Saturday, January 30, 2016

Joy of Sailing

Last summer, Wildcard went back into the water after some rather extensive retrofitting, including structural strengthening of the keel box that allows the keel to lift for trailering, and a new, more efficient rudder (both designed by Rodger Martin.)

The carbon and fiberglass work was done by Tom Omohundro and crew at Solution Marine in Minden, Nevada. This was very handy because it’s only a few miles from our house, and Mark could be involved in every step. Plus, he became great friends with Tom and now he goes to hang out at “work” for a few hours every day, making little carbon doodads.

The refit took several months, after which Wildcard spent a couple of weeks getting new bottom paint at Bay Marine in Richmond, CA before finally splashing and returning to our old slip on C dock at Richmond Yacht Club. It was a long but important process, because we wanted to fix all potential problems before venturing out ocean racing.

We tuned up with a couple of club races, and our debut was the Jazz Cup over Labor Day weekend, a mostly downwind race that starts in San Francisco Bay near Treasure Island and, after a very short upwind leg, turns northward for a (usually) downwind run through San Pablo Bay, under Carquinez Bridge and into Carquinez Strait (gateway to the Delta,) finishing in front of the city of Benicia.

We sailed a good race despite a critical error at the beginning (we hoisted our “Big Red” spinnaker on the short hoist halyard), and took first in division and third overall. Part of the reason we did well was that, with the help of our guest tactician Jeff Thorpe, and regular tactician Peter Cameron, we managed to stay in the “good water” – aka shallower, with less current moving against us –  and off of the mud – unlike some of the other boats.

Unfortunately, San Francisco Bay is silting in. What used to be a shallow spot off of Pinole is quickly becoming a mud flat, and dredges are a common sight in the channels and marinas around the bay. Boat always go in into the shallow area trying to get out of the current and the ones with deeper keels get stuck. The boat on the left is trying everything to heel the boat over while moving forward into deeper water. They did get off, eventually.

In November, the midwinter series began. If we wanted to, between the J70 Prime Number and Wildcard, we could sail pretty much every weekend, both days. But then we would never get to be home in Nevada, and my bruises would never get a chance to heal. So we’re focusing on two series: the Manuel Fagundes Seaweed Soup Regatta, held the first Saturday of the month November through March at Golden Gate Yacht Club in San Francisco, and a two-weekend event in January and February at Corinthian Yacht Club in Tiburon.

Getting the crew together has been both a challenge and a joy. At first, after having been gone for four years, I was worried about whether we could find enough crew – and it is hard, getting eight or nine people and putting them into jobs on the boat. It seemed like we were always short handed for those first races. Mark isn’t great at reaching out, so it fell to me to think of people to contact. After scouting around our yacht club without much luck finding regular crew, I decided to contact some of my old “boyfriends” – the crew I used to sail with back in the day, before I met Mark.

Back in the 1980’s and ‘90’s, my friend Lori and I sailed with crews that was mostly if not entirely male, in our 30’s to early 40’s, and mostly if not entirely single. Back in those days the racing was close, and the regattas and the parties, as I remember them, were bigger, and man, I looked forward to those weekends on and off the water. Those were some good times, and those guys were my best friends. The times we had.

Now, some 20 years on, we are all married. All the guys married women who don’t sail, and their chances to go sailing have diminished. So, I thought, why not see if any of the old crew can come out and sail on Wildcard with us? So I asked a few who are still living in the area. They said yes!

And suddenly, here we are, sailing together again! We joke about getting old, we joke about how much we used to party, and we can still sail together like it’s been no time at all.

Which brings us to the first weekend of the Corinthian Midwinters, in January. The weather prediction was rainy with no wind, then some wind, maybe a lot of wind, and then back to no wind. We drove “over the hill” from Gardnerville to the boat at Richmond Yacht Club on Thursday, so we could get everything ready and deliver the boat to Corinthian on Friday and get a good space at the dock. We’ve gotten pretty good at sleeping on the boat, so we planned to stay for the weekend – but we booked a hotel for Saturday night because it’s no fun to sleep in the boat when everything is wet.

What a glorious one-hour cruise from Point Richmond to Tiburon! The sun was out, the sky was crystal blue …

… the herring were running in the bay, and birds were everywhere.

We went for a walk and came across this artist who was just packing up for the day. For a second, I thought we were in Europe! I was impressed with his painting of the San Francisco Yacht Club harbor. His name is Shpend and you can find him on Etsy at de Santis Fine Art.

The next day, Saturday, dawned gloomy as predicted. The race committee chose a long course – a “Bay Tour” that would take us to a mark off of Fort Point at the south tower of the Golden Gate Bridge called Blackaller, then along the city front and around Alcatraz to a mark, then around a second mark, and back up toward Sausalito, around a mark in a notoriously windy place called Yellow Bluff, and finally back to the start/finish line at the entrance to Raccoon Strait, between Tiburon and Angel Island.

After a promising first leg, the wind went wacky. It was coming from the west, then no, the south, then no, east, wait, north, and all in pockets with spaces of nothing in between. We were sailing toward a the mark which was  just beyond Alcatraz, while other boats in our division were heading to Pier 39, and still others looked like they were trying to sail to the South Bay. Smaller, slower boats were coming up from behind with wind and catching us. The wind would die, and come up from another direction. We dropped our spinnaker, put up the jib, then switched sails again.

Sailboat racing in no wind can be amazing, interesting, fascinating and beautiful. We cracked open some beers and watched the entire fleet, with colorful spinnakers, converge on the third mark behind us. Boats of all sizes, somehow, ended up arriving at the same time.

There we were, too, trying to keep the boat moving, get around the mark, and get away.

An hour or so earlier, we had seen an orange pilot boat heading out toward the Golden Gate Bridge, so it was no surprise when we saw the bow of a huge ship on its way toward us. It was hugging the north side – our side, the side where all the racers were. That meant that it was headed for Richmond or beyond, not Oakland. The entire fleet was scattered in the shipping channel – in the ship’s path – except us. We were off to the left, south of where the ship would pass.

Usually boats under sail have right of way over boats under power, but according to maritime law, commercial traffic has the right of way over all other traffic. There have been several instances, over the years, of racers getting into trouble for sailing too close to ships. When a ship captain sees that there is traffic in his path, he issues five or more blasts as a warning that he doesn’t understand its intentions or that there is danger. In other words, “get out of my way.” These huge ships are not maneuverable; they turn slowly and take miles to come to a stop.

We waited for the blasts, but … silence. It was eerie There was very little wind – although the boats over there had more wind than we did – and we didn’t see how they could all get out of the way. But somehow, miraculously, this huge ship just passed through the entire fleet without incident and without a single blast.

Later, we heard that one of the skippers hailed the ship by radio and said, “Captain, what are your intentions?”

“I intend to hold my course.” He saw a narrow path as the sea of boats parted, and instead of carving a left turn, as he usually would, he waited until all the boats were clear. Nice.

Our advantage of being well above the ship evaporated as the wind coming through the Gate died, and a different wind came up from the north – to the advantage of the bulk of the fleet below us. We were stuck in the doldrums between the two. The 4:30 time limit was approaching and we had no chance of making it to the finish, even though they had moved it to the mark at Yellow Bluff. Sadly, we started the engine. At least we could be one of the first back to the dock – and the free beer.

And that’s the joy of sailing.

The ship cuts through the fleet, with Angel Island in the background

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