In praise of multi-leg. costal racing

by Sven Donaldson


Often perceived as occupying a lower tier on the sailing hierarchy than either trans-oceanic racing or round-the-buoys events, a good port-to-port race can be absolutely top drawer when it comes to the most important criterion of all: participant enjoyment. The best of these events delivers a brilliant combination of tough racing challenges, off-beat travel and the special friendships forged through sharing an exceptional experience.

My first exposure to this sort of racing was an event called the Dalmatia Cup back in 1984 – years before Yugoslavia disintegrated into bloody chaos. That spring, Croatia’s spectacular Dalmatian coast formed a magical backdrop as four-member teams from 13 nations raced from each historic town to the next aboard well-equalized, 28-foot Maxi 84 cruising keelboats from a local charter fleet. The racing itself was close and intense with conditions ranging from drifters to full-blown boras, but even more memorable was the experience of being welcomed by brass bands and throngs of happy school children in one picturesque Adriatic community after another. The inevitable shots of 80-proof sljivovica served up each morning during the 0830 pre-start meetings were rather memorable as well; but that’s another matter.

In any case, I took part recently in another serial port-to-port event: the third running of the Cadillac Van Isle 360 race. This is a two-week, 580-mile circumnavigation of British Columbia’s rugged Vancouver Island, broken down into 10 legs that range in length from 22 to 138 miles. Although still in its infancy (relative to the established classics of ocean racing), this unique race appears well on the way to becoming a highlight of the West Coast sailing scene. For the first time this year, the fledgling event received extensive day-by-day coverage in local and regional newspapers, a significant amount of local TV coverage and better than half a million website hits. One entry, a 31-foot trimaran, capsized off a remote section of the outer coast, and the subsequent rescue of her crew made the front pages for several days – obviously not the sort of publicity that race organizers would have preferred but publicity nonetheless.

No question, it simply takes time plus plenty of hard work to establish a new racing event, almost irrespective of its innate appeal. To gain a better sense of where the Van Isle might be in another decade or so, the second portion of this column profiles another off-beat multi-stage race. The 19th edition of the Worrell 1000 saw a 29-boat fleet of one-design beach catamarans cover a 1,000-mile course from Miami Beach, Fla. to Virginia Beach, Va., stopping at 12 checkpoint cities along the way. Already billed as an extreme challenge back in the 70s, long before the phrase had entered the common language, this year’s Worrell turned out to be another brutal one due to strong onshore winds and big surf in the early going. On the other hand, as the accom?anying photos show, it made for outstanding press; indeed, the story has been highlighted by sailing and general interest media worldwide. Mike Worrell’s vision of really big sponsorship and a million dollars in prize money may at last be on the verge of becoming reality.Ten steps around the island

Vancouver Island, about 240 miles long and 60 wide, is a natural breakwater protecting the southern portion of the famous inside passage to Alaska. Consequently, the course around the island roughly breaks down into an inside and an outside portion, the latter encompassing some of the most spectacular and least populated coastal vistas to be found in North America.

The Van Isle began as the brainchild of Wayne Gorrie and Janine Bell, an ultra-enthusiastic sailing couple from Nanaimo, a Vancouver Island town located about 25 miles across Georgia Straits from the sprawling metropolis of Vancouver. Nanaimo is proud of its heritage as a blue collar town built largely on mining, logging, fishing and pulp/paper production. Gorrie’s business as a manufacturer of specialized equipment for fish farms and salmon hatcheries provided many of the contacts he needed to line up a series of upcoast communities willing to host some visiting sailboat racers. For the most part, it wasn’t a difficult sell, because these towns and villages, heavily reliant upon the forest industry and fisheries, have experienced very tough times in recent years and are promoting tourism eagerly.

Not surprisingly, lining up sponsorship was a tough nut to crack, but Gorrie, Bell and a small cadre of their friends went at it with a will and succeeded in signing on the Cadillac dealers of B.C. as their primary sponsor plus a modest list of secondary supporters. With a handful of volunteers and the goodwill of all involved, they had just enough resources on hand to stage the first race in 1999 with 14 boats, including Gorrie and Bell’s own Farrier F9A trimaran, Redshift. The first Van Isle race proved successful, requiring virtually no adjustments in leg length and race protocol in subsequent years.

