Almost Perfect

Visions of a fast Vineyard Race and Saturday afternoon finish dashed through my head. Could it really happen? Or was this just another forecast destined to fail?

Fernando and the pole

Fernando working at the end of the pole

Ryan O'Grady

Sometimes I’m amazed that anyone chooses to distance race in the Northeast. The events lack the fun factor of distance sailing in most other places. Take the Vineyard Race for instance. Taking place every Labor Day weekend since 1932, the race starts off Stamford, Conn., rounds the Buzzards Bay Light tower to starboard, Block Island to starboard, and finishes back in, err, Stamford 238 miles later. Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against Stamford, other than the city allowing Brewers Yacht Haven to be torn down for office space and apartments, but after spending 200 odd miles at sea, it’s refreshing to wind up in a different place, one that has dockage for the boats involved to tie up and be social. The course of the Vineyard Race also typically becomes nothing more than a very long windward-leeward race, often in light air. Ask any “Buzzard”, a sailor who has done at least 10 Vineyard Races, and all can tell you about a time they had to anchor at the tidal gates marking the beginning of Long Island Sound.

As they say though, a bad day of sailing is better than a good day at work, so when I got an invite to join the crew of Todd LeBaugh and Bugs Baer on the IMX 45 Xcelsior it was an easy yes. As the days to the start dwindled, something amazing happened. For once, the weather forecasts were predicting a perfect race. Southwesterly wind gradually building to 20 knots, shifting northeast right as most of the boats would be arriving at the tower. Could it be, a 238-mile downwind ride? Visions of a fast race and a Saturday afternoon finish dashed through my head. Could it really happen? Or was this just another forecast destined to fail?
Dock call was early on Friday. Even on a well-prepared boat, there always seems to be a list of things to do and an endless supply of food and gear to be stowed. On Xcelsior, we'd have plenty of sandwiches, a hot dinner for Friday night, and hopefully be back for dinner on Saturday. If things went really bad, there was a rumor of freeze-dried food for Sunday, but nobody wanted to see that.

Finally, it was time to get started. Our IRC 45 class had a good mix of competition, including a King 40, Farr 40, Swan 42, and a J/133. With a building southwesterly setting up for the first afternoon of the race, we were concerned that the sprit boats would have an advantage. Fortunately, our IMX 45 was carrying both symmetric and asymmetric spinnakers. With any luck, our A-sail would help us hold off the sprit boats until the wind really came up and we could square back and hoist a symmetric kite. The start was almost a non-event. Our class was evenly spread down the line, and soon everyone was finding their own lane. Our goal was to try to sail in mid Long Island Sound, where we believed we would find the best wind and current. Just below us was the Swan 42 Orbit. She would be a good test of our speed, as we figured out the best pole height and angle to optimize the new asymmetrical kite. In our own little match race, we'd gain a few lengths, only to have Orbit claw them back. As we fought it out, the other competitors were falling back. The game was only broken by a tug and barge. Not wanting to be caught in its wind shadow, we sailed above it, while Orbit went below. On our own for the first time, we made our first mistake of the race. Feeling good sailing slightly higher and faster, we soon found ourselves too close to Long Island and in a hole. As we desperately tried to gybe back to mid Sound, all of our competition sailed away. The gains made in the first hours of the race were gone. Heroes to zeros. The only bright side was that we passed them once and there was a lot of racecourse to pass them again. We just needed to be smarter.

Finally back in the pressure, Xcelsior was now locked in battle with the King 40 American Girl. Before our little field trip to the Long Island beaches, we were ahead of them by over a mile. Now, they were 10 boatlengths ahead. Converging on opposite gybes, the major question now was which gybe was correct? This decision would be heavily weighted by where the navigation team of Bugs and Jay decided to take us out of Long Island Sound. For those not familiar with the area, all of the water for Long Island Sound has to funnel through a few narrow formations of land. On the north side, spanning New London to Plum Island, is The Race. Between Plum Island and Long Island is The Gut. The tides here can run well over 3 knots and change at different times. We knew we'd be approaching as the tide turned foul, so minimizing the bad current was key. If Xcelsior continued on her gybe away from Long Island, we'd be headed for the Race, while American Girl could make a break for the Gut.

"Gybe when you can," was shouted by Jay through the companionway. Our brain trust downstairs had determined that the Gut would have less adverse current for a shorter distance than the Race. It also allowed us to have a better angle toward the Buzzards Bay Tower, assuming the forecasted backing and strengthening of the wind would come. We were betting that our boat would benefit from deeper running angles with a symmetrical spinnaker in heavy breeze than our sprit equipped competitors. Before that, we needed to turn the boat and engage American Girl. As we finished our gybe, American Girl chose to gybe away from us to take advantage of a small wind shift. All of us on deck knew the game was now on. If we could out-gybe American Girl, and time the shifts better, we'd be able to put her away before the Gut. After a few gybes, we were finally parallel to our competitor. Now, we just needed to follow the old adage of staying between them and the mark to consolidate our advantage.

