“A week ago last Thursday was the annual Harvest Moon Regatta from Galveston to Port Aransas (150 miles). As far as I can tell this is the biggest regatta in Texas with over 170 entrants this year. For us, it was fine preparation for Pacific Cup. An opportunity to actually race, sail with the spinnaker at night, steer (no autopilots allowed), and equip the boat for a Cat 3 offshore race. From that perspective the race was a raging success as we ticked all the boxes and then some.
My parents drove down from Arkansas to join Chris & I on this little adventure. Thanks Mom & Dad, we couldn’t have done it without you, literally, as the race organizers required a minimum of 4 people on board. As it turns out, 4 people on a J/120, racing downwind, overnight, with no autopilot, is a skeleton crew at best. We were w-o-r-n o-u-t by the time we reached Port Aransas Friday afternoon.
As the forecast solidified in the days leading up to the start it looked very likely we would be running or reaching with the spinnaker the entire race. With a downwind race in mind, we did everything we could to lighten up Shearwater, even taking two doors off down below (class legal). With a light ship and only 4 onboard (we figure we were 1000 pounds lighter from just crew weight alone), that was pretty much the one advantage we might have had over the other two far more experienced J/120’s we were racing against. We were also classed with a J/44 and a Beneteau First 44.7, making us the slowest boat in our 5-boat division and conversely the 5th fastest rated monohull in the race. We rate 3 seconds slower than the other two J/120’s because we have an aluminum mast, and they have carbon masts.
Heading out of Clear Lake into Galveston Bay Thursday morning was a trip. There was a line of sailboats heading out to the Gulf for as far as you could see in front of and behind us. It was an impressive parade. It was made better by the strong northerly that allowed us to sail along (and past) the fleet while trying out or new A4 spinnaker for the first time. It had just arrived from Ballard Sails in Washington the day before.
For once, the forecasts weren’t too far off. We started out Thursday afternoon in a light N-NE’ly expecting the breeze to strengthen and clock to the east overnight. Being in the fastest division we were the last of the monohulls to start. That provided with approximately 135 rabbits to chase out of the gate. Much too our delight Shearwater was moving really well with the big A2/K2 spinnaker, and we quickly moved through the fleet favoring the shore, allowing us to sail over the top of the fleet in clear air. By sundown we had passed everyone in the fleet except the other two J/120’s and a feathery light Viper 830. Hugging the coast seemed to pay, perhaps with a little more breeze or perhaps because we ended up on the correct side of the slowly clocking breeze. Just as it got dark we gybed onto port, passed very close to the Freeport Buoy and set our course offshore with no real intentions of gybing again until the next morning. It turns out we were fine and fast in a straight line, but our gybes with the big chute must have looked like a circus with the tent falling down. Complete disasters, so we resolved to minimize the suffering and wait until morning to try more circus antics.
So, off we went into the not so dark, dark, with the biggest, brightest harvest moon you could imagine. Our only challenge was the wave, wind combination. It seems the wind speed around 10-15 knots and our boat speed around 6.5-8 knots caused the apparent wind to constantly shift back & forth, back & forth, resulting in us zig-zagging our way like drunken sailors across the ocean. Apparently, this wasn’t a bad way to roll as we crossed ahead of Kenai, the J/44, that owed us about 45 minutes. Then around 2am we crossed ahead of Cyrano, the First 44.7, and they also owed us about 45 minutes. We had also closed down on Aeolus the J/120 we’d been following since leaving the shore. It seemed most of the boats were headed back towards the shore while we carried on south. At 2:45am a friend took a screenshot of the SPOT tracker and as you can see, things were looking quite promising. We were very much in the hunt, which all things considered (so little recent race experience, and a shorthanded crew… my parents had only been on Shearwater one time previously) was a bit of a surprise.
Then at 3am, while I was driving in pretty benign conditions, averaging close to 8 knots, a bigger than average header caused the spinnaker to luff. I didn’t drive down quick enough, the chute collapsed, and then proceeded to wrap itself around the forestay, really, really well. Shit. Just a momentary lapse and we were up a creek. Chris and I both went forward, clipped to the jacklines to try and unwrap the chute from the forestay. Unfortunately, our new spotlight clearly showed that the bottom of the spinnaker had wrapped one way and the top had wrapped the other way, so even though we could unwrap the bottom of the sail, the top part firmly clamped down on it making it impossible for it to fully unwrap. How this is possible from only the wind that is only blowing from one general direction is beyond me. Of course, the bottom of the sail was still trying to fill in the now increasing breeze, at times lifting me off the deck. Standing together at the mast, allowing the main to blanket the spinnaker, we came upon some semblance of a solution. Working together we started twisting the bottom of the sail, wrapping it, and wrapping it, and wrapping it. We twisted until our arms hurt so much we couldn’t twist anymore, then we started taking turns while the other rested. Eventually (45-60 minutes later?) we had the bottom 40 feet of spinnaker in a long tight snake. We must have wrapped the sail 100-150 times (it took us forever to unwrap it again after the race). The benefit was the sail was no longer catching the wind and we could hang onto it without being drug around the foredeck. Now what? The top of the sail was still wrapped around the forestay. It was now 4:15am and we were dog tired. The only thing we could think of was to release the spin halyard and try to pull down the sail. If that didn’t work we’d have to climb the mast, release the spin halyard shackle and unwrap the top, in-the-dark, in-the-waves, in the now increasing wind (gusts over 20). Not a fun prospect. We released the halyard and… nothing. We pulled and shook and pulled and nothing happened. We stopped, stared up at the situation for a bit, and then a little miracle happened, the spinnaker started to slide down the forestay. It seems once we stopped pulling the wraps got loose enough for the sail to release its death-grip on the furled genoa. After a few stops and starts we had the spinnaker safely below without resorting to climbing the mast or using a knife. It took us 1.5 hours, but we got it down with no damage. That was some sort of accomplishment.
