Slow Track to Ha­vana

Off­shore rac­ing is all about the highs and lows

SAIL - - Racing Under Sail - By Peter Nielsen

We called it quits at mid­night, about 20 miles north of the Dry Tor­tu­gas. For Russ Hoadley, owner of the Catalina 425 Blue Heron, and his crew, the first St. Peters­burgHa­bana race in 58 years was over. Since late af­ter­noon we’d been inch­ing down the Florida coast in what was usu­ally more or less the right di­rec­tion, south, but some­times north, east or west, depend­ing on the whims of the fickle zephyrs that whis­pered coyly and then melted away with­out so much as a teas­ing sigh to fill our sails. Kite up, kite down: genoa down, reacher up. And vice-versa. So it went. Around us, the lights of some of the other 70-odd boats in the 284-mile race, which had started the day be­fore on Fe­bru­ary 28, glowed red, green or white. Ev­ery so of­ten, word of yet an­other boat re­tir­ing came through the VHF in a burst of static.

It was not the lack of wind that forced Hoadley’s hand, though; it was the prom­ise of too much of it, from the wrong di­rec­tion. The weather router who had coun­selled stay­ing in­shore to fetch a bet­ter breeze on the leg down the Florida coast had also warned of the ar­rival in the early hours of Fri­day of a fast-mov­ing front that would whip the Florida Straits into a wind-against-cur­rent frenzy. Hoadley, hav­ing sam­pled the nar­row en­trance en­trance to Ma­rina Hem­ing­way once be­fore, was not keen to risk be­ing caught there with breakers set­ting across the chan­nel and a hun­gry reef lick­ing its lips to lee­ward.

Had we been cruis­ing, the choice would have been clear; when you’re rac­ing, not so much. The ex­pe­ri­enced crew, com­pris­ing Rick Jas­trem­ski, Bob Hoadley, Comp­ton Wil­liams, Gerry Dou­glas (the boat’s de­signer) and yours truly, was cer­tainly not averse to a bit of the rough stuff, but the thought of ar­riv­ing off Hem­ing­way in 30-plus knots of wind, pos­si­bly in the mid­dle of

a moon­less night, didn’t ex­actly fill us with joy. Be­ing at sea in a heavy blow is one thing; try­ing to make land­fall in one, quite an­other.

So that was that, and it was en­gine on for the next 17 hours as we slogged across a largely wind­less Florida Straits, pass­ing a few boats in the rac­ing class whose light­weight lam­i­nated sails did a far bet­ter job of catch­ing what lit­tle wind there was. As dusk fell on Thurs­day evening we mo­tored through the cut into Ma­rina Hem­ing­way, where we were treated to some easy­go­ing in­spec­tions from a suc­ces­sion of smil­ing, jok­ing po­lice of­fi­cers and im­mi­gra­tion and cus­toms of­fi­cials be­fore im­mers­ing our­selves in the so­laces of the long-dis­tance sailor; rum drinks, beer and food, firm ground un­der our feet and a hot shower.

At least we’d had a com­fort­able ride, with ex­cel­lent food, a cock­tail now and again, and cold beer in the hottest part of the day; it was a dif­fer­ent story for most of the crews in the spin­naker A and B classes, who to­gether formed most of the fin­ish­ers in the race. Mul­ti­hull star Lloyd Thorn­burg, for­sak­ing his record-break­ing MOD 70 tri­maran Phaedo3 for a Car­keek 40 called Fomo, edged out Dou­glas Fisher’s TP52, Con­vic­tion, in a strug­gle that went right down to the wire.

In the PHRF classes, most boats scored re­sound­ing DNFs: of the four fin­ish­ers in our 12-boat Cruis­ing A di­vi­sion, the Oys­ter 745 Gray­cious and the 84ft Fr­ers maxi Metolius dis­ap­peared from view on the first af­ter­noon, their tow­er­ing rigs cap­tur­ing enough of the breeze to pro­pel them to­ward and across the strait be­fore the wind died away. As to what two maxis and the 122ft top­sail schooner Lynx were do­ing in a class loaded with 40- to 50-foot cruis­ers, that’d make an ex­cel­lent ques­tion for the hand­i­cap­pers.

And the pre­dicted front? It was build­ing up by Satur­day, a full 24 hours later than pre­dicted, hav­ing ob­vi­ously daw­dled about on its pas­sage down the Florida coast. By Sun­day it had strength­ened enough that most boats were forced to stay in Hem­ing­way a cou­ple of days longer than ex­pected, and it was still blow­ing hard when Blue Heron left to head home to Tampa the fol­low­ing Wed­nes­day. With the wind on the beam the boat fairly rock­eted across the strait, a taste of what we should have ex­pe­ri­enced go­ing the other way. And just maybe, a taste of what to ex­pect next year… s

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