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Round & Round We Go

by Doug Hansen
Racing Sheet Image by Jan Anderson
Photo by Jan Anderson

There are certain cornerstones to the Pacific Northwest sailboat racing calendar—Swiftsure, Race to the Straits, and the Seattle Yacht Club Grand Prix are certainly on the list. All of these races bring something unique, whether that be a longer distance, some double handed sailing complemented with one hell of a party, or the competitive nature; they all have something special. While all of these races are beloved, if you ask sailors what their favorite race is, you will begin to notice a pattern, and once you understand the special draw, it is easy to see why Round the County is frequently the top choice.

The two-day, point-to-point race is hosted by Orcas Island Yacht club every November and is, at its core, a lap around the San Juan Islands. The racecourse starts off at the Lydia Shoal Buoy just east of Orcas Island, and finishes day one at Roche Harbor. Day two takes the fleet back to Lydia Shoal for the finish. The unique twist on this event is that the direction of the race alternates year to year, even numbered years run clockwise, and odd years run counter. This year’s race had light air predicted in the forecast, but that didn’t stop 67 boats from filling out the registration list. Everything from big boats in the ORC fleet (with the very fast RP55 Zvi topping the entry list) to a pair of Santa Cruz 27s in PHRF Class 6 bookended the scratch sheet, with every manner of boat one could imagine in between.

Things got going Saturday morning on time with a nice northerly that headed the fleet down the course, but the wind did not last. As the fleet arrived at Iceberg Point, things got light and stayed light throughout the day. A game of chutes and ladders then began, with the leading boats accordioning apart and back together as small, localized puffs of breeze came swirling off the shoreline. In general, sticking to the beach paid off big, with boats literally only feet from the rocky points and skimming along the shallows to avoid the current and stay in the whisps of wind.

The breeze began to fill slowly as the leading boats made their way around Lime Kiln Point and out of the lee of the islands, but it was far from a white-knuckle ride. The shore still paid big and short tacking with the bow of the boat just feet from the rocks was certainly a trust building exercise for skippers and navigators. The fleet came trickling into the finish near Roche Harbor—one by one and in small clusters—wrapping up a very challenging day of racing, all be it one that many expected not to finish at all.

As the fleet tied up for the evening, Roche Harbor was in full swing as the entire town was sold out and packed to the rafters. The epicenter of the festivities was the party tent afloat in the marina, with live music, drinks flowing, and dancing all roaring well into the evening. (To say that the party isn’t a factor in the event’s popularity would be a bold-faced lie.)

Sunday morning had a bit more excitement in the forecast with again a steadily building northerly in the report. However, as with many things when it comes to sailing, there are no guarantees and while there was good wind for the start, it quickly gave way to light bands of pressure and swirling currents as the mass of boats made their way to the halfway point at Patos Island. Things began to look up as the leading boats rounded and set spinnakers, with the breeze steadily building into the mid-teens during the kite run, making for some exciting moments while crews worked to gybe in and out of the islands to get out of the negative current flows.

Like clockwork, the breeze was not meant to hold. As the racers rounded Orcas Island and pointed towards the finish, the wind went light thanks to the massive wind shadow behind Mount Constitution. Getting swept past the finish by the current was an absolute death sentence, so a lot of patience and foresight was required to make it cleanly across. With the flowing current it felt a bit like docking the space shuttle, as you had to set up to vector the boat across the finish line from nearly a mile out in the swirling current and glass calm wind hole.

It is no secret that many events are working hard to recruit participants, but somehow this one seems to have no such struggles. It is an anchor point in many racing programs’ calendars and it’s easy to see why: stunning scenery, often good wind, and a true “event” feel thanks to the stopover; Round the County encompasses the perfect balance of adventure and competition that the weekend warrior sailing crowd hungers for. While this event is difficult to duplicate, it would be a shame for any event organizer not to look at it for inspiration.

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