We approached the Gut as the sun set behind us into Long Island Sound while lighting the sky on fire. At the same time, the full Blue Moon was rising on our bow. The crew on Xcelsior, however, couldn't sit back and enjoy the natural fireworks. According to the navigators, we would need to head up sailing through the Gut, and there was concern that we would not be able to carry the spinnaker for the short reach around Plum Island. The speed team desperately wanted to avoid the slow down involved with a sail change, so we worked especially hard at managing the power of the spinnaker while Fernando, our intrepid bowman, rigged up the jib top. With only a mile of tight reaching before freeing up again, the trimmers and driver managed a delicate dance of power and heading. There was no room to run off in a puff, the trimmer needed to anticipate a puff and de-power the sail to keep Xcelsior on course and off of the beach. Whatever we were doing was working. Xcelsior was on course and reeling in boats from other classes that chose not to fly a spinnaker. Soon we were around Plum Island, having gained on our nearby competitors.

Leaving Long Island Sound allowed us to point the bow at the Buzzards Bay Tower, and the chance to square back the asymmetrical spinnaker. With the squaring of the pole, the internal debate started on whether the A sail or S sail would be faster. Normally, we’d have a crossover chart to help make this call, but the A sail was new, so we were on our own. With only one masthead halyard, every sail change would give up precious miles with a bareheaded change, so it was critical to get the call right. Finally with the wind angle going past 150 degrees, the big blue symmetrical finally got to come out of the bag and the chatter onboard died down. Now we could enjoy the final miles to the Tower under a beautiful full moon, dolphins playing in the water around us, and 15 knots of wind.

We rounded the Tower at 3:30 Saturday morning, and for the first time in the race we needed a jib for the leg to Block Island's south side. This leg would be a 4 hour-long tight reach, and for Xcelsior, it allowed us to make use of our waterline to add miles to our perceived lead. For me, this was a good time to get some rest.

As the brightening sky filled the cabin, I awoke to find Xcelsior very close to the bluffs on the south shore of Block Island. Normally, this is a dangerous place to be, as the wind dies and the currents get funky. True to form, we were nearly stopped, but amazingly, the Oakcliff Farr 40 was between the island and us, and sailing away! In the span of 30 minutes, she was able to sail right around us and now had a 2-mile lead. The last time we had seen this competitor was shortly after the start. For us, the urgency had returned, and the race was on again. The Farr 40 owed us time, but only about 5 minutes, so we needed to get back in front to have a chance, but first we needed some wind!

To get the wind, we needed to sail towards Long Island. Based on predictions from the navigators, this was a problem because the current would be foul at the Gut when we arrived. Based on the heading of the Farr 40, she was headed for the Race. The Race would still have some favorable current, so it was critical for us to get there, but for now boatspeed was paramount. As the boatspeed came up, we found some more pressure and soon were able to point the bow towards a waypoint in the middle of the Race. With any luck, our waterline advantage over the Farr 40 would allow us to claw back the miles we had given away near Block. Try as we might, we couldn’t gain our miles back on the reach to the Race. Then something amazing happened. The Farr 40 started to reach off to Long Island. They were sailing to the bad current! We had a chance, assuming that our weather model showing more wind on the north side of the Sound was correct.

Whatever we were doing was working. The wind was increasing and backing. Onboard chatter went from the Farr 40 to whether or not we should be hoisting the Code Zero. In hindsight, we waited too long to hoist the zero. Once it went up, it only stayed up for 5 minutes before we needed to peel to the asymmetric kite. At least that mistake didn't cost us. In fact, we were now even in 1.5 knots of favorable current and making trees on the Farr 40 on the other shore. With the A sail finally up and drawing, we were making 10 knots directly towards the next mark, R32 off of Stamford. This was shaping up to be a 60-mile drag race with the Farr 40. The win or the loss would come down to precious seconds, so we had to minimize our mistakes and sail as fast as possible. For the next few hours, the sailing was pretty much straightforward, then the wind started to come forward. This was a problem for us. Changing to the jib top would reduce our sail area and slow us down. While Xcelsior might be forced to sail high and slow, the Farr 40 on the south shore could now VMG sail towards the finish. For us, it was essential to keep the A sail up for as long as possible. After two wipeouts, the call to drop the kite grew louder, but we fought off the onboard naysayers and kept pushing. The only way to win this race was to keep the A sail up and the boat under it.

Persistence and patience paid off. We were able to carry the kite all the way to R32, and we rounded about 30 seconds in front of the Farr 40. Squaring back for the final run into Stamford harbor, the crew was finally able to relax and savor the coming victory. After 30 hours and 240 miles, we beat the Farr 40 by only 38 seconds. We did it in weather conditions that were almost unimaginable. The predicted forecast mostly arrived. I’ve never had a spinnaker up as long as I have in this race. The winds were fresh, and the clear skies were postcard perfect. In a final natural finale, the Blue Moon raised blood red out of the Sound to signal our finish. Fireworks along the Long Island shore seemed to be exploding just for us. On the delivery back to the American Yacht Club, the crew was allowed a victory shot of rum. To thank Neptune for our good fortune, a shot of rum was also poured over the side. A Vineyard Race may never be this perfect again, but we weren’t going to risk offending nature, just in case.