The 2000 race brought a major challenge in the form of a southeasterly storm that hammered the fleet with 50-knot headwinds during the long, open Pacific leg and drove all but one boat to seek shelter. However, the fleet regrouped, carried on and all but a couple finished in Nanaimo several days later. Even before it was over, most participants were already making plans for another kick at the can.Van Isle 2001

June brings typically unsettled weather to the northwest coast, but it’s an excellent time for sailing outside Vancouver Island, because fogs are far less frequent than later in the season. As it turned out, conditions were outstanding for this year’s race with predominantly following winds on all but two legs, no real storms and amazingly little rain. The fleet of 16 keelboats ranged from 31 to 102 feet and was divided into two divisions based on PHRF ratings. Division III, the five-boat multihull division, also sailed under PHRF and competed with the monohulls for the various overall honors. Although the race rules require skippers to remain aboard for all 10 legs, other crew were permitted to join and leave the yachts as individual schedules permitted.

The early stages of the Van Isle are relatively short hops up the inside passage as far as Port Hardy near the northern tip of Vancouver Island. As paved roads go, this is literally the end of the line. For the two outer coast stops, the race committee, shore teams and exchange crew members had to drive a roundabout route on mountainous logging roads; on one occasion they arrived only just ahead of the leading racers. At every stopover, the fleet was greeted with a reception or cook-up, followed by an often-riotous awards ceremony. Campbell River, site of the first of two lay days, paraded their kilted bagpipe ensemble; and an overnight at the Hardwicke Island salmon farm produced an impressive salmon barbecue. Aboriginal dancers performed for the fleet at Port Hardy; and yes, there were school children crowding the docks at every stop, eager to tour boats and talk to crew. By this point every crew had spotted whales: Orca, Minke, Gray and numerous dolphins. Bald eagles were everywhere; and passing the top of the island, pelagic species including albatross and puffins began to make their appearance.

The Van Isle presents an exceptional strategic challenge due to numerous, narrow waterways, often with rapid tidal currents, open northern Pacific conditions on the outside, plus countless reefs, shoals and headlands all along the way. A particularly notorious spot is Nahwitti Bar about 15 miles beyond Port Hardy where a strong northwesterly and incoming swell can produce monster waves when opposed by a strong ebb tide. This time our fleet got through with no trouble, but local fishermen swear that at times there’s so much sand thrown up that it etches the wheel house windows. Although the course totals 580 nautical miles, the racers’ slug tracks typically added up to somewhere around 1,000, despite this year’s unusually high proportion of off-wind sailing.An offshore capsize

There are no substantial outer coast settlements anywhere between Winter Harbor, population 51, and the town of Ucluelet, about 138 miles to the southeast. Once a brisk northwesterly filled in, it became apparent that the quicker boats would most likely be back to civilization before midnight. A downwind leg of this duration with clear skies and 20- to 25-knot winds is pretty much as good as it gets in sailing. The huge U.S. Navy training ketch HMCS Oriole hit her best-ever speed of 18.3 knots – quite an accomplishment for a 90-ton vessel that’s handled entirely without the aid of winches.

Aboard the newly launched 63-foot trimaran Rocinante, on what was essentially her shakedown trip, we were taking things very easily; nevertheless, we topped 20 knots on several occasions – without flying a spinnaker. 3D, a 31-foot trimaran out of Seattle, was averaging speeds in the mid-teens when her driver headed up a bit too far, and she rounded up into a broach. Blowing the spinnaker sheet didn’t salvage the situation and no one managed to release the mainsheet. As the boat inverted, two crew were tethered in the cockpit with two others below; however, all were able to free themselves, swim out and climb atop the trampolines (now just awash). A dive back into the cabin netted three survival suits and a Mustang cruiser suit, plus an assortment of flares. An EPIRB, activated inside the carbon fiber main hull, was determined to have functioned properly, but no signal was ever received, another example of the importance of having a means of deploying the EPIRB antenna outside an overturned boat.

