Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Torchinsky It Is

Even if we never get enough regatta-type regattas there's a yen for that different thing, and the Laser Slalom fits that need but good. Newly-crowned North American Laser champion Dave Wright went undefeated through the eliminations ladder to an all-Canadian final three and then to the final round and—

That's where Abe Torchinsky came in.

Torchinsky had lost to Wright in their first meeting in this double-elimination round, but he then went on to eliminate Anthony Boueilh and set up a final shot at Wright, who needed just one more win to take the title. Torchinsky needed two wins. Maybe not the house bet, but a good bet. He did what he had to do.

Both skippers nailed their gybes in a 20-knot seabreeze and the crowd hooted from the deck of the St. Francis Yacht Club—noise from the beach is what really drives this thing—and Chris "Boomer" Boome, winner back in the day of the second-ever Slalom, said, "What hasn't changed in twenty-five years is the crowd."

All, especially new Slalom champ Abe Torchinsky, agreed that we have to do this thing again the next time we have a fleet at the ready on San Francisco Bay. Abe was feeling pretty good as he put the boat away . . .

A quick scan of Abe's blog at (pretty good read; I'll be back) is all it takes to make the unsurprising discovery that these top guys have sailed together all over the world, traveled together, trained together. Become friends. They just don't like to lose to each other is all. Thorchinsky is from Vancouver. Wright lives in Toronto. Boueilh is Québécois .

I note that Vancouver, B.C. is well into bear country, which adds a dimension to Abe's account of a long night looking for a place to get comfortable in the very dark, uncomfortable ferry port of Piraeus, Greece:

"I heard barking and realized that I’d just about stepped on two sleeping black dogs. I turned quickly to retrace my steps but the dogs were quicker and started to chase me. Remembering the lessons taught for bear encounters I dropped my bag and continued my retreat. The dogs stopped to investigate. I was alright, but any attempt to retrieve my bag was ended by the dogs’ protesting barks."

The story ends happily, however, one long night and one ferry ride and one car rental later on the island of Paros where Abe arrives at his goal and encounters, "A young tanned muscled fellow who could only be a windsurfer. I introduced myself and explained my presence. Immediately I was welcomed and no time was wasted grabbing boards and heading to the beach."

These guys are windsurfing fools, by the way. Four days of racing the Laser North Americans on top of training and prep followed by three days of Laser Slalom were not enough to keep them on the beach when they left the Laser. I don't know anything about sailing in Toronto, but I do know that few places have a seabreeze to match the wind that flows through the Golden Gate, and I know that Dave Wright was out there a lot on his board and was heard to say, "I can't believe it blows like this, every day.

It doesn't, but isn't it pretty to think so.

Now. Which of these men is not Lazarus?
bye byeee—Kimball

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Dad, What's a Laser Slalom?

For one thing, son, it's a lot more fun than another day in America's Cup court (take my breath away, Justice DeGrasse) and it's a game that's perfect for San Francisco Bay. Once upon a time, when the original Laser Generation was coming on (Bertrand, Madrigali, Cayard, Silvestri for a short list) people came from all over the world to play. Now, with the Laser North Americans just completed, we have a new Laser generation stepping up.

Picture two rows of buoys side by side, windward-leeward. Two competitors rally-up at the bottom of the course, each of them nose-to one of the bottom marks. When the judge figures they're even, he signals a start. The job is to tack up through the marks, cross over, gybe down through the marks, and repeat, and don't crash, and finish first. Keeping the marks close together keeps the gybes "interesting." Two days into a three-day event, we've seen moments when both boats were down. Looks kinda like this when it's going wrong . . .

Photo by Erik Simonson

And like this when it's done gone wrong . . .

Photo by Erik Simonson

The bigger the breeze, the better the Slalom. It's supposed to be hard. Work your way through the eliminations ladder to the finals, and you have bragging rights.

Our 2008 North American champ, David Wright of Toronto, says he grew up on "the legends" and wouldn't miss this opportunity to take a crack a Laser Slalom himself. Special rule: Exchanging sides at the top of the course the starboard-tack boat is required to pass above, and neither is allowed to "hunt" . . .

Photo by Erik Simonson

There's an intimate relationship between those on the course and those waiting their turn. Here we have two boats nosing-up for a start . . .

