It was our first Fiasco. It was also out first double handed-race, actually my first race of any kind on San Francisco Bay. And I’ve seen enough pictures, read enough reports, to know they’re not kidding when they call it a fiasco. A 21 mile course that starts and ends off San Francisco’s Golden Gate Yacht Club, rounding one mark and two islands to visit the Golden Gate, Richmond San-Rafael, and Bay bridges, sailed by 300 boats allowed to choose any order and any direction, is bound to be fairly fiasc-atical. It is also a pursuit race, where everybody starts at different times according to their handicap rating, and in an ideal world where everyone sailed perfectly, we’d all finish at exactly the same time. As we’d then (presumably) be compressed into some sort of sailing singularity just to fit through the finish line, it’s fortunate that the world we sail in is not quite that ideal.
So it was with some trepidation that Ellen and I motored Imagine out of her berth in South Beach Harbor and radioed our check-in to the race committee. There was sparkling sunshine and a northerly breeze as we raised the main and unfurled the brand spanking new 135% headsail. (Did I mention Imagine is a 25 year old Ericson 32 – set up for easy handling and loaded down with plenty of go-slow accoutrements?) We manged a couple of practice tacks, since our trial run 2 weeks ago with the new sail had seen us reefed down in 25 knots and more of wind instead of enjoying light wintery airs as we’d expected. Then it was time to head towards the mayhem of sails swirling around in front of the Golden Gate Yacht club race deck.
My goals for the race were modest ones – to not hit anyone, and to start, (not necessarily in that order). Anything else would be a bonus. Although the received wisdom is that you can’t really plan for a fiasco, you just see what the wind is doing at the start, I had spent Friday evening poring over Tidetech charts and the wind forecast models on iWindsurf. The forecast was for NE winds up to the mid teens at the start, then dropping through the morning, especially south of the Bay Bridge, backing to NW and becoming light to non-existent in the finish zone by the end of the day. Our 9.37 start, according to TideTech, would be just as the flood current started close to the San Francisco city front, although it would still be slack or ebbing further north. I had no idea how much faith I could put in these models, but my not-a-plan was to try to round Treasure Island counter clock wise while there was still some wind down there, then to head up towards Red Rock (at the Richmond San Rafael Bridge) in the relatively slack currents nearer Berkeley, and see how far we got. So much for plans…
II didn’t know what to expect at this point except chaos – I was sufficiently jittery that the crew mutinied and wouldn’t let me drink any coffee. Should we have left the fenders on, I wondered? We couldn’t actually see the pin-end of the line at all, but it seemed a safe bet that it was where the sails were thickest. All my careful not-planning went out the window as I realized we were approaching the line on a nice starboard reach – I didn’t fancy my chances going round the outside and heading back into the thick of things on a port tack, so it looked like we were going to Blackaller (the mark nearest the Golden Gate Bridge) first, after all. We were supposed to start a few minutes ahead of the Moore 24 fleet, but to my inexperienced eyes they were milling around the start zone like the anchovies in that tank at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, so we adopted discretion rather than valor and “let” them go first. Then after a minor bit of barging from a certain windward Beneteau ( “Are you starting?” the helmsman asked – what did he think we were doing,having a picnic?) everything seemed to clear up miraculously, and we crossed the line more or less alone. High fives were exchanged – we hadn’t hit anyone, and we’d started!
There wasn’t much time to reflect on the merit of having lowly goals – we were now in the race, and had no excuse not to round the first mark. We weren’t exactly sure where it was, since the last time we went out there to look it was MIA, and we weren’t doing well at pressing the pesky little buttons and reading the tiny little screens of our GPS. Still, it was easy enough to see where the densest mass of sails was ahead, and a young gentleman at the helm of a fast sporty boat passing (ahem) to windward was kind enough to remind us that we would “have to head down there sooner or later anyway”. Quite soon after we “let” him go by, we were high-fiving again as we left the temporary Blackaller buoy and any excitement happening there well to starboard. We’d rounded our first mark in our first race, and we still hadn’t hit anyone! Everything after this would be icing on the cake.
Now it was time to make a decision – I still thought it might make sense to go around Treasure Island first, given the wind forecast., even though that course would add distance to the race. But the crew voted for Red Rock, since “we see Treasure every time we sail”. It was as sound a tactical argument as any I could come up with, plus we could see a lot of shiny monofilm romping off in that direction. On the assumption that people with fast boats and shiny sails must know vastly more about the winds and currents than we do, we decided to follow.
So we settled down for a clockwise circuit and the beat through the Raccoon Strait. Our jitters had calmed enough that we broke out drinks and bagels. We watched a porpoise or two surfacing to either side, and waved happily at a fast sporty boat passing (ahem) to windward – “Are you racing?” the helmsman asked. What did he think we were doing, having a picni – oh. He was kind enough to point out that we had actually compromised on the earlier fender decision, and were still trailing one over the side. I wish I could have tossed him and his crew a couple of bagels as a thank you, but he was sailing away too fast for that. They probably wouldn’t have wanted the extra ballast, anyway.
