AYC Spring Oxford Race

A near-perfect ride to Oxford. A brutal slog back.

I was really looking forward to sailing the May 8 Annapolis Yacht Club race to Oxford. First, because Oxford is a great Eastern Shore destination. Second, because winds were forecast to be WNW, which meant a lot of fast reaching and running. And, finally, because, for once this Spring, there were no gale warnings involved, which always makes the racing just that little bit less stressful (we’ll get back to this later in the story).

Originally, I signed up for the ORC DH division, preferring ORC to PHRF. But only one other boat registered, while seven were in the CHESSS (Chesapeake Shorthanded Sailing Society) division. So over to CHESSS we popped, meaning we would sail against more boats (always preferable), and with our PHRF rating of 87. One bonus: Blaze Star, the well-sailed Pearson Flyer which we consider a useful marker of our performance, was in CHESSS. Another well-sailed boat, Jeff Halpern’s Farr 11.6 was also registered (but ultimately did not race).

The start was near Thomas Point, and we would be in an ebb current all the way to the mouth of the Choptank River. So our strategy was very straightforward: get the chute up fast, and work our way east into the deeper and faster ebbing water of the shipping channel, and fly south for 12 miles or so to the first real turning mark at 80A, which we would leave to port before hardening up into the Choptank River.

After checking the wind direction and bearing to 80A, we decided to fly the symmetrical spinnaker. Our start was the first of the day, and approached the line on a starboard reach, being careful not to let the ebb set us over the line early. Just before the gun we turned down, hit the line right on time, and jumped the chute. Blaze Star was even quicker with their spinnaker, but not by much and positioned a little behind us. As we started to work deep to get east, they crossed behind us and set up about 100 meters to windward of us. So far, so perfect. We were positioned where we wanted to be, and sailing fast in winds of about 15 knots.

The Sailing Instructions required us to leave two other marks (Bloody Point light, and R84, which marks the approach to Eastern Bay) to port as we sailed toward 80A. Since the rhumb line to 80A would take us to starboard of R84, we pointed the bow at R84, which is in deep water, and focused on steering and trimming for speed. We slowly started to extend on Blaze Star and other boats in our class, enjoying our glamor moment out front. But the wind was starting to come forward on the beam, making it a slightly dubious tight spinnaker reach (which would have suited the asymmetrical better) that was becoming a little sketchy in the puffs.

It was good to learn that the symmetrical worked pretty well even with the wind on the beam, and the pole just off the headstay. As the puffs rolled through, Moondust would heel, pressure would build on the rudder, and Rich (who was trimming the spinnaker) and I (working the helm and mainsheet) would quickly depower as needed to keep the boat under control. I think we only had one puff where we had to dump both the spinnaker sheet and the mainsheet to keep the rudder in the water. If we could just manage to hang on until 84, we would be able to bear off a bit and bring the apparent wind aft, making everything easier (and faster).

We got to 84 just as the fast boats in the other divisions started to come by. It had been a good run at the front, and even if it was an artifact of start times it is always fun to be the first boat on a race course. We finally passed R84 and came off a few degrees to aim at R80A. The apparent wind came aft, but now the wind started to build a bit, and so did the swell. Rich and I got into a great little groove. He was working the spinnaker pole and sheet constantly, making endless small trim adjustments. I was focused entirely on trimming the main, driving fast, and picking up every little wave we could surf. Moondust was really moving, with a lot of 9-plus on the speedo, and some 10-pluses in the surfs. It was a thrill. Again the game was to simply try and hang on until 80A, where we could again bear off, before gybing to the next mark of the course, G7 off Blackwalnut Point at the southern end of Tilghman Island.

