Winning the End Game, Losing the War, Enjoying the Race

The Swan 45s Plenty and DSK Comifin slugged it out in a 300-mile matchrace to Bermuda

1800 Hours, Friday, June 23--Back in the SW OfficesThe Swan 45 Plenty crossed the finish line of the Centennial Bermuda Race at 8:18 p.m, EDT on Tuesday, June 20th. Our sistership, DSK Comifin, crossed the line four-and-a-half minutes later. Packed into those two sentences are three solid days of open-ocean matchracing in light-air conditions. The other Swan 45s in our class took the east side of the racecourse, Plenty and DSK, the west. Even as early as Saturday afternoon it was obvious the west was paying. We had better breeze on the west side, fewer holes, and even when the wind was down to less than a knot, we had current carrying us to the mark. And there, on the horizon day and night, was Andrea Casale and his team on DSK. In the early part of the race, Casale was ahead, but on the same line as us. During one patchy day of trying to keep the boat moving through the windless bits, we managed to get ahead, but never enough to put a lock on it. Early Tuesday morning, with 88 miles to go, and Bermuda dead upwind, DSK took it up a notch and began to seriously threaten. The watch system was cancelled and everyone spent the rest of the race on the rail. Our tactician, Paul "Whirley" Van Dyke, did his best to stay between DSK and the mark and was mostly successful, but by late afternoon, with 40 miles to go (at a VMG of three knots. Ouch.), a windshift put DSK in a perfect spot to pass us. A cloud went over the two of us, and brought breeze with it. Instead of consolidating, DSK tacked away. It was the last mistake they would make, but it was the one that would decide the race for them. Still ahead, we stayed on top of DSK through an hour-long tacking duel 15 miles shy of the finish. The Plenty crew, pumped on adrenaline despite the long, hot day on the rail snapped through tack after tack, and after a while it became obvious we were tacking more crisply, and started to draw away. Then, an amazing sight; DSK's helmsman began using the only option left in his tactical bag of tricks, pinching and scalloping upwind to try and achieve some leverage to our right. As we watched he began to climb the ladder, but at a great cost in fore-and-aft distance. To some degree his plan worked. He was showing his crew that he hadn't given up yet, was unwilling to placidly follow us into the line, and hey, you never know, we could have had a screwup. By the time we were within a mile or so of the finish line, it was dark, and we lost track of DSK. It was starting to get very crowded as bigger boats like the Farr 60 Hissar, which had gone east, came blasting toward the line. A couple hundred yards shy of the line Hissar passed us, and everyone on deck thought that DSK had pulled it out at the last minute. As we crossed the line, there was silence on deck. All the work, all the worry, had gone for naught. One of the things I like about being the navigator is being the first to know about things. As the crew on deck thought they were being passed, I was down below working the plot for the finish line. I stayed below after we crossed to make sure we actually had, and was listening to VHF 72 when DSK crossed the line 4 minutes and 19 seconds behind us. After a few more minutes I realized that it was awfully quiet on deck, not the usual cacophony one associates with the finish of a 635-mile distance race. I said. "You guys know DSK crossed after us, don't you?" The final two words of my sentence were drowned out by a guttural roar of relieved happiness from the rest of the crew. It wasn't a noise like "yay," or "yippee," or "woohoo," or, for that fact, even remotely human. It was more like a noise made by a grizzly bear who's chased a pack of wolves away from its cub. Because we knew the position of every other yacht in the fleet, we knew we were doing very well overall. If the wind got light and the little boats couldn't save their time, we'd win our class, and perhaps even more. Of course, none of us mentioned this last bit out loud, at least until we got to the Royal Bermuda YC.One of the true joys of doing well in the Bermuda Race on a smaller boat is arriving at the RBYC and seeing nothing but larger boats. Plenty crossed the line 19th, boat-for-boat, and had beaten every boat we saw at the club when we arrived two hours after finishing: the Andrews 75 Alchemy, 66-foot line honors-winner Bella Mente, the 83-foot Hercules, a couple of TP-52s, two Swan 601s, even the 75-foot Titan XII. More importantly, we were the top Swan 45 out of seven entries, which included the 2004 race's overall winner, Alliance.When we got to the club it got even better; the guys off the larger boats congratulated us, some of them even whispering we may have won the whole thing. I'll admit that after a few beers, I bought into this for a while, too. Why not? So I sucked up the congratulations and the beers, and went to bed a happy man.Mornings are all about reality, good or bad. Our reality was that the smaller boats-as often happens in any distance race-came in with breeze during the early morning hours. We dropped to third, than fourth, than