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Swift & Sure

by Doug Hansen
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Memorial Day in the United States is a ceremonial indicator that summer is beginning. The days stretch long, the rain somehow seems lighter, and the sun even starts to peek through the clouds occasionally. For sailors, however, Memorial Day weekend is dominated by one thing: Swiftsure.

Hosted by the Royal Victoria Yacht Club nearly every year since 1930, the Swiftsure International Yacht Race has been a beacon in the calendar of the ever-ambitious sailing programs in the region. The race, steeped in history, invites boats of all shapes and sizes to Victoria, British Columbia, for a unique long-distance race in the exposed waters of the Strait of Juan de Fuca. The traditional course gives the race its namesake: Head out of Victoria Harbor, sail to the Swiftsure Bank lightship and back. The lightship itself has been removed in recent decades, a challenge that the fleet and race organizers have met with adaptability and resilience, changing the course to continue the race’s legacy. However, many boats still choose to sail the traditional course, reaching a specific GPS position before turning back.

In this year’s race, the bulk of the fleet was heading to the two shorter courses; the Cape Flattery race to a mark near Neah Bay and the Juan de Fuca race to Clallam Bay and back. The race organizers sort boats into different courses by speed potential, intending to give everyone an opportunity to sail the courses and finish during the day on Sunday. For smaller boats, there is a separate inshore race decided on the day of the race so smaller or less experienced boats can return to the dock in time for dinner.

The weather forecast for the race was a recipe for anxiety, adding to the intense and unpredictable nature of the Swiftsure International Yacht Race. The forecast called for a roaring westerly flowing down the Strait with wind gusts into the mid-thirties for the race’s first half. The wind was met with a massive thirteen-foot ebb tide flowing against it, making for a horrendous sea state that would test the stomach of even the most seasoned sailor. To make matters a bit more complex, after the front of the weather system was to move through Saturday morning, the wind was going to die off to essentially nothing for the balance of the race, leaving a fleet of bruised and battered sailors drifting along towards the finish, that is if they didn’t get swept up in the current.

We saw the weather coming together as advertised on the morning of the race, with wind and plenty of waves. Still, the long course boats got underway on schedule at 10 a.m. An issue with the committee boat dragging anchor delayed the medium course boats’ start for several minutes and caused several restarts as the committee worked tirelessly to keep the ends of the line anchored to give a fair start line to all. Unfortunately, the puffing breeze at the start claimed several racers and ended their day before they had even started. Three of the four TP52s found themselves heading back to the dock with gear failures in the waves, but, thankfully, other than a few bruised egos, no injuries were reported.

As the boats pounded their way upwind, it was simply a game of holding on and preserving the boat as the wind held in the mid-twenties well into the day. Over half of the fleet withdrew from the race by day’s end. Like clockwork, the wind started to drop as the fleet rounded their turning marks and began to make their way back towards the finish line. The earliest arriving fast boats found their way home and finished around eleven at night, while the rest of the fleet found themselves within sight of the finish line as the sun came up without a breath of wind across the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Thankfully, the sea state had settled down by then, but the current was still roaring all morning, making any forward progress painful. Eventually, some breeze filled just before lunchtime, and the fleet limped its way to the finish, making for a rather anticlimactic finish to a fascinating race.

Special mention should go out to Steve Johnston and his crew on the TP52 Mist, the only TP52 to stick it out and finish the race, beating out Alan Lubner’s beautifully prepared and sailed RP55 for the corrected time win. In the long course, hats off to Jeff Eckard and his crew on board the venerable Peterson 41 Will O The Wisp, finishing the traditional Swiftsure Classic course in thirty-two hours and seven minutes to take the win and be one of only two boats to finish the long course this year.

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