The Raccoon Strait was as beautiful as ever – like the Mediterranean, only with better wind and more seals and sea-lions. The tide was firmly with us, and since the Tiburon side was crowded with boats, we mostly stayed closer to the island, where there seemed to be more wind – though perhaps less favorable current. Naturally the wind was funneling over the shoreline topography to make sure we would be beating hard all the way to Red Rock – we enjoyed the sheer variety of vessels we were swapping tacks with, and by the time we were nearing Richmond we were beginning to get the hang of pulling that darn clew past the shrouds, and balancing Imagine with her new “big jib” – she’s had nothing better than a 95% headsail for at least fifteen years, and I think she was quite enjoying herself, too.
On the beat up, it seemed more windy on the Richmond side of the bay, but as we clawed our way up far enough to peek around Red Rock, we could see mirror-like calm, drifting boats and drooping spinnakers. We’d committed to going around clockwise, as we were a bit hazy on the exclusion zone for the Richmond Long Wharf on the other side,(our GPS knew exactly where it was, but we were busy enough without dealing with the aforementioned buttons and screens. It’s hard to pull out your reading glasses when double handing a sailing race) We’d figured it would be easier to keep out of the disqualification zone on a run than when swapping tacks on a light wind beat. And we planned to enjoy that run, as a chance to sail level for a while and eat more sandwiches…
So much for planning. We entered the dead zone – but drifting around in close company is one of my least favorite boating activities. We were lucky to get by with just a few minor pirouettes, the wind indicator pointing any which way and the sails flopping – out of sheer cowardice we headed up towards the bridge, away from the crowds, and almost immediately picked up a zephyr from the East that carried us happily past the rock. Now we’d rounded two marks, and were beginning to think we might even finish this thing.
I’d fully expected to see all the spinnakers go up, and everybody to leave us behind at this stage. But as we wiggled round Red Rock, the wind had apparently played a trick on us all, veering so that we were once more on a fairly close reach rather than a run. This was the freshest wind we encountered all day, with our wind speed indicator reading up to 17 knots. We watched the boat just ahead repeatedly rounding up into the wind, and I began to wonder how much longer we’d be happy with the “big jib” up. But we feathered the mainsail for a while, and things soon mellowed out – we got to admire some impressively fast multi-hulls enjoying the smooth conditions, and in what seemed like no time we were approaching Treasure Island and the Bay Bridge.
There appeared to be a crowded slow-motion procession close to the shore, so we opted to stay clear and thread our way through the new and old Bay Bridge spans a little further out towards Oakland. Although the wind went very light as soon as we passed under the span, we never really stopped moving, and were able to steer right around the whole parking lot scene. It must have been coming up to three o’clock, and the Tidetech chart for that time predicted about one knot of current flowing north close to the east side of Treasure Island, with only weak or negligible flow out where we were. I wonder if that’s what the parked boats were experiencing?
Were were feeling good now – with four hours until the finish time cut off, and the ebb under our keel, only something drastic would stop us finishing the race. We took time to snap photos of some of the other boats ghosting along on the glassy waters around us – until they began to pick up some puffs of wind and started passing (ahem) to windward, (and leeward too, to be honest). It was time to forgo the photo ops and sail for the finish.
We could see a clump of boats barely moving further out towards San Francisco, but up near the south west side of Yerba Buena Island there was a nice breeze, smooth water, and plenty of space to manoeuvre. The weather gods weren’t smiling on the spinnaker boats for this Fiasco, as the wind was more northerly now, and forward of the beam once more. We could hear some kerfuffle on the VHS about sailboats interfering with passenger vessels around Pier 39 – a couple of hundred slow moving sailboats converging on the finish in light airs were clearly a challenge for the tourist boat operators. We opted to stay clear, throwing in a tack to stay well out before reaching sedately down to cross the finish at 3:50:10. We were 186th overall (out of 300 starters) and 9th in our division of 25 – but we felt like winners as we broke out the celebratory beers and tacked round to head home in the glorious late afternoon light.
The only fly in our perfect ointment came when the engine refused to start for our trip back to South Beach. Half an hour after our finish, we’d exhausted our knowledge and enthusiasm for finding the cause of this refusal, and we were again passing the finish line buoy from East to West, this time stern first in the stronger ebb and lighter wind.I was thankful for the “foresight” that sent us around Blackaller early in the day rather than late, and even more thankful for my fully paid up Boat US towing membership. In very short order we were enjoying a limo-like tow back to our berth, in the golden glow of one of the bay’s most beautiful sunsets.
I’d like to give a huge vote of thanks, to the weather gods who arranged such a perfect sailing day in late January, to the SSS and the race committee who organized everything so beautifully, and to the cute crew of Vessel Assist San Francisco who gave us such a stress free ride home. “Were you racing?” they asked, coming alongside. Well yes, we were, but we were also having a pretty awesome picnic.