And as we say in the trade, "a reaction shot" as somebody bites the dust . . .

Crash and get tide-swept down the course, and you have to beat back up the course to get the mark roundings right. Brendan Wilton in one heat had the thing in the bag—his opponent had issues and sailed off the course—but Brendan went down and was tide-swept through the line on the wrong gybe. Sorry, Brendan. That's not a finish. You have to get the boat on its feet and back up the course, and he did that, and sheeted out and went for the gybe and then he crashed . . .

Did I mention that it's supposed to be hard? San Francisco Bay is one of the few places where you could pull off a Laser Slalom. First, you have the breeze. Then you have the location of the St. Francis Yacht Club, with a race course right in its front yard: a place to stage the racing, a place to trade-out boats, and a place for spectating.

Spectating is key. Where else while racing do you get to hear your best friends howling in glee when you screw up and take a dose of saltwater up the nose? We've been seeing wind in the twenties, but with wave action (unfortunately, I say) reduced by flood-tide currents moving in the same direction, no ebb-tide/countercurrent moguls. Alas.

Here's a little history lesson. The picture below was shot by one John Hutton (an amateur photographer of the first order—in its original form this is a much better image—and also a surgeon, a US Army general, and later White House physician to Ronald Reagan). We're looking at one of the early Laser Slalom races. Whitecaps. Reefed sails(!) And if you squint real hard you might see a figure on the bow of Wee Willie, now respectfully but less-colorfully known as the William L. Stewart, and that would be me with a camera. Oh dear. Despite wind and windage, there is enough ebb current to have Willie streaming upwind of the anchor. I recall, at one point, rolling in the trough and scooping water with both gunnels . . .

The Slalom wraps up on Wednesday. Dave Wright is sailing well and advancing, but this is still a wide open deal for many of the 32 entries on the ladder. Updates at St. Francis YC web site.

Quote of the day from Qingdao:

"As we near the start of the Games, the sea has been turning blue again. People were worried a few weeks ago because the race course had been covered in green algae, which was hard to sail through, but thousands of volunteers in fishing boats have been trying to clear the sea of sludge. The knock-on effect is that restaurant prices have rocketed because all the fishermen have been out catching algae instead of fish."

Ben Ainslie, Finn rep, UK

Thought of the day from the high Pacific:

Congratulations, Skip Allan, for finishing your unfinished business.

Thirty years ago Skip sailed his Wylie 27, Wildflower, in the Singlehanded Transpac and placed second. This year it seems impossible for him, on his 28th race from California to Hawaii, to do anything but hit it out of the park. He's in and the numbers look good. I've got more to say but it will have to wait because I got seriously sidetracked this morning by news out of New York and . . .

Thought of the day from the America's Cup beat:

Don't talk to me. Don't even come near me—Kimball

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Rub Your Eyeballs

They'll still be doing that, the U.S. Olympic Sailing Team now on the ground in Qingdao but not yet fully recovered from their sendoff or their travel. I can report that they partied hearty last Friday in San Francisco then flew on Saturday with connections through Beijing. All except for coach Gary Brodie, who traveled ahead because he was committed to having every bit of gear unpacked, ready and waiting for the athletes.

Reality takes hold by degrees. Star skipper John Dane commented that his Olympic reality sank in or began to sink in ("sure we won the Trials, but") while he was being "processed." Think credentialing, team uniforms, that stuff. Supermom Jerelyn Biehl who's been supporting junior sailing more or less forever has a son going to the Olympics but she's still working on her personal reality. Graham is crewing the 470 and Jerelyn says, "I thought, when I saw him in his uniform, that would do it but here he is in uniform and now I'm thinking reality will hit with the opening ceremonies."

Reality hit for 49er skipper Tim Wadlow (perhaps) when he was elected team captain. Congratulations, Mr. Wadlow.

Many Olympic sailors have lost weight in anticipation of light winds, but that's not the whole game. Catamaran skipper Johnny Lovell, going to his fourth Sailing Games, called this one "the most wide open" because conditions could be light and fluky, but then there's the challenge to be ready for anything because anything can happen. "Charlie [Ogletree] and I both shed some body weight," Lovell said, "but our program this year was to sail with light-air gear and try to make it work in a breeze. That's a learning curve. If it cost us some places, that's OK. We've won all the European events in the past. We don't need to win them again."