Approaching 80A, the faster Sunfast 3600 in our class finally passed by. With 80A astern, we bore off onto a deep VMG run. The wind built even more and some of the bigger gusts, in conjunction with the steepening swell behind us, would start that deep-rocking, unsettling, oscillation that threatened a nasty round-up. This time we remembered to choke the spinnaker sheet down a bit (thanks Chrissy), and that helped. I was focused on trying to pick the right time to gybe onto port to head toward G7, and looking down the course to see where the faster boats ahead of us gybed. I was also starting to worry about how a gybe would go in these conditions, especially as it would be hard for the autopilot to hold a steady course in the swell running underneath us (during a gybe the autopilots steers as close to directly downwind as possible, while the two crew handle the spinnaker, pole, and mainsail). I also started to consider that after G7, we would harden up a bit to leave R10 in the Choptank River to starboard, and then bear off again to run east up the Choptank River to the Choptank Light at the mouth of the Tred Avon River. It was hard to predict what the right sail would be for all that, especially if the wind shifted in the river.

Rich and I were in the process of steeling ourselves for the gybe when I said: “Why don’t we douse the spinnaker, gybe under the genoa, and see whether we need to re-launch the spinnaker once we are in the Choptank?” Rich, who presumably had been doing all his own cogitations about the upcoming gybe, instantly responded: “Yes.” When you have a two-person crew, it is always really nice when the two persons are in agreement (and Rich and I have been working very well together discussing and analyzing options). We rolled out the genoa on the starboard side, partially blanketing the spinnaker and partially running wing and wing. Rich moved to the side deck, and grabbed the spinnaker sheet on the port side. We let the guy run, and as soon as Rich had the foot under control I started letting off the halyard. We stuffed the spinnaker down the companionway, cleared the halyard and sheets, and gybed the main. We were reaching fast toward G7, under control and feeling like we had made a good call.

Within minutes we knew we had made a great call. Both the Sunfast 3600 and a Dufour 40 racing in the Racer Cruiser Division kept their spinnakers up, gybed, and immediately found themselves overpowered, laid over, and flogging everything. As both boats struggled to get their kites down and regain control they slowly sailed past G7 on the wrong side (I think a Melges 32 was in the same mess). I waited to see if they would sail back to G7 and round properly, leaving it to port, but neither did. As soon as they were up and sailing again, now with main and genoa, they pointed their bows toward the next mark, R10, and carried on. Um, okay. Maybe they hadn’t realized they had missed the mark?

Rich and I didn’t waste too much time worrying about it. We had our own race to sail, and we were feeling good about how it was going. Rich got on the wheel for the run up the Choptank, which was a fast, fast reach. I jumped around trimming and tweaking, looking for speed. At one moment I paused and looked behind. There was Blaze Star, well astern, but probably not far enough astern. They were putting up yet another solid performance.

Knowing the seconds might count, we now had a dilemma. Both the Sunfast 3600 and especially the Dufour 40 settled in on our line, just ahead and to windward of us. If they had missed a mark and kept sailing that was one thing (perhaps they would withdraw at the finish). But if they missed a mark, kept sailing or racing, and were impeding our progress, that was a problem. The Dufour 40 was so close to us that I stepped onto the sidedeck and called over to the skipper: “Are you aware that you missed a mark back there?” He looked at me, and yelled “Which one?” “G7,” I called back, “It was supposed to be left to port.” He turned and had a quick conversation with his crew, and then called back curtly and emphatically: “No, we didn’t.”

Disappointing, and perhaps more evidence of a post-truth world. Or maybe he really, sincerely believed he hadn’t missed G7 (though a quick check of his chartplotter track would have set him straight). Regardless, I wasn’t go to stand there and argue with him. We were racing, and getting caught up in another boat’s BS just takes away from the fun. Rich and I did what we could to squeeze speed out of Moondust, and the Sunfast 3600 and the Dufour 40 continued to lead our parade toward the Choptank Light. That was to be left to port, after which we would turn north up the Tred Avon River and sail the final two miles to the finish at R2 off Oxford.

