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Two's Company in San Francisco's Doublehanded Racing Scene

Maybe it means something that 20 percent of the 2014 Pacific Cup fleet is sailing doublehanded. Maybe it means something that the biggest annual race on San Francisco Bay is a goofy winter event for one- and two-person crews.

Maybe it means something that 20 percent of the 2014 Pacific Cup fleet is sailing doublehanded. Maybe it means something that the biggest annual race on San Francisco Bay is a goofy winter event for one- and two-person crews. And maybe it means something that the Singlehanded Transpac is simply an event on the calendar, as opposed to a point of controversy, as it was when it started 35 years ago. Shorthanded sailing is having a heyday in Northern California, and its driving forces fit into the big picture of sailing in 2014.

• The average raceboat has grown smaller. (Even as the average cruising boat has grown larger—go figure).

• Keelboat owners bemoan the difficulty of finding, keeping and feeding skilled crew.

• Many people yearn to escape predictable windward-leeward courses.

So, a smaller boat is easy enough to sail shorthanded. It’s easy enough to provision for only one or two. And nobody, but nobody, sails shorthanded windward-leeward races. Are we making sense here?

On the San Francisco Bay racing calendar, in addition to the annual Doublehanded Lightship Race, 11 miles out beyond the Gate and back, there is a Fully Crewed Lightship Race a few weeks later, with a doublehanded division added by popular demand. And while its name is nothing more than a wry nod to the Bermuda One-Two, the 20-mile inshore Vallejo One-Two race is another newcomer on the calendar, along with a slew of other inshore races.

Thirty-five years ago, shorthanded sailors were revolutionaries. Today they are an enclave of Corinthian holdouts. Which is not to say that these are boom times and everyone is slap-happy. There’s a lot of adjusting afoot. 

In Northern California, the poster child boat for shorthanded sailing is the Moore 24, born in a heyday of its own, when Santa Cruz was cranking out sleds that rocked the world. Easily handled, controllable, fast and tough, this George Olson-designed 24-footer has a near-cult following. “I bought a Moore to do the doublehanded races,” Peter Trachy says. “It’s an easy way to have fun. On a fully crewed boat, there’s a lot of race time when two of your people have nothing to do. And I like racing on the ocean. It’s beautiful. But it’s a bit much for me to supply the required flotation for a full crew, and to find people who meet the safety training requirements too. It’s easier to go short. The requirements for the ocean are driving people that way because of gear and training.”

We should explain that the rules of engagement are a little different here. Sailing on San Francisco Bay is known to be windy and often rough, and the Golden Gate opens onto the Gulf of the Farallones, a demanding patch of water that has claimed more than its share of boats, lives and headlines over the years. The standards for local racing outside the Gate have therefore ratcheted upward, and they have been largely adopted as US Sailing’s Equipment Requirements for coastal racing. Among the requirements: at least 30 percent of crewmembers must have completed a US Sailing-approved Safety at Sea Seminar within the last five years, and each must be equipped with at least 33.75 pounds of positive flotation, meaning, essentially, an over-the-shoulder inflatable or a bulky Type 1 PFD, and nobody wants the Type 1. All boats must also include jacklines and tethers, and prior to the race, all skippers, whether sailing fully crewed or shorthanded, must file a manifest of crew names and contact numbers. At check-in, they are asked to report any changes, with full information for each person.

Requirements for electronics in Northern California include a GPS receiver capable of recording an MOB’s position within 10 seconds, a 406MHz EPIRB registered to the boat (or a floating 406MHz Personal Locator Beacon, registered to the owner, with a note on the race registration form that the PLB is in the boat), and a VHF radio with DSC/GPS capability.

As sponsor of the 55-mile Doublehanded Farallones Race, the Bay Area Multihull Association (BAMA) has been front and center on safety issues ever since the fateful 1982 race in which seven boats and four lives were lost. BAMA chairman Bob Naber, who describes his organization today as “an information broker” adds that as a race organizer, “We disseminate reality ahead of the race, to help our sailors help themselves, and to help the Coast Guard help them if it comes to that. We prepare people to go have an adventure.”

Naber points out that “BAMA maintains the only incident list of sailing accidents in the country. That’s compared to a highly self-critical sport like mountaineering. We run a Safety at Sea Seminar specifically for the Gulf of the Farallones, we present speakers who have survived incidents, and we bring in speakers from the Coast Guard.”