That "quote" is approximate, by the way. It's true to what Johnny said, but I wasn't standing with notebook in hand. Between processing on Friday and flying on Saturday the team was feted Friday night at St. Francis Yacht Club in what will be remembered in these parts as one bloody fine evening. I can't possibly write-in the energy and high spirits, but trust me, our Olympic team was fired up and ready for something and it was inspiring to share. Those of us who were on the scene are still talking about it and finding moments to recall and relive and it added pure wow to race day two of the Laser North Americans.

Here's a hasty snap of Jerelyn, left, and Graham Biehl that might help a little bit to tell the story . . .

The USOC in reviewing video of the 2004 opening ceremony decided to ban any use of cameras, recorders, and especially cell phones during the American team's upcoming entry to the new National Stadium in Beijing. Here's Graham, again with words approximate but the meaning (I'm confident) intact: "When I first heard about the camera ban, I didn't like it, but now I get it. There will be plenty of pictures of the opening ceremony, and that's exactly what they told us. We don't have to be taking pictures ourselves, and face it, you'd look pretty stupid marching in with a cell phone to your ear saying, Hey, I'm at the Olympics!"

And 58-year-old John Dane has a great riff about all the product endorsements waiting out there if he and Austin Sperry can win a medal: "Viagra, hair-grow, liver pills, I'm ready, I'm ready."

Oh, the BS was flying. John had admirers and charmed them all . . .

To actually get Dane you should understand that he'd take the money but he doesn't need it. As the owner of Trinity Yachts, Dane is a major builder of megayachts and, separately, of military craft. He is also I say an American hero for rebuilding his business and putting a couple of thousand people on the Gulf Coast back to work, even though insurance payouts would have made it possible to walk away after Hurricane Katrina wiped out everything from factory to home.

He didn't walk away because that's not what a man does. At the same time he won a Bacardi Cup and the US Trials, his seventh attempt, and qualified for the 2008 team. Dane's first Trials, in 1968, ended in a second-place finish, and if I'm not mistaken, that was before his career as a two-time All American sailor at Tulane where he went on to take a PhD in engineering: "No formalities, please. Just call me Dr. John."

Early on, 470 skipper Amanda Clark took a moment to say Hi before digging into the sushi. In the background, that would by Olympic chair Dean Brenner and Laser Radial rep Anna Tunnicliffe conversing with someone off-camera. The uniforms are cute, Ralph, but we may have overachieved with the in-house branding . . .

It was the kind of night where everybody was grinning wide enough to hurt. This would be 49er crew Chris Rast and his consultant, Heather . . .

I'm guessing the grins were not so wide, come time for the 0730 flight out of SFO, but with a 13-hour time difference, San Francisco to Beijing, and a dateline to cross, there never was a tomorrow.

Set Lasers to Stun

David Wright was strong going into Sunday's final day of the Laser North Americans, also at St. Francis YC, with opponents on the order of Bernard Luttmer, Brad Funk and Luke Lawrence. The competition also includes 17 Laser 4.7s and 85 Radials. It looks like this through the lens of Chris Ray's camera . . .

But if you've never experienced race-watching on the San Francisco cityfront you should know that it also looks like this . . .

And the spirit is this . . .

There is a wrap story and podcast on

Across the Pond

Lyn Hines has sent us an account of the start of La Solitaire du Figaro. The first stage, from La Rochelle, France to Vigo, Spain should finish Tuesday-Wednesday. The start was murky and light (Lyn's host-boat driver pulled out a fishing pole)and through his lens it looked like this . . .

You can read Lyn's account of this event, which breeds new solo stars, here.

Me, I'm looking at lots of finishers in Hawaii from the Pacific Cup and Solo Transpac. Stories to come—Kimball

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Horizon-Free Zone

You know it's been a good race when you get to the other end and you want to wear the t-shirt. Even if the race was a little bit hard.

Of the three great distance classics in America, the Race to Mackinac most revels in how hard it can be: The length of Lake Michigan, Chicago to Mackinac Island, 333 miles almost annually since 1898, and we've just completed the 100th running. As Rich Stearns says, "open-ocean races run point to point, but this is four races in one."

