Fall Series #9: A Wicked Wacky West Wind!

