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Key West Shaka Shake

Sailing World editor Dave Reed files from inside the Swan 42 Mahalo for its Key West debut.

January 19, 2014
Sailing World

Mahalo Shrimp

Sorry guys. Shrimping is not going to do it. It happens. We’ll deal with that tomorrow. Onne Van Der Wal

Live To Ride Another Day

There’s one absolute in surfing: the last wave of the day must be a good one. Make it one you’ll think about until the next session. I’ve always felt the same is true of sailboat racing. The best way to end a regatta is with your best race. One where a week’s worth of sailing all comes together like it should. Everyone’s happier on the way in, the drinks at the dock go down faster, and everyone has a spring in their step, which makes the boatwork and clean up all that much faster.

Unfortunately for my Mahalo mates and me, that’s not how it ended. Instead, we put up the team’s first official DNF—the three most disappointing letters to have in a Key West scoreline.

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And yeah, it wasn’t pretty.

With the wind forecast to build out of the north and into the high 20s for the only race of the day, we set out from Conch Harbor Marina for an absolute perfect day. All we had to do was finish it in one big blaze of glory, right?

Right—sort of—just not the one that flames out.

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On the sail out to the racecourse we wanted to practice some outside jibes, and acquaint a few guys to their new positions for the day. With the wind whipping up our transom at 25 knots across relatively flat water, the spinnaker popped full when we set it, and we were off and tearing, pegging the speedo a few decimals over 15 knots. Hard as it may seem, there were actually a few exciting moments that felt remotely like planing. Our skipper was ear-to-ear satisfied, and if it wasn’t for the need to go back upwind toward the starting line, I’m sure he would have happily kept sending the mail to Havana for a round of Cuba Libres.

That was the highlight of the day.

But the one problem with such a fast commute was that we got to the racecourse almost an hour early. Reaching around in 25 knots is draining on the crew and the boat, and I think sometimes can lull a team into a down-gear mode. Once we were into sequence it took us a little while to shake off the rust, get into new positions, and get our head in the game. Before before I knew it, we were locked into a battle for a small hole on the starting line, coming in late from the second row without a good speed build.

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Within 20 seconds of starting we were into two clearing tacks, bad ones at that, and struggling to get the boat up to its target speeds. Then the electronics went black, and the helmsman was essential steering blind. The Swan 42 is not an easy boat to drive efficiently in rough conditions. Take away the electronics and it’s 50 percent more difficult. And in this IRC handicap game that we’re part of at Quantum Key West, seconds count, and every second is a result of precision driving and trimming.

Still, we made it to the top mark in a decent position, close to the other Swan 42s in our class at least, and set the spinnaker perfectly. We were making small gains into the boat ahead of us, but the spinnaker leech collapsed and folded over onto itself.

“Grind hard!”

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Thwap! Thwap!

“Smoke the sheet!”

The spinnaker sheet was firmly in my hand and out it smoked through the ferrules like a snake jacked up on Red Bull. The boat rounded onto its port side, and we patiently waited on the rail for our skipper to get some bite with the rudder and get the boat back underneath the mast. The spinnaker filled once with a pop, I eased the sheet as we turned back down, and then cloth was dangling in the air. The six-year-old A4 spinnaker had blown out from leech to leech, and the boatspeed cratered as the bow team rehoisted the jib.

There was hardly a second of debate in the afterguard chatter. We had no more A4 kites at our disposal, no electronics, our vang cleat was broken, and the fleet was sailing away at 15 knots. The dream was over in an instant.

“We’re not quitters,” said our skipper when he made the announcement that we were retiring. His disappointment was crystal clear. “But with the issues we’ve got right now, we are doing more harm than good.”

Everyone agreed, and as we turned the motor on and headed back toward Key West proper, I could see the Mini Maxis, HPR, and Melges 32s barreling down the run in veils of spray. It was hard to watch. I really wanted that one last wave to be a good one.

(previous page for older posts)

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Adjusting the Tune

On the motor out to the racecourse today we finally had our group therapy session. The one about how the wheels sort of fell off the bus the previous day, and what we can do to put them back on. And the confession: We’re better than what the results show. Sure, we came here to win, to have fun along the way, and to learn, and while we came up well short on the first, we could now take that off the table and focus on the other two.

It can be something as simple as a little attitude adjustment to turn things around, and that’s exactly what happened. After three races in perfect conditions we avoided having any real shockers in the boathandling department and sailed clean. There were a few more laughs on the rail in the process, which is also what we needed. The score sheet doesn’t show it because the boat is not configured for IRC, but it was a marked improvement on the day.

A better day also helps the mood at the dinner, too, and tonight we had one of our best team meals yet, the sort of one where everyone’s plate is clean, but no one leaves their seat to clear the plates because the stories and the bursts of laughter just keep coming. Good solid team bonding. I think we’ll carry that levity into tomorrow’s one and only race and end on a good one.