He's talking about the geography of succeeding stages, often coinciding with weather changes and risks of reshuffling the fleet. Add random stops and restarts with passing weather systems, and most Macs are more than four races in one. Our race was that, aboard Bill Zeiler's J/122, Skye, where we went a couple of days without seeing sun, moon, stars. I have never before been on the water with so little visibility and so many boats (a record 433 or something such) and so much land to hit. I worshipped our GPS/chartplotter as we took our section and placed, we hope, pretty high overall. What a difference from the puckered navigation of yore.

But the basics are eternal. Midwest legend Dick Stearns made part of the crew (silver medalist '64 and much more) and when one of our younger guys hit on him for a sailing lesson he just said, "Close your eyes and feel the boat."

What's strange is the addictive nature of this Mac thing—not the only going cult in Midwest sailing, but it’s the 697.7-pound gorilla. The organization for veterans of 25 Macs or more, the Island Goats, describes the Mac experience using (remember, their words, not mine) these active verbs: endured, survived, suffered.

I get it.

We had it cushy, though, watching the cruiser divisions start in the rain, from our vantage point in Rich and Lori Stearns' apartment high above South Michigan Avenue. The plan to motor out early and explore up-course was abandoned in the face of reality: we wouldn't have seen a thing.

A day later, after a sweet, sweet hectic start, we were launched on what I called "the race that we know about." We had sailed through the cruiser fleet and on the rare occasions when other boats appeared through the mist, they were on the order of GL70s, TP52s, and other big, hot things whose crews must have been throroughly PO'd at the sight of our stock, 40-foot J. "We'll never know who it was that appeared out of the mist in the depths of Saturday night/Sunday morning on port gybe, and answered our "Starboard" call with what I suspect was an onboard emergency; I'm figuring that on account'a it would have felt like an emergency to us, if we'd been forced to gybe.

By and by I built up the conviction that it's not so hard to win a Mac. You just have to be fast enough and smart enough to deserve it, then you need to get lucky several times in a row, or more.

We were still feeling lucky as we made the first transition, around Point Betsy from the open lake and into the Manitou Passage where, true to Rich Stearns' prediction (he's Dick Stearns' #1 son and a sailor of accomplishment himself) boats appeared all around us as the ondeck murk cleared to an overhead cover. Somewhere in that process we passed the scenic Sleeping Bear Dunes, but I'll have to wait for some other occasion for a glimpse of it. This was my second Mac, but for Bill Zeiler, it was number 25, his qualifier as an official Island Goat. Here's Bill driving, with Star sailor Rob Maine and Rich Stearns, as a spot of sun broke through . . .

The arrival of a tiny sparrow (or near-cousin) was nothing new to me. Bird visits are common aboard boats out of sight of land, but this little guy was especially welcome. He arrived on Sunday, day two, right behind a wave of biting flies and other insects, and made regular and welcome counterclockwise circuits of the deck, chomping bugs . . . .

No fear. We named him Scrappy Skye. This was shot just before he hopped onto Zeiler's hand . . .

The arrival of a bat—Scary Skye—was, however, a first for me on a boat. We chased him off the mainsail once, but he came right back and clung to the mast until we went into a sequence of back-to-back gybes and spinnaker peels that must come across like a WWI bombardment. The thing about sailing with Rich Stearns (J/Boats Midwest) is that he's an affable, genial Type A, and you don't often find that crossover. Never any stress, always with a sense of detached humor regarding this crazy obsession for making a slow object go through the water as fast as possible, and always ready to jump on the next job or the next sailchange. He'll invoke the five-minute rule on a shift of the breeze, then 90 seconds later he's ready to go for it. The way he recalled the process: "We went from the wrongsail to the wrongsail to the wrongsail." But truth to tell, we were always going to the right sail. It just didn't stay right for long. And the way you keep yourself eligible to get lucky is by facing up to every skirmish.

