Round the County is considered by many to be the ultimate Northwest regatta. Taking racers on a two-day lap of Island County that includes the San Juan Islands with an overnight stop in Roche Harbor, the race alternates between clockwise and counterclockwise directions every year. This direction change, along with the swirling tides that rip through the islands, means no two races are quite the same. Between snowcapped mountains dominating the skyline and whales hunting the tide rips, this is the most quintessential Northwest racecourse I have yet to see.
This year’s race was a clockwise year, and the stage was set with stacked fleets in all classes organized into three group starts. Northerly wind at the Saturday morning start made for a sporty downwind start, with the first boats rolling off the line shortly after 0800 hours. They took no time in hoisting spinnakers and riding the ebbing tide down the San Juan Island shoreline.
As the second start group jockyed for position, the wind picked up into the mid-teens, making for an interesting send-off as the committee boat at the end of the line was a popular place to be. Boats that reached up and cleared air off the line made big gains on the fleet to leeward. The fleets intermixed with the faster boats from second and third starts overtaking the smaller boats in first start. Close quarters sailing with tight crosses and last-minute gybing tested crews and tacticians to keep moving towards the southern corner in the best wind and most favorable currents.
left to right: The spinnakers are hoisted in a tight downwind duel; with over 120 boats in the event, the race course was a colorful melange of spinnakers and sun-drenched crew.
As boats came around the south end of the archipelago, the wind lost its consistency and the lead boats found themselves struggling to stay moving among the current while those bringing up the rear stayed with the breeze as it filled in. When the wind settled again into a northerly, it was an upwind beat full of dramatic duels. Shallow water tacks were the name of the game for the afternoon. With the cliffs along the southwest shoreline, many boats made big gains by sailing within feet of the rocks to avoid the current. Finishing at the entrance to Mosquito Pass, a location that is consistently in a no-wind vortex, made for some last-minute lead changes.
Sunday’s forecast was about the same; sunshine and wind all day. The start line was set deep inside the bay, and with over 120 boats, things were very tight between the ends of the line and the rocks. As boats headed toward Turn Point, the wind began to fade, giving boats with large reaching sails the upper hand as they powered through the light air to be first to the wind. Up went the spinnakers when boats rounded Patos Island for the run down the channel to Lydia Shoal. As the fleet came around the south end of Orcas Island, the wind lightened again for the leaders as everyone struggled to keep moving to the finish. Johnathan McKee showed the fleet once again why he is one of the best in the world, overtaking several faster boats to take the line honors win for the day.
The weekend is going down as the best Round the County racing in recent memory, and that’s a high bar. With no rain, tons of sunshine, and mostly steady wind, the weather gods delivered an amazing regatta. This concludes the 2018 summer racing calendar, but for those foolhardy enough to sign up, winter racing begins with Winter Vashon to start of the South Sound Series on December 1.
Bring the foulies!