Home Racing Sheet School of Rock

School of Rock

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

March is a bit of a perplexing time in Seattle. The city is still very much in the depths of winter, but for the local sailboat racing crowd, it marks the beginning of the spring racing scene—though it often feels like the start drags spring into Puget Sound kicking and screaming. The first so-called spring sailing season event is the Center Sound Series, hosted out of Shilshole Marina by the Corinthian Yacht Club of Seattle.

The initial race of the three-part series is a short 21-mile lap around Blakely Rock just off Bainbridge Island. It is a vital shakedown for racing crews returning to the water after a winter hiatus. It’s a ritual of sorts, akin to blowing off the dust from months away from the racecourse, and yet, with the unpredictability of weather, the race can swiftly transform into an exercise of chipping off the rust when things don’t go as planned. This year’s Blakely Rock race unfolded in the middle of an epic storm cycle on March 2. Cold fronts covered the entire region with intense weather, meaning plenty of snow in the mountains and relentless wind and rain throughout the Puget Sound region.

The race got underway in relatively challenging conditions, with winds gusting at 20 knots around the starting area as the fleets dialed up and prepared for their starts. The reverse start saw smaller and slower boats setting off first, allowing them to get partially up the course as the faster vessels waited their turn. As the sequence rolled along, the wind began to mellow, and many boats shifted gears quickly to power up their sails and keep things moving along in the lighter breeze. The entire fleet’s convergence on Blakely Rock coincided with the faster boats zipping through, creating a few tense moments as boats with wildly different speeds and maneuverability had to duck and weave around one another to avoid contact. This sudden drop in wind speed seemed to hit a low spot right as the fleets were converging and sailing around the rocks, making it a tough call of which spinnaker to hoist and whether the wind was expected to stay down or pipe back up.

Many boats opted to hoist their larger full-sized kites rather than cut down anything, and almost simultaneously, the lighter breeze disappeared. Dark clouds gathered on the southern horizon and worked their way over the fleet, bringing snappy puffs and flurries of snow through the racecourse. The wind pumped up into the high teens, with the larger puffs reaching into the mid-20s; several boats even saw big blasts up to 30 knots. This wind stayed with the fleet down the course and made for some very tense but extremely memorable moments. Onboard the TP52 Smoke, we touched 20 knots of boat speed several times in the stronger puffs.

As the storm cell continued its northward journey through the fleet, the breeze shifted towards the west, making for a quick run to the leeward mark off of the Edmonds oil tanks for most of the fleet. Thanks to the shift, some boats did not need to gybe during the heavy wind, making it an all-out drag race to get to the leeward mark, drop their kites, and head towards the finish.

Along the final beat back to Shilshole, the wind began to ease up a little bit. It still gave plenty of power, but not the monster puffs that were dominating the spinnaker run. We even got some touches of sunshine poking through the clouds as the bulk of the fleet made their way through the finish line and back to the dock to pack up the boats. After racing, the Corinthian Yacht Club clubhouse was in full swing, with drinks flowing and some well-earned chili for hungry racers looking to warm up after a wild day.

A standout performance came from the Lafitte Family onboard the J70 Lift Ticket, a 22-foot boat in a fiercely competitive fleet. They pushed the limits, flying downwind, overtaking larger vessels, and securing an impressive first place in their class.

The Center Sound Series Blakely Rock race marked the beginning of the Northwest big boat racing season and offered an exciting and unpredictable event. The mix of challenging weather and the determination of sailing crews made for a memorable experience, setting the stage for an exciting season ahead.

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