I had awakened in the morning with a great sense of well-being. I'm good with the sound of a rushing bow wave. But as we flowed on through the mist I fell to remembering that I'd just the night before had word from a friend out West that Mark Rudiger had lost his fight with lymphoma, and I remembered Paul Cayard now at sea with his family on the Pacific Cup and how fine it is that this giant of grand prix racing has seized the opportunity to sail with family and friends at a special, unrepeatable time in their lives and I have so many other friends also on the high Pacific right now, some of them alone in the solo Transpac but not alone because they yak it up every day on the SSB so they are "family" too, and all these miles pass under so many keels—and Rudiger navigated Cayard's round-the-world win—and there are so many friends from all over that I'm running into here on the streets and last night the rain was bitter cold on Mackinac Island and most of the fleet was still out on the course and g'bless'em and now it's morning and I'm writing and boats are still coming in and time slips away from us and there is a sad beauty to that which seems to come directly out of this ephemeral, lovely thing that we do with water and boats and wakes that appear and disappear and there is no way to finish this sentence or as Kenneth Patchen would say, no way to begin. The sailing life is a good life. Thanks, Mark. Damn.

Rich Stearns asked Dick Stearns, as the half-hour ticked down, "Ready for a spell on the helm?" The response was a glance at a watch and, "Not for another 2 minutes and 43 seconds I'm not." In the mind of many a Star sailor, Dick's measure of accomplishment was not winning the Star worlds in 1962 but winning the North Americans something like 11 times in a row.

Father and son . . .

Come Monday morning, day three, we had horizons at last under a thick cloud cover, and one of the competors in our section was working hard to overtake us. Eagle's Wings, a Grand Soleil 44, owed us something like 45 minutes under ORR handicapping, so they were no great threat, trophy-wise, but the Skye team scrapped hard the rest of the day to stay ahead of that bigger, faster-most-of-time competition. Rich: "This could win the race for us. You know we're going to sail harder because we have them alongside."

First we got passed, slowly and steadily . . .

And then in The Race After the Bridge, Race Four, we would find a couple of shifts and get it all back.

I always go into a race expecting to win, but it was not until I had the Mackinac Bridge in sight that I allowed myself the emotion of imagining a win in the 100th Mac. Here's Lori Stearns and the bridge . . .

And a flashback to the crew that chose to sleep on deck rather than compromise . . .

Yep, to my milestones collection of Centennial Transpac and Centennial Bermuda I've added the 100th running of the Mac, and I trimmed spinnaker for Dick Stearns, and life is good . . .

Photo by Ted Martin

What was it I said that Dick said? Just close your eyes and feel the boat. Yeah, I'm still feeling it—Kimball

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Racing Down the Coast

What do you do with 22,000 square feet of sail? Chris Sinnett, Captain of the US Coast Guard training barque, Eagle, says, "It's basic sailing, just a lot of it."

Eagle is the grandest of the tall ships that have been calling on Pacific ports since late June as part of the American Sail Training Association's West Coast Challenge. They will arrive soon in California. The last time Eagle sailed down the Pacific Coast I was aboard, Portland to Frisco, and being a small-boat sailor, I had my epiphanies.

Best of all, it was a race.

Imagine a medium breeze near or forward of the beam. You will see the square-rigger crew "fanning" the uppermost sails—trimming them farther aft—to account for higher wind speeds aloft. (Maxi and America's Cup crews have a different tool kit but similar challenges.) In light air the uppermost sails of a square rigger are again trimmed farther aft than lower sails, to act as telltales and warn the driver if it's time to fall off. Aboard the Eagle, however, you will not hear too-cool-for-school racer lingo like "driver." Before we pulled out of Portland town, the crew was mustered on deck and the cadets were told, "Learn all you can. This is how you become a Coast Guard officer."

I don't know what may have been going through the minds of young cadets as they stood straight, listening to those words, but I have a notion of what they were thinking, three days later, as the light failed and the wind rose and there was a bite to that wind, and the ship was flying too much sail and came the call,

All eyes were aloft, up up up to the rigging. There's this other saying aboard the Eagle:

If you don't let go, you don't fall.

I know pretty well what was going through the mind of Chris Sinnett those several years ago, because he was then the Executive Officer of the Eagle, and a dinghy sailor, and we struck up a small friendship as we sailed down the coast. He was not the least bit shy about saying that his ambition was to some day serve as Captain of the Eagle.

He made it, and that makes my day.

What an enviable signoff:

Wishing you "Fair Winds and Royals All the Way," I am,

Chris Sinnett, Captain, USCGC EAGLE

(Royals fly above the Topgallant, in favorable winds only.)

One of the fundamentals of going through the Coast Guard Academy at New London, Connecticut is sailing the Eagle. Most cadets do not come from a sailing/voyaging background. Most have never been to sea when they walk aboard the Eagle for the first time, and on any voyage there is a mix of upper-form students who know the drill, plus raw recruits.

