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Round the County Virgins

Dan Newland participated in this race around Washington's San Juan county aboard his home-built 36-footer /Pegasus/. Supplement to our March 2010 issue

February 16, 2010
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Dan Newland’s home-built ultralight /Pegasus/ was among 69 boats to compete in the 2009 Round the County Race.

Dan Newland’s home-built ultralight Pegasus was among 69 boats to compete in the 2009 Round the County Race. Courtesy Jeanne Hyde

Being new to the state of Washington and also a bit isolated by our location in Port Townsend, we hadn’t sailed any of the larger, well attended, and competitive races in the area. In 2009, we decided to change that by entering the Orcas Island YC’s Round the County Race.

The race‚which circumnavigates San Juan county‚has been going on for 26 years. You’re surrounded by snow-capped mountains and clear water with fir, cedar, and maple trees seeming to disappear into the water. Orca sightings are frequent; sea lions may suddenly surface with a 25-pound salmon. The bottom teams with Dungeness, Rock, and other crab.

The two-day event starts on Saturday near Lydia Shoals, southeast of Orcas Island. The first leg is about 35 miles and ends in San Juan Island’s Roche Harbor, where a rollicking party ensues in a tent on the docks. The second leg is about 30 miles. It starts at Mosquito Pass and finishes off Lydia Shoals. Since it takes place in an relatively open body of water, this leg can feel like an ocean race.

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The race alternates directions. This year, we went around counterclockwise, with strong currents with us for most of the day on Saturday but turning to adverse current and primarily beating all Sunday. The fleet includes some the finest racers in Seattle and Canada. This year’s fleet included the TP52 Braveheat, Icon, a Perry Custom 65, the 1D 48 Flash, and Santa Cruz 70. The sentimental favorite was the 86-foot schooner Martha, built in 1906 for the commodore of San Francisco’s St. Francis YC. Martha plies the waters of San Juan county most of the year and serves as a sail-training platform run by Robert d’Arcy and the Martha Foundation.

On board Pegasus XIV, we were in the middle rating band with a PHRF rating of 60. Braveheart owed us 135 seconds a mile. The race takes place late in the year to increase the chances of good wind, something often lacking in the summer. Wind or not, strong currents happen year round and are always tricky. Combine that with sailing through passes, behind mountains, and next to sheer bluffs, with lots of lifts, headers, lulls, blasts, and kelp beds the size of houses, and you have some serious strategies to consider.

This was our first time to do this race. We moved to Washington three years ago and brought Pegasus up from the San Francisco Bay Area only a year ago. I designed and built “Peggy” from scratch with my own hands, launched her in 1992, and did a major redesign with re-launch in 2005. She was designed as an extreme ultralight and is made almost entirely from intermediate modulus‚ extra strong and stiff unidirectional carbon fiber and toughened resin. The boat is 36.9 feet long and weighs only 5100 pounds. It’s capable of extreme speeds and is optimized for downwind sailing. It has a fractional rig with masthead spinnakers on penalty poles. Our old crew and good friends, Dan and Carol Benjamin, traveled north from San Francisco Bay to race while the rest were local crew Mike Berman, Colum Tinley, and Erik Coburn.

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We awoke Saturday to a cold front, with snow down to the 1000-foot level. We motored to the starting line, where the wind was between 18 and 25 knots with a short, nasty chop. We prepared for a spinnaker start with a strong current trying to force boats over early. The rain was coming down hard, obscuring the mountains, but we could make out the first point of land leading us to ask, “Why the hell are we here?” An issue with a jib sheet made us late to the start, but once we got the spinnaker up we proceeded to blast through our fleet and were quickly past everyone.

Partway through the leg, a squall came through bringing more rain and some 30-knot blasts. We were sustaining moving at 16 knots for awhile, but then one blast hit and we rounded up and were down for the count. We lost the wind pointer off the masthead; otherwise, no biggie.

The squall passage brought lighter winds that also became more shifty as we passed in the lee of Orcas, Matia, and several other small islands, just as the sun came out. The sailing was gorgeous, as the snow-capped peaks were lit in glorious sunlight with crystalline skies overhead. The leg proved to be a horse race, without many passing lanes. But for the most part it was sunny and dry.

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Saturday night we stayed in some rustic cabins normally used for summer visitors, meaning we had the place almost entirely to ourselves. It was tight, but much more spacious and warm than camping inside Pegasus! It was certainly drier, too, but all of the hanging foul weather gear and clothing fogged the windows.

The second leg entailed a lot of hard beating against a strong current. We timed our approach well and, to our delight, pulled of a perfect start with no protests, full speed, and spot on the gun. Then we discovered there was a general recall, so we had to do it all over again! We were a bit later on this start, but still got a good spot with clear air and an inside lane anticipating a big left shift ahead. Racing in San Francisco Bay teaches you about dealing with current, so I elected to go “Play in the dirt” and we headed in as close as we could to the beach‚ and of course the kelp. We picked up a few large ropes of kelp and were forced to back down twice, which just kills you. But dragging 20-foot strands of bull kelp for 30 miles is worse. You really want to have a well calibrated depth sounder! Starboard tacks were done with one eye on the depth and, given the rocky shore, took us breathtakingly close to the rocks.

We finishing at about 3 p.m. as the leading edge of an approaching gale brought low clouds and more wind. We had raced hard and long, and, in the end, finished third in our division. Given the length of time spent against the current Sunday and the paucity of spinnaker time, I figured we were not going to do well, but Peggy worked her magic again and pulled out a podium finish even when we had the deck stacked against us.

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Martha showed all the kids how it is done, winning the whole thing. When it was announced that she had won first overall, the room went crazy with applause. She was well-sailed and had a brain trust that others could only envy. She wasn’t the fastest boat, but she might have been the smartest. While we were short-tacking Sunday, she slipped off toward Victoria, British Columbia, found a reverse current, and was swept southeast. The long power reaching in breeze Saturday didn’t hurt, either, given her waterline.

It was a great weekend, an extraordinarily challenging race, but the event’s not for everyone. If sitting around the pool after a race sipping Mai Tai’s is your thing, this isn’t for you. The wildness of the Pacific Northwest can be intense, beautiful, and frightening. We started our return delivery as a storm was passing. Believe me, you think twice when you cast off an ultralight boat with winds gusting past 35 knots into square waves! But as is typical, the wind began to moderate and soon the trip became pleasant and enjoyable. Returning to Port Townsend, our little Victorian town slid by in the evening all aglow, the ancient old brick facades and the clock tower lit up to welcome us home.

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