Chris and I were whipped though. We could barely move. We both collapsed in the cockpit and settled on sailing with the main only until it started getting light. Our competitive race was over, but we decided (okay, I was forced – isn’t that like mutiny?) to continue racing nonetheless. Around 6:30am I got the brand spanking new A4 (smaller, heavier) kite rigged up and ready to hoist. A round of discussions ensued regarding the wind speed and amount of light. That killed another 20 minutes or so and then we all agreed to go for the A4. Once it was up, we were off like a shot. The bright orange A4 was in its element with 20-30 knots on the stern. We started averaging 9.5 knots for several SPOT updates, with some pretty nice surfs up to 12 knots. It wasn’t exactly smooth sailing though as the waves were pretty steep and I was having to steer all over the place to keep from plowing into the backside of a wave and to keep up with the shifty breeze. And then, much like the collapse with the A2 earlier, I didn’t react fast enough and we managed to hourglass the A4. Fortunately, it wasn’t around the forestay. We ended up just staring this one down. We held our course, kept the sheet steady, kept the chute full, and slowly, but surely, the hourglass started working its way up until shazaam it unwrapped. Phew!
It was now 8:30am we’d been flying since putting up the A4, noticeably stretching out on a few boats that had closed on us while we sailed under main only, and we’d reached the point where we needed to gybe over to starboard to head for the finish. Did I mention how tired we were? And it was hooting. And we were gun shy from our terrible gybes the previous evening and the two spinnaker wraps. We decided to sock the A4 first, then gybe, but once we got the sock down over the sail, I think we were so relieved that we made it this far without damage or injury that we just gybed and carried on with main only. As I reflect back on the race, I wish we’d had just partially snuffed the A4, or unfurled the genoa slightly and gone ahead and gybed. I’m sure it would have worked out fine, but we were so tired at that point, it was hard to see the merit of pushing on.
We ended up crossing the line right at noon, only 21 hours after the start. We finished right in the midst of the 90 raters (we rate 51) and about 2 hours after the other two J/120’s. It turns out Cyrano, the First 44.7, wrapped their spinnaker around the forestay too, with less success getting it down without damage, so we corrected out ahead them, taking 4th in our division. Overall, I think we corrected out to mid-fleet. Not bad considering we sailed about 7.5 hours with no spinnaker, but a bit bitter sweet considering where we were at 2:45am according to the SPOT tracker.
Harvest Moon was really beneficial for our Pacific Cup preparations though. We learned that:
- we need a spinnaker net – no more spinnaker wraps around the forestay
- we want a smaller A2 spinnaker, something slightly bigger than the A4 and lighter cloth. The big A2 is just a handful short-handed. Look at this picture of us and two J/105’s that are only 5’ shorter than us. Our spinnaker is literally twice as big as what the J/105’s are flying. We’ll get a better rating for Pac Cup too.
- We need to practice gybing with the spinnaker partially snuffed and/or use the genoa to blanket the spinnaker a little during douses and maneuvers.
- When we aren’t messing it up Shearwater has plenty of pace. No worries about boat speed now.
- Sailing/racing with an autopilot is a heck of a lot easier, especially when shorthanded. Thankfully, autopilots are allowed for us in Pacific Cup.
Funny story about the awards on Saturday night. First, it takes a long time to give out awards for 170 boats divided into about 30 divisions. Second, Chris won the essay contest about what we did to keep our ocean clean during the race (throw nothing overboard, motor very little, keep black water in the holding tank, etc) which earned her a $100 gift certificate to West Marine. That was worth significantly more than the race awards. I think there is some irony in that. It made us laugh anyway.
Shearwater remains in Port Aransas for a few weeks and then we will watch the weather and pick a good weekend to sail back to Seabrook. We will likely use a bit of the ICW between Freeport and Galveston Bay as that cuts off some miles and will allow us to stop overnight to sleep.
Next weekend we are off to San Francisco to attend a two-day Safety at Sea Seminar. Really looking forward to that.” You can follow Justin and Chris sailing their J/120 here on their “Shearwater Blog”. For more information about sailing the J/120 class