Fall racing has come to an end in the Pacific Northwest, and, as is tradition, sailors gathered for one of the last big keel boat regattas of the year— Seattle Yacht Club’s Grand Prix Invitational. The three-day event takes racers on a mix of short course and distance races all around the waters west of Seattle.
The fun began Friday with the traditional distance race around Blakely Rocks with the ORC big boats sent around Duwamish Head to add some distance. The wind was steady in the prestart and topped out in the mid-teens, plenty to make things interesting and keep the race tight. Southerlies pushed through waves leftover from a strong northerly, and this made for challenging conditions, especially for the low freeboard J/80 fleet as they struggled to keep the boats moving through the slop. The wind stayed on the lighter end of the spectrum for the rest of the day, and it was a game of optimizing wind angles and keeping the boats moving, par for the course in recent years.
Onboard the TP52 Smoke, we sailed into a steady 10-knot southeasterly with Glory and Crossfire close behind. Dropping our spinnakers and tight reaching with jibs around the rocks, it was a single tack upwind to the Duwamish Head mark. We hoisted the spinnaker again to head to the finish line, gybing along Magnolia Bluff toward West Point and took line honors in the ORC fleet. The varying course lengths worked out and most fleets finished near enough to each other, which made for great timing and a packed bar.
Saturday was not pretending to be anything other than what it was; windy. The first race got underway in the high teens and crews were white knuckled and hiking hard off the start line. A two-lap affair, the race committee set a long weather mark that gave everyone plenty of time to stretch their legs and put their boat setup to the test. Rounding the top mark led straight into a lightning fast spinnaker run down through the fleet of boats coming upwind and darting every which way to stay in the most wind on the course.
At the first leeward mark, the wind began to build into the low twenties and it was just a game of not rounding up and keeping the boat moving upwind to the weather mark in the puffs. Another rocket ship spinnaker run to the final mark was in store and things were looking good as Smoke rounded in second place behind Glory and began sending it downwind. Things were going to plan with boat speeds over 20 knots as we planned through the fleets and quickly got down course.
During the final gybe into the leeward mark, our luck ran out as a fouled running backstay spelled disaster. In less than a second, the broken mast hit the water. Thankfully no one was hurt, and we set about clearing the mast away from the hull to prevent further damage to the boat itself. All in all, it took about 20 minutes to clean up the rigging, get the boat into the dock, and catch our breath. The race committee decided to finish the race and then send the fleet home for the day.
With no boat to sail on, I was looking forward to spending the Sunday raking leaves with the dog, but was abruptly informed by the wife (Shelagh Hansen) that her crew on Absolutely needed a sewer rat to bring in the spinnaker for the day. I was back out on the water. It was picturesque with 8-12 knots of wind and flat calm water, a pleasant change from the heart-wrenching conditions that had ended racing for us the day before. Two more races for all fleets rounded out the series and allowed for scores to be settled after the previous days of trying conditions.
Following Grand Prix, Round the County marks the end to the fall keelboat racing calendar, and while the boat I had planned to race was out of commission due to the broken mast, we were lucky enough to have a backup. Thanks to Charlie Macaulay and his black and yellow Absolutely, a big chunk of the Smoke crew didn’t miss out on the festivities. The two-day race took the fleet on a self-guided tour of the San Juan Islands with the course, “Island County to port.”
Saturday got underway with a steady northerly when the forecast was for southerly and it was downhill from there. Light and shifty breeze left much of the fleet drifting just off the start line while the lead group sailed in steady winds for several hours. Those that got away were nice enough to wait for the rest of us while they were becalmed at the halfway mark off Patos Island as the wind filled in from behind, allowing for all the boats to catch up.
Now that everyone was together, the calculations started and one by one the fleet began to drop out, realizing that even with ideal conditions they were not going to make the time limit. In the end, the clock ticked down with the leading boats only yards from the finish line and everyone was scored on their halfway time. The light conditions made for a long day on the water, but that was nothing that a couple drinks and some hot food couldn’t fix. The party roared into the evening in beautiful Roche Harbor.
Sunday morning brought wind that matched the forecast for the day, a good sign. Unfortunately, it was short-lived. As the boats arrived at Lime Kiln Point, a glassy hole engulfed the fleet. A small handful of boats caught a zephyr that took them on a beam reach along the shore and sailed away from the bulk of the fleet. It wasn’t until the final miles of the race that one of the TP52s overtook the leading boat, Kevin Welch’s J/111 RECON, which took the overall win for the second year in a row. Well done!