For the days leading up to the race, it was all I could do to keep from thinking about it. 120 nautical miles from Annapolis to Hampton. Not to mention the short hundred nautical miles to get to the starting line. It was my first long distance race and for the entire crew (minus the skipper), our first time sailing Down the Bay. Needless to say, we were all a bit apprehensive and rather unsure of what to expect.
Nevertheless, we did our research. Isaac Clark, recent graduate and past commodore of William and Mary’s sailing team, even purchased a book of tides to assist us with the complex current systems flowing throughout the bay (of course this was forgotten amongst the pre-race anxiety). The forecast was not promising. 5-10 miles per hour from the South with a chance of isolated thunderstorms – aka no wind unless you’re lucky enough to find yourself in a squall. And for once the predictions were correct! Skipper Jon Haracivet quickly made sure we understood that the trip up would be in ‘delivery mode’ and the trip back would be ‘race mode’. What that meant was the sail up (I am hesitant to even call it a ‘sail’) would consist of plenty of napping, lounging, comfort, and unfortunately, lots of diesel fuel. Our headsail saw the occasional puff before nightfall but our main remained fast asleep throughout the day as we slogged along at four and a half knots.
The beautiful sunset was slowly enveloped by building storm clouds that stretched from the southern sky to the northern. Thankfully, along with these clouds came some breeze and we finally found an excuse to hoist the main. We inched up to about 6 knots as we watched the storm grow behind us and the distant lightning move from the back of our minds to a pressing matter. The iPhone was pulled out to check the Doppler and sure enough there was a storm system running alongside the bay. While nobody really voiced their concerns, we all were wondering what exactly it would mean for us if the “isolated thunderstorm” decided to isolate itself above our mast. Our fearless skipper woke just long enough to tell us we ought to drop the main before the storm arrived but not long enough to sooth our growing anxiety. His lack of concern was reassuring as long as you ignored the fact that he had fought in Vietnam and quite certainly had a different notion of what exactly it meant to be in a perilous position. So with danger lurking, me and the rest of the crew decided it was a good time to head below and curl up for a slumber. Isaac was left at the helm with his gps, charts, and some binoculars. I told him to let me know if he needed anything and was lulled to sleep by the not-so-subtle rhythmic pounding of our good ol’ diesel washing machine.
The next 7 hours went by in a jiff – for me at least. In fact I don’t even remember what I dreamt in those pleasant hours. Strangely, Isaac has a different recollection of what went on. He talks of enduring pouring rain and stormy seas but I still have no evidence of this except for his soaking clothes and the occasional drop of water leaking through the deck that would wake me in the night. When I finally rose and emerged from below, the sun was warming the decks and we were only a few hours away from Annapolis. I had meant to be awake for the sunrise but did not regret getting the extra sleep. We thumped our way past Thomas Point and finally into Annapolis Yacht Club in time for a healthy breakfast at Chick & Ruth’s.
We spent the day perusing the sailor’s paradise that is Annapolis and struggled to avoid emptying our already struggling college student bank accounts. (Some with more success than others) After a luxurious day of 3 meals, some booze, and plenty of opportunities to use the crapper, we fell asleep wondering what the next two days had in store.
The first thing I noticed was that the breeze had picked up. Thank God. As much as I enjoyed the leisurely trip up the bay, I was certainly ready to get some actual sailing in. As soon as we were off the dock we had our main sail up. We had all mentally switched to ‘race mode’ as we anxiously awaited the starting signal. For some reason I always imagined that as races get bigger and longer they have equally more impressive race committee boats. After all, the ones in the Volvo Ocean Race always look so official. When someone pointed to a sailboat no larger than twenty some feet and told me that was the race committee, I was a little disappointed. Upon reflection, it may have been the only part of the race that disappointed me. Anyhow, a halfway-decent line was set and we had our plan; mid-line on starboard with clean air. Unfortunately, as any sailor knows, things rarely go as planned. As we tacked onto port to make our run across the line, a Navy boat came cruising in forcing us to tack back and delay our approach. When we were clear we went back over and came across the pin about 5 boat lengths to leeward with about two minutes to go. Directly to our stern was one of the boats we had discussed pre-start that we wanted to avoid starting next to. A Farr 400 with a PHRF rating of -18 (compared to our modest 90). Isaac, who was driving, did a good job to keep weather clear and in fear that the Farr would roll right over us, we tacked short of where we planned to with around a minute to the start. This meant we wouldn’t be starting mid-line and in fact, room was running out for us to make the start at all. So we fell off onto a reach giving us room to tack over in hopes of port tacking the fleet. If I have learned anything from dinghy sailing I have learned that you only try to port tack the fleet when you are absolutely sure you can do it. Needless to say, we were unsuccessful. We found ourselves ducking several boats (8 others started with us) before tacking back on to starboard and heading out into the bay.
