Friday, April 29, 2016

Wildcard Racing - Man Overboard!

A few weeks ago, we had a situation aboard Wildcard and heard the words that all sailors dread.

The Big Daddy is one of the regattas we look forward to every spring. Usually the weather is mild and the winds light, but if it’s a stormy year – like this El Nino year has sometimes been – we can be in for some rain, or some big winds. This year, we had both.

Before we made the 3-1/2 hour drive “over the hill” from Gardnerville to Point Richmond, we checked the forecast and saw that it was going to be windy and raining. In the past, we would be skeptical of the “weatherman,” but now there are good programs – Mark uses and we also like the MyRadar weather app. They are pretty darn accurate.

We were planning to sail the smaller J70 Prime Number in the Saturday buoy racing, and then sail Wildcard in the Sunday pursuit race.

Come Saturday morning, it was windy, it was raining, and with just Mark, Peter, and me, we were one crew member short. In light winds, that can be a very good thing, but in heavy winds it’s a disadvantage because you don’t have enough weight to “hold the boat down,” to keep it from heeling over too much. If it heels too much, the keel can’t do its job as well and the boat slides sideways, making its progress upwind to the mark slower and requiring more tacks. All the other boats you’re racing against are guaranteed to beat you.

 We watched small boats leaving the yacht club marina, wind whipping. Some of them came back in, and one entire class, the little Wylie Wabbits, canceled. I guess they didn’t want to do this all day …

 My confidence was low. Besides not being competitive, what if something happened? For some reason, I envisioned all hell breaking loose and Mark ending up in the water.

Here’s a video of a “crash” on a J70, and then a quick recovery, in San Francisco Bay. This isn’t that big a deal, but the boat is even harder to control with only three people.

As I was trying to scrub these thoughts from my brain, Mark said, “If I fell overboard I’d probably have a heart attack or something.”
That was enough. I said, “I just don’t have a good feeling about this. It’s not worth it.” And as our friend and Wildcard crew Mike said, “Live to sail another day.”

We called Peter, told him we were bailing, and made plans to drive to Santa Cruz for lunch. It’s a really long drive from Point Richmond, but Mark wanted to go there and see the legendary Santa Cruz 70 downwind “sled” Merlin. It was something to do.

As we drove back north from Santa Cruz through San Francisco, it was raining like hell, and windy. I looked on Facebook, and people were posting photos of the carnage – like this torn sail.

Photo: Mark Howe

There were plenty of mishaps like this one, called a round-up or broach, where the wind gusts, the boat is overpowered, and heads up into the wind, out of control.

A worse case scenario is a round-down, when the boat rocks back and forth and wipes out on the other side, with the mainsail flopping over and the spinnaker pole in the water.  The photo below is from the Internet; it’s a classic round-down, just beginning, before the boat spins and the mainsail, attached to the deadly boom, swings over, prompting everyone to call out, “HEEAADS!!”

Round-ups are pretty easy to recover from; round-downs, you usually have to take the spinnaker down. In either case, the boat is pretty much stopped dead in the water. Hopefully everyone hangs on.

We had lined up a crew of seven for Sunday including our “secret weapon,” a big guy named Bob Carlson who would help hold the boat down, making up for the fact that we were one or two people short.  We decided to race, no matter what.

We recruited a guy at RYC that night, and a few more in the morning, including Joe, our regular bowman, who was going to sail this big ultralight catamaran called Adrenaline but with the weather, there was no way they were going out and breaking the boat.

Suddenly we had eleven.

We did a few practice tacks before the start, and I noticed that the deck was crowded and it was impossible for everyone to cross over the cabin top at once. Wildcard is wide in the stern and narrow in the bow, with a big panel over the cabin covering the halyards. It’s slick and there isn’t anything to grab onto as you cross onto the new “high side.”.

With the boat heeling, it’s a tricky maneuver, especially when it’s wet. You don’t want to cross too soon, or too late.

After a tack, I saw Bob slide across to the low side and almost go overboard. The feeling of foreboding returned. But all I could say is, “Stay on the boat!” and hope for the best.

The race was underway, the slower boats starting first. Finally we started, and headed into Raccoon Strait first. In this race, boats sail around both Angel Island and Alcatraz, in either direction. We were going counter-clockwise hoping for a big downwind push to the finish. We won it that way last year, albeit on Prime Number – and in a lot less wind.

