Blog by Marek Omilian
Oh, what a day! Perfect racing day for Team Sonic. Great preparation, great start, awesome teamwork and crew commitment during the race.
Our goal was to continue solid performance during the Southern Straits race a week before; to finish the race and keep being competitive. We studied the weather all week. I even splurged for 1km PredictWind subscription ($4/month). There was a lot of talk about the convergence zone near the start line – wind from south; dead zone; then building wind from the NW and strong winds in the Straits from the West.
We had early boat call at 7 am for the first start at 9 am. We’ve been late for two starts so far this year. We have a pattern of going out, wanting to practice something and getting to rush back to the start line. Today was not different. We motored hard back to start line as the wind was easing. The big benefit was that we managed to squeeze in a low wind, slow motion reefing practice for the first time. I am glad we stayed with our grey main sail that has the reefing point instead of switching to the newer sail but without ability to reef. I have reefed the main at least thousand times during the Clipper Round The World race and at least 10% of the time something went wrong. It was never the same thing: pulled the mast track of the mast; ripped the main sail; broke reefing lines. It’s never good for the sail to be flogging in 30-knot wind. I don’t think we would have reefed later in the race had we not tried it first before the start. Surprisingly it went very smoothly and boosted our confidence level. We could put the reef in when needed.
What a great start! The wind direction favored the Race Committee boat. All four TP52s, Crossfire in Class 0 and three other ORC boats in Class 1 were in the first start. The wind was light and from WSW. We were slowly inching towards the start line watching the clock. We ducked Smoke. We noticed Glory was a bit early to the line and had to slow down as we sailed on the line towards the RC boat crossing in first place at relatively good speed. Wind continued to shift to even more Southerly. For a moment we wished we left Code 0 on the dock. However, this is still the only sail we have never flown and we were not going to take the chance with it this time. Perhaps right before Vashon, but the boat call would need be even earlier than 7 am or we risk missing the start again😊. Up went A1 spinnaker. I think we were the first ones to put it up which allowed us to pull away few hundred yards from the other boats. That conversion zone we talked about all week was moving in. It wasn’t long before we saw the wind line moving in from the North. We brought out Medium Jib on deck. 20 seconds after someone said this could be “full facial”, fresh northerly wind blew across the bow and pushed the spinnaker into the mast and shrouds. We were ready. Spinnaker went down quickly, and jib went up – it happened so quickly I cannot remember which one was first. The wind was building nicely into low teens and the boat was accelerating going upwind. I looked back and wished I could have taken a picture. Every boat was still trying to fly a kite going in every possible direction other than the target. Some looked very still with limping spinnakers. I knew this was our chance to pull away even further and we did. Within an hour from the start we were 0.6 NM ahead of Smoke and 1NM in front of Crossfire.
We started experiencing wind bands of stronger wind. We saw few boats behind us went straight to smallest Jib, #4. We decided to stay with Medium Jib as the wind speed was not sustaining at that time. Eventually we got ready to peel to Heavy Jib (#3). Suddenly our jib halyard broke. The head of the sail slipped a little bit down the headstay. We dropped it quickly and sailed on the Main sail only until we brought Jib #4 on deck (cleaned the medium and heavy jibs) and hoisted it up. All of that allowed other boats to catch up to us. We were all sailing close to each other on the West side of Puget Sound trying to get some relief from the current and expecting the wind to back (so we can follow it). Smoke was really on our stern. We kept tacking and covering each other. They were to the West of us when they tacked and tried to cross our bow. We were the starboard boat which gave us rights on Smoke which was on a port tack. Instead of ducking us at our stern Smoke tacked away with less than one half boat length from us to avoid collision. We were sailing very close to each other quickly approaching Point No Point and running out of water. Match racing! Smoke asked for room to tack so we tacked away. Here is a great video of Sonic taken from Smoke.
The wind speed kept building. We started seeing over 20 knots of wind on a regular basis. Suddenly we saw Smoke turn South and started heading home. We suspected they have broken something, but I later heard from Steve Travis that they simply felt the wind was only going to get stronger and they did not want to experience what we were about to go through next. Mist, back for first time on the race course this year, retired much earlier as well. And then there were three: Crossfire, Glory and Sonic. Crossfire, RP55, pulled ahead having larger sail area than TP52s. We tried to stay with Glory. As we approached Point Wilson, we decided to put the reef in. It went very well, and the boat settled nicely. As we were reefing, we saw Glory heading back South. We were expecting Crossfire to reef their Main sail. Instead, right before Point Wilson rounding, they retired from the course as well. We were alone. Scott Smith, our master tactician, told me it was my call if we wanted to continue as there were no other boats to race against. Without hesitation I answered we would continue and try to finish the race. Had he asked me 30 minutes later I may have changed my mind. We rounded Point Wilson and entered Straits of Juan de Fuca. The ebbing current was the strongest and heading East. The wind was coming from the West. The water was only 20 to 30 feet deep where the current and wind came against each other creating famous rip tides. I remembered Bruce Hedrick’s warning about them. It felt like we were in the washing machine. Scott was coaching me through first few bumps in the water. The washing machine turned into a wild bronco. I have not experienced either on land, but I made a note to try the mechanical bull next time I see one in a bar. It most likely provides similar sensation to what happened next. I got thrown off the helm by the bronco and splattered right in the middle of the stern between the two steering wheels. Scott grabbed the empty helm and kept riding the bronco as I climbed back up on the high side. We rode the mechanical bull with waves crashing over the bow and soaking us for the next 15 minutes. It was as uncomfortable as it was thrilling. I am still thorn about if I want to ever go back and experience it again. It was a good test for the crew and the boat. The extra frame in Sonic’s bow makes it stronger to withstand crashing into the waves. I was never concerned about the boat. We reduced the sail plan sufficiently. Who knows, we might go offshore into VicMaui next year after all.
Once we sailed into the shadow of Protection Island the waves subsided and wind started veering. We sailed south of the island on the starboard tack admiring the wild life preserve. Nick, our navigator, was calling out the headings to make sure we gave ourselves plenty of room to avoid any shallow water around the island. We made a big circle around Dallas Bank on the North side of the island, shook out the reef and launched A4 kite. We were finally able to have lunch and relax a bit. It took us only about 3 hours to get back to the finish line. Few gibes to stay out of the current and land, of course. We saw true wind speed pick up over 30 knots few times with new boat speed record this year of 21 knots. We broached few times but recovered rather quickly without any damage. We finished at 6:43 pm, 9:43 hours after the start. We traveled probably around 110 miles giving us average speed of 11 knots. Not a bad day’s work. Dark Star and Sonic were the only two out of eight boats to finish the long course this year.
Our first win this year and ever. We worked hard for it. It took four months to figure the boat out, catch up on deferred maintenance and train the crew enough to have confidence we could do a race like this. Having done Southern Straits, 18-hour sprint, the week before helped as well. We knew what we can and cannot do with the boat and with the crew. The smiles on everyone’s face and the high fives were priceless. The crew did a fantastic job all around the boat – we changed sails several times; we reefed; the trimming and grinding were excellent and tiring. Well done!
Vashon Island race is next on May 11. In the meantime, I am off to look for mechanical bull to practice for the next Port Wilson rounding.