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Head Start

by Doug Hansen
Photo by Jan Anderson
Photo by Jan Anderson

DOUG HANSEN kicks off 2022 with a recap of the cherished yet challenging Duwamish Head Race.

The first few weeks of 2022 are going to go down in history as just one soggy mess—snow that wouldn’t go away, atmospheric rivers of rain, and almost constant gray skies. Sane people were wrapped up indoors, but there was a handful of foolhardy sailors who still headed out on the water.

The first official racing of the year is, in fact, the second race of a series. Duwamish Head, hosted by the Three Tree Point Yacht Club, has long stood as the inaugural race on the calendar and continues the sometimes beloved, sometimes dreaded, South Sound Series. With the first race of the series plagued with light wind and freezing rain, it was a welcome sight for the forecast to show clear skies and even a touch of wind after three months of solid storms pummeling the region.

On the morning of the race, the forecast rang true with steady ripples of water from the wind and not a drop of rain in sight all across Puget Sound. Things got rolling right on schedule with the cruising fleets getting underway while the racing fleets hoisted their sails and practiced a couple tacks and gibes to get set for the day.

The wind was settling into a steady southwesterly which made for a challenging tight reach out of the starting area, and boats needed to stay high on port tack to clear Three Tree Point a few miles down the course. While a couple of skippers opted to start with their spinnakers right out of the gate, most ended up joining the rest of the pack in a jib reach out into the Sound until they had the angle to properly set a spinnaker.

The reverse starting format of the series is intended to give the smaller boats a better opportunity to finish the race closer to the larger faster boats, but there is also the unintended consequence of the larger boats needing to weave through the smaller fleets. This was a major factor in the early stages of the race, as finding clean air and a good lane along the shoreline made or broke a crew’s position on their competition. 

Things began to settle down as the fleets spread out, and the racecourse began to square up slightly, while the wind shifted further south as the boats made their way northward towards Elliott Bay and the turning mark off Alki Beach. The shifty breeze really made for some tricky calls. A couple of well-placed boats found themselves scooting up through the fleet in what seemed like their own private wind rivers that disappeared the moment another boat gybed over to chase the puff.

Unlike most of the races over the past fall, the breeze showed a steady build throughout the day and winds began to tip into the low teens as the bulk of the fleet reached the race’s namesake turning mark at Duwamish Head and began the reach across the Sound to Blake Rocks off Bainbridge Island. While a normal fixture in the racing handbook, the rocks are rarely approached from the south. It is amazing how alien coming in from a different direction feels, and how even one shallow shoal can keep the most seasoned navigators on their toes. As the boats came around and tacked out into the ebbing current, the breeze shockingly followed the forecast and stayed in the low teens. While the wind continued to hold, the oscillating shifts still played havoc on tacticians, forcing many boats to tack to maintain leverage and get clear air from competition. It was all about maximizing boat speed and minimizing the distance to the finish; and a lot of boats found themselves shuffling up or down the order quickly on the final leg of the race.

After a fall full of emotional races, mostly caused by incessant rain, it was a reminder of how wonderful Pacific Northwest winter sailing can be. A day on the water with friends in the wind and sun almost made us forget about the cold. While spring racing is still months away, the new year is bringing with it a lot of new opportunity for sailors to enjoy the waters of the Salish Sea; and with hopes of a return to the normal Canadian races to the calendar, it is slated to be a fantastic year for Puget Sound racing.

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