AYC Doublehanded Distance Race Report
Highs, lows, highs, and a brutal, catastrophic, mistake...
I keep waiting for the AYC Doublehanded Distance Race to be sailed in a post-frontal northwesterly that is blowing 25 knots. That is not an uncommon Fall weather circumstance in the mid-Atlantic. But for the second year in a row early October delivered warm temps, beautiful skies, and pleasant breezes. It was another spectacular weekend to be racing through the night on the Chesapeake Bay.
This year the fleet was considerably smaller, just 10 boats in one ORC class (last year there were 11 J-105s and 26 ORC boats split into two classes). But ten good boats is plenty to go racing and with a steady southerly wind the Race Committee set a course that would take the fleet downwind to R8 (about ten miles north of the Bay Bridge), then a long beat south to a mark near Cove Point, and back north again to Annapolis. Rich Hoyer and I were excited to be sailing together again, and looked forward to continuing to try and figure out the best modes for Moondust across a range of conditions (you can read Rich’s summary of the race here).
The downwind start was pretty straightforward: reach in towards the line on starboard, hope you get your timing right, and pop the spinnaker. We pulled that off fine, launched the symmetrical, and aimed for the westernmost opening in the bridge the Sailing Instructions allowed us to pass through (since we would be bearing off to R8 after the bridge). Winds were 10-13 from the south, which allowed us to sail deep and fast, taking the most direct line to the mark.
After we got through the bridge we were lying fourth, following the J35 Abientot, and the two fastest boats in the fleet, Artemis and No Surrender. And that is the order we rounded the first mark in. Life was very good.
Now began the long, long beat south. The flood was building against us and there was a nasty short chop. The wind was still blowing around 10 knots, which gave us an apparent windspeed over the deck of about 15 knots. Moondust has a shoal keel, which means that if you heel too much you simply start sliding sideways. Add in the fact that with just two sailors aboard there is no crew of 8 sitting on the rail to keep the boat flat. After almost two years of racing Moondust shorthanded I have come to believe that when sailing to weather, if the apparent wind is more than 12.5 knots, Moondust sails flatter and faster with a reef in the main and full genoa. So that is how we set the boat up for the beat. The only wrinkle was that in the chop it was important to keep the bow pressed down, and resist the lure of trying to point super-high, because with our de-powered sail plan we were very slow to re-accelerate if we slammed or slowed in the relentless chop.
It all sounded good in theory. But as we headed back toward the Bay Bridge boats behind us started to catch up and pass us. A number were faster boats, so should have gained a bit. But it was hard to avoid the depressing reality that we were sliding backwards in the fleet with many, many miles to go upwind. Life was very bad.
The segment from R8 back through the Bridge was brutal. By the time we sailed past the mouth of the Severn River and Annapolis there were only two boats behind us on the water. One, our friends on Blaze Star, was more or less alongside. Blaze Star is always very well sailed, but it is a much slower boat on handicap than Moondust. We should not have been in the same water. Rich and I tweaked the trim constantly, tried different steering modes, made silent prayers to the Gods Of VMG. Nothing seemed to help.
Once again we had come face to face with the Single Biggest Problem we have racing Moondust—competing upwind in anything that isn’t light winds and flat water. In retrospect, maybe we should have tried full genoa and full main and feathered the boat up into the wind. But that would likely have meant a lot of slamming and slowing. Rich (smartly) suggested that a full main and smaller #3 jib would maybe be a better upwind racing configuration in all but the lightest winds for our shoal-keel configuration. This has promise as many Beneteau 36.7 owners extol the ease of sailhandling and the surprising boatspeed delivered by a #3. However, I recalled the comment made by my sailmaker when I asked last year whether he had any suggestions that would help me sail better to my rating. “Cut off the shoal keel and replace it with a full keel,” he said. “Isn’t there anything else I could try,” I replied, hoping for something slightly less drastic. “Not really,” he shrugged.
[NB: I started to race Moondust in handicap regattas, despite her shoal keel, because I figured handicaps take it all into account and even the playing field. But I am starting to realize that handicap ratings, whether VPP-based or not, don’t always accurately capture a sailboat’s real-world behavior or potential. I am sure I could sail Moondust better, and I will keep learning and trying. But if I ever wanted to seriously compete in a handicap racing fleet, I would look long and hard for designs which have proven to be super-competitive for their ratings. A shoal-keel Beneteau 36.7 is apparently not that. But Moondust was the boat I had, so Moondust is the boat I race. Happily, despite the challenge of getting her speed up to her rating].
Anyhow, back to the story: Sailboat racing is all about getting through the highs and lows. Rich and I were at peak low as we headed toward Thomas Point, staying west to minimize the effect of the dying flood, and pick up the beginnings of the ebb. We lowered our expectations, focused on enjoying the beautiful day and the pleasure of being out sailing, and found peace with the situation. Then, to our surprise, something started to change.
Perhaps it was the wind easing off just a bit, but not too much, so that we could power the reduced sail plan up a bit more, which helped us accelerate faster out of the chop and widen the steering groove. Perhaps the chop changed just enough to stop slapping us around so much. I can’t really say. We started to feel more in a groove. We started to feel a bit faster. We started to gain again on the boats around us. And then we made the call to sail a long starboard tack board out to the entrance of Eastern Bay, figuring that the ebb must by now be flowing faster in the deep water of the shipping channel. We split from most of the boats around us, got way east. When we tacked back onto port to resume heading south we caught a little lift and made nice gains on the other boats. From a deep low to a pleasurable high. Sailboat racing plays with your emotions. Life was good once again.
