Hosted on the southern tip of Vancouver Island, in the gem that is Victoria, British Columbia, the Swiftsure International Yacht Race has been a mainstay of the sailing scene in the Northwest (or Southwest if you are Canadian) for nearly a decade.
This year’s forecast called for wind, lots of wind. A low-pressure system was forming off the coast and was expected to make landfall, building into a heavy gradient down the straits throughout the day. The combination of wind and currents was forecasted to push the fleet around the course, creating would come be near perfect conditions for a record-breaking year.
On the morning of the start, the harbor felt eerie, with a relatively light breeze welcoming racers to the course. A slight localized easterly wind had swirled into the starting area of the Victoria cityfront breakwater. At the same time, the filling and building westerly could be seen out in the middle of the Juan de Fuca Strait. It was a crystal-clear day, with the Olympic Mountains shining in the background.
Watching from the shoreline, the fleets were spread out along the start line, with some choosing to play the coastal breeze and others aiming to punch out to the prevailing westerly as soon as possible. Opting for the coastal route paid off for the early boats, while the offshore course proved advantageous for the later fleets.
The wind steadily filled as the fleet reached Race Rocks, resulting in a rough upwind beat for many boats as gusts were reaching the mid-20s. For the boats rounding the Neah Bay mark, conditions settled down as they reached the turnaround point. However, the rough sea state made it challenging to decide how aggressively to push on the early stages of the downwind leg, knowing that the breeze was expected to build throughout the day.
Things became even more challenging as the fleet neared Sheringham. It was still daylight for most of the fleet, thanks to the high winds that kept everyone moving well throughout the day.
The excitement intensified as the fleet approached the infamous Race Passage, but suddenly, a distress call came over the radio. A racing boat, the J125 Hamachi, had lost her mast. She found herself drifting with the mast and sail wrapped around the keel, and to make matters worse, the vessel was drifting towards Race Rocks while the crew was approaching the narrow passage. Fortunately, the three-man crew managed to clear the mast from the boat. A coordinated effort between the US and Canadian Coast Guard and support from fellow racers helped bring the racers on board to bring the ship under control and Hamachi was able to be towed back to Victoria. Special thanks must be extended to the crew of Annapurna, who sacrificed their race to render aid and drag Hamachi into safe waters and away from the rocks before transferring them to the care of the Coast Guard.
Meanwhile, the Riptide 35 Terramoto was on track for a phenomenal race when they, too, experienced a broken mast, this time just after passing through Race Passage. Fortunately, the damage to their boat was limited to the upper half of the mast, and thanks to the fantastic work of the crew, they were able to clean things up and hoist a jury-rigged setup with the remnants of the mast to finish the race. Not only was this impressive, but this little thirty-five-footer set a new course record in doing so, demolishing previous records set by significantly faster boats.
The race recently adopted a new slogan, “Always A Challenge,” and this year certainly lived up to the hype. Not only did the Cape Flattery course record fall to the wounded Terramoto, but the Clallam Bay short course record was taken by Duncan Gladman and his team onboard the custom trimaran Dragon, beating their race time from the previous year, while John Buchan’s TP52 Glory sailed a phenomenal record-setting pace on the Hein Bank course, finishing the 118-mile course in a mind-melting 6 hours and 38 minutes. The 2023 edition of Swiftsure will go down as a legendary year in the history of a legendary race, and I expect we will be hearing the stories of this one for a long time to come.