3D capsized about 30 miles offshore and ahead of roughly two-thirds of the fleet. But with the other racers gybing downwind and spread far across the course, no one spotted her distress flares against the glare of the midday sun. Orange smoke signals dissipated very rapidly in the brisk wind and were equally ineffectual. Unfortunately, the only hand-held VHF aboard had been lost during the capsize. After discharging about 20 flares, the crew of 3D realized they would likely only be rescued once an active search was mounted, probably not before daybreak the following morning. Fortunately, their well-insulated suits were enough to ward off hypothermia, and tethers around the projecting daggerboard enabled everyone to perch on the main hull, well out of the cold water.

Race organizers ashore, aware of possible trouble after 3D missed three radio scheds in a row, contacted the Rescue Coordination Center at 0100. A Canadian Forces air search commenced at 0300 using a Laborador helicopter. At dawn two fixed-wing aircraft also joined the search. At about 0900, the overturned trimaran was picked up on radar by an Aurora anti-submarine aircraft, which directed the nearby Polish factory ship Kolius to the spot. Subsequently, the four rescued sailors were transferred to the hospital by helicopter, checked over and promptly released. Despite being donned wet, the neoprene survival suits clearly did their job (as had the combination of an insulated cruiser suit with a sailing drysuit underneath).

After the emotional roller coaster of the Winter Harbor to Ucluelet leg, the rest of the Van Isle race might have been anticlimactic, except that the sailing was simply too good. True, there was some frustration due to a combination of light winds and big swells around the western entrance to Juan de Fuca Strait, but the final leg from Victoria to Nanaimo turned into a classic showdown. This leg passes among the Gulf Islands (essentially the Canadian half of the San Juan archipelago), and there are at least a dozen potentially viable routing alternatives. Most of the fleet attempted the shortest course through a narrow tidal passage known as Dodd Narrows, only to arrive in the pre-dawn hours as a massive ebb was building against them. Gorrie, skippering Redshift, squeaked through Dodd in time to secure his third straight Van Isle division win and a fleet overall corrected time victory to boot.

The other division winners triumphed by taking the big ship route around the Gulf Islands and up Georgia Strait, sailing half-again farther, but avoiding the devastating tidal gates. The Santa Cruz 52 Marda Gras, out of San Francisco, used this ploy to pull ahead of Time Bandit, a well-sailed J/120 which had lead Division I through to the final day. Division II was even closer with Aeriel, a magnificent 40-foot Ed McCurdy design, securing victory by a single point. When the morning ebb finally subsided, spectators along the Nanaimo waterfront were rewarded by the sight of nine yachts of wildly varying sizes, all converging the finish line under spinnaker within a two-minute time frame. The following day, a final barbecue and awards ceremony at a nearby island park, concluded what everyone agreed had been a truly remarkable event. Odds are that most of the approximately 150 participants will be back for the next Cadillac Van Isle 360, now scheduled for June 2003.Worrell reaches new heights

It began as the Worrell Brothers Coastwise Race with five teams entered in Hobie 16s. Two years earlier, Worrell and his buddy Steve McGarret shoved off from the Virginia Beach restaurant owned by Worrell and his brother Chris, having made a bet that they could sail their Hobie all the way down to Florida. Afterward, having shown it could be done (and against the prevailing winds to boot), there was a crazy logic to making a race of it. Initially, the rules were simple: the race would start in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and crews could sail day and night until stopped by exhaustion but were required to come ashore and phone the restaurant once every 24 hours. After 11 days of near-sleepless torture, Mike Worrell and his crew, Guerry Beatson, staggered up the beach to the Worrell Brothers Restaurant, the only finishers in the inaugural race. Thereafter, the race format was modified to include mandatory stopovers at various towns along the way as well as mandatory shore crews to assist with the often-dangerous surf launches and recoveries.