fifth in class in ORR. We managed to stay on the podium in IRC, scoring third in class. The winners in our St. David's Lighthouse division, were Peter Rebovich's Cal 40 Sinn Fein in ORR, and William Hubbard's Lively Lady, a Carter 37, in IRC. Both boats are over 25 years old. Their crews did an outstanding job of keeping their boats rolling and picking the correct side of the course. We never put on foul-weather gear and never saw windspeeds over 14 knots. The Gulf Stream, and every other piece of ocean we sailed through, was flat as a millpond. In those regards, it was an easy race. But it was a long and emotionally draining race. Personally speaking, it took me two days after the race before I could string words together into coherent sentences. I now know there's such a thing as an adrenaline hangover, because I suffered through it. As far as I can tell, the only thing that came close to curing that hangover were generous doses of cold beer, fresh food, and sleep.We've got a little under two years to go before the next Bermuda Race. That will be No. 10 for me, and I plan on doing them as long as I'm able. Ask anyone who's done one and they'll tell you why we keep making the trek to the Bermuda Islands. It's that one morning, or evening, where everything is perfect: A sky full of stars, a moonrise over a silent sea; the flash of sapphire blue when you see the sun through a wavetop, the unfathomable deep blue of the Gulf Stream; A keel bulb streaking through phosphorescent plankton, leaving a trail of watery fire. The deep, late-night conversations, the early morning spent giggling uncontrollably at someone's funny story, the hard handshakes at the finish line, the welcoming hug from a loved one on the dock. I'll be back, and so will everyone else who's ever done this wonderful race.0900 Hours, Tuesday, June 20th--Onboard the Swan 45 Plenty When there's no wind and a flat sea, the middle of the ocean is silent. The bow of the boat makes no sound cutting through the water until boatspeed reaches three knots, and then it's a faint burbling noise. Quite a happy noise, too, when you haven't heard it for a while. The point, as you've probably figured out,is that we've spent a fair amount of time in this race struggling in light air. It's pointless to get lazy, angry, or frustated, you just have to keep the bus rolling, put crew weight in the right place, trim the sails, and grit your teeth. It's 9 am Tuesday. At two this afternoon we will have been racing for 96 hours. We've got around 50 miles to go to Kitchen Shoal, which is about five miles from the finish line off St. David's Lighthouse. Finishing the Newport Bermuda Race isn't a simple matter of crossing a line. First, there are the reefs. "Reefs surround Bermuda, extending as far as 12 miles from the visible land, and are virtually unmarked by navigational aids at their extremeties," states Reed's Newport Bermuda Race Almanac. "The outer sea buoys may not be reliable . . ." Then there's the finish line. It's marked by St. David's Lighthouse, which is on land and inside a reef. The race committee places two small buoys to mark the line, which is actually a compass bearing off the lighthouse. The race instructions suggest that finishers carry on as far as half a mile to make sure they've actually crossed to the satisfaction of the committee members who man the lighthouse and take down times. Once racers have crossed the finish, they're not really done. To keep boats and crews from coming to harm on reefs extending out from he shore, finishers must head east and clear the offshore end of the line before heading towards Hamilton and the Royal Bermuda YC. Boats that fail to do so are penalized two hours. Podium spots have been lost, especially by boats that finish at night and miss the hard to spot finish line buoys. If a boat has done well, it will likely be inspected by race committee members who either board, or motor alongside and ask to see items of safety gear. Then there's the hour-and-a-half ride to Hamilton inside the reefs via the ship channels. Dotted with coral heads, shallow water, and other hazards to navigation, the route is difficult enough that the rae commitee suggests that boats that finish at night either wait offshore until daylight, or enter nearby St. George's Harbour and anchor. Wise navigators know that their job isn't over 'til the boat's tied up at the dock and they're standing at the outside bar at the yacht club (open 24 hours a day during Bermuda Race time) and quaffing their first beverage. The challenges of the weather, Gulf Stream, other competitors, and the finish make the Bermuda Race a challenge, but there are few places so worth getting to. We've got breeze now, but still have a long way to go. I'm going to sign off for now and help get Plenty to the RBYC. I'll check back in once we're done. Until then, check out www.bermudarace.com for positions and results. 