It was gnarly out there, lots of wind and big seas. We clawed our way upwind through the Raccoon Strait between Tiburon and Angel Island, tacking within a few feet of the rocky point. I didn’t like being so close! Then we steamed across the Bay to Alcatraz, turned left, and put up the spinnaker. It was blowing about 18 knots, we were doing about 9, and talking about a gybe when, to my horror, I again saw Bob slide across the deck in front of me, feet first and out of control. He slowed down a little when he got to the lifelines but went right under them. He was now hanging off the side of the boat.

Wait, can he hang on? No, we were going too fast. A split second, and he was bobbing in the water behind the boat, getting smaller.

Brian, on the winch trimming the kite with me, called out, “MAAAN OVERBOOAARD!”

In that moment, I recalled another time I was on a boat when several people – including me, for a minute or two – overboard. It was a harrowing experience that I won’t recount here. Everyone survived, and I learned an important lesson. What do you do first?

“We have to STOP THE BOAT!” I said. “Joe!” He was already there. “Halyard! Ready? Kite down!”

Mark was starting the engine, but keeping it in neutral. We’d had an issue with lines overboard a few weeks earlier at the Corinthian Midwinters, and the spinnaker sheet had got caught in the prop – luckily, Mark was able to reverse and unwind it but that was sheer luck. Yes, Bob was getting further away, but taking those few seconds to check and be sure that you’re ready for every maneuver is imperative. You don’t want to start making mistakes. Mistakes can cost lives.

Bob was holding up his hand, indicating that he was OK. I knew he would be fine – both he and Peter are avid whitewater river boarders, used to being in cold, fast water. We had a crew member, Jamie, assigned to spot him – to maintain the visual at all times. If you get too far away, you hold your arm out to mark the direction where you last saw the MOB.

Kite down, we came about and motored upwind to pick Bob up. As we approached, Peter started squawking, “Bob! Don’t swim away!” Apparently it looked to Bob like we were going to run him over!

The hardest part was getting Bob back onto the boat. Fortunately, Wildcard has an open transom but still, it took about five guys to haul him up. Brackets on the transom for the swim ladder were catching on his life jacket. Would the swim ladder have helped? Probably not much, in those conditions. It would have been mostly in the way.

When we finally had him back on the boat, sailing home downwind under mainsail only (running the engine in gear disqualified us from the racing) and everybody had cracked open a beer, Bob said that it really wasn’t that bad. The water was 20 degrees warmer than the American River water he’d been in the weekend before, and he floated high because he’d elected to wear his whitewater life jacket instead of his lighter sailing PFD. But he did acknowledge that a person who wasn’t used to being in the water, and who wasn’t wearing as much flotation and couldn’t get his head above the waves, could panic and aspirate water. And would be harder to see.

Here’s a video of river boarding – Bob designs and manufactures the Carlson River boards. He’s quite famous in the river rat world.

Any time something happens, there are lessons to be learned. We have already removed the swim step brackets, we have a floating throw rope for rescue, and we have a little clip-on step that might help a person get a knee up to get on board. We are thinking about ways to make the cabin top safer – handles or jacklines to hold onto.

And I have been thinking about this: one reason we were able to execute such a smooth rescue was because it happened when the boat was under control, and everyone was calm and in position. That’s not always the case. I wonder how many overboard situations occur when all hell is breaking loose, versus how many happen because of a bit of carelessness. Bob was just – let’s be honest – not paying enough attention. He thought we were gybing. We weren’t. We were having a discussion, but we didn’t make the call. Which is another point. Always make sure your crew is prepared for a maneuver, and  the call is clear – every time.

Before we even hit the dock, Bob was groaning, “I’ll never live this down.” He’s right; he won’t. Name jokes aside, these stories do live on forever. But never mind, because Bob’s been making the best of it. The story is in the April Latitude 38 magazine, and Bob is autographing copies!
Cheers, thanks for reading, and stay safe.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Death Valley-Blooms, Ballet, and Blues

Our visit during the Death Valley bloom in late February left me feeling that we had hardly even been there. In twenty-four hours, all we did was buzz the main roads.  We saw a lot of yellow flowers, but what about all the others, that were yet to bloom? What about all those trails that we didn’t walk on? The views we didn’t take in?

About a week after we got back from that trip, Mark learned that his Reno-based BMW motorcycle group was going to Death Valley in March, and we were thinking that we should join them. But soon, that trip was canceled because all of the campsites and hotel rooms in and near Death Valley were booked. Word had gotten out that Death Valley was the place to be.

A little research led me to realize that only one campground at Furnace Creek takes reservations; all the others are first-come. Besides, there are plenty of places to camp just outside the park, on public land or in RV parks. We wanted to take another trip.

