Our own John Zseleczky organized a CHESSS fun run to St. Michael's over the weekend of July 9th.
Our informal race to St. Michaels was a blast. Three boats participated: Garner Bennett sailing solo on his Pearson 36 cutter Sea Dragon, Jeff Halpern and his wife Barbara on their Farr 38 Synergy and John Z and 15 year old Luke Fowler on the Pearson 30 Old Blue.
We all arrived on time for our 1030 rendezvous at buoy SR near Thomas Point and used the VHF to confirm the starting plan. We went with a five minute countdown on VHF and short horn blasts, leaving buoy SR to starboard because of nearby fishing boats.
The start was tricky, a port tack beam reach in a very light breeze from the north. It was ugly but we all got off without incident. Old Blue and Sea Dragon held off on launching spinnakers while Synergy hoisted shortly after the start. The wind remained super light and Old Blue edged ahead with the 150 jib and main. As the wind clocked from north to east Synergy was forced south to keep the chute full so she eventually doused and used that extra southerly gain to reach up hot and chase some promising ripples to the North.
In no time Synergy had a 200 yard lead. Lesson 1, in super light air, keep the boat moving and forget about the rhumb line. I was supposed to have learned this lesson last year when Rich Acuti reached up to follow the wind. As we ground down to Bloody Point with boat speeds of 1 - 3 knots, Old Blue managed to hold the same distance behind Synergy. Sea Dragon had her huge drifter up but continued to drop back over that leg. Within a half mile of Bloody Point the wind speed dropped even lower and eventually came back from the south. The new 5 knot breeze hit Old Blue first and she was able to gybe and sheet in for a too-tight spinnaker reach which meant dousing the chute and hoisting the jib while Synergy sat in a hole until the wind reached her. Lesson 2, we all get lucky breaks now and then.
The spinnaker takedown on Old Blue was late and sloppy and Synergy took advantage of that; combined with her fast upwind speed she was first at Bloody Point by 100 yards with Old Blue behind again and Sea Dragon way back, suffering through the light air but enjoying the shade under the Bimini.
Chutes went up again after rounding G1 and the trip up Eastern Bay was dead downwind. Surprisingly, Old Blue stuck with Synergy, gaining a boatlength and losing a boatlength every so often. Old Blue has a masthead rig and Synergy has a fractional rig so the spinnakers are about the same size even though Synergy is a much larger boat. This was probably the only condition that the two boats would be on even ground. Given the heat on that Ieg, Barbara spent most of her time on Synergy sitting in the shade at the bow while Luke on Old Blue spent a lot of time with his head upside down in a bucket of cool water. Jeff and I spent the entire time fidgeting with lines trying to squeeze out an extra ounce of boat speed.
At Tilghman Point our course was around bell buoy N4. Synergy kept her 100 yard lead and waited to douse until very near the mark. Old Blue doused five minutes before the mark, which was way early but done out of bitter experience from poor singlehanded takedowns in the past. Another lesson from a past race to St. Michaels (with a south wind) was to head up immediately after rounding the Tilghman Point buoy to put some windward gauge in the bank. This paid off for Old Blue. As Synergy rounded wide, the wind clocked to the right in the Miles River and we were close hauled on a starboard tack with Old Blue in the lead to windward.
The wind increased to ten knots and Synergy came on like the thoroughbred she is, eating up the distance between boats. R8 was not far down the river and tensions increased as the boats approached the mark and crossed the finish zone at R8 within a few feet of each other! With no real finish line we really couldn’t say who crossed first but neither of us really cared, it was a wild ending and we were both happy with the result.
Sea Dragon finished a good bit later but that was expected in light air and is the price of a comfortable boat with shade. We all anchored separately in the outer anchorage of St. Michaels. A brief thunderstorm was in the works which cleaned off the boats and cooled things down. The water taxi brought us all in for a great meal in town with plenty of sea stories and camaraderie.
This race pointed out how difficult it is to compete fairly in a formal race using a handicap system with very different boats. I think all three boats were sailed pretty well, not National Champion well but we were definitely in race mode. If we had been racing for trophies in a formal PHRF corrected time race, Old Blue would have won by a lot. But it was obvious that the dead downwind light air conditions favor Pearson 30’s by a lot. There would be no satisfaction in being awarded a trophy in a formal race like that. In this informal race, Jeff and I both know that we worked our hardest to get our boats moving and we made about the same number of good choices and bad and had about the same number of screw-ups. We both walked away very happy with our performance that day. For Sea Dragon it was probably not as much fun being out of touch during most of the race so it would be nice to get a few boats of similar speed in the same outing. But we all had a blast in town and enjoyed a robust sail home in the brisk NW wind on Sunday. I would do an informal race like this again in a heartbeat and encourage other shorthanded sailors to give it a shot!