After I got home I played the race back on the Yellowbrick tracker. From Bloody Point to the Little Choptank River (just over three-and-a-half hours of sailing) we gained more than an hour on Blaze Star (which was more in line with our ratings), thirty-six minutes on Diablo, which is rated just a bit slower than Moondust, and five minutes on Elvis, a slightly faster boat, which was the next boat ahead of us on the water. Maybe Moondust can go to weather…sometimes. In certain specific conditions. Or maybe we got lucky with where we chose to go and others got unlucky. Sailboat racing can be a mystery. Regardless, the crew of Moondust was willing to savor this scrap of redemption from the Sailing Gods.
Unfortunately, here is the part of the story where our improving race comes to a disappointing and abrupt end, and I am revealed as an idiot. During the week I had carefully entered into my chartplotter all the marks the Sailing Instructions had listed as potential course marks. Saturday morning before the start, when the Race Committee posted the course, I (somewhat hastily) created a route on the chartplotter, reading the selected course marks on my phone screen and inputting them in sequence into the chartplotter. The southernmost mark selected and posted by the Race Committee was G77, off Cove Point, near Solomons Island. Sadly, G77A (about 8 miles north of G77) had also been listed as a potential mark. Unfortunately, very unfortunately, I selected G77A from the list of potential marks I had created, instead of G77, to build the course route. Our race was doomed from the start.
Out on the water, Rich and I had no inkling of this imminent disaster. After a very long beat, during which we had felt better and better about how we were going, we thought we were finally approaching the southernmost mark. It was a great feeling. We were making optimistic plans for the run north, talking through the spinnaker set and eventual gybe, and hoping that we would make good gains on the 35-mile run to the finish (our strongest point of sail). It took us some confusion and extra time to round G77A as it was unlit. “Strange that the race committee would select an unlit mark,” we thought after we finally found the mark and rounded. That should have been a clue, of course.
We launched the spinnaker, gybed a while later onto to the layline for the next mark off Thomas Point, and started sailing fast. Spirits were high. I heated up some soup. It was a beautiful night. Life was good (really, really good).
Our next potential clue that something was off was a radio call from Diablo, which had been following us south. “Moondust, Diablo,” came a voice on the VHF. “Is everything okay aboard?” They had evidently been tracking us on AIS or Yellowbrick and saw us abruptly turn back north miles short of the mark we were supposed to be sailing toward. “All good,” Rich replied. “We just rounded the mark and are headed north.” “Be aware the mark is unlit,” he added, trying to be helpful. Awkward silence, and Diablo signed off. We figured that maybe they had wondered why we had been tacking back and forth as we were looking for that unlit mark, and got back to the business of racing our boat.
Perhaps if we were more awake, and less focused on sprinting for the barn, alarm bells would have been blaring. Perhaps we would have paid more attention to the fact that we hadn’t seen any lead boats sailing downwind as we approached 77A (I figured they might have turned AIS off). It wasn’t until I checked the AIS for shipping a little while later as we approached the shipping channel that I saw an AIS signal for a vessel called Artemis heading north at 8.5 knots and behind us. Uh-oh. It’s a common name, I thought. Maybe a barge? I looked closer. I saw another AIS signal behind us. No Surrender it said. In an instant, I understood exactly what had happened. F*ck!
Rich was on deck, thoroughly enjoying the fine sailing. My stomach twisted into a knot. I fished out my phone and jabbed at the screen to pull up the course announcement on the Race Committee bulletin board. I zoomed in. G77, not G77A. A wave of despair washed over me. Such a dumb, catastrophic mistake. And I had made it so carelessly and so easily. By now we had sailed north for a good half hour or more. It was too late to turn around and have it mean anything. All our effort, all our hopes, suddenly meant nothing. I stuck my head out the companionway. “I am so sorry, Rich, but we rounded the wrong mark. I entered the wrong buoy into our route,” I told him. Then I called up the race committee and withdrew from the race.
Rich took it like a champ. No overt upset, no recrimination. He forgave me on the spot. We discussed briefly what we would have done in Diablo’s position. They were absolutely under no obligation to inform us they suspected we may have rounded the wrong mark (as they must have realized). But both Rich and I agreed that it would have been good sportsmanship to have done so, just as we had tried to warn them the mark was unlit. Still, the only person at fault was me. Live and learn. We kept sailing north.
Life was bad, very bad, again. Sort of. We were cruising along at 6-plus knots under spinnaker, with a flood tide carrying us home. In any other circumstances we would have been loving life. I felt totally wiped out and headed below to lie down for a bit and process my stupidity. Rich, who had just downed a large mug of coffee, stayed on deck and did what he loves to do: sail a boat, especially at night and shorthanded. I came back up an hour later. Rich looked perfectly content, but the wind was dying. We doused the sails and turned the engine on. Rich went to sleep and I sat on deck, still chastising myself and feeling badly that I had wasted Rich’s weekend. I cracked a cold beer. Dark water rushed by. Twinkling constellations were draped across the night sky. The diesel purred.
“It could be worse,” I thought. “I could not be on this boat, in this amazing place right now.” Of course it would have been so much better to be racing still. But what racing we completed had been intense and interesting. We had enjoyed the highs and endured the lows. We had learned a few more things about how Moondust sails. And despite the bitter disappointment of withdrawing, we were still embarked on an adventure. On a sailboat. On the Chesapeake Bay. On a beautiful and cool October night. “Can’t complain too much,” I decided. I sighed deeply, leaned against the combing, and watched the sun start to reveal itself over the Eastern Shore.