I said, “Believe it or not, I vote for going back to Death Valley. Now there are more flowers blooming at the higher elevations. Different flowers.  We could take a few days this time.”

Mark: “Okay. But let’s get into that good campground this time.” The Texas Springs campground at Furnace Creek, very close to the one we were at last time, but a huge step up in atmosphere.
We left home on Monday morning – it was painful to leave my beautiful daffodils, but I knew they would still be gorgeous when we returned – and headed south on 395.

The weather prediction was for high winds in the Eastern Sierra, and boy, they were not kidding. The wind was sweeping the salt flats at Mono Lake high into the air, the lenticular clouds looked like stacked spaceships, and our little trailer, with Mark’s motorcycle inside, was doing the shimmy.

When we arrived in Lone Pine, I was still hoping to camp despite the wind, but Mark seemed to have his heart set on getting a motel room. This happens. He didn’t like the wind, which aggravated his allergies, and he wanted a shower. I sulked, I’m not going to lie, but I eventually cheered up when we decided to have dinner at the Merry-Go-Round, a cleverly converted Chinese and American restaurant with surprisingly good food – which to me means freshly cooked, crispy veggies and not a lot of gooey sauce.

The next morning we left early, the wind still whipping, which it would until the next day. Even when it wasn’t that windy, there was sand drifting onto the road. It reminded us of the sandstorms in the Middle East!

Our strategy was to arrive at Texas Springs at nine or so, and snag a campsite as people were leaving. it worked perfectly. Every space was spoken for again by early afternoon. I have to say, the neighbors at that campground were extremely friendly. More on that later.

We settled in, and I took a little local hike while Mark napped. Can you spot him, right in the middle of the photo?

The Texas Springs topography is pretty dazzling, for a campground.  You’re surrounded by geologic formations created by volcanic eruptions and seismic upheaval, followed by erosion. Death Valley wasn’t always dry – about 4,000 years ago, there was a wetter period.  Even now, torrential rains can change the landscape overnight, and the winds that sweep across the shifting sands of the valley floor and up through the peaks are a constant force – like a sandblaster.

We were there to see the flowers, but first there were two sights on the must-see list.  We took the motorcycle first to Zabriskie Point, just up the road from Furnace Creek and an easy walk out to the viewpoint … 

… and rode the 13-mile road spur up to Dante’s View, which was a bit chilly at 5,475’ above sea level coming, as we were, from –100’ at Furnace Creek.  Death Valley is a land of extremes.

Looking down into Death Valley takes your breath away.

On the ride back down, we realized that we were riding through another spectacular bloom, similar to the one we’d seen a few weeks back – only this one, a couple thousand feet higher.  Because we had the sun in our eyes on the way up, we really couldn’t appreciate the color. But on the way down, with the sun shining into the flowers, not our eyes – wow.  

After Dante’s View, Mark wanted to ride more so we continued on Hwy 190 toward Death Valley Junction.  It was getting to be lunchtime, and I kept trying to convey to Mark that DVJ is all but a ghost town, with zero chance of finding a cafĂ©, a market, or even a convenience store but on we went, until we had arrived.

Death Valley Junction doesn’t have any of those things mentioned above, but what it does have is an opera house, and a ballet performance season. Yep, you read right. Just as we arrived, the receptionist at the Amargosa Hotel – the only visible sign of human activity in town – was opening the Amargosa Opera House to a small tour group – $5 a head for a look inside. We bought in.

From the outside of the building, you could never imagine what is inside. Ballerina Marta Beckett arrived in the 1960s, passing by with her (future ex) husband, saw the theater, and decided to stay and dance ballet. Permanently.

Sometimes lacking an audience, she painted one, populating the walls with all of the characters of a medieval kingdom. The result is enchanting.  Marta retired from dancing a few years ago, at age 85, but now another ballerina, Jenna McClintock, who at age 6 saw Marta dance and was inspired to become a ballerina, has left life in the city to step into Marta’s shoes.

The story of Marta, Jenna, and their impact on Death Valley Junction is too rich and compelling to go into detail about here. It’s a story that, today, is alive with new energy, and new people with hopes and dreams for the town. Please take the time to read this wonderful write-up by Nevada Public Radio - Dancer in the Sands. Perhaps the next time Mark and I visit DVJ the restaurant will be open and we’ll  take in dinner and the ballet. Meanwhile, we settled for a couple of still-cool beers what we’d brought along.

