Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Vic-Maui Race Underway

J/122E Joy Ride sailing Vic-Maui RaceJ/122E JOYRIDE Amongst The Leaders!
(Victoria, British Columbia, Canada)- The Victoria to Maui International Yacht Race, hosted by the Royal Vancouver Yacht Club and the Lahaina Yacht Club, got underway July 1st. The 2,308nm course goes from Victoria, British Columbia to Maui, Hawaii.

The lone J/Crew sailing the race is the gorgeous J/122E JOYRIDE from Seattle, WA skippered by her owner- John Murkowski. They are one of the most successful offshore racing teams in the Pacific Northwest.

Day 1- The Start
And they’re off! At 10:00 am Pacific Time, the 2018 Vic-Maui fleet sailed through the start line outside Victoria Harbour, tacking into a stiff, building westerly breeze.

In the days leading up to the start, the sun broke out just in time for the fleet Send-off Party that rocked the Wharf Street docks on June 29. Transient orcas (killer whales) patrolled the entrance to Victoria’s Harbour on a damp June 30.

Today, July 1st (Canada Day) dawned sunny, breezy, and warm (if not exactly tropical).  The Race Committee vessel hung on a tenuous anchor off Brotchie Ledge, while the spectator boat fleet circled and a drone flew overhead.  The VIP spectator boat Midnight Sun elegantly patrolled the spectator boat zone.  

After the start, the J/122E JOY RIDE pressed hard going west into the Straits of Juan de Fuca.

Eight hours into the race, the fleet was working its way towards the big left turn at Cape Flattery, and the open Pacific Ocean, where the adventure truly begins.  Weather systems including the North Pacific High, and a developing Low pressure trough, lie ahead in wait.

Cape Flattery, WADay 2- Past Cape Flattery and Onto the Rhumb Line
After a great run down Strait of Juan de Fuca, most of the fleet rounded Cape Flattery before the sun set and got to see a sight that most people never get to. Cape Flattery is the very northwest corner of the lower 48 states and a major landmark. But, it is very remote by land and very few sailors venture out into the open Pacific.

After rounding Cape Flattery, the fleet starts sailing down the rhumb line, more or less, depending on breeze strength and direction around the notoriously wobbly Pacific High. Roll Call happens at 1200 hrs Hawaiian Time (1500 hrs Pacific Time). Today the fleet is relatively close together about 160 miles offshore of Ocean Park, Washington on Willapa Bay.

The weather pattern is setting up for boats to ride a path between the Pacific High hovering to the northwest of its usual location, and a Low pressure zone along the Washington Coast that caused the cool weather and rain before the start. If this weather pattern holds, it may result in a short, sweet, fast ride to Hawaii. But, the only thing constant about weather is change and the sailors will need to put the beautiful sight of Cape Flattery behind them and focus on figuring out what their weather crystal ball is telling them.

The match race between the two leading boats in Racing 1 is a tight one. Firefly and the J/122E JOY RIDE are taking turns with the lead. At roll call, it was Firefly with a 10nm lead. But, leads are fleeting, and it remains to be determined which has the right weather track.

Weather strategy- VicMaui RaceDay 2- Weather strategy update
Here is a quick primer on weather systems in the Northeast Pacific Ocean, between Cape Flattery and Hawaii (courtesy of David Sutcliffe).

1) The dominant summer pattern in the Northeast Pacific Ocean is usually the North Pacific High.  Winds blow in a clockwise rotation around the High that is usually centered somewhere North of Hawaii and West of the US West Coast, say about 40N – 150W.  The High usually spreads over a very large area of the ocean and wobbles around, expanding and contracting, usually without the center moving too far.  Sunny and warm!

2) Temperate zone low pressure weather systems travel from West to East in the temperate zone which technically is between about 23 degrees and 66 degrees North latitude.  Put another way, this zone is roughly between the Southern tip of Baja Mexico and the Bering Strait off Alaska.  In summer, the lows usually travel in the higher or more Northern areas of this zone, and are usually deflected above the High.  Winds blow in a counter clockwise direction around the lows.  Cloudy and rainy!

3) In summer, the High usually deflects Low pressure systems up into the Gulf of Alaska, keeping nice summer conditions over the West Coast of North America.  When a high and a low system press against each other, there is usually a squeeze zone with stronger winds between the two systems.  Breezy and lumpy!