That left one final decision to make The wind was still blowing 15-20, and the leg up the Tred Avon would be hard on the wind and puffy. It was a short leg, but with full main and genoa we would for sure be overpowered (and I had left the rig relatively loose before the start because we would be off the wind so much). Approaching Choptank Light I quickly ground a reef into the main, and cranked the backstay on hard. We rounded, still just behind the Sunfast 3600and the Dufour 40, and sheeted on. Puffs rolled down the Tred Avon. Since Rich had done all the hard mainsail trimming in the windy, Wednesday night race, it was only fair that I did my share of mainsail trimming now. I cranked the vang on hard, got up on the side deck with both the main fine-tune and course-tune in my hands, and sheeted in and out like a machine. Rich was happily driving us to weather on port tack, and there were moments when it looked as if we might even lay R2. We also worked a bit to weather of the Sunfast 3600 and Dufour 40, finally clearing our air a bit. Alas, as we closed the finish we all got hit by a right-shift, and had to throw in a few tacks to cross the line.

Moondust finished, thanked the Race Committee, and immediately tacked around the committee boat to head home. Both Rich and I were very happy with how the race had gone, how we had handled the boat, and with the tactical and sail choices we had made. As we sailed down the Tred Avon River, the sun was shining, the rest of the fleet was working up the river toward the finish, and we were digging into some sandwiches. Life was good. We saw Blaze Star sail by, as well as Keith Mayes’ 36.7 Jubilee, racing in ORC 2, and Whitehall Marina owner John White’s distinctive Abbott 33, also racing in (and winning, it turned out) ORC 2. In the end, as we suspected, we came second in class, behind Blaze Star. She finished eleven and a half minutes behind us, but corrected out to almost 6 minutes faster than us. Rich and I didn’t mind. We knew we had sailed a pretty great race (sailing the course less than 3 minutes slower than Jubilee, a deep keel 36.7 racing with a full crew). Blaze Star must have done the same. We had learned at the NOOD how well she sailed downwind (our only real gains were going upwind). At least we had closed the corrected time differential from almost 15 minutes to less than 6 minutes. Progress.

We had a beautiful sail out the Choptank, relaxing and enjoying the race aftermath. As we neared the return to the Bay itself a big dark cloud which I had been eyeing for quite a while started to loom high above us. “We should get the sails down,” Rich suggested. Another excellent call. Shortly after we did, we were hit with rain and wind up to 30 knots. And that was the kickoff to the long, long, slog home. The wind kept building from the northwest, which was exactly the direction we wanted to go. The swell kept building too, and with the flood established, the Chesapeake became a minefield of short and brutal waves. Trying to motor north without sails was hopeless, and the pounding beyond bearable. So we motor sailed with a double-reef in the main, for a long time making almost no VMG as we headed west across the Bay hoping to get out of the deep water and some relief in the lee of the western shore. We finally tacked north and played every shift we could to try and claw our way towards Annapolis. For a while it was blowing a steady 30 knots, with gusts as high as 38. I guess no gale warnings doesn’t guarantee no (near) gale conditions. We just can’t go sailing in May, it seems, without deep reefs.

When we reached the latitude of Herring Bay, I started to think about pulling into Herrington Harbor and finishing the delivery back to Whitehall Bay early Sunday morning. Rich and I discussed it. If things continued as they were it might take us until 10 or 11 pm to get back to Whitehall, not to mention to misery of slamming constantly into the waves and the abuse of the boat and diesel. A calm marina was very, very tempting. Just as I was ready to pull the trigger on a Herrington Harbor bailout the wind eased. Just a touch, into the low 20s. We pressed on. It eased a bit more and went left. Suddenly, we were going fast, and pointed directly at our destination. That was more than acceptable. It was if the Chesapeake had wanted to see how far it could push us, and as soon as we were ready to crack relented and let us free. By the time we passed Thomas Point it was a beautiful evening, all the rain had gone, and we were eating hot soup. Hell to heaven in two hours. And despite the return delivery shellacking, a fantastic day on the water.

2021 AYC Spring Oxford Race Full Results

Spinsheet Photo Gallery (sadly, no good ones of Moondust)

No Racing this Wednesday, because AYC is hosting the J70 North Americans. Back next week.