That evening, back at Texas Springs, we had cocktail hour with our neighbors, with whom we’d discovered we had something in common – sailing.  They’re cruisers who’ve “swallowed the anchor” and are now living the RV life.
“I cried for a year,” the wife, Mary, admitted when I asked if it was a hard transition, husband Paul nodding confirmation. “But now I love it.”

After dark, at another campsite nearby, two men took up guitars and sang the blues as the full moon came up. It just doesn’t get any better.

Next day, we decided to make the Titus Canyon drive – Mary and Paul had said it was spectacular. Since it was a dirt road, we opted for the truck, not the motorcycle, and it was a good thing. The NPS web page about Titus Canyon says you can do this drive in 2-3 hours, but I can’t imagine doing it in less than 3 hours. We had perfect weather and, yes, we did keep stopping to take photos. But we could have stopped much more; there are several hikes that sound tempting. It’s a rugged 27-mile drive, mostly one-way, over two passes and through two canyons.

We retraced our last month’s drive on the Beatty Cutoff to get to the Titus Canyon turnoff, just before Rhyolite, which can be seen in the distance as you approach. I was thrilled at the many displays of blooms on the Beavertail cactus, also known as Prickly Pear.

After a few miles of driving across the flat, dusty plateau, we came to Titanothere Canyon, named after a huge rhino-like fossil found there in 1933. I kept commanding Mark to “STOP!” so that I could jump out with my camera and take pictures of Desert Paintbrush framing the ruddy mountains in the background. I was thinking all flowers, but as we rose higher and higher toward Red Pass, I began to realize what a treat we were in for.This drive is truly spectacular, just for the mountains alone, and the flowers were the icing – and decoration – on the cake.


As we crested 5,250’ Red Pass, it was a little scary to look down at where we’d just been.

We descended into Leadfield and stopped for lunch. This ghost town is one of those “boom-and-bust” stories that makes you wonder – how could people think this was a promising place? Supremely isolated, almost impossible to get to without 4-wheel drive – did they have that in 1926-27? – 300 people came there to mine a lead deposit which turned out to be a dud.

They left behind some very picturesque buildings, including the one we lunched at. You can explore the shacks and the mines – although the latter comes with some risk – but we were satisfied with the view from afar. Something tells me we’ll be back through there again some day.

At last, we entered Titus Canyon – which becomes so narrow, I nicknamed it “Tightass Canyon” – down, down, down we went, past the spring and the petroglyphs, as the road closed in until we wondered if our truck would make it through.

We’d been in a similarly narrow canyon, or wadi, in Oman, and we recalled that day, when the walls rose up vertically around us, so high we couldn’t see the top. It also reminded me of the narrow siq you walk through to enter the mystical, magical city of Petra, in Jordan.

About three miles from the end, there’s a parking lot and the road becomes two-way. We knew we were getting close when we began to see people with cameras and day packs walking along the road. If you don’t have half a day to invest, this would be a good option for getting to see at least a portion of this part of Death Valley National Park.

We emerged at about 2:00 p.m. and it was another half hour to our campground We were tired and dusty. There is a beautiful pool at Furnace Creek Ranch, which is available to campers for just $5 and includes use of the shower, but there were two problems with that, for me. First I’d forgotten my bathing suit (IDIOT! NEVER AGAIN!!) and second, there was a line for the two showers. So we deployed our outdoor shower enclosure, and treated ourselves to our own hot shower. What HEAVEN!

Then, a little motorcycle ride over to the Furnace Creek Inn, for happy hour. I had a house special Prickly Pear Margarita, and it was one of the tastiest margaritas I’ve had outside Mexico.

The ride back to camp was just perfection – warm and soft like a cozy sweater, and golden. If we hadn’t had a cocktail, we would have ridden longer.

Back at the campground, I went over to tell our neighbors, the musicians, how much I’d enjoyed their music. Come to find out, yes, they were professionals. “Do you ever watch Ice Road Truckers? Deadliest Catch? That’s my music.” We were listening to composer Bruce Hanifan.

After dinner, we found ourselves gathered around their campfire while they once again played and sang under the full moon. As the night drew to a close, we sang an improvised “Death Valley Blues” which (as I vaguely remember) I ended with a verse about the “Titus Canyon Blues.” Something about mountains so high, and canyons so deep, we might not get out alive. But I gotta get back there somedayeeeeeee …

The talent agents have not called yet.
And, there is one last photo, below. For some reason, Blogger won't move it up no matter what I do.
Google is in control.