Over the years, the Worrell 1000 equipment has shifted from stock Hobies to a choice of production cats up to 20 feet. These were followed by unrestricted, open-class 20-footers and lately the one-design Inter 20. The 1985 introduction of spinnakers to the Worrell fleet has triggered a surge of interest in fitting spinnakers for various beach cats including, just recently, the Olympic Tornado. In the late 80s, Worrell sold his rights to the race, only to pick up the ball again a few years later after the new proprietors lost heart.

Randy Smyth, a multiple catamaran World Champion and two-time Olympic silver medallist, has dominated the Worrell 1000 with no fewer than six wins. However, in the wake of a prolonged round-the-world trip aboard Cam Lewis’ Team Adventure, he elected to withdraw from this year’s race, leaving the field wide open to strong challengers from every corner of North America as well as Europe, South Africa and Australia.

The 2001 Worrell was a complete reversal of the usual race pattern that sees relatively moderate conditions in Florida, building to a wild ride around Cape Hattaras. This time, all hell broke loose on the first afternoon at the finish of the newly-added opening leg from South Beach, Miami, to Fort Lauderdale. While attempting to ride in through big surf, Sandra Tartaglino, crewing aboard Team Guident for two-time Worrell winner Rod Waterhouse of Sydney, Australia, broke her leg in several places after the boat dug its bows in the sand and pitchpoled violently.

Tom Weaver and Rick Deppe, two highly regarded pro racers and Whitbread/Volvo race veterans, came back determined to improve upon their last place finish in the 2000 Worrell. However, their fortunes crashed early when the boat came down hard on Tom’s leg, breaking it just above the ankle. In both cases, the injured sailors were replaced by talented alternates, and Waterhouse finished in second place despite several time penalties.

The next few days were pure carnage as most of the entries were tumbled in the surf at least once. Inter 20s that capsized in the shallows would frequently snap their $3,000 carbon masts, and even those that avoided this fate would often suffer severe rudder damage. Apparently, the trick was to swing the rudder blades down just as soon as the boat was outside the shore break. If the boat gathered speed with a rudder still swung back, it fractured the rudder head casting instantly. On the other hand, going down to leeward to drop the lee rudder was precarious, to say the least, because a gathering breaker could easily tumble the boat over backward.

As the race wore on, the winds moderated, and the legs got very long – especially the night legs. In the end, Alexander’s on the Bay, sailed by Brian Lambert and Jaime Livingston of Florida, mastered all the conditions to win by a cumulative margin of more than three hours over Waterhouse and pro sailor Katie Pettibone.

Although the Worrell is notoriously tough on first-timers, both the Tommy Bahama team, also from Florida, and the Dinghy Shop team out of the Pacific Northwest achieved very creditable finishes: third and sixth respectively. Shortly after his return to Vancouver, I asked Scott McDonald from Dinghy Shop if he planned to return next year and received a non-committal reply to the effect of, “Yeah, maybe, once we get the bills paid off.”

Dinghy Shop team manager, Mike Walker, crystallized the frustrations and delights of the Worrell in a couple of terse web page messages penned soon after a post-race debriefing:

“As darkness fell, the wind built and the thunderheads started to appear. Reigh [North] drove the boat between two thunderheads, recording a maximum speed of 24.6 knots. Although this sounds really fast, try doing it blindfolded. That is how dark it was. At one point, they were 11 miles offshore; the waves were running 12-14 feet, totally obliterating any horizon to steer by. Also, due to the overcast sky, there was no moon or stars to navigate with. Just feel, and the GPS to check your position on once in a while.

“At one point they were surfing down a big wave … nothing but whitewater in all directions. With just air and froth around the blades (rudders) the boat rounded up and they found out what socks in the washing machine feel like as the boat turtled. It took almost 30 minutes to sort the mess and right the boat again. Don’t forget, this was done while you can’t see your hand in front of your face.”

So, will team Dinghy Shop be back for another Worrell? Count on it. Similarly, I expect I’ll be casting around for a ride when the next Van Isle rolls around. These multi-leg races are simply too good to pass up. n


Contributing editor Sven Donaldson is based on the West Coast.

By Ocean Navigator