At the 2014 skippers’ meeting for the Doublehanded Farallones, the Coast Guard ran a live demonstration of the capabilities of Digital Selective Calling, which is the new best bet for someone in trouble close to home. Integrated with GPS, DSC speeds emergency response by automatically relaying a boat’s position, type and identity. “What I learned,” Naber says, “is that most people did not have GPS hooked up to their radios because it was too complicated, but the new generation of equipment is easy to set up and easy to use. This is going to matter.”

The 35th running of the Doublehanded Farallones drew a field of 53, compared to a peak of 144 entries in 1984. Well, the ‘80s were the ‘80s, and as a point of information for millennials, nothing in sailing today is what it was back then, when every year saw a new crop of custom big boats and somehow “development” under the racing rule seemed important. In our own time, figure that a sour economy over the last six years has shut any number of people out of racing. Then there are those who object to what they see as over-regulation, and staying home is their way of making a statement.

Pac Cup veteran Karl Robrock, an electrical engineer from the East Bay, entered the Pacific Cup this year in his Moore 24, Snafu, with Gilles Combrisson. Together they’ve raced every doublehanded ocean event in 2014. Robrock says, “Doublehanding is a great equalizer. Good tactics and an ability to work together are much more important than weight on the rail.” Even though he also loves the close-action excitement of fully crewed fleet racing, he also says that the ocean is “a completely different experience. You set yourself up, off the wind, in 10-foot seas, and a Moore 24 just lights up. It’s mind-blowing.”

Some 60-70 boats competed shorthanded in the Gulf of the Farallones over the summer of 2013, compared to 40-50 boats fully crewed, and similar numbers are going up in 2014, so the stats are clear. Inside the Bay, where conditions are less challenging and equipment standards are lower, entries are also multiplying. At this point, “everybody” knows about the Three Bridge Fiasco—round three marks in any direction, in any order, solo or doublehanded—which attracted 375 entries in its 2014 edition, as always in the dead of winter, the season of calms on a current-ridden bay.

This year exactly one boat finished. But hey, it was billed as a fiasco. Most years there is enough wind, here and there and yonder, for most boats to finish. Race founder Ants Uiga likes to relate that, as a race officer imagineering an event for the slap-hazard conditions of January, he chose to place the responsibility for building the course on the skipper rather than the race committee. You think the wind’s going to build first near the Golden Gate? Go that way. You’re concerned that the wind will quit and you’ll be drifting toward China? Make your bets in the other direction. And if you care too much, you’re in the wrong race. Take your head home and reboot.

The Singlehanded Sailing Society of San Francisco Bay runs the Fiasco. Names be damned, the SSS is very much in the business of doublehanded racing, and the Fiasco has become their annual meet-the-budget bonanza, with most entries sailing doublehanded. Current SSS commodore, Jim Quanci, says the Fiasco turnout was, “A wow, but we also had 88 starters, in the rain, at our Corinthian Race in the spring, and more than 100 for the ‘Round-The-Rocks Race in May.” The almost-new ‘Round-the-Rocks event may or may not have settled into having a predictable annual course from year to year, but in its 19-mile 2014 edition it differed from the Fiasco in having a first mark, second mark, etc., and a designated rounding for each. What they have in common is a Bay-tour course. Windward-leeward, not.

Quanci is a case in himself. He’s raced 17 times to Hawaii, crewed and solo, and now plans to go doublehanded this year in July in the Pacific Cup, even though, yes, he’s commodore of the SSS. As he says, “If you win the Singlehanded Transpac and live locally [he won in 2012] they’ll lay a wrench on you to take over and run the show.” He’s now been there, done that. The soloists in the 2014 Singlehanded Transpac race to Hanalei Bay, Kauai, will have been at sea for more than a week after its June 28 start when Quanci and his wife, Mary Lovely (“six or seven crossings”), depart for Kaneohe Bay, Oahu, on their Cal 40, Green Buffalo, in early July. Racing 2,000-plus miles is one thing. Locally, Quanci points out, “Doublehanded racing turns out three times as many people as singlehanding. Solo, you have to have an autopilot. Not everyone wants that expense. Doublehanding you can do on short notice. Just grab a friend and go.”

“I laugh at the way our fleet starts races,” Quanci says. “Nobody’s watching flags because everybody’s too busy for that, and you’re not trying to win it on the starting line, and besides, you don’t have to get too serious. We don’t have rules mavens. Half of our people have never done ‘serious’ racing, so it’s not intimidating to get into the game. We operate on three rules: starboard over port, leeward over windward, and don’t get too close. Nobody has the reaction time that you expect in fully crewed one design racing, so the guy on starboard will probably wave you through, anyhow. The races inside the bay are all about lots of reaching and nice scenery. Again, grab a friend. Go. The crew gets a trophy too.”

