I didn’t finish the race.  The boat and I were unprepared for single-handed racing in heavy weather.  There were equipment failures, errors in judgment, and several gastrointestinal failures.  I’ve managed to incorporate the lessons from the Winter Vashon into my sailing adventures over the last nine months, and consider myself a safer, more cautious sailor, but one with much still to learn.

When I was a kid I considered myself  a pretty good skier, so when I got to college I joined the ski team.  It took just one race to figure out that seeing an icy, rutted gate come at you at speed is a lot different from a pleasant afternoon of free skiing.  In a race you can’t go wherever you please, using the terrain at your convenience.  You have to hit the gates as they come at you, and those icy ruts always look like gorges.  My single-handed sailing experience had been like my free-skiing experience.  I’d been out in all kinds of weather, but I always had my autopilot (which I couldn’t use during the Vashon Island Race), and I could work with the wind, waves, tides, and currents at my convenience.  I thought I was pretty good.

Well, hubris goeth before a good ass-kicking.  That skiing analogy is all I could think about as I was getting beat up in Colvos Passage, on the West side of Vashon Island.  It turns out single-handed racing and single-handed pleasure sailing are different animals.  Let’s take a look at what I had figured out by the time I got my boat back to Olympia.

First, if you feel rushed and unprepared, you probably are.  I live in Spokane.  The boat is in Olympia.  I’d had a variety of commitments, and didn’t get onto the boat until late Thursday night.  I left Swantown at 6:00 Friday morning for Tacoma, where the race was scheduled to start Saturday morning.  I was already tired, out of sorts, and felt a migraine coming on.  I rested up when I got to the Tacoma Yacht Club, and puttered around getting the boat ready, but I never got to that zone where you really feel prepared.  You just can’t underestimate how important the mental part is.  When you’re going out for fun, you can delay your trip until you’re ready.  My class started at 8:30 the next morning, ready or not.  I think fatigue and a migraine–along with pride and the desire not to be seen as a quitter–affected my judgment.

In retrospect, I probably shouldn’t have started the race.  I think there were about eighty boats in the race, and I was the only single-hander.  One skipper offered to scare me up a crew, but I declined.  When we left the dock Saturday morning the wind was already pretty stiff.  Once concerned skipper reminded me to wear my PFD.  How many indicators can one person ignore?  Well, I ignored all of them.

Friday’s delivery to Tacoma. Tired, but still enthusiastic and determined.

When I left the dock the wind was out of the North at 18-20 knots.  The tide was coming in, which meant we were sailing against it, and the wind waves were maybe three feet or so (it sure felt like more).  My boat had a luff foil and pre-feeder, which had always worked fine in moderate weather.  In this wind the jib kept jamming in the pre-feeder, and the wind kept pulling the luff tape out of the foil.  I couldn’t keep the boat head-to-wind, even with the autopilot.  It took almost fifteen minutes to wrestle it up.  Same with the main.  After a half-hour or so I finally had the sails up with a reef in the main, but I was exhausted.

Beating into short waves, against the tide, in high winds in a light boat sucks.  My boat weighs about 3,000 pounds.  Once we got into the passage behind Vashon Island, the apparent winds were gusting to the mid and high twenties.  With no weight on the rail I had to work with the waves to keep the boat moving fast enough even to come about.  I can’t count the number of times I was just pinned down and couldn’t bring the bow around without falling off to build more boat speed first.  My progress was slow and taxing.

Then I started having serious gear problems.  The luff foil broke and I lost control of the jib.  I used the autopilot to try to keep the boat head-to-wind, but it was about impossible to do against the tide and wind waves.  I turned around and ran off with the autopilot.  Again, it took me about fifteen minutes on the foredeck to wrestle the jib down and secure it.  I was exhausted before, but by now the migraine was threatening to explode my head, and I puked Friday night’s spaghetti dinner over the starboard quarter.  I had lost a significant distance, and the thought of making it up was demoralizing.  I had also used my autopilot, which disqualified me.

I collected my wits and went on for another hour or so under reefed main alone, but I wasn’t getting far.  I thought about whether I could live with myself if I finished the race and then omitted the part where I had used the autopilot, and decided that was the last straw.  I probably wouldn’t have finished the race anyway, but if by some miracle I had, I couldn’t live with important omission.  I called the race committee, withdrew, and enjoyed a downhill ride on the wind and tide back to Olympia, where I parked the boat and crashed.

Defeated, nothing left to throw up, headed back to Olympia

Since the race I’ve switched to hank-on headsails (I removed and discarded the luff foil) and rigged a downhaul that leads back to the cockpit.  This has worked really well for me.  No more dragging the sail in the water when the feeder jams up and high winds blow the luff tape out of the groove.  I had the main re-cut with a loose foot, and added some fancy slides to the luff.  The bolt rope had produced so much friction in high wind that it was tough to get up and down, and the outhaul was nearly useless.  Now it goes up and comes down nicely, and after re-rigging the boom and loose-footing the mainsail the outhaul is actually a useful sail control.  I bought a storm jib.  It may sound crazy to use it in 25 knot winds, but that’s a lot of wind for a solo skipper in a light boat.  With a reef in the main and the storm jib up, the boat is nicely balanced and when beating into high winds I can keep it on its keel rather than on its side.  I’ve made a few other changes that make the boat easier to handle, and every time I go out now I try to identify things that work fine in moderate weather but will be troublesome in high winds.  I’ve got a short list of improvements still to make, but it’s coming along.

The worst part of the race was the ride back to Olympia.  I questioned everything about my experience and my boat, wondering how in the hell I would manage a race like the Single Handed Transpac if I couldn’t even finish a local race in weather that was heavy, but not really that bad compared to what I might run into on the open ocean.  I felt like I had failed, and my confidence took a pretty big hit.  Almost nine months have passed, and my ego has mostly recovered.  I keep sailing, keep trying to learn lessons, and keep fixing up the boat.  I don’t consider the Winter Vashon experience a failure now, but am grateful that I learned so much so quickly.

Well, thanks for reading.  More later . . .

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