"Any sailor who says they have raced the best downwind race truly has not done so till they run the ditch! Racing up the delta is loaded with decision making, sail handling and challenges waiting at every bridge and turn.
This race attracts all types of boats. At the start you will see various J/Boats, fast planning monohulls like the M38 and Melges 20's, original Santa Cruz downwind flyers like the Moore 24 and Express 27s, IOR death roll machines and some regular cruising type boats and then an assortment of multihulls ranging from beach size cats to Formula 40 style catamarans and last but certainly not least, throw a foiling moth into the mix!
Racing 67 miles up river in a J/70 in a typical medium to high breeze downwind "gybe, crash and burn times 50" race sounds too good to be true. I joined Karl Pomeroy and Erik Mayol from BCYC in SoCal to race in the 2013 Delta Ditch Run hosted by Richmond YC and Stockton Sailing Club. I had raced this race in Hobie 33's and Melges 24's, so I instantly became the local expert. To date I still have not hit dirt, so at least I know where deeper water is compared to some of the racers who park their boat in the mud every year!
Five J70's started with Tom Jenkins & Erik Kownacki sailing the J/70 "DFZ" double handed with the other J70's sailing with three. If the breeze comes up, the crew of two will get their workout for the summer and then some! If the wind stays light, this might be the right recipe for steep'n into Stockton ahead of the fleet! Joining the J/70's in the Sport 2+ class was a mix of boats: Melges 20's, Thompson 650, Ultimate 20's, J80's and a heavily modified Santana 27.
This year, the double handed approach worked perfectly for the speedy "DFZ". Tom and Erik sailed in the front of Sport 2+ class and by the George Miller Memorial Bridge they started to open their lead against the next two J/70's, Peter Cameron's "Baby War Pony" and Pomeroy's "Zero to 60". The strategy of staying in the strongest flood tide while sailing low-deep angles is an important part of the race. I have found that staying away from larger boats that are slower is also a major part, but maybe not as much as staying in the major flood tide when the wind is lighter. "DFZ" and "Baby War Pony" took off from the other 3 J/70's at mid course while we all sailed in-out-back in of slower traffic. The lead J/70's were sailing out of traffic and soaking nicely down the channel.
On "Zero to 60" our strategy changed at turning buoy #19. The two lead J/70's were within sight but were getting 5-7 minutes ahead and the race was getting shorter, not longer. All the boats we could see were headsail reaching on the dog leg left turn, no spinnakers. The breeze is usually windier and gusty here, so spinnaker sailing is a big no-no (unless you are a Wylie Wabbit with big cojones and carry the spin with full trapeze and flog the main and jib), so we put the spinnaker up and let it all hang out. The J/70 sailed the razor thin line of spinning out and keeping the foot on the gas pedal at full RPM passing boats, squeezing in to the lead boats and pulling away from the boat chasing us.
As the river gets closer to Stockton, there are more turns with one or two more tight reaches and then almost dead downwind to the finish line. The breeze "usually" starts to die off, but this year it started to blow with some gusts in the mid-20's. "Zero to 60" pushed hard with the spinnaker up and down on the tight reaches with boats around us spinning out trying to match the narrow angle to stay off the rocks on the leeward side of the channel and out of the mud on the windward side! This was awesome sailing with very little room to maneuver and burn down in the puffs and try to avoid submerged trees sticking out of the water and dozens of water ski boats and jets ski's. We were sailing in a real life sailing combat zone video game, don't spin out Karl!
After the last tight reach, the dead down angle was the only way to go. By this point, most asymmetric boats have gybed 40+ times with 10+ more gybes before the finish in 5-7 miles. Finally some carnage started to hit the race course with the breeze picking up instead of dying, more gybe wipe outs were happening and one FT-10 stuck in the mud after a spin out! "Zero to 60" went into our 2 minute "no huddle" offense with "wing-on-wing" sailing down the puffs. We were closing rapidly in on the lead J70's as we could get on the step and start planning with the wing-on-wing sail trim. Erik steered dead down wind or just by the lee, I trimmed (held) the spinnaker sheet while Karl was letting out the tack line for better separation from the spinnaker and main. It was exhilarating sailing as each puff would hit and the boat jumped in speed as the boats around us kept wiping out during their jibes. Erik would simply sail toward the spinnaker when the boat got out of balance and kept the boat and sails in perfect balance and trim, it was wicked fast and as good as VMG as you could get!
J70 JAYA- skippered by Craig Tallman:
"In the end, we ran out of race course and crossed 3rd behind "DFZ (3m:30sec ahead)" and "Baby War Pony (0:33sec ahead)". Keeping the spinnaker up on the reaches and the wing-on-wing technique was a big reason we were able to get up next to the lead J/70's by the finish. The earlier part of the race where we jibed away from bigger slower boats and sailed out of the best water and wind made too much separation. The J/70's performed amazingly well in this race and will be a factor in next year's race for sure. But, the best part of the race for the J/70's was at the hoist with all of the other trailerable boats there. Watching (not really helping) Karl and Erik put away the boat and ready it for the hoist and dropping on the trailer made me a believer. It was so dang fast and simple I could not believe it. Seeing the other trailer boats get their ladders out and mess with gin poles to drop the rigs, the J/70 experience was fast and easy. I would expect to see close to 20 of the J70's at next year's race after taking 1,3,4, 7, 12 in their class and fun it was to race with your friends and how easy the boat was to launch-race-put away at the end of the day."
J/70 DFZ- sailed by Eric Kownacki:
We won our division. PHRF didn't treat the Sport boat division well enough to win overall but we beat the half dozen J70's, 3 or 4 Melges 20's, Thompson 650's, etc boat for boat and corrected. Peter Cameron was the second J/70, he sails from Alameda. Arcadia is that crazy modified Santana 27 that long timer and old timer, crafty old Gordie Nash sails. Flight Risk was the Thompson and they were so out of control I couldn't tell you what they were doing as it seems when we were near them they were broaching!
It was moderate rather than light. Always wind and we were never below 5 knots over water and usually over 6/7 over land with a 1-2 knot current push. Top speed was 17.2 kts, so we had our moments!! Typically, sailing around 7-8 knots. I would say most of the race was in the 10-15 kts range with gusts to 25 kts. A Melges 20 snapped a rig (just like one in Charleston that was winning the race). Plenty of the usual groundings. Nacra wrecked on the rocks, etc. Fun race!" Sailing photo credits- Slackwater SF For more Delta Ditch Run sailing information