July 23, 2012
This year’s Lake Ontario 300 was a great event. Fantastic weather and phenominal racing for 300 miles east to west around Lake Ontario. It was also the first year I did the event fully crewed! We were on Sheila’s J109 “Phoenix”.
The race started off in almost no wind. UGH! Our strategy was to keep clear air and keep the boat moving until the wind filled in and then run the rhumbline hard to Main Duck Island. As we got outside of Toronto Island, the breeze filled and we started moving. We were at the front of the 123 boat pack making some great progress. Going into the night the breeze clocked and filled as scheduled and we were able to get our kite up. Then we really put the gas pedal down! We were sailing along minding our own business when we saw an unusually bright light. It hovered up high for a little over a minute then started to fizzle out! Oh My Gosh!!! It was a parachute flare! We quickly took note of our position and our heading and turned the volume up on the VHF radio. Search and rescue were out looking for an overdue vessel and they had a Hercules plane out doing a search pattern. The parachute flare was actually a white flare they dropped to light up the night sky so they could see. It must have been very difficult doing a search in an area with 100 plus boats all screaming down wind at them! Thankfully they found the vessel with no concerns. We continued to scream along just on the edge of insanity with our kite up pressing the boat as fast as we could possibly go! The next morning we came in to Main Duck Island pushing hard at 9-10 knots of boat speed. We needed to gybe. One small issue. Our last spinnaker peel left us with no new sheet attached to the spinnaker. We had opted to run through the night with just the active sheet attached, rather than sending someone out on the wire in the dark. Now it was time to fix this. Tristan got hooked up to a halyard and winched out to the clew to attach the new sheet. His only request….”please don’t luff the kite while I’m out there!” We didn’t have a lot of time. The gap was closing very quickly between us and main duck island! As Tristan got yanked out to the clew of the sail, he climbed up the active sheet, grabbed the clew and with one hand tied the new sheet onto the clew with a bowline and shouted ”made”. With lightning speed Tristan got yanked back in to the boat and we gybed clear of the island only to look a freighter straight in the eye about a mike away. A quick check of the AIS told us he was going to Oswego. We were just ahead of him nicely as we gybed back around the island. Crazy excitement!
The next leg took us south to Ford Shoal in Oswego. We had the number 2 headsail up and we were driving hard to weather in a leftover sloppy sea. Getting in to Ford Shoal we had been steadily pushed below the rhumbline. We were going to have to tack and work our way back up to the line to get around the mark. Ford Shoal is about the half way point in the race. Then the leg from Ford Shoal to Niagara is 120 miles of tricky strategy. During the day the shoreline has potential to develop thermals, but there is often a massive lack of wind in and around Rochester. Overnight, as the lake cools down, there is also a great chance for a night breeze to develop. So the big question is always….”do we go shoreline or head out in the middle of the lake”. We opted to stay within 5 miles of the shoreline to capitalize on the shore breeze during the day and try to be far enough offshore during the night to have options. We also didn’t want to do any extra miles and risk our ten mile lead in first. That morning the breeze lightened up and we set up to peel from the number two headsail to the number one. Small problem. When we hoisted the number two back at Main Duck, the shackle opened up and the halyard skied. If we were going to do a peel, we needed that halyard back. “Marc” want to go up the mast? We’re only doing about 7 knots of boat speed upwind. It won’t hurt that much. You can pretty much walk up the mast!” “Sure” was the word from Marc. He hooked in and bravely climbed up the mast to retrieve the halyard. Only one massive bruise on his inner arm to show for his great efforts! The halyard was retrieved and we hoisted the number one. As the breeze lightened up some more, we picked our way along through the patches of wind. Another competitor went right in along the shoreline and picked their way through slightly stronger wind and probably about fifteen feet of water . Risky stuff, but it paid off for them. They pulled ahead of us. Good thing they weren’t in our division! The guys out in the lake sat still for a long time during the day. Going into the night we suffered a little in no breeze and one of our competitors that was further out than us caught the edge of the night breezes. When the sun came up we arrived at the Niagara mark only to see them pull in to the mark ahead of us!