So the start was not so hot, but our position quickly improved. Going out left proved to pay off early on as we picked off several boats when we crossed back over them. But there was a lot of racing ahead of us. The wind varied from 5 to 10 knots throughout the morning and early afternoon. Our plan was to stay out of the current during flood tide and in the current during ebb tide. It was simple but effective. Hours seemed to fly by as we transitioned from super-concentrated dinghy style racing to a more relaxed focus that was more appropriate for the situation. We were also growing more and more comfortable with the boat and its intricacies. (Due to the lack of wind we hadn’t even tacked the boat once on the way up.) Well after we had settled into the groove and our foredeck expert Alex “Wern Dog” Werner had taken the helm a hail came over the VHS.
“Midnight Rider this is Solstice, come in.”
“Solstice this is Midnight Rider, go ahead.”
“Hey Jon, this is Jim, give me a call on my cell phone when you get a chance.” Jim Bordeaux was the skipper of Solstice, a J-40 that sailed out of the York River like us. They were currently about a half a mile behind us along with a couple other of our competitors. Over cell phone, they politely informed us that we had in fact left a mark to starboard that we were required to leave to port. Sharpes Island Mark 80 – A red channel marker that was about a quarter of a mile behind us. After a frantic search for the SIs we swung the boat around and all of a sudden we were going downwind. At this point the higher power above decided it would be a good time for the breeze to die and make us all too conscious of the ebbing tide we had worked so hard to get into. Downwind, in no breeze, in adverse current, going the exact opposite direction of where we wanted to be going. We sat there miserable as we watched the rest of the fleet pass us by, undoubtedly wondering if the hot sun had gotten to our heads.
After eternity, we rounded the damn mark and turned back upwind. The light wind lasted a couple hours and just as I was finding a comfortable way to nap on the leeward rail, it began to fill in again from the left. It picked up to a moderate pace around 12 knots and the big genoa powered up and heeled us over. On one of our tacks, Isaac was grinding in the big jib when all of a sudden a loud snap rang out and it was luffing in the wind. Immediately we realized the sheet had snapped so we tacked back over and retied the broken sheet to the clew. Luckily nobody was hurt and we responded to this ‘detonation situation’ very quickly. I meant to keep the broken sheet as a souvenir and a reminder of the dangerous nature of the sport. With so much tension on the rig and on the lines at all times, it is amazing that there are not more injuries. I think from then on Isaac hesitated just slightly every time he wanted to get that extra inch out of the jib sheet – but then went ahead and got it anyways. After all, inches are everything when it comes to speed. A little while later as the breeze continued to build we decided to throw up the smaller headsail (my first headsail change on Midnight Rider) and later on we even reefed the main to keep the boat on its feet.
Before long the sun fell and we all admired the beautiful sunset off our starboard quarter. Red sky at night, sailors delight. The moonless sky lit up above our heads. I swear I haven’t seen so many stars since I lived in Colorado years ago. It was absolutely breathtaking. Hours passed and the breeze lightened to a comfortable 5-10. We took the reef out and threw up the genny (my first nighttime headsail change) and cruised off through the night. Isaac, Alex, and Efe Brock each took 90 minute shifts at the helm paired up with myself, Jarrell Raper, and Amanda Johnson. We are all current or graduated William and Mary students but our long college nights pale in comparison to the exhaustioning night that we were about to endure. Sleeping on the boat was difficult (for most of us, Werner seemed to thrive in the discomfort). It felt like whenever I managed to fall asleep, the boat would tack and I would slide off my makeshift bed of sail bags and lifejackets only to lie uncomfortably for another 30 minutes until I was summoned to the deck.
My graveyard shift ran from about 12:30 to 2 am and it was actually rather peaceful. Efe was at the helm and we grew into a comfortable rhythm, Flashlight on tell tales, wind vane, off. Check GPS, check for approaching lights to leeward, to windward, behind us. Admire stars, look for satellites. Repeat. Around two I woke Isaac from his only true slumber of the trip (I almost felt bad) and found myself down again on the leeward rail. Jarrell and I remarked on how things grew funnier and funnier as we grew more and more exhausted. “Like sleepovers when we were little,” he said. “This is nothing like a sleepover,” Isaac responded. All three of us laughed. I don’t know why.
