Long Game – Southern Straits 2016

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Before Southern Straits this year I was asked to present at a “Tech Talk” at West Vancouver Yacht Club entitled “How to win this race”.  So having spent a fair bit of time in March thinking about all the rules of thumb when sailing up and down the Strait of Georgia, I was feeling pretty good about tactics come race day.

For this race I usually sail double-handed on the Express 37 Manana, on the medium course.  This year I was back on that program, on the medium course to Sister’s Island and back.  A mixed bag of weather awaited us.

At the start gun, we were off on a tight spinnaker reach in a Southerly.  This got us just about to Pt Atkinson before it fizzled out and we were into upwind sails.  In my presentation I said, “Step out from the start line, find the ebb current, and ride it straight to Pt Atkinson.”   What we did instead was to start to leeward of the pack, painfully work our way to the south of the fleet by Pt Atkinson, and watch the X-119 Dominatrix do exactly what I had said, and sail right around us near the point.  Score: Common Sense: 1 Manana: 0

From there it was a tricky beat across the mouth of Howe Sound up towards Gibsons.  A few boats were well out toward Pt Grey by this time and were sailing a lot of negative miles out towards Porlier pass.  Sticking to our game plan and working up past Gibsons toward Sechelt, while not getting too close to shore, really paid here and as we passed Shoal Channel we had re-passed Dominatrix, reeled in the J/109 Diva and had the leading 1D35 The Shadow clearly in our sights.

And then the wind died.  When it came back we had the beginnings of the forecast South Easterly.  Spinnakers up we all pointed roughly towards Nanaimo and tried to keep the boats going 3 knots or better.  A great duel lasted a few hours before the next big split in the fleet.  A few miles off the island shore, and with dark approaching quickly, the eventual winners Time Bandit, Diva, and also M Power went hard for the beach.  The Shadow and Manana stayed out by 3 or 4 miles, and another pack went for the North.  Now I must go back to my Tech Talk; “No, I would not go inside Ballenas Islands – almost guaranteed to be less wind there”.  As we approached Ballenas we were finally running in a good 10 knots of breeze.  Also, sailing with just two of us, we were getting tired.  The line we were on took us straight inside Ballenas, we didn’t want to jibe, and we convinced ourselves there was going to be wind in there, so in we went.  It all looked good until we dropped down to 6 knots of wind.  By the time we exited back into the middle of the Strait we were pointed mostly at Sisters, Dominatix had passed us again by miles on the Northern route, and we had lost all contact with the front of our fleet.

With one foot still left to shoot off, we deviated from plan again and sailed a long jibe all the way to the Lasqueti shore, where we found another hole.  I must say, watching Fortissimo sail past us really sharpened us up for the rest of the race.  The bleeding must stop!  In two tidy jibes we reversed that pass and got headed for home.  Half done.

In my presentation we talked quite a bit about how last year’s winner went to the North, all down the Sechelt coast, and how that was a weird anomaly, you’d never do that.  So I am not that surprised in retrospect that dawn found Manana and Dominatrix dueling across the tip of Merry Island, watching Fortissimo cross miles ahead of us to the south.  Face — palm.  For us on Manana, this was the moment where the tactical options closed down and the need for speed set in.  We got our focus on, and ground down first Dominatrix, then Mojo, and then set to work on Fortissimo.  We tacked our way down the north side of the strait, working out to the middle when we could to de-leverage the competition, and heading back to shore when the VMC number started to approach zero.  By Cowan point we were back into 3rd in our division and roughly abeam of Fortissimo, although about a mile further out in the Strait.  We almost had it.

For the last 5 miles or so the ebb tide was running strong and the wind began to shift back to the west or maybe southwest.  Kites went up, and we all had a real boat race on our hands.  The boats lined up with the middle of English Bay had the most breeze, the boats in Howe Sound had the least distance, and the boats out in the straight seemed to be struggling to line themselves up with anything.  In the end Fortissimo could not be caught, and our division fell in line (miles behind the J/109 Diva) and took the 2-3-4 positions on the medium course.  The J/120 Time Bandit won our course decisively, and they certainly deserved it.  Keeping a J/120 moving fast in 4 knots of wind for 30 hours is no small task.

In the end, a 14:30 finish is about the latest I’ve recorded in Southern Straits, but it was surprisingly not miserable at all.  I won’t call it warm, but the sun was out, the wind always came back eventually, and pretty much everything we think we know about this race course came true.  If only we’d listened to ourselves!

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