1500 Hours, Monday, June 19th--Onboard the Swan 45 Plenty There is so very little wind at 34 degrees, 17 minutes North, 66 degrees, 50 minutes West, that the crew of Plenty has told every joke, listed every favorite movie, and told every tall tale. We're following that most basic of light-air tactics: point the boat at the mark and hope for the best. According to the 1020 position report, we're doing OK in class and fleet, but in these conditions that doesn't mean a lot. Our nightmare scenario is that we and the other boats closest to Bermuda (we're 156 miles off Kitchen Shoals as of 3 pm) will be caught by all the slower boats in the fleet when they come roaring down on us in a fresh breeze. It's happened before in this race,and it will happen again. All we can do is sit and sweat, and hope that everyone else is dealing with the same conditions. Probably not the most charitable hope, but light-air misery loves company. The thought of someone romping down the lines of latitude towards Bermuda, a jaunty grin on their wind-blown face, makes us cringe. A couple of us on Plenty sailed together on a Swan 68 in the 1998 Bermuda Race, which was light from the start off Newport all the way to the finish line. It took us five-and-a-half days to reach Bermuda, but the air conditioning kept the interior of the boat ice cold. So cold, in fact, that we had to use blankets to keep the chill off as we slept in our cabins. There's no air conditioning on Plenty, and no private cabins. Just ten sweaty guys trying to stay hydrated and elbowing each other out of the way in the race for the shady parts of the deck. The forecast is calling for more light air the rest of today, and perhaps some light south to southeast pressure tonight. We've got our fingers crossed. When there's more than not much to write about, you'll hear from us.Until then, I'm going to dig my way into the bottom of the icebox and have a nap. 1430 Hours, Sunday, June 18th--Onboard the Swan 45 Plenty Distance racing is all about patience and pace, both of which have been requirements for the crew of Plenty these past hours. As predicted by both Commander's Weather and Dane Clarke, we've been dealing with a massive high-pressure system draped over our area of the racecourse. As you may have seen on the Bermuda Race tracking site (www.bermudarace.com), our play has been to head west of the rhumbline to take advantage of breeze and the western side of a cold eddy south of the Gulf Stream. We knew from the outset that Sunday would be the lightest day of our race, so it was no real surprise when the sun came up this morning and the wind didn't. It was a painful night of light-air sailing that took us well west of our desired course in search of breeze, but the morning was even more brutal. Not a breath of air, and a Gulf Steam which was sending us in the direction of the Canadian Maritimes. Some days it's just not worth getting out of your bunk. Until a couple of hours ago (it's 2:30 EDT as I write this), we were at the mercy of the few zephyrs that appeared on the glassy waters. Teased, tantalized,and taunted by wind that would approach slowly and depart quickly, we soldiered on, 60 to 100 degrees high of our desired course. After the 8 o'clock weather report, I headed for my bunk and had navigator nightmares (daymares?). Angry crew members chased me around the boat in these vicious dreams, demanding to know why I'd led them down this windless, current-addled path to Bermuda. I finally woke up an hour or so later, looking through slitted eyes to see if I was surrounded by Plenty crew with revenge in mind. Nope. I was safe, but questions about our (which were suddenly mine, and mine alone) navigational calls. After a coffee and a 10-pound breakfast burrito, I went on deck to sit with the on watch. Nat Spencer, our boat captain, noticed some huge patches of Sargasso weed to the south and west of our position. Ripples, little eddies, and differences in wave conditions on the other side of the line of Sargasso indicated this could finally part of the favorable current we'd been crawling toward for hours. As we crawled toward the line of Sargasso we talked about catching Mahi-Mahi, which we knew would be lurking in the shade of the yellow weed. Spencer, son of a commercial fisherman, whose spent time offshore on deep-sea fishing vessels, descibed how longliners catch the Mahi, and we all wished we had a couple of handlines to do the same. As we got closer it became obvious that wherever the current was going, we were going to be pulled along with it. I went below to check how our current drift and set numbers would look, and to look for a place to hide. As soon as I sat down, I knew we were finally getting a push. The wind was still light, but we were finally cogging down the track toward Bermuda. The next thing to worry about was the position report. As of Saturday's 1620 report, we were looking OK vis-a-vis our class. As of today's we were still looking good, but Andrea Casale's team of Italian sailors aboard sistership DSKK Comifin was 10 miles ahead on the same course. We were both looking fvery good against the flock of Swans whose navigators had chosen to go East and sail 65 extra miles to hit a meander in the Stream between latitudes 65 and 68. We wanted the west for breeze, and to hit the cold eddy,which promised higher current speeds and required us to sail fewer miles. So far, it's worked, even though we missed the west side of the cold eddy, but its required a lot of faith