When the wind picked up and I was once again allowed onto the windward side, I curled up and finally discovered that the place to sleep was on deck, not below. I thought to myself before falling asleep, this way I’ll get to see the sunrise. Around 6:30 I was awoken. We were tacking. After roughly 5 hours on the same port tack it was time. As I emerged from my groggy sleep I realized that the sun had risen. I had missed it again, damnit. On the bright side, we were once again in the hunt. There were about 5 boats in sight and a couple of them were within a reasonable distance. After more than 20 hours and nearly a hundred miles of racing, we were within several hundred yards of other boats.
The wind was a steady 8-10 and the air began to warm up. I shed my layers and grabbed my adored Brazil hat for good luck. As people emerged from below deck we returned to our places on the windward rail and Isaac took the helm once again to finish what he had started. Midday rolled around and the first talks of the “last mark” began to come up. We discussed in great detail which dot on the horizon “must be the mark.” It seemed that whenever we had come to a conclusion we would spot another dot and change our minds. Isaac threw in a remark about his lack of concern over which one was it when we were still so far away. Nevertheless, Efe made it his goal to determine which blip was the right blip and to convince us so. I was more focused on the fact that we were catching up to almost every boat I could see. In fact, whether it was Isaac’s driving or the excellent jib skirters, we were cruisin’. Every time we crossed it seemed we had made football fields on the boats ahead of us. When we finally approached the layline we had passed 3 different boats. One of these passing moves entailed rolling right over the top of a J-105 who shared the same PHRF rating as us. Always satisfying.
The final mark approached. After that it was just a reach to the finish line. About 5 minutes in front of us was a Sabre 426 by the name of Nanuq that we watched round the channel marker and begin to raise its spinnaker. Wait a minute, spinnaker? Shit. After more than 24 hours of upwind sailing we hadn’t even thought about a spinnaker (except for that brief moment when we were going backwards…). Recklessly I dove down below and hauled the chute out onto the foredeck. We scrambled to connect the sheets as Isaac counted down the boat lengths until rounding. As we hit zero we realized that something was wrong. It took us a couple of minutes to sort out the mess but finally the sheets were rigged correctly and I yanked up the halyard. Boom, deployed. The tension on board settled down as we were all busy working the boat to the finish line, only about 10 miles away.
The J-105 was about a hundred yards behind us at this point and it was a beam reach. J-105s love beam reaches. They have an asymmetrical spinnaker perfectly designed for sailing them. We had a symmetrical chute that would much rather sail downwind. For a while we fought to fend them off, pointing as high as we could to keep our air clean. But a few miles in, we realized it was fruitless. They would either pass us directly to windward and shadow us completely, or we could bear down, let them by and hope to make time on the next boat behind them. So we chose the latter. It was hard to watch them cruise past us after working so hard to overtake them on the windward leg. Isaac complained about the PHRF system and we all agreed that at this point we would much rather be sailing One Design.
The last hour we laughed and talked about the pleasantries that awaited us onshore. The food, Chipotle maybe? The toilet, most of us didn’t really need to go, after all we had left the snacks in the car and had hardly eaten anything since leaving. The Slurpees! Yes, I definitely wanted a Slurpee. We notified the race committee when we were about a mile out. The chute flew majestically above us as we cruised past a channel marker. The VHS rang out telling us we had finished. We hadn’t even realized. On shore we spotted a red umbrella with someone sitting beneath it. That was the finish line, we had done it. As Stuart Streuli, an avid long distance sailor and author in Sailing World puts it, “On the official record there are two classes of boats that compete in a distance race: those that finish and those that do not.” We had finished, and the results hardly even mattered. The truth is we didn’t do half bad. Out of the 35 boats that started, we came in 15th. We had lost to the J-105 along with 6 other boats in the PHRF A class, beating only one in corrected time. But none of that really matters to me. It was the experience, the sense of accomplishment, and the camaraderie that I won’t soon forget.
I guess the next step for me now is to find another distance race to compete in. This was my first, and hopefully the first of many. Strangely I long for that exhausted feeling (which I a am still recovering from) along with the euphoric sense of accomplishment. My hunger for more won’t allow me to stay off the water for long and after all, I still have a sunrise to catch.