Sunday, November 6, 2016

Seattle’s Round County Race Preview

J/105s sailing off Seattle on Puget Sound (Seattle, WA)- For many regattas, participant numbers are a mere shadow of their former glory. However, there are two events with a similar racing format that have been selling out (SELLING OUT!) for the past few years in Seattle- the Orcas Island Yacht Club/Friday Harbor Sailing Club’s “Round the County Race” and the Sloop Tavern Yacht Club’s “Race to the Straits”!!  Over one hundred boats participate in each event. Hundreds of sailors have an awesome time. The registration limit gets reached earlier and earlier every year. So, why do these thrive while others struggle, despite best efforts of good sailors and dedicated volunteers? According to Joe Cline at 48 North, the answer is “the Destination Wedding Principle!”

According to Joe, “I can remember watching a YouTube clip of Ken Read (top-notch American J/24, Etchells 22, Volvo Ocean Race, and America’s Cup racer) talking at a conference a couple of years back. He was beating the drum about prioritizing comfort, fun, and variety in racing. He was saying that a few hours of racing is the right amount. He was also encouraging a move away from simple windward-leeward courses. I tend to agree with many of Read’s ideas. And, I’d say that ‘Round the County’ and ‘Race to the Straits’ align with his philosophy, and that it’s a big part of their success.

Our regional distance classics are races that require sailing into or through the night. Royal Victoria’s Swiftsure is the most notable, but West Vancouver Yacht Club’s ‘Southern Straits’, and the Seattle Yacht Club’s ‘Smith Island/Protection Island Races’ are all in this mold, with distances between 80 and 120 miles. By contrast, both ‘Round the County’ and ‘Race to the Straits’ are two-day mid-distance races. Each race departs from a sailing hotspot on Saturday, and sends the boats on a course through breathtaking Salish Sea scenery for a distance around 30 miles. Each race spends the night in the middle partying in a quaint and picturesque locale. Partying- - as in nobody is going home, nobody has to take the dog for a walk, nobody’s checking on the kids, and nobody has to go to work tomorrow- - just partying. That doesn’t necessarily mean alcohol fueled, though we are sailors and for many it does. On Sunday morning of ‘Race to the Straits’ or ‘Round the County’, you pry your eyes open, and head right out on the water for another 30-mile sail home.

J/crews sailing off SeattleIt’s kind of the dream, isn’t it? Have you ever left a destination wedding having had a bad time? All your friends are hanging out, and real-life obligations are suspended while you’re in some temporary, far-off utopia. You get to see people you know in a different context (like Hollywood star Charlize Theron seen at right). I’d say I seldom encounter someone who is anything but floored that they spent their weekend doing ‘Race to the Straits’ or ‘Round the County’. People eat it up– they get to catch up with more people from different boats, and they don’t muck up their sleep schedule as they freeze their way through overnight watches. I love those tough distance races and want to see them thrive, too. But, is it as fun as those with an overnight stop? The numbers are beginning to say no, and so do I.

‘Round the County’ is a loop course around the San Juan Islands. These waters, most often thought of as cruising grounds, become an extraordinarily fun racing venue in early November. The day-one start and day-two finish are off of Lydia Shoal on the east side of Orcas Island in Rosario Strait. The direction around the islands (clockwise, counterclockwise) switches each year. This year, the fleet of fully crewed race boats went counterclockwise, a direction that traditionally affords a bit more downwind sailing, and Saturday delivered with 30 knots and a lightning quick transit for those who avoided shredded sails or worse. Regardless of the direction, you can be sure you will be sailing a variety of points of sail, allowing different designs to capitalize, and rewarding those who most quickly recognize the changes in pressure, wind direction, or tidal currents. You wind up flying a bunch of your sails: there will be reaching sections, under jib and spinnaker, to complement the windward and running legs.

For what started with, and maintains, a good-time dynamic, Round the County’s fleet runs the gamut. This year, there were three TP 52s and a Reichel/Pugh 55 leading the way in the IRC fleet. The variety of boats from the US and Canada range in size from 24’ to 70’.  And, there is an enormous fleet of enthusiastic members of the J/tribe that join the festivities.

Regardless of the direction, day one always finishes just outside of the fairytale hamlet of Roche Harbor. The boats drop sail and head into this one-of-a-kind port. During the summer, this historical lime-quarry-turned-resort community can feel a little touristy, but the cute quaintness of the town has the perfect vibe when it is otherwise empty and overrun by happy sailors in early November. A floating tent party on the dock with provided beer and cookies, as well as BBQs set up for your crew to grill their own dinner, make the party unpretentious and, in my opinion, kind of perfect.

Day two completes the loop around San Juan County. Just like at a destination wedding, those nursing hangovers may be a little green as Sunday gets rolling. There’s not a lot of fanfare at the finish, and though there’s a generous awards dinner at Orcas Island Yacht Club on Sunday evening, I’ve never attended. The party was Saturday night, Monday is a workday, and those of us from Seattle have a two-hour drive (or a 8+ hour delivery) home.

