Wind, Rain, and Rocky Landings
When the leaves start falling and the temperatures drop in late August, most boating activity in the Juneau harbor system switches to winterizing engines and erecting pole frames & visqueen boat covers. To the casual onlooker, the cold weather means the boating season is coming to an end. In contrast, local sailors know that the Labor Day Regatta to Taku Harbor brings the hottest action of the club racing season, with opportunities for high winds, large boating turnouts, and 3 race legs that typically determine final positions in the SEAS Cup standings. The Regatta also provides improving sailors a chance to finish their season strong, and set the tone for their offseason preparations for next year.
The day before the race, rumors were swirling that we’d see the largest turnout of boats all year. By 9 am Saturday, the Committee Boat, Tahlia, established her position on the start line. As the clock neared the 10 minute ‘motors off’ radio check, six more boats had emerged from downtown harbors ready to take up the challenge. In the time it took to leave the harbor, the morning fog lifted, the downpouring rain turned to drizzle, and the wind increased to 15 knots out of the Southeast. Ideal upwind racing conditions. The boats jockeyed back & forth across the Channel with bow watches looking to set themselves up for the most preferred tack. As the 10-second countdown came across the VHF, 5 boats in unison moved toward the line on starboard tack. Optiminium was the sole boat on portside, and tacked around the Committee Boat easily avoiding a collision with Loa'a Nalu.
The excitement would continue with close tacks between several boats until the breeze dropped below 10 knots around Sheep Creek. Haiku & Surprise shadowed each other in the lead through the Sheep Creek doldrums, with Tahlia, Loa'a Nalu & Optiminium giving chase, and Cetus & Lyric right behind them. Once the two lead boats got into fresh breeze, they extended their distance from the rest of the pack. These relative positions held until the end of the Channel, where Haiku was able to make it to a windline & create some separation from Surprise for the lead. The breeze at the end of the Channel then tailed off, as the recent tide change undoubtedly factored in. And the four boats in the middle pack found themselves equally spaced apart trying to make headway between Douglas & Pt. Arden.
Surprise & Tahlia were able to escape the lull in 2nd & 3rd place, respectively, and make towards Slocum Inlet on starboard tack in a freshening breeze. Optiminium & Loa'a Nalu had another close tack near Arden in a deadlock tie for 4th. Cetus, a new addition to the SEAS sailing fleet, was just passing Marmion with the family crew taking their time to be safe & keep little 18-month old Olivia from getting TOO excited about the race. Lyric had called the race & motored by the competitors on their way to snag a dock spot at Taku Harbor, when they had a mechanical problem & headed back to Juneau for repairs.
Past Arden, the boats encountered winds & seas that would build the rest of the day. Once the winds reached 20 knots, the whole fleet reduced their headsails and/or reefed their mains. Haiku finished well ahead of the fleet, with Surprise & Tahlia coming in later. Optiminium would blow out a seam in her old Genoa again, but had her 135% headsail on deck for the same tack, so was only minimally impacted by the setback. Loaa Nalu was in the same area, but closer to the mainland coast, when she began rolling up the headsail. The winds were harder there & seas bigger, and they were apparently dealing with a seized winch at the time. After the boat heeled over 30+ degrees for a few minutes while they tried to determine a workaround, they dropped all canvas & motor the final 2 miles across the line none the wiser. Cetus was the 5th & final boat to sail across the line, and with a notch on her belt for making it through difficult conditions.
Unlike past Labor Days, there were only 3 boats tied up at the Taku Harbor dock. So all SEAS boats were able to moor directly on the floats, and all but High Noon (who showed up later in the afternoon after heading over from Auke Bay) had moorage on the leeward (protected) side. The rain & wind did not let up that evening, so all sailors reveled in their accomplishments within the comfort of cozy, warm boat cabins.
Forecast for Sunday’s race was light winds & high rain, but all were enthused when there were some stiff breezes left over from the previous day’s weather. Optiminium hove-to ½ mile off Graves Point as the Committee Boat, with Haiku & Surprise tacking back & forth on opposite ends of the start line like two boxers in their corner before a fight. Weather was nearly identical to the previous day’s race, a steady 18 knot southeasterly. Optiminium received a call from Sister Corona that she would be late to the line joining the race, as she was enroute from Juneau. The bearing & location of the start line was conveyed to them, & they signed off within seconds of the starting horn. During the final ticks of the 10-second count, Haiku & Surprise were on their preferred tack, fully powered up & set to carry their full speed across the line. As the starting horn sounded, Surprise was half a boat length across the line. They were notified by VHF, and within seconds had turned down below the line & rounded back behind the Committee Boat & back on preferred tack. From this point, all 3 boats sailed their own races with Haiku keeping to the mainland side, Surprise going to the Admiralty coast, and Optiminium staying somewhere in the middle.