The turn at the Niagara mark took us north to the finish line at Port Credit. The breeze was out of the west and we were going north of west. Too tight to carry a kite. We had the jib eased, the car forward and the main full. Everything was powered up and the wind was up to 15 knots. The wind was supposed to back a little. If it did, then we could get our A5 spinnaker up. A code 0 would have been magic here, but we didn’t have one in our arsenal. We did however have a fantastic A5 and we needed to make up about five minutes on the boat ahead of us to save our time and beat them. About 16 miles to the finish line, the wind eased a little from 15 knots to 10 to 12 knots, causing it to also back a little. “Get that A5 up” was the scream from on deck. The dishes got dropped in the sink and the A5 got hoisted on deck. It was tight, but we could just barely hang on to our rhumbline. A J109 carries “A symmetrical” sails on a bow sprit just like my mini. We were carrying this spinnaker upwind and picked up a knot of boat speed. The competitor that had pulled out ahead of us carries “symmetrical” spinnakers. They can go deeper down wind, but therefore can’t carry their spinnakers as far upwind. As we got our bright yellow A5 up and flying we guessed the comment from the guys ahead was probably “oh…..crap…..we don’t have one of those!” Nevertheless, the boat ahead pulled their spinnaker up to defend their position. The hunt was on. As the saying goes…..”we were making trees on them now”! They had their spinnaker strapped in hard and flat trying to go fast and the wind was starting to build again. At 8 miles out the position report had us going a knot faster and we had closed range. We had picked up about two and a half minutes of the five we needed. The anticipation was that as we got closer to the shoreline, the wind would go forward some more. We needed to climb a little high of the rhumbline so that we could carry our spinnaker all the way to the finish. Our bearing to waypoint was 319 degrees. We were doing 315 degrees. If the trimmer eased the sheet too much, the driver would drive down to compensate. If the driver drove too high, then the kite would be too strapped and we would lose our speed advantage. We had a very narrow window of about 5 degrees to make the boat go fast and win the race. Ian’s job in the middle of the boat was to shout out numbers so the trimmer and the driver constantly knew if the boat was going hi or low of course. Marc balanced the boat out with trimming the main, Sheila handled the sheets and floated to any of the positions that needed help, and Geoff kept the navigation updates coming while Tristan trimmed the kite and I drove. Talk about putting the gas pedal down! It was a full on assault on our competition and a brilliant demonstration of great teamwork. At 5 miles out we had narrowed the gap to 7 tenths of a mile and the wind was up to almost twenty knots. At 3 miles out we strategized the next move. The finish line was not just a simple line to cross right in front of us. The mark we were going to was a turning mark. We were on port (going left) and we were going to have to turn to starboard (right) at the turning mark to get to the finish line 200 yards away. That meant possibly gybing the boat in 20 knots of breeze. This is not that difficult. The difficult part was crossing the finish. Just beyond the finish line was the entrance to the Port Credit Yacht Club. If we didn’t handle the kite smartly and get it down clean after crossing the finish line, we could end up on the rocks. So we developed a plan for the turn. We would turn around the mark, quickly assess if we needed to gybe or not, and then do so accordingly. Everything would be ready. As we got to the turn mark, I went to the low side to drive from so I could see the mark. At the same time the boat drove up a little in a puff and the kite flogged. It’s ok, because we were at the mark. We turned the boat down and the kite filled again. Gas pedal reengaged! It was too deep though. We had to gybe. As we started to gybe, the spinnaker collapsed. Normally the procedure at this point would be to stop the gybe, get back on course, fill the spinnaker and then start the gybe procedure again. We were running out of room very quickly and had no space to do so. We drove through the gybe and sheeted in hard to pull the spinnaker through. It was messy, but it filled again and we slid across the finish line with about two minutes to spare on our competition! Races are won because of tactics, teamwork, the ability to execute manoeuvres when you need to….and a little gusto! Thanks to our team for being so amazing. It was a victory well earned. We finished first in our division and fourth overall in IRC :-)