San Francisco Bay is not on the way to anywhere. Well, Alaska, from the south, or Mexico, from the north, but that’s not much traffic compared to ports on the eastern seaboard that open to the circuit of the Med, the Caribbean and “Downeast Maine.” The high-end professionals that dominate shorthanded racing in the Atlantic have no counterparts in the run-what-you brung ethos of Northern California.

At 75, Britain’s Sir Robin Knox-Johnston will be the grand old man of the Route du Rhum, sailing solo across the Atlantic this November, 45 years after a 312-day circumnavigation made him the first person to sail solo nonstop around the world. This time, he’s sailing his Open 60, Grey Power. At 77, Ken Roper was written up as the grand old man of the Singlehanded Transpac. In his ninth solo Transpac. In 2006. As we pointed out at the time, he was sailing “my last Transpac” again. So what is he now, at 85, sailing his 13th race in a Finn Flyer 31, Harrier?

There’s one thing that’s for sure: you don’t call him a “grand old man” to his face. Roper is known as “The General” because he is that, retired. Born in a military hospital, he graduated from West Point and served proudly in his own time and discovered the Singlehanded Transpac accidentally, by dropping into Hanalei Bay, Kaui, on his return from a solo tour of the South Pacific. The race happened to be finishing at the same time, and the rest is history.

“Under the tree” is a phrase ripe with meaning for everyone who has sailed the Singlehanded Transpacific Race. It’s about a tall tree on the hillside, and in its shade memories are shared and friendships nurtured. As Roper sat under the tree those many years ago, absorbing the energy of the racers, he knew he was coming back next race to collect the SSS beltbuckle awarded to every finisher. As he says, “That’s one expensive belt buckle.”

And that’s one expensive collection, General. As for you, gentle reader, there is this thing that you might not know about these grassroots soloists. As the boats clear the sometimes spray-drenched conditions of the California coast, and they settle in for a downwind ride in the tradewinds—with the water growing bluer and warmer by the day—all these lone rangers transform into a traveling community, and they yak it up on SSB, every day, all the way across. Knowing they will soon be together, under the tree. That’s why it makes sense when you ask The General, why do this? And in the way of people everywhere who love their boats and their fleets, he says, “Well, it’s about the people.” 

Solo or Doublehanded to Hawaii?

Veterans agree: racing doublehanded on the ocean adds a degree of security, but it doesn’t make the sailing easier. If anything, the work is harder.

The winner of the 2012 Singlehanded Transpac, Jim Quanci, says, “Going solo, you know you can’t push 100 percent, or even 90 percent, so you don’t try to. In 2012, if I got sleepy mid-afternoon, I’d just take a nap. I wasn’t letting anybody down. So on a long race, solo is easier mentally. I got more sleep solo than I did on either of my doublehanded races to Hawaii. Say you need to gybe. On a doublehanded boat, that’s sure to wake your sailing partner, and maybe that person needs the sleep. Maybe having a rested body on deck during your next off watch is more important than reacting to the latest windshift, which might shift again. People who haven’t thought through doublehanding don’t get that. I did more gybes solo than I’ve ever done on a crewed boat. They were guilt-free.”

Either way, Quanci claims, “There is a greater sense of accomplishment sailing shorthanded than with a big crew. Just finishing feels good. But going Transpac solo you really have to have two top-of-the-line, do-anything autopilots, because it’s fifty-fifty whether you’re going to lose your primary. That’s the history, and conditions won’t be good when you lose it.”

The lone female entry for the Singlehanded Transpac, Nathalie Criou, has a doublehanded crossing behind her, and she points out, “You’re solo on deck, but the psychology changes. I like going solo, because it’s just me and the boat and our relationship.” Criou chose Elise, her Express 27—it’s the other cult class in Northern California—because she likes to race fully-crewed in the Bay and shorthanded on the ocean where “fully-crewed is boring.”

Criou genuinely likes solo sailing. She likes it to the point that she has twice before sailed the Longpac—the Transpac qualifier, out the Gate and across the sea to 126°40’ west, a real nice patch of water. Turn and return. A total of 400 miles, bringing you back to where you started. This year, instead of looping back to a foggy coastline, she’s honing in on the fragrant blossoms of Hawaii, and who knows, she just might repeat what she did at the end of her qualifier. “I had three showers in one day,” she says, “because I could.”



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