from my skipper and the rest of the team on Plenty. We're 303 miles from Northeast Breakers, a mark on the North side of Bermuda, and happy where we are tactically. We just spotted DK Comifin, and have them in our sights. The rumour is that they have no Code Zero, and that's the sail we've been using to advantage in the light breeze. Now all we have to do is reel them in. 1630 Hours, Saturday June 17th--Onboard the Swan 45 Plenty As in past years, the St. George's School (Newport, R.I.) sail training vessel Geronimo is shadowing and serving as a communication nexus for the Newport Bermuda fleet. Two radio officers monitor VHF channel 16 and SSB channel 4125, ready to provide assistance if needed. This year, new technology has made their job easier, or at least that was the plan. Every entry in the race is fitted with a transponder which emits position signals to a satellite, then to the race committee, and then to a website which was supposed to list every boat's position and place in the fleet.In years before, the radio officer's most time-consuming task was to take a roll call of the fleet every morning at 0800. That took a while, but it was a good way omake sure every entry was accounted for. It was also a great way for navigators to see how the rest of their class was doing and what they were thinking. Modern technology can be a two-edged sword. It's great for our families and friends to follow our progress down the 635-mile route to the islands of Bermuda (yes, the islands. Bermuda is not one single island, but many islands that make up the nation of Bermuda). But the transponders have replaced the 0800 roll call, and those of us without total web access are as much in the dark about the whereabouts of our competitions as the original competitors were 100 years ago. There's another problem. As of early saturday morning, the server hosting the position reports suffered a catastrophic meltdown, due to the large numer of friends and family members seeking information on their loved ones' whereabouts. According to Stephen Thing, one of the radio officers aboard Geronimo, the website is being loaded onto a more capable server and may be available late saturday afternoon. That's good news for our friends, families, and those in the race who have Internet access, but more of the same for those of us without. To be fair, the roll call isn't about performance assesment, it's about safety. Still, I miss listening to the boats call in, plotting their positions, and getting a rough idea about how well we are (or aren't) doing. I hope the race committee decides to use a belt-and-suspenders approach for the rest of this year's race and reinstate the roll call as well as the website. That will give those of us who have been doing this race long enough to remember what it was like to navigate this race wth sextant and Radio Direction Finder a chance to say good-bye to another outmoded, but quaint, tradition. My apologies to Steven Thing and his fellow radio officer if they have to do a 265-boat roll call for the next few days, but my thanks as well. As of 5 this saturday afternoon, Plenty is 427 miles off Bermuda's Kitchen Shoals. We're into the main body of the Gulfstream, and its gorgeous out here; sunny and warm with a decent breeze. We're flying an assymetric spinnaker and are ticking off the miles. We have no idea how we're doing, but we're sure having fun doing it. 0915 Hours, Saturday, June 17--Onboard the Swan 45 Plenty It's about 9:15 saturday morning and the Swan 45 Plenty is cogging 184 degrees magnetic about 155 miles south of the starting line of the Newport Bermuda Race. We're tight reaching our way towards the Gulf Stream in stellar conditions; 13 knots of wind, relatively benign sea conditions, and a cloudless sky. We're making a little over 9 knots over the bottom, so life is good. Bermuda is 491 miles away as the crow flies, but we've got some wiggling to do before we can head straight there.We've got to deal with the main body of the Stream and a monster cold eddy just south of it. If we hit both features in the right spot, we'll be laughing. The ten-man crew of Plenty, led by skipper/owner Alex Roepers, have begun settling into the routine of standing watches, sleeping, and eating, eating, eating. Our mastman/chef, Alex Turner, has outdone himself again this year.We feasted on huge chicken burritos last night, and had hot breakfast sandwiches this morning. Food and sleep are important on this race, and having someone like Turner aboard is essential. He spent two days in Newport before the start making meals and provisioning the boat with essentials such as Red Bull, chocolate-covered espresso beans, and candy bars. Let's hope ISAF never prohibits performance-enhancing goodies like caffeine and sugar for ocean racers. Sad news for the crew of the TP 52 Decision (ex-Rosebud, 2004 Bermuda Race winner), at 2:50 this morning they withdrew from the race after hitting a submerged object. Everyone on board is OK, but they're headed for Newport under power. This navigator has to get back to plotting, so we'll sign offfor now. Keep checking www.sailingworld.com for more reports from Plenty, and Stuart Streuli aboard Pindar Alphagraphics.