J's sailing offshore of SeattleIf you think of inland or coastal distance racing like I do, geographic landmarks divide the course. It creates a bunch of little races – to the next point, to the tide line, through the pass. The chase start promotes fun and competitive racing in these little micro-races, regardless of your class or division. I find this helps me focus and increases my enjoyment. “Can we catch those guys by the turn at Patos Island? Can we keep that boat behind us until Double Bluff? etc.” It really makes it fun, and enriches my personal experience of a distance race.

Both Round the County and Race to the Strait aggregate the results over the two days. So, if you crush it one day, you’re definitely in the hunt even if the other doesn’t afford the same conditions or good fortune.

In a region where you can still go out and compete with Olympians and pros in boats big and small, the fun-focused stuff continues to tip the scales. I love to sail, and I really love to race. I usually prefer to line up against best competition, to learn as much as possible and raise my game. But, not everybody enjoys this. And these two-day, stopover events illustrate that everybody, myself included, seems to love a feel-good, mid-distance race with an epic party among friends in the middle. It’s as good as a destination wedding, only with a truly compelling activity on either side.

This idea is absolutely applicable in a cruising setting, too. Flotillas, rallies, and rendezvous events, whether organized by a club or your pals, give you the same ability to share an experience. So, as we look ahead to a great season of sailing in the Pacific Northwest, don’t just go sailing. Live large, join fun events like these, and bring your friends.”

The event also attracts its stars- is this Charlize Theron- sailor gurl (see above)?!!  Maybe.  ;)  No matter what, there are squadrons of J/sailors looking forward to peeling back the eyelids in the morning, rolling out of bed, brewing up the Navy-style “cup of joe” (e.g. mud), and wandering down to the docks for a gorgeous day on the water with the rest of the J/tribe!  At least, that’s the plan.  Someday’s it’s sunny.  Other’s not so much.  It’s the fall, after all in the Pacific Northwest.  Anything goes. Everyone prays for that perfect day- Mariner’s win, Seahawks win, it’s the fall, it’s October, sun’s out, wind’s up, and all’s good.

Looking forward to that scenario are the following J’s in ORC Class, John McPhail’s J/160 JAM, John Tenneson’s J/145 JEDI, and Shawn Dougherty & Jason Andrews’ J/125 HAMACHI.  Chasing them in the PHRF classes will be over two dozen J’s.  In PHRF Class Zero are two J/111s (Graeme Clendeman’s 65 RED ROSES & Kevin Welch’s RECON), Andy & Jamie Mack’s J/122 GRACE, Brian Duchin & Kelsey Sheldon’s J/133 TANGO, and Kyle Caldwell & Jamie Thomas’ J/44 ASYLUM- a clash of the J/classics against the J/newbies!

There is an interesting dynamic shaping up in PHRF Class 1- five J/109s vs three J/120s!  Good grief.  That will be a battle in the trenches and highly dependent on breeze direction and pressure!  And, just about as impossible to determine how it will all shake out!  Nevertheless, expect to see some of the top teams on the leaderboard someplace- Stu Burnell & Joe James’ J/109 TANTIVY, Mark Hansen’s J/109 MOJO, John Peterson’s LEGACY, Bob Brunius’ J/120 TIME BANDIT, and Lou Bianco’s CROSSFIRE.

J/35 sailing off SeattlePHRF Class 2 might as well be called the battle of the six J/35s vs the “rest of the world”; the rest of their classmates cannot be happy about that pairing!  It is the largest turnout of J/35s in the Pacific Northwest in quite some time; those teams include Chad & Anna Stenwick’s THE BOSS, Tyson Varosyan’s SOLUTION, Walt Meagher & John Sanford’s SUNSHINE GIRL, Jason Vannice & Hans Seegers’ ALTAIR, Karl Haflinger’s SHEARWATER and Don Butler’s INTREPID.

Similarly, the same scenario is playing out in PHRF Class 3 with a bunch of J/mercenaries taking on 20+ other competitors, perhaps one of the most competitive classes in the event.  J/crews that are tackling them include three J/105s (Ed Wilder’s AVALANCHE, Jim Geros & Mike Campbell’s LAST TANGO, & Eric Hopper/ Schenk/ Davis on FREE BOWL OF SOUP- notably, ALL famously successful boats!), Brian Lawrence’s J/33 KEET, and Marc Frazer & Chris White’s J/88 BON BINI.  Given all the notorious “stop & go” driving in the islands, it might be prudent to double-down on the J/88 at the betting parlor (this presumes these guys know how to race, of course!).

In a “battle of the classics”, PHRF Class 4 could easily turn into a “donnybrook” between the fastest, mercenary-like J/29s versus the “family cruisers” on the venerable J/30s.  People forget how fast a well-sailed J/30 can go, 30+ years henceforth from its humble origins on Narragansett Bay!  Against 17 competitors, these 29 & 30 crews are no “shrinking violets”!  Leading the charge home on elapsed should be the three J/29s (Pat Denney’s HERE AND NOW, John Kazaras & Jessica Aguilar’s RUBY, & Mike Reams’ NATURAL MYSTIC) followed by the two J/30s (Theo Singelis’ TAKU & Jim Bottles’ CELEBRATION).  However, how it all shakes out on handicap will be up to the twist and turns of the fabled “chutes & ladders” of sailing around the islands!   Sailing Photo credits- Jan Anderson   Round the County Facebook page  For more Seattle YC Round The County sailing information