They are required to learn every sail and every line. You might see them of a mid-day, in a meandering trance, or so it seems, but in fact they're tracking slowly around the deck, classroom pamphlets in hand, touching first this line or that and reciting the names to themselves.



Two hundred+ lines.

Six miles worth.

The journalist in me decided that I was going to write out a prescription for how to tack the Eagle. I went to the book, and how-to-tack ran twenty-three pages. The end of that.

But there is no end to basic services, some of them performed on hands and knees as if in prayer. Perhaps because the grip clutches something about the size of a Bible, the phrase for this is, holystoning the deck . . .

Do they keep the brass binnacle polished? Let's inspect . . .

Eagle is 295 feet long, 1,816 tons. The hull is .4-inch steel plate, built in Germany and seized as war reparation at the close of hostilities, mid-20th century. She carries a crew of 6 officers and 55 enlisted to ensure the safety, training, and bonding of the next generation of Coast Guard officers. This is a leadership laboratory. It's about teamwork. Captain Sinnett: "You can't gainfully employ 120 cadets in one shot on any other ship in the Coast Guard or the Navy."

My only job was to walk around and take a few pictures and smile at people who called me Sir. I had this rare and special ride not because I was a journalist, but because I was a journalist and I was lucky and I was at the time a director of the Coast Guard Foundation, a do-good outfit that raises money to buy scholarships for service offspring and useful things like gym equipment and computers for remote duty stations.

Oh, you thought stuff was like that was taken care of? Dream on. Just because these people jump out of helicopters to haul people into rescue baskets and go to sea in lifeboats when no one else wants to go to sea (Their saying: "You have to go out, you don't have to come back"), doesn't mean they are reasonably compensated. Sure, I've heard my share of stupid-things-the-Coasties-did stories, but if cowpies are raining down on my head some day, I'll be looking for that big orange stripe. We as directors talked about the 30-30-3 rule: The average Coastie is 30 years old, makes 30 thousand dollars a year, has 3 kids and never enough moments like this . . .

Through the Coast Guard Foundation, I met remarkable people. One of them was Lieutenant Commander (soon to be promoted) Alda Seabrands. She was called in for the shouting at a Foundation fundraiser.

Alda had been flying a pollution patrol over Puget Sound (meaning, no rescue jumper), when her helicopter was diverted to SAR. A fishing skiff had capsized, spilling two people into white water. The chopper made the scene quickly, dropped a basket, and one man climbed in. He was hauled aboard and the basket lowered again. The second man put one arm over the edge of the basket, then rolled unconscious. Alda looked at her copilot, said, "It's all yours, Binky," and jumped.

OK, she didn't exactly say that, and I'm sure the events, however dire and hurried, were more complicated. But Alda Seabrands was flying as Pilot In Command when she, in full awareness, left her post. As a certain Admiral put it to me, "We had to decide whether it was a court-martial or a medal. We decided it was a medal."

Throughout our three-day passage from Portland to the Golden Gate, the ship received visits from service helicopters and cutters, all eyes out to see the Eagle. Their Eagle. I began to get it. What's hard to put into words. Eagle is magic.

On our last day out the wind piped up and the old girl was hauling the mail . . .

It was a great ride, but just between you and me, the quarter wave was scary . . .

And true to form, along about sundown, there we were with too much sail up and the breeze rising. All hands, was the call, with many ordered aloft, and remember, we had newbies in the bunch who had never been to sea. When the show bogged down, the bos'n cut through the howl of the wind with a voice that carried the length of the ship, LIGHT A FIIIIIRE UNDER'EM!

Then he turned to the fellow next to him and remarked, "As a bos'n, I could lighten up. But why would I?"

The wind rose. The night fell. The cold deepened. Figure it takes a minimum of ten cadets on deck to handle a single sheet in 30 knots of breeze. And each line had to be precisely eased to compensate as sails were furled high overhead or somebody(s) would get sail-slapped serious-like, and those were real people up there, scooping handfuls of canvas and dumping them into the furl. Very real, very young people, power-pumping adrenalin and how.

