like a slow-motion chase with my competition in hot pursuit.
The wind began to fill in nicely, and the fleet started hoisting its spinnakers one by one. It was a nice sail for a bit, but a very short bit at that. Just when everything was going well the wind started to pipe up dramatically, first increasing from eight to 10 knots, then 12, then 15, then 18 and more. What to do? My heart started pounding and my thoughts quickly turned toward how to get the spinnaker down quickly without dropping it into the water.
The resulting takedown was not exactly pretty, but it worked, as I pulled the lazy sheet in between the boom and the foot of the mainsail, which allowed me to keep the sail under control as I dropped it in 25 knots of wind without major incident.
Relieved to have it safely down, I sailed on to the finish wing and wing. The finish line coordinates were half a nautical mile off Catalina’s East End light at 350 degrees magnetic. At that precise point, bearing and heading, I crossed the imaginary finish line out at sea. I recorded my eight-and-a-half hour race and time into the ship’s log: Palos Verdes to Catalina race finish time at 19:38:23, which was the winning time for the singlehanded division.
As I motored toward my mooring in Avalon, a few bruises, a sprained wrist, and a post-race beer made the voyage all the more memorable. The wind had shut down, and it was a glorious night with no moon present. It was so dark you couldn’t see your hand in front of you except for the stars that dazzled brilliantly above. I was savoring the moment, knowing it could never be recaptured. Looking out toward the western night sky, I felt as if I had been instantly transported 1,000 miles offshore. It was brilliant. It was amazing. It was… fabulous.
SHORTHANDED SAILORS UNITE
Welcome to the Pacific Singlehanded Sailing Association, where some very good sailors on the West Coast are quietly doing their thing. We prefer the single/double handed format of yacht racing where skippers free themselves of all the hassles of outfitting a fully crewed boat. Simplicity, smartly rigged boats and thoughtful boat handling skills bring back the pure essence of what sailing is really all about. Competitors at sea, we are also a tight-knit group where the bravado and banter on the water is friendly and contagious. We talk more story than truths during our monthly meetings at Pacific Mariners Yacht Club. The yacht races are more like rallies where victory is merely rewarded with post-race bragging rights. Usually, the winner is roasted, then toasted, then congratulated at the trophy presentations. Find out more at pssala.com
Greg Rosenkrans grew up sailing in Southern California and has competed in many classic West Coast distance races. He won the around-Catalina race twice and the PSSA’s Dave Wall summer series three times. Illustrator Jeff Rosenkrans lives in Idaho.