Hump Day, Chump Day

It’s hump day when Wednesday (Mount Gay Rum Day) rolls around at Quantum Key West Race Week. Thursday is supposed to be “moving day,” which is when teams that are settling into their groove and sailing smart suddenly show up at the top of the standings. Or visa versa. Take Phil Lotz’s Swan 42 Arethusa in our IRC 3 division, which tiptoed right into the No. 1 spot with a 1, 3,2 in perfect sailing conditions. On the Mahalo, we celebrated moving day one day early as well, but instead managed to moonwalk right down into the basement.

As ideal as the blue-sky 15-knot sailing conditions were, our ever-jovial skipper Charles Kenahan wore the look of utter defeat on his sunburned face as he sat at the nav station on the motor in from the racecourse. “That was not a good day,” he mused, staring blankly at his sandwich

Yes, it was that bad. The first race came with a bad start, buried and slow off the line. We followed up with a spinnaker shrimp at the weather mark, and a sloppy takedown at the bottom. And to think we haven’t even taken a step on Duval Street all week. Now that I think about it, maybe that’s our problem…maybe we just need to get out one night, relax, and come back with a whole new attitude.

Well, that first race got us our first, and hopefully last, DFL on corrected time. It’s a wallop of points that we’ll never get back. The second race didn’t go much better either. We managed to foul a competitor with a completely amateur and unecessary lee-bow tack inside the zone at the weather mark on the first beat. One penalty circle is slow. Two are agonizing. Despite our best efforts to get back into the fleet ASAP, everyone was long gone and the dream was over. We did salvage a seventh out of that one, though, and went into the last race with high hopes of finishing the day on a good one.

A decent start in the third race found us in a good position off the line, but we just kept tacking our way back into to the fleet, hemorrhaging time and distance with every swing of the wheel. Our boathandling got far better, and the fire drills at the marks went away for the most part, so we’ll take that as positive going into tomorrow. It better be our moving day, because from here there’s only one way to go. It’s either up, or straight to the Green Parrot.

(continued for previous posts)

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Clean Up in Aisle 3**

Tonight we tasted pie, that is Key Lime pie at the Blue Heaven Bar & Grill in Key West’s Bahama Village. Yes, it was award-winning delicious . . . its graham cracker crust and light, fluffy meringue canopy. It was a far better than the heaping serving of humble pie we ate on the Swan 42 Mahalo earlier in the day.

That serving came in Race 3 of our Quantum Key West Race Week experience. We went into the day with a pair of thirds and sat happily in second overall. That’s a good place to be for a new program making a go at their first regatta, and we started our day brimming with confidence.

Then the wind went wacky as we waited and waited for the race committee to set a course between the 180-degree windshifts that came with a train of eastbound squalls. When they said they were going to get a race off, our race committee PRO, Ken Legler, didn’t exactly ooze confidence in his radio banter.

He banged the race off in a lumpy 10-knot breeze, but by the time we got to the weather mark a short while later, the wind had already swung 80 degrees and came down like a fist from the black squall line overhead. As if that wasn’t whacky enough, a few minutes into the reach-run, a white squall came tearing down the course. It hissed as the rain pelted the water. The two boats immediately behind us were caught up in a in a slow motion luffing and were instantaneously spun into the wind, kites flogging. The crew of Christopher Dragon was quick enough to blow their halyard halfway and get control of their kite before all went haywire.

As the spinnaker trimmer on Mahalo, my eyes were locked on the spinnaker leech curl, but I took a sneak peek behind to watch the action all unfold. Immediately thought to myself, “white squall!”

Our tactician feebly called for our jib to go up, but no one on the foredeck heard a peep. No one jumped to the spinnaker halyard clutch, either, and in this moment of hesitation our fate was sealed. I could feel the gust’s full force in my hands when it finally laid into our white A2 spinnaker. The sheet vibrated in my hand, and the boat lightened. The last digits I saw on the instruments were 29 knots (our skipper says he eventually saw 34) before the tactician gave me the order to blow the sheet.

Zing! The sheet went through the ferrule like a serpent. The bow augered in, the boat rolled hard to port, and the flogging began.

When the rig was finally pointed to the sky again, I clamored to the foredeck to help manhandle the slashing spinnaker and bring it on deck. We pulled the sheet, it seared out of our hands. We pulled again. It slashed away. We pulled again, the four of us, and it ultimately surrendered only with the silent divorce of leech tape and cloth. In our wake we left a swath of it, draping the gray sea, like a lifeless white jellyfish. That, right then and there, was our race. It ended up being an eighth overall, our worse yet of the series, which drops us to fourth behind my friendly rival and colleague Stuart Streuli on Arethusa.

I was bummed about our finish, but even more disappointed that we’d left a big piece of sail-cloth trash on the racecourse. It was forgotten and lost in the chaos, but I knew it was still out there. But later, as I took a bite of that fine Key Lime pie I got a text from Streuli.

“Samauri douse today?” he wrote.

“Yep. Good one, eh,” I texted in response, thinking he’d witnessed it.

“I only heard about it. The Inga tender picked it up and Morgan Larson came asking us if we know the owner.”

