Chris Welsh Reports on the 2012 Bishop Rock Race

Double Handed racing has its own set of dramas and realities, the first of which is its best attribute in a too busy world - like flying a helicopter, you have to pay attention and can't worry about work, bills, your relationship, etc, while you are doing it. Besides the sailing, that is why I go.


We entered Ragtime into PSSA's Bishop Rock race Friday. The race ticks a bunch of boxes - get the boat out of the shed, go where it can be wooly, and see a interesting place in the world, a lonely seamount 100 miles offshore. I want to scuba dive the seamount in the next month, and somehow I've convinced myself that this would be a recon for that trip. Really? Can I convince myself that seeing a bit of sea and a lonely buoy in the middle of the night is recon?


In planning for a DH race on a big, undercrewed unfriendly boat, you look at how the survival chances look - will it be too windy? Can two people do the minimum necessary to keep it all together if it gets really out of hand? We got our answers Friday night. The race started out lightish at 3 PM, making only 5-7 knots beating across the channel from Marina del Rey to the West End of Catalina. Just after half way across, a fog bank brought wind, and a lift to close reaching under the #1. As the breeze built, we had to go to the JT3, and paid the price for delaying that decision as the takedown was much tougher in 20 knots of breeze than it would have been an hour earlier in 14. But we were just getting over the West End when the pangs of sail change started to appear, and it often is lighter around the corner. Not this time.


It turned out that we could get the sail down OK by heading the autopilot up into the breeze enough to slow down to maybe 4 knots of headway, and slower action through the waves. Tough on the mainsail though, flogging a bit, and left me wishing I had brought the much flatter Syd-Hobart main (a regret which was to grow more later). And it wasn't a pretty takedown; got the sail on deck, and then crudely stuffed it down the hatch. But the thing is over 1100 square feet and it was easily blowing 20+ over the deck.


We got the JT3 up and the boat took off faster than before. Classic lesson in overpowered means over heeled, dragging the rudder. Get it right and the boat is 1.5 knots faster, flatter, and happier. The JT3 is maybe 700 sq feet, and shaped much better for close reaching. Being high clewed, it carries power the length of the headstay and catches none of the bow wave as well. Obvious in the rear view mirror, but you hold off so long due to apprehension in making the call. So we jumped from 10.5 to 11 up to 12, 12.5 and better. Ragtime loves this stuff; I have distinct memories of being in the same conditions and place four years ago on the first night of LA-Tahiti. If only we were pushing on south again!


Two hours later, the same challenge is becoming obvious again... we have too much sail up, but this time, it's the main that needs to be cut back with a reef. Being the lighter Transpac main, it has a single reef, but a big one, maybe 11' of hoist/250 sq ft to be pulled down. Once again, this will be a experiment in trying to slow up and control a huge sail in what is now probably 24 knots +. We get the change underway and it's loud, trying to yell instructions over the wind and flogging sails - and we're only a few feet apart.


The reef goes somewhat better than expected. Good thing, as our pre discussed fall back move was to take the main down entirely which didn't seem like much fun. Why was I wishing for the Syd-Hobat main? Heavier, flatter, more tolerant of flogging, and most of all, on cars rather than a bolt rope. Short handed, that means the proverbial rip cord is available: you can dump the halyard entirely and the sail comes down, but stays aboard. Note to self, don't be lazy and greedy in sail choice. Lazy in the bigger, lighter sail was already on the boom, and greedy in that if it's going to be light, I wanted the bigger, faster sail. DH racing is endurance, not a sprint; need to tattoo that across my forehead when planning for the next race.


Again, the boat goes faster with the sail plan right sized. The breeze is up and we are clicking off solid twelves with fourteens and a occasional fifteen thrown in. It's really a lonely spot past San Clemente Island... my crew is down pretty hard with seasickness, so it's eight hours solid on deck. I'm grateful that although windy, it's not too cold. Good thing, as we were doused during the sail changes, and every ten minutes a solid spray of bow wave comes flying back over me, noisily smacking the back of my foulie hood.


