Swiftsure International Yacht Race marks the officially unofficial start to the summer sailing season in the Northwest and this year’s race continued the tradition. Hosted by the Royal Victoria Yacht Club, this legendary race brings yachts from throughout the Pacific Northwest to compete in the venerable event. Attracting 175 registered boats this year, the event has evolved over the years to provide racing crews with options from the Juan de Fuca race course, up to the 118 nautical-mile Hein Bank course that the ORC 0 big boat fleet takes on. A long weekend in Victoria is always a treat and being able to see some close friends and do some racing has made this race one of my favorites of the year.
Racing got underway Saturday morning, May 27, with the Canadian Coast Guard putting on a show, firing their main gun to signal the start of each fleet. This year’s forecast called for light air for the start with a westerly wind filling in towards the afternoon that was slotted to hold for the rest of the evening. Ripping currents pushing the fleet towards Race Rocks and variable wind shifts made connecting the dots from puff to puff imperative. It paid to be on the left, and then paid to be on the right, and many found themselves to be chasing a puff only to miss the next shift. Charlie Macaulay’s Farr 39 Absolutely played this portion well and edged in to be one of the first boats to reach Race Rocks ahead of several of the ORC 0 monsters. As the fleet was spit out into the Straits of Juan De Fuca, the wind went away to nothing and it was a battle of setting up for the very slowly filling westerly that was working its way down the Straits.
While a light breeze took several boats into the Canadian shore in search of some local knowledge, the westerly had begun to gently fill in the middle of the Straits. Working towards the American shoreline for more favorable current, the leaders of each fleet could firmly establish themselves upwind of their competition. Working up towards Clallam Bay, a thick fog descended on the shoreline, making for some nervous navigators as short tacking the beach was essential to stay out of the building currents farther out in the Straits.
As the Hein Bank and Cape Flattery fleets rounded the Canadian Coast Guard Ship moored off Neah Bay, the wind began to steadily build into the high teens. This sleigh ride down the Straits is what keeps many racers coming back year after year. As the wind topped out at just over 20 knots, several tight gybing duels ensued as boats worked their way back east towards the light of Victoria. At one point the northern lights shimmered above Victoria while phosphorescence glowed in boats’ wakes. Without a doubt, the tight racing and amazing conditions marks this as one of my favorite kite runs I can recall.
While it felt like the fun of the spinnaker run would never end, unfortunately it was not to be, and all boats found themselves parked in no wind, struggling to finish the race at the Victoria Harbor entrance. As with any overnight race competing in the dark, there is always a balance of pushing yourself just as hard as your competition, but being conscious of where the edge is. This year’s race challenged several boats on this front, resulting in some dramatic lead changes as the race neared the end.
John Buchan’s Trans Pac 52 Glory was a prime example of a well-executed overnight plan, going from very deep in the pack to a line honors finish in ORC 0 by paying close attention to the dying breeze and wind shifts all the way to the end of the race. Boats continued to trickle into the finish well into Sunday afternoon, and the dock was full of chatting sailors enjoying some well-deserved beers. With all the struggle and hardship that a race like this takes out of crews, it is sometimes important to remind ourselves that sailboat racing is not a lapse of judgment, it’s a lifestyle choice.