My First Swiftsure

Saturdy May 25th - Day One of the Race

The 70th annual Swiftsure Regatta began on Saturday, May 25th, 2013 in Victoria, Canada. Boat call was 6:30am but I got there a little early to put breakfast in the oven. I'm not a very good sailor so I try to make myself useful in other ways. I sail on a 40.7 Benneteau named Bravo Zulu. Her crew is usually between 8 and 12 people. For this race we had 11 - our skipper Denny, Steve, the navigator and tactician, Christa and Erica who do bow, Brenda, who is both a trimmer and our boat's M.D., Shayne, Wayne, Kerry and Leif who are usually in the cockpit either trimming or grinding (and sometimes skippering), and Taylor, a new addition to the crew who can do everything well. Then there is myself - resident rail meat and squirrel extraordinaire. 

I had come up on Thursday on a 53ft boat named Artemis after missing the Bravo Zulu delivery and had spent the past day and a half hanging out in Victoria Harbor, checking out the other boats, including the HMCS Oriole, a beautiful wooden Canadian Navy ship with twin tree trunks for masts that was going to do the in shore course.

At 8am an alarm sounded. All of the glistening boats untied and motored out into the harbor, flags flying. We drifted out with them. Hundreds of boats - over 200 - made a magnificent parade through Victoria Harbor. The sailors on the Oriole were listening to rap and they had a pretty amazing sound system. "You didn't know we were the party boat, did you?" One of their sailors yelled. We had our music on also, and the Bravo Zulu battle flags were flapping in the wind.

9:20am was our race start. Low winds had been predicted but our sails were full. Denny had invested in a new number 2 genoa and it was crisp. I put my face to it to smell the new sail smell before we raised it. The cannon on the committee boat blasted a blank into the air to signal the race start. The shores were crowded people watching and they waved as we started off.

Our crew had been divided into two watches - Bravo watch and Zulu watch. At noon, Bravo watch was off and I went below to make lunch and take a nap. Four hours later when Bravo watch started again we were still ahead of our fleet but the tides were changing. The wind had changed as well, and it was no longer pushing us - it was merely serving as a wind anchor. Our boat speed was less than a knot. By the time it got dark, several of the boats ahead of us had already given up on the race and they passed us, motoring back.

Watching the peaks of land on the American shore slide behind us was slower than watching paint dry. The only comfort was that everyone was stuck in the same light air. As it grew dark, the lights on the Canadian vessel that served as the mark grew slowly brighter, and the lights on the triangular shadows that were nearby sailboats did also.

The mark was finally upon us. As we drifted slowly nearer to the mark we realized that the current was carrying us sideways faster than the wind was carrying us forward. I was hiking with all my might and I prepared to fend off the vessel by kicking it with my feet if necessary. I could see the boat operators coming outside to see if we would crash. Even in the dark I was close enough to see the whites of their eyes. Thankfully, Denny expertly tacked the boat when we were about 9 feet away. It lost us some efficiency but it also saved us from a crash.

We got a chuckle as another boat prepared to round the mark and reported over the radio: "We are about 400 feet away from the mark. We should be there sometime within the next 4 hours."

After rounding the mark at Cape Flattery we headed North back to the Canadian coast to try our luck there.

Sunday May 26th - Day Two of the Race

Bravo watch took over again at 4am. Apparently Taylor had had some sort of run in with the boom during the wee hours of the morning and suffered a concussion. As a doctor, Brenda was upset that we weren't motoring back, but Taylor seemed to be doing ok. Erica wanted to motor back also, as she had plans to leave on the Victoria Clipper that afternoon and was eager to join the majority of sailors who had already quit the race. We weren't doing that though. In fact, there was a rumor running around that we didn't have enough fuel to motor back if we tried.

The day also promised to be as beautiful, if as windless, as the previous day. Bravo watch was still in good cheer and uninjured, although we had used up all of our dirty jokes and didn't have much left to talk about. There was one boat ahead of us that was worrying everyone. "Could that be Red Heather?" Red Heather was a boat from Victoria in our class and they were leagues ahead of us. We weren't close enough to make out their sail numbers yet, but the coloration and size indicated that it was them. We had crossed to the Canadian side and were getting better winds. We seemed to be gaining on them. I was finally able to make out their numbers with the binoculars. "9...6...0...9...6...Yup, that's them alright!" To win we had to beat them by at least ten minutes, and we were currently about ten minutes behind. We tried several strategies to get ahead, but each time they managed to pull ahead. Clearly they knew the tides and winds here better than we did.

