Charleston Wild Oyster Regatta – A Day in the Limelight

Charleston is a cool city. I had never been. Immediately, I start listening for the southern accent, but few of the locals have one. What gives? The Carolina Yacht Club is right at the bottom of the Peninsula and faces SE out over Charleston Harbor. The Ashley river comes down from the NW and the Cooper from the NE. Russ Roberts and I drove down on Friday and met Marc DeLoach, a high school student sailor who is a cousin of some sort to Russ. It was a beautiful day and Greg Fisher and Brian Hayes ran some starting drills and short races out on the water. We used the opportunity to get Marc used to the Lightning.

That evening we went on Eric Hakanson’s recommendation to “the Wreck” off of Shem creek. It is the classic fish shack. No investment in fancy surroundings, but right outside is a warf with large shrimp boats and a beautiful view of the sunset. The grilled (or fried) oysters, shrimp, and scallops were fresh, delicious, and reasonably priced. I love it.

The next morning we go to the skipper’s meeting and get a little lecture on current in Charleston harbor. They have more than we do on the Potomac. The ebb tide current can be over 2.5 knots. It’s less on the flood tide and luckily the regatta will be sailed mostly on the flood tide.

First (and only) race on Saturday

The wind is a gentle 5 to 8 knots from the N and NE. The start line is just off of James Island on the south side of the Harbor. The windward mark is to the NE near Castle Pickney, an island in the harbor. There are 37 boats racing. Eric has recommended working the right regardless of wind direction, so that is our default plan. The start line is pretty pin end favored so despite our plan to work the right side, we decide to start closer to the pin. I’m sailing down the line on port and see David Starck ahead of me. I see him starting to tack onto starboard and I think to myself, “I do not want to be to windward of such a great sailor. He’ll pinch me off.” I tack immediately. With seconds to go, I get enough momentum to punch through the lee of a boat luffing on the line and off we go. After a few seconds, I look back and realize that the wind is really far left and I can tack and cross the fleet. I tack, so does David Starck a boat length or so to my right. I do my best to forget about him being down below me and just focus on keeping the boat in the groove. Russ is moving his weight constantly to keep the boat at the perfect heel. After a few minutes, I realize that not only has David not sailed out from under me but that I’ve actually sailed out over him. This is a great start to a sailboat race.

We keep sailing off to the right. A few boats that were further right have tacked to starboard and are coming back. I duck them and keep going right, beause the wind seems to be getting better and better and some nice little puffs are coming in from the right. With a flood tide, I sail well beyond the apparent layline and tack for the mark. Lo and behold, we are there FIRST with some breathing room ahead of the next boat. Now that is a great first leg.

The set of the chute goes nicely. Marc is a quick learner. We sail on starboard for a bit and then decide to go back to the right where we had that great wind coming up the course. The boats behind have split. Some gybed immediately for the right side and other kept going to the left side. To keep our air clear, I choose a low path down the middle. It works! We are fist to the leeward mark!

Back upwind we go, again working the right. This time there are some pretty big wind shifts that we cannot ignore, so we do 3 or 4 tacks. As we are coming in from the right below the starboard layline in a header, another boat has closed the distance on us. I need to decide when to go back. I decide to tack right in front of him to force him to tack into the header. This works and I get around the windward mark first with a bit more breathing room. It turns out this is Matt Fisher, brother of Greg Fisher, and eventual regatta winner. I did not know at the time.

Downwind we go. This time we stay on starboard gybe because the wind is more left. The wind is getting lighter and you know how that raises one’s anxiety level. I’m watching the boat to the right and left like a hawk and luckily no one is getting any more breeze than we are. Toward the bottom of the course, we put in a couple of gybes — Marc is getting even smoother and Russ is flying the chute like the pro he is in this light air. We get to the leeward mark in the lead again.

Off we go upwind for the final leg. The boats behind run into a bit of a hole at the leeward mark and we are able to separate. By the time we reach the finish, we have opened up a sizeable lead. Bang! We take the gun. Wow a bullet in this fleet. Matt Fisher, David Starck, Tommy Allen, Jr. are all behind us. We are on cloud 9.

After floating around for a while, the PRO sends us in and we have all afternoon to soak in this beautiful weather. Everyone is super nice to us congratulating us on the bullet and wanting to know our secrets. We soak up the limelight. Tomorrow we will be a much tougher day.

Before getting to tomorrow, let me summarize the rest of Saturday. Russ & I take a walk around old Charleston and I’m taking pictures of houses with wrap around porches which my wife, Lura, loves. I take about 50 shots before stopping. All the houses have amazing porches. That evening we are treated to an Oyster roast. I become an expert shucker and had 3 dozen oysters. Shrimp came out later. That was the appetizer. The main course was pulled pork — a whole pig has been roasted. All this for a $70 entry fee.

Sunday. Four short 3 leg races. I blow the start in all 4 and end up chasing the fleet behind a wall of 36 sails in each. How many ways can you blow a start? Let me count them for you.

First one: We come in on port 3 or 4 boat lengths below the line and I’m late selecting a place to tack onto starboard. Everyone else has tacked and pushed up to the line. I tack and find that the air is so dirty than I cannot get up to the line. A left shift and some ebbing current is making matters worse.

Second one: We decide to start near the pin. Again, I come in on port and tack onto starboard, but I have tacked too far from the line. That plus the current has turned around and I can see that I will not make the pin. I gybe around and start on port, ducking most of the 36 transoms.

Third one: New strategy. Boat end is favored heavily. We’ll go for a second row start right at the boat like Frank likes to do. We are successful but we’ve had to luff a lot below the huge RC boat and are very slow as we come around its transom not pointing up very high. When I think Ocan clear the RC boat anchor line I tack. But boats behind us going for a 3rd row start have come around the RC boat’s transom with speed and are pointing much higer. I cannot cross them and have to tack back to starboard.

Fourth one: Well executed start in the middle of the line, but apparently just slightly too well executed. We hear our number on the VHF radio. We have to restart. Oh, but the I-flag was up — the around the ends rule applies. We sail all the way down the long long line from our mid line position to round the pin boat and restart. At least another two boats were called also and we only see one restarting. See we’ll beat at least one boat in this race. We actually sail a smart race and as we cross the finish I look back and see that we’ve beaten 15-20 boats and this is our best race of the day. But No. The RC gets the scoring wrong and we are the one scored OCS. The boat that didn’t restart isn’t.

Doesn’t matter. We enjoyed our one day in the limelight.

Lesson for starting. List the risk factors and balance them:
1) Current – stay up current.
2) Light air – don’t get too far from the line and keep the boat moving.
3) Shifty breeze – stay closer to the middle, don’t get too close to either end.
4) Line biased left – get closer and get the timing right.
5) Line biased right – set up earlier or you’ll never find a spot.
6) Lots of boats = dirty air – don’t get too far from the line and maybe even come down above the line, keep the boat moving if you are in dirty air, and set up earlier before all the holes disappear. On starboard, keep your boom way out and stay perpendiclar to the line to discourage boats from setting up to close to leeward.
7) OCS calls in big fleets are costly – never cross the line in the last 30 seconds. The RC will write down your number and forget to cross it off or not see you restart. It’s tough being a PRO in such a big fleet. I’ve been there.

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