I'm proud of the boat - she delivers, banging through the miles. 63, 49, 25, 10 to go to the turn. With 2 miles left, under ten minutes at this speed, I call Kell on deck and we start to prep for the rounding. I'm tense; the light is off the south side of the reef and we need to approach a little low, come up, round, and then bear off again. The charts are crap; the shoaling is large, and I'm concerned about how much the waves will be jacked up by the 50' shallows. I look to weather and stress over each seemingly too large white cap... is it going to break? Are we going to get a hearty whitewater slap to the topside? Happily, it seems bigger and steeper, but we're doing OK. It's cloudy and the moon and stars are obscured, but it's hell to track where the buoy is. Between flashes, it disappears, only to pop up again thirty degrees away from where I expect it to be. I've got twenty thousand miles plus at this helm; I am surprised at how difficult this is. Then I realize the pumped up waves are throwing the buoy against its chain, which tehn jerks it back on station. Need to give this one a wide berth. I called for Kell to keep an eye to leeward for it under the jib while I watch for it on the other side, and bang, with some tense chatter back and forth, we are around, and bearing off. Whew!


As we carry speed downwind, our planned chicken gybe seems unnecessary, and I ask Kell if we should go for a normal gybe. We agree, and I throw the boat over. We know we will have a challenge in that the JT3 only has one sheet on, so we have to get it through the foretriangle and re-led. It doesn't go well, first trying to go around the outside, then it's right and we are sheeting in. But the sheet has gone tight and the sail is still flogging, having thrown itself off the clew. Turns out it hasn't thrown off, the shackle has broken in half. We are now making ten knots at ninety degrees to our course, and every yard means the feared beat back to the finish is going to be even tighter. We drop the JT3 almost all the way down and get the sheet tied on, then wrestle the sail back up. It came down above the pre-feeder, so I feel lucky that I've been able to get it back up without jumping the track. Kell is doing a great job pulling it up solo back at the mast.


And then it's up, in, and we are back on heading. Pleasantly, we've misjudged and it's a tight reach, off the waves enough to not pound, and we're making ten knots more or less. On this leg, we have to look for traffic a bit more, as the other boat are on the exact reciprocal course, headed where we have just come from. But aiming for the barn is good for the psyche. The miles are clicking away a little slower but it's all good. At 4 AM, I've been up forever, my eyes are a little stingy from the salt spray, and I'm starting to see things... the moon gleam on a high cabin top stainless bit is a oncoming boat, the 4' tall fat plastic on the forward shroud is a rig coming at us, etc, so I call Kell to take over for a quick nap.


It's tough to sleep though. Inside the foulies, it's wet. And a bit chilly. Not the warm bed we all like. But being horizontal is a break already. It's amazing what hurts after only half a day of racing: my back from dragging sails up, knees, ankles and feet all are pretty scarred up from bouncing around on the foredeck in the waves. After an hour, it's getting light and I'm back up, Catalina visible in the pre-glow of the sunrise. We finish at the West End; I fantasize about a warm shower at the Isthmus, although I know by the time we get there shooting for the slip on the mainland is the reality that will happen. But the shower, warm eggs, and sausage sound pretty appealing. I value the cook of my normal crew more right now.


For the last few miles, I hand steer. The waves are throwing the boat around more, and seemingly, it needs a little help, plus lee shores make me nervous. The wind is lightening; we slip past the light and record our time while doing mid nines. We finish at 8:25:48 AM, for a ET of 17:25:48. We've averaged just shy of ten knots, not bad given the slow starting conditions.


Like several times before, the wind dies off quickly as we bear off for Alamitos. It's warm enough without wind to peel some layers, and grab a bite to eat. Completing any race has satisfaction; completing a short handed race more so. You feel like you've done something. Why makes no sense, but what thing that we do does? It turns out our time is good. Being as big a boat as Ragtime is, finishing first is likely, but correcting seemed tough - we give four to ten hours to the smaller boats. It turns out the next finisher is after 5 PM, so we've easily corrected out to first to finish and first corrected. A sunset, stars, bio-luminessence, dolphins, a lonely clanging light, and the feeling of being exposed to the power of raw nature somehow combine to make a great race. A hundred miles at sea we're visitors, holding on for the ride. At sober moments, I think back to the loss of a PSSA member in similar conditions not long ago; he went over the side and was lost while his boat drove itself ashore under autopilot. It can go wrong. Nature is in control, and has been kind enough to give us back, richer with experience.