Although we were still moving as slow as mud, Denny suggested we suffix everything with "And we're winning." As in "The current is going to start carrying us backwards in one hour. And we're winning!" Or, "We have one knot of boat speed. And we're winning!" Despite the optimism, the strain of racing (and little sleep) was clearly wearing everyone a bit thin. I was happy to be relieved by Zulu watch, and the only thing that I was doing was helping to move the jib around on the roll tacks. I can't imagine what it would be like to drive the boat for the entire race, or to be in charge of something as delicate as trimming a sail for days on end. Also, I'm thankful that I sleep so well on boats.

By the time I woke up four hours later we'd passed Race Rocks and were out of the worst of the tide. Also, Red Heather had somehow fallen off and was now receding into a line of distant boats. Perhaps our joking optimism had carried us through and we were winning! We hadn't planned to be out for dinner so I scavenged some cans of tuna and olives and made make-shift wraps for everyone.

We were in sight of Victoria Harbor when the currents switched. We noticed first by the line of water off the back of some crab pots. Then it started to carry us backward. The wind seeker wasn't working anymore, so we raised a spinnaker and Taylor held out the edge of the sail with a boat hook. Our boat speed was zero. We cheered as the wind started to fill the sail and the knot meter rose to 0.1 knots. As we waited for the boat to move, darkness fell. Every boat that we could see was far behind us, and we knew that none of the boats had finished the Cape Flattery course yet. We might be both first in our division and first overall. Hell, we might even be the only boat to finish the Cape Flattery Course! The time passed quickly for me as I concentrated on the wind and my excitement. Several more boats who had quit motored past us. Buoyed by Christa's remarks that we might be the only boat left in our class, we hung in and sailed the boat.

The instruments on the mast began to blink. We were losing battery power. Steve tried to start the engine in neutral to recharge the battery but there wasn't even enough battery for that. We quickly scrounged some bow and stern lights so that we wouldn't be disqualified after our 30+ hours of racing. We also remembered to put on our safety gear as another precaution against disqualification.

Two hours passed like this. Then four. We were in sight of the finish line - a red strobe on one side of the harbor entrance and a blinking yellow light on the other. Then a whistle blew. Or was it a horn? It didn't matter. We were finally back.

They gave us hot chicken soup and champagne at the inspection dock and took our photographs. I didn't realize that I was hungry until I ate the soup. There were handshakes and congratulations. Everyone was smiling, especially Denny.

I headed back to the hotel with Kerry, Wayne and Shayne. On the way back I ran through the sprinklers on the lawn of a fancy looking building covered in Christmas lights. A guard on the lawn noticed me so I sprinted back. "What was that building?" I asked Shayne. "That's the capitol building. Victoria is the capitol of B.C." "Ahhhh." I looked behind me nervously, but thankfully the guard wasn't following. Back at the hotel, we were almost too tired to fall asleep, and ended up giggling for an hour like high school girls at a slumber party. "My boyfriend just texted me that he thinks The Flying Italian got first," Kerry reported. "But he doesn't know much about ratings in sailing, so I doubt that's right."

Monday May 27th - Delivery Home

Just in case I got bored on the delivery home, I'd brought a book to read. It wasn't needed.

The wind blew like no other wind I have ever seen. It was like it was making up for the past two days of windlessness.

We ran out of fuel motoring against the current on the way to drop Kerry off in Port Townsend, so we put a reef in the mainsail and raised it as the rain pelted us and waves sloshed over the bow. The wind was blowing 45 knots and we were making 9 knots of boat speed with just a reefed main. Denny was sick in his berth, and Leif was throwing up over the rail. I managed to get soaked as the water coming over the sides of the boat came up my foulies. I changed my wet socks and shirt twice. Even though I wanted to stay out and watch the weather I was finally shivering so uncontrollably that I had to go below and wrap up in a blanket. Steve and a friend, Tim, who was helping out with the delivery, were driving and they did an amazing job, depositing us safely at Customs in Port Townsend. Denny lent me some of his dry clothes and we had a late lunch at a tiny fish and chips joint, before refueling and heading back to Seattle. Here we learned that we had taken second overall in the race, and first in our division. The Flying Italian was the overall winner, having corrected over us by less than a minute. It was disappointing to learn that we weren't overall winner, but it was still exciting to have finished at all. We were all too exhausted or seasick from the delivery down to smile, but it had been a race well sailed.