And so the job was done. Another crop of young cadets scrambled down from the heights to an emotional high that kept them floating above deck level. Slapping each other on the back. Sharing sillygrins. Exhilarated and relieved and ready for the next call to duty. A little less young. Shipmates for life wherever whenever they might meet. I saw the payoff for the Eagle, the leadership laboratory that is meant to instill, "an intimate knowledge of wind and sea." I was a witness. If you don't let go, you don't fall.

There were many moods in our three days offshore, leading to our passage through the Golden Gate as I climbed aloft, knowing our masts would not hit the bridge but it always looked as if they would, and yonder I could see my house up above Baker Beach and all those people in boats waving from way down at sea level and I was telling myself, this is a moment I will remember.

(And I do remember, but I never did find out how we fared in the "race.")

On the way aloft, a self-portrait . . .

And I recall just as vividly the quiet, early passage down the Oregon coast, with the deck at times almost deserted while classes were in session . . .

And the fog that swallowed us for a while. I observed the rotation and the youthful earnestness of the forward watch, and I was reminded of the unofficial motto of the service . . .

Elvis, if you're out there, we'll find you.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

One Expensive Belt Buckle

"It's about the people."

You always hear that.

Racing sailors feel a passion for boats and the motion of boats and the beauties of the sea, but what keeps them going is, "about the people." So it gave me a grin to hear exactly the same from a man about to cross 2,120 miles of open ocean, solo, in the Singlehanded Transpacific Race.

Ken "The General" Roper went out the Golden Gate on his 10th solo race to Hawaii on Saturday, and before the start that's what came out of his mouth.

"It's about the people."

How do you define community for somebody who has put more than 100,000 mostly-solo miles on a 31–foot boat? Roper says, "I keep up with a lot of the people who have done this race, and out of 23 boats this year there must be six or eight that I've raced with before."
(The belt buckles awarded to finishers define a pretty small club.) Roper: "It's one expensive belt buckle."

The 2008 race is his "last one." Again.

Mark Deppe, 2006 winner in a J/120, explains it this way: "There’s something addictive about the race. No one hesitates to help out and support their fellow competitors. We all share the experience of getting our boats ready and passing the qualification inspections. Then we share the experience of racing to Kauai for two weeks or more, talking twice daily on the SSB. By the time we cross the finish, we're a family, having shared our best and worst moments, and we're friends for life."

Roper very recently soloed back up the coast from Puerto Vallarta and wasn't caught up in any dramas or last-minute fixes. His Finn Flyer, Harrier, is "pretty much always ready to go."

About half of the skippers now on their way to Hanalei Bay, Kauai, are returning veterans. For Skip Allan, this is his 28th race to Hawaii. He did his first full-crew Transpac as a teenager in 1963. In 1967, at 20, he skippered the family Cal 40, Holiday Too, and won the Transpac overall.

Skip had sailed some of the most famous racers of the 20th century by the time he launched his 27-foot Wylie, Wildflower, and finished second in the inaugural solo Transpac of 1978. Norton Smith in a Santa Cruz 27 "sailed a heck of a race" that year, says Skip, and Smith won, and that leaves unfinished business for Mr. Allan, doesn't it?

I took a sail with him recently at Santa Cruz . . .

Lots of seamanlike touches on his simple little boat, including over-height, over-spec'd stanchions and beefed-up lifelines. Can't be wrong.

And I note that The General (Roper is a Brigadier General, US Army, retired, so what other nickname could a 10-race veteran carry) formed his interest in the solo Transpac by encountering the finish of the inaugural. He happened to be in Hanalei Bay on his way back from cruising the South Pacific when the race arrived—and that was a story in itself. Arrangements had been made for a hotel there to host the race at that end, but in the interim the hotel changed management and somehow that information never got transferred. Imagine the surprise.

Then you have the likes of Deppe, defending his 2006 win in Alchera, a sprit boat. Image from file. Saturday, July 12, 2008 did not look at all like this in the Golden Gate Strait . . .

Here's Deppe explaining himself: "This will be my fifth Singlehanded TransPac. My first was back in 1996. The second time was in 2002 with a new boat, a J/120 I named Alchera, which roughly translated means Dreamtime. Though I had a great second trip, I felt at the time that two Transpacs was enough for one person in one lifetime. Then, in 2004 I entered and raced just once more. Afterwards I solemnly vowed never to do it again. I said to all of my friends and competitors, ‘If I ever talk about doing this race again, please shoot me.’ Then I did the race again in 2006. No one shot me, though they gleefully reminded me of what I had said.