Out of the field of view, Sister Corona had made it to the start line, about a mile behind the rest of the fleet, and had started racing. This was her first SEAS Cup race of the year, though she’d been up & down Lynn Canal already this summer to Haines & Skagway. This race would be short-lived for Sister Corona. As she made her first starboard tack, the windward chain plate that holds the upper & mid mast support shroud (cable) tore out of the deck with a loud bang. Fortunately no one was hurt, there was one mid mast shroud still supporting the mast, skipper & crew wisely dropped the sails right away, and she motored to Taku Harbor to assess the situation with assistance from other SEAS sailors.
The wind speed fell below 15 near Limestone Inlet, and fluctuated between 8 & 15 knots until the boats reached Snettisham, where Haiku tacked across Stephens Passage to the Admiralty coast in the lead. Optiminium & Surprise crossed tacks twice within 2 miles of the turn at Twin Points.
Meanwhile, Haiku had entered the cove to cross between the points when with a loud ‘wham’ the boat came to a sudden & complete halt. They had taken the north shore too closely, and were aground with the tide going out. Fortunately the crew went right to work dropped the sails, heeled the boat over & work themselves off the rock. Within 15 minutes their ordeal had ended, and they were moving in the cove once again. After raising their spinnaker out of the cove, they radioed the fleet to avoid a far-north entrance & exit. And no sooner had raised their big symmetrical spinnaker, they were shot out of a cannon on a downwind run to the finish line.
The wind was very light & variable around Twin Points at this stage of the race, making it difficult for both Surprise & Optiminium to make headway toward the entrance to the cove. Working the near shore breeze, Surprise was able to reach upwind enough to enter the cove, while Optiminium tacked out under Drifter looking for more wind. Surprise set her symmetrical spinnaker not long after slowly making it out of the cove, and took off towards the finish. Meanwhile, Optiminium made two more attempts at entering the cove, needing a freshening breeze to finally gain the headway to cross the points. The downwind portion of the race saw minor wind shifts coming out of Snettisham & Limestone, with light & severely variable breeze nearest to Graves Point. The boats finished as they left Twin Points, and returned to Taku Harbor where all had enjoyed the rain-free afternoon.
We all awoke to find a thick fog settled in, maybe 100’ visibility. Never a good sign for sailing. As the boats prepared for departure to the start line, a mild breeze cleared out the fog, paving the way to Graves Point. With Haiku acting as Committee, 4 boats crossed the line in a 12-15 knot northerly breeze on an absolutely beautiful fall day. The wind was crisp & cold, the sky was mostly blue with plenty of odd-shaped clouds & low-flying fog lines blowing along shore. Working the mainland side of Stephens Passage, Surprise took an early lead, with Haiku, Optiminium, Cetus and Loaa Nalu in hot pursuit. In a now annually recurring theme, Optiminium was the only boat to split off from the pack by taking Grand Island to starboard. As she made her way out of sight behind Grand, Haiku had nearly caught up with Surprise, which engaged a tacking duel that would essentially last the entire race. Cetus & Loaa Nalu did well to stay close to the leaders to within a mile of Slocum Inlet, but as the lightening breeze moved further north up Stephens Passage, the ability to make headway against a strengthening tidal current made the going very tough. At that time, Optiminium was spotted making her way towards Cove Point, very near the lead and on the Admiralty shore.
But any hope of continued high winds & exciting tacking duels were all but gone as any southeast sailor recognizes a shift from low pressure to a weak high pressure system. There were several small puffs on the water along the mainland side of Taku Inlet, and Surprise managed to take the lead by flying her drifter and skillfull seamanship. Haiku managed to find this wind seam and follow Surprise in the same manner under standard sails. Optiminium tacked away from Cove Point in hopes of avoiding the strong currents & glassy waters along the Admiralty shore. Around that time, Cetus had called the race & came motoring by – confident in the sailing she’d already accomplished that weekend. Loaa Nalu & Optiminium managed to find themselves in the middle of Taku Inlet with very little breeze before the latter dropped her sails & motored home. Loaa Nalu drifted & sailed for another 30 minutes before calling, realizing like the other 2 that a 9pm finish was entirely out of the question.
Meanwhile Haiku & Surprise were within spitting distance of each other off Pt. Bishop, still making slight headway in less than 5 knot breeze towards Gastineau Channel, where they were able to heckle each other in the diminishing breeze.
The final leg of the SEAS Cup, not finishing due to lack of wind, may have been an ironic way to end one of the best sailing seasons on record. But the previous race stories, and the memories shared by all competitors, will surely recall the consistent lack of rain & abundance of wind that characterized the 2013 SEAS Cup season. All SEAS sailors should take a moment to reflect on their season, thank each of the Skippers for taking their boats out, thank their Crew for supporting them as members of the team, and plan on doing this all again come mid-May next year. More to come on a SEAS Fall postseason party, and an Awards Ceremony at some point. Wednesday night GOTB will continue through the end of September. Fair winds & following seas until then…