Inga is a Melges 32, and as we know Larson is one of the coolest pros in the business. So I thank you both for cleaning our mess.

(continued for previous days posts)

Slow and Steady

Sunday’s final practice on the Swan 42 Mahalo did exactly what it was supposed to do…get everyone dialed into the details of their jobs, and with less boat work in the way of practice, it was a productive one that made our first two races today go as smooth as possible with a new team.

Well, light air helped that, too.

Without the strong winds we can get here in Key West there was no drama, no fire drills, and no yelling . . . just casual calls for tacks and jibes, the flow of bodies across the cabin top and down the companionway, and the constant chatter of our professionanl headsail trimmer Alan McGlashan, of Doyle Sailmakers, guiding the boat through the holes and puffs . . . “Up one. Good angle there. Straight on that . . . press on it . . . good angle there . . . up two . . . good there.”

Alan was excellent at locking our owner Charles Kenehan’s head in the game, and keeping the boat moving through the randomness of the wind, which was streaky, light, and completely unpredictable—about as unpredictable as the outcome of the races in our IRC division. There are three other Swan 42s sailing in our group, two are optimized for IRC with rule-friendly modifications and IRC-oriented inventories (we’re set up for class sailing), and a handful of other more modern designs like the Ker 40 Catapult and the Mark Mills-designed Tonnere, which has been one of the most successful IRC boats in England over the past few years.

With hull shapes and sailing angles so different, everyone spread out pretty quickly off the starting lines, but somehow we’d come together at the top mark and start all over again. Out of the wackiness of the day we put a pair of thirds on the scoreboard, which puts us in second overall behind the Swan 42 Vitesse and ahead of the Swan 42 Arethusa. For the top three boats to be Swan 42s is good for us, but with a lot more wind forecast for Tuesday, we’ll likely see a whole different scenario once the more powered-up boats start tearing off downwind with their skirts off.

But all in all it was a productive day, which started with a long onshore postponement until noon, which gave me some time to hop on the bike and head over to Maxi-boat row, where the big boys of the regatta and the TP52s are hanging out. The bulkhead was teaming with pros and household names, happy to chat, kill time, and share news on upcoming projects. There’s plenty of dock talk about the new 100-foot Rambler for George David, and the equally giant rival from Jim Clark, both underway up North for late year launches. There are a few new TP52s on the way, and a lot of pros lining up work for the coming years, and if you were to ask how the top end of the sport is doing (as I did), you’d get the same response: there’s plenty happening, and it’s all good.

Tomorrow we’ll hook up with the J/70 class, which didn’t get any racing in today, despite three hours of waiting and trying. Fore sure, there are worse places to be skunked, but not to worry…they’ll make up for it somehow.

(click below for previous day’s posts)

Shaka, Shaka, Shake

I don’t know. . . The conversation I overheard at breakfast at the team house, between bites of my egg pie, was that there wasn’t much boatwork; just load the sails, tension the battens, and go practice. Eleven o’clock dock-out. But then it was noon. 12:30, and finally a few minutes after one o’clock we peeled out from our slip at the Conch Bay Marina. The bowsprit had been dismantled and reassembled, one bow sticker applied, messenger lines run, fairings caulked, splices done and undone, and the rig put at its base settings.

Late, yes, but it is the first day of practice at Key West Race Week, and Charles Kenehan’s Mahalo has been hauled, painted, re-rigged, and delivered from Newport, R.I., via Fort Lauderdale, so even the best boat captain could be expected to still assembling the boat when the docklines are tossed. And ours, one of the best, wasn’t remotely flummoxed. It’s not his first Key West rodeo.

With most of our final boat assembly issues sorted by the time we got past two humongous cruise ships and out into Key West’s shipping channel, we rolled right into phase 2: the mechanics of the boat. Here and there were the various departments on the boat discussing who was doing what in their area. The bow team covered how they were going to pull the kite into the boat on the douse, the trimmers on who’s tailing, who’s grinding, and who’s smoking the sheet. As the designated spinnaker trimmer’s slot, I get to smoke it. My to-do list, I learn over the two hours of practice, is as follows: call the breeze on the upwind legs—I’m not sure they can hear me that far back in the bus, but what the heck—release the vang at the weather mark, and then get the spin-sheet handoff once we’re settled on the run.

It’s a great feeling to have the power of the breeze right there in your and, feeling the gust and watching the speedo climb, so I’m happy to be trimming the kite. In the jibes, it’s just a slow, controlled ease of the loaded sheet until the clew is at the headstay, and then whipping it off the winch, stepping to the new weather rail, and then using all of my 170 pounds to help rock down to finish off the jibe. Then back on the sheet, and it’ll be time for—downwind are always way to short. At the douse, I simply let the sheet fly and scan the boat for anyone that needs backup—maybe the bow team cloth in the water, or bump of the mainsheet. Out of the turn, it’s back to the rail.

Race, repeat, repeat. Call it a day. Do it again until Friday. That’ll be the Key West routine come Monday.

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