"I’ve accepted the inevitable, and now I’m racing for the fifth time. No one believes me anymore, but this really is my last time. Really."

The marine layer was 2,000 feet thick over Northern California over the weekend. That's fog, son, thinning toward race time to reveal the hazy, pervasive smoke from the wildfires. I don't notice the fire-smell anymore.

I had fish frying so couldn't go out to follow the start, but it's a short walk from the Sail West bunker to my favorite vantage point. Not much of a picture, but this is what was in front of the lens on Saturday, July 12, 2008 . . .

At least, unlike so many ocean-racing starts through this patch of water, nobody started the race soaked through. Below we see the 2006 race winner, Mark Deppe's J/120, as the right of three. The coastline opens to the north, wrapping back at Point Reyes, but these guys as they cleared Point Bonita had only one rock—25 miles out, the Southeast Farallon Island—between them and Hawaii . . .

The fleet had a generally light-air day for clearing the coast. By Sunday, the breeze was a proper northwesterly, 10-20 knots, with a prediction of seas 8-11 feet (and the standard reminder that occasional waves will double the significant wave height).
So, these guys are out of Dodge.

Racing for the Ida Lewis Trophy

A slow solo start aside, what the National Weather Service called "locally strong winds in the San Francisco Bay" created some adventures for the 66 young women racing the US Junior Women's Doublehanded Championship out of Sausalito Yacht Club.

The racing area off the north face of Angel Island was civil enough (most of the time), but there's a hurricane alley between the racecourse and home base, and yes, we saw 30 knots. That's a lot for anyone in a C420. Of course it helps when there's a mother duck, as we see in this shot from Peter Lyons,

Congrats are due to Sydney Bolger and Caitlin Beavers, up from Southern California. It was their regatta from Day One.

AND I've been enjoying Rich Roberts' reports and photos from the Cal 20 class championship down south at Alamitos Bay Yacht Club. Twenty-seven years, now, these doughty little 20s have been doing their thing, and around Long Beach, home to ABYC, there's been a heap of attention paid to this class. As in, expensive plastic-classic restorations.

Can't say as how I have a lot of nostalgia for my days of pounding one of these things through an ebb-tide chop in the Alcatraz Channel, but Cal 20s are not going away, and this is good. Here's Keith Ives. He rushed back from sailing Los Angeles-Tahiti on Medicine Man (can't miss the next regatta) winning race one . . .

Dads, pay attention. As crew, you have a lot to learn, but the kids'll shape you up . . .

I wasn't there, Rich was, so I'll quote him re. the winner: "Any competent sailor can make a hot boat go fast, but Mark Gaudio's affinity for old, slow boats is becoming the stuff of West Coast legend. The 51-year-old Newport Beach institutional bonds trader completed a triple crown of sorts Sunday with a strong finish in big winds to win the 47th Cal 20 Class Championship, hosted by Alamitos Bay Yacht Club. It was his third class title in the past year following similar successes in Lido 14s and Naples Sabots---neither known for speed---and now he is the Cal 20s' first four-time champion, all four in the last eight years."

And hey, there's a Cal 20 racing to Hanalei Bay. That would be Robert Crawford on Black Feathers. Here's how he explains himself:

"The mantra of the Singlehanded Sailing Society in the early 1990's was, 'Do the race in the boat you have.' At the time, I had an Ericson 32, and after a couple of seasons of sailing the SSS races, I did the '94 TransPac. The preparation for that race, and the race itself, proved to be a worthy and memorable adventure. They say the greatest challenge in this race is getting to the start line. I think that's true.

"Now, fourteen years later, I'm back. The Cal-20 holds a warm spot in the hearts of many a San Francisco Bay sailor. I have enjoyed the last couple of years outfitting mine with equipment appropriate for a safe and exciting run for Kauai. I'm sure to be among the last to finish, but I'm hoping my high handicap will keep the hot boats on their toes."

And Thomas Coville with Sodeb'O is outpacing Frances Joyon's transatlantic record and, holy smokes, the first of the Pacific Cup starts leaves the San Francisco cityfront at 1250 on Monday, and we're only a week away from the 100th running of the Chicago-Mac and . . . and . . . it's a busy world—Kimball