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Whidbey Island Race Week

by Doug Hansen

Racing Sheet

Words: Doug Hansen // Photos: Jan Anderson

This July, the faithful headed to Oak Harbor for one of the longest running racing events in the region, the Whidbey Island Race Week (WIRW). WIRW sets the standard for Northwest multi-day events and has been held for more than 30 years, mostly as a five-day event. Running for the first time this year as a Thursday through Sunday event, the race attracted 68 boats from all over the region. That’s not surprising considering this shorter format has been a success elsewhere in the country.

Excitement was high as final checks and tuning were locked in and the last non-critical items were abandoned on the docks as boats docked out for the first day of racing. A fickle westerly breeze settled in as boats dialed up and practiced spinnaker sets, takedowns, tacks and gybes. Racing got underway with a steady breeze that began to shift to the south as the first few fleets rounded the weather mark. This made for tricky tactics as passing lanes narrowed down significantly after the first mark. A short race was all that the race committee could get off with the wind waning, and with more days ahead, the fleet headed for the barn for drinks and dancing.

Day two brought an unexpected easterly wind, not something that normally sticks around long enough to race in. This breeze was holding strong, and the call was made to get boats racing. Things began with a seemingly endless upwind battle towards a buoy set in the entrance to Penn Cove. A treadmill of current made for slow going in the deep water away from the shallow shoreline. The leeward mark set down at mussel farm made for interesting short tacking along mussel pens, then it was a crawl back upwind towards the finish against the current. Some close crosses and port starboard crossings tested the nerves of boat owners as tacticians pushed for every inch to cross the line first.

Boats in the races

Top: Javelin, a 1D35, Wicked Wahine, a Melges 32, and Absolutey, a Farr 39, three wide.
Left to right: J/80 UpRoar briefly sails ahead of J/105 winner Delirium; Rennaisaince leads the pack at J/Fest; Shrek, a 1D35, with kite up.

Saturday began with light wind from the west that eventually turned north. While the wind was puffy and shifty inside the cove, a steady northerly settled into Saratoga Passage. The fleet was called to follow the race committee into the passage and the mark-set boats went to work preparing a course set. First classes got off the line and had nice breeze all the way to the weather mark. The breeze was steady and even required the crew weight on the weather rail for a few fleeting moments. Unfortunately, the wind began to diminish as boats rounded and began the spinnaker run to the leeward marks. It was a brutal fight to the finish as the breeze continued to go away and Saratoga Passage took on the aesthetic of a mill pond.

Not an easy finish for anyone, with even the lightest boat struggling to stay moving amongst the swirling current rivers that littered the course. Back on shore, spirits were high as the band played into the night and the first ever day of weekend racing at WIRW ended.

The final day of racing brought with it wind, all be it from a very uncommon northwesterly direction, but the pressure was steady and the racecourse was set. The day began with a short diagonal course running north and south in Penn Cove, boat handling skills were at a premium as the shoreline came up quickly if you were forced to sail beyond the marks. The shifting breeze up and down the course paid big to those that could respond to the changes in breeze and keep moving in the direction of the next turn. Although the normal westerly wind never filled, the fleets played with about 8 knots of wind for three races before the time limit expired. Boats headed in to pack up camp and enjoy the awards.

Although the schedule is condensed, the event organizers still pulled out all the stops to ensure that the event remains an iconic centerpiece to any Northwest racing boat’s summer calendar. Great competition on the water, live music every night, the rum tent in full swing—it is still the WIRW we all know and love. As summer series are winding up, a series of short course races are coming up on the calendar, and they will test just how well practiced crews are after a season of sailing. Kicking off with PITCH in Bellingham during the first weekend in September, and wrapping up with Seattle Yacht Club’s Grand Prix at the end of October, it is sure to be an action-packed fall on the water.

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