4) Trade winds usually blow from the Northeast or East between about 30 degrees and 5 degrees North latitude.  This band is roughly between the USA-Mexico border and just North of the Equator.  Trade winds usually blow steadily, but El Nino and La Nina cycles affect them, and there will usually be some squalls.  The bottom of the High and the North edge of the trade winds blend together over the ocean.  Champagne sailing!

5) Tropical Low pressure systems usually develop off the coast of Central America, and some strengthen to tropical storm or hurricane strength.  As with other lows, the wind blows counter clockwise around these lows.  These systems usually move Northwest to the open ocean area West of Baja Mexico before weakening and dissipating far from land.  Sometimes, they curve North and East to make landfall in Mexico, and occasionally they travel West towards or all the way to Hawaii.  Pay attention!

So it’s all very simple, or maybe not!  A dozen mentions of "usually".  Now, imagine being the navigator onboard an ocean racing boat, sleep-deprived, peering at a laptop screen below-deck at “oh-dark-hundred” (0200 hrs local time) while the boat rolls, pitches and heaves.  Your information is limited to weather forecasts and observations that can be obtained over a very low-bandwidth and sometimes expensive communications link using either marine radio or satellite systems.  Nothing is certain, and reality often doesn’t look like the textbook said it would.  The rest of the crew each have their own opinions (of course!), and then there are the armchair quarterbacks back home on dry land, cozy, warm and dry, sipping their coffees.  Which way to go?  What to worry about?  How best to get to Hawaii safely and fast? One eye to weather!

Day 3- Weather update
Ocean weather, never a dry topic, is getting more interesting - we have a High, we have a Low, which way to go, don’t you know?   "Green eggs and ham, Sam I am" (Dr Seuss, of course).

The North Pacific High is established and centered at about 43N 155W. It’s strong – about 1036mb – which is good, and about 600-800nm in diameter. There is a Low developing about 500nm West of Vancouver Island.  A squeeze zone should develop between the High and the Low.  Interesting!

Tue Jul 3, 0800PDT
The High is forecast to drift West while the Low is forecast to move SE and should be affecting the fleet from about Tuesday evening (tonight) through to Thursday morning.  Most boats should see sustained wind speeds in the 15-25 knot range, while some may see up to 30 knots, bordering on gale force.  Wind angles will change as the Low crosses the track, leading to a flurry of sail changes, and once settled the angles should be behind the beam and very favorable for fast sailing. Hopefully, fast!

The fleet is currently sailing very close to the rhumb line, the shortest route to Hawaii.  Shortest, but not necessarily the fastest.  The High is likely to move farther West than usual, and combined with the Low it will be very attractive for the fleet to sail West of the rhumb line. Might be a risky move!

VicMaui Race trackerWed Jul 4, 1600PDT
This is not the textbook route to Hawaii!  The risk of being West of the rhumb line is getting swallowed up into the middle of the High if/when it comes back to its usual position.  There is little to no wind in the middle of a High.  On the other hand, trying to go East of the rhumbline means beating into the Low and possible light and variable winds when it dissipates.  So, the navigators will be thinking this routing decision out carefully.  And, there is always the possibility, or probability, that the actual weather will be different from the expected weather.  A conservative strategy might be to sail on the favorable side of the Low, stay as close to the rhumb line as practical, sail less distance, stay in the squeeze breeze, and take less risk of getting becalmed.  Sounds easy!

Beyond the next few days and the passage of the Low, the trade winds ahead are looking good.  Off to the southeast, there is some tropical system activity to keep an eye on, with TS Emilia reportedly dissipated and TS/Hurricane Fabio strengthening and forecast to dissipate before affecting the Vic-Maui fleet’s probable track to Hawaii.    

Day 3- Who Stole the Wind?
After a day and half of blast reaching in conditions best described as “not martini weather”, the fleet has hit the wall. A Low pressure zone (described above) moved over the fleet, substantially altering the weather and putting the brakes on the wind and boat speed.

The relief from turbulent seas and stress on the boat is welcome. One boat reports that everyone is eating again and, for a lucky few, the daily constitutional has resumed. But, having to fight their way through a region of relative calm is not.

At Roll Call, the boats are generally about 270 miles west of Tillamook, Oregon.  The leaders in Racing 1 have slowed from 8 kts to 5 kts and the boats in Racing 2 who are 40 miles behind have put the brakes on slowing to less than 2 kts. Ouch!

In Racing 1, Murkowski's J/122E JOY RIDE sits in second just 16nm back. The boats in Racing 2 are essentially in a dead-heat with all within a few miles of each other.

The next trick will be who is best positioned to get the wind first as the Low pressure system moves toward the east and the prospect of wind filling in behind it. Will that be Firefly who are positioned a bit to the east, or will it be JOY RIDE and the other Division 2 boats positioned well to the west of the rhumb line. And for the armchair sailors taking bets, it would be wise to consider that multiple winning navigator Brad Baker is calling the weather shots on Firefly.

The over-arching concern is what happens next with the experienced veterans knowing that the fastest route to Maui is not usually the straight line.

Oh and did we mention Hurricane Fabio? Fabio (who makes up these names?) is churning away well south of Cabo San Lucas, Mexico and is forecast to dissipate well before the fleet arrives. But, big Low pressure systems coming from the south usually disrupt the trade winds.

Whatever happens, the navigators and weather dudes aboard the boats are going to earn their keep this year.

Day 4- Three Big Things to Think About
This is not a textbook year!  The weather situation for this Vic-Maui is developing into a true ocean racer’s challenge, where seemingly small decisions and a few miles one way or the other early in the race could make for big gains and losses.  That doesn’t mean it’s all on the navigators, who do have their work seriously cut out for them, as it’s also on the whole team who will have to sail the boat very well and work hard with sail changes, trim and transitions to get ahead or stay ahead. Here are three scenarios:

1. Wednesday & Thursday
The near term weather is all about getting past the Low that is currently (0900 PDT) centered about 42N 133W.
- All of the boats appear to be going over the Low, varying distances West of the rhumb line.
- There is a squeeze zone with strong winds, possibly to gale force, predicted.  Careful!
- Leaders Firefly and JOY RIDE appear to be splitting this morning, with Firefly making a move further West and JOY RIDE staying the course.  With over twenty miles of lateral separation, and the passage of the Low to be threaded, the risk/reward is likely to be significant for both boats.  If one does a better job of passing the Low, they could stretch that into a very significant lead for the next stage of the race.
- The Low may drift North, back across the fleet’s track, potentially catching the tail-runners in lighter, variable winds.  Sailing fast, now, is especially important for these boats.

2. Thursday & Friday
After navigating the Low, the teams will move on to sailing around the High and setting up for crossing the ridge which typically extends to the SE from the center of the High.  The models show a significant “plateau” developing on that ridge, and winds would typically be much lighter in such a feature.  Once again, teams will have to evaluate the risk/return on miles sailed vs. wind speed/angle, and decide where to go to avoid the plateau and to stay in good breeze.  Having parked on a similar plateau (making just 65 miles in 24 hours) in 2006, and had boats pass us on both sides (ouch!), I am going to watch this potential trap with great interest.

3. Saturday
The fleet should still be sailing around the High that should be centered about 40N 165W.  It is predicted to continue to be strong at about 1036mb.  One strategy could be to sail an isobar contour line around the high, say at about 1026-1028mb, to stay away from the center, sail in good pressure, and be closer to the rhumb line.  All the while not getting stuck on any “flat” spots.  Lead boats should be looking ahead to curve around the bottom right hand shoulder of the high and set up for calling the port gybe lay line to Maui.  Calling a layline from 800 to 1,000nm out!

Beyond the One-Two-Three scenarios above, the trade winds ahead are looking good.  Champagne sailing ahead!  Off to the Southeast, there is some tropical system activity to keep an eye on, with TS Emilia reportedly dissipated and TS/Hurricane Fabio forecast to peak and then dissipate without significantly affecting the Vic-Maui fleet’s probable track to Hawaii.   

Going out on the proverbial limb, I would say the first finishers could arrive in Maui on July 12 or 13.  Or not.  Time will tell. More news to come!    Follow the Vic-Maui Race here on Facebook.  Watch “live” real-time tracker of the fleet here- https://www.vicmaui.org/tracker   For more Vic-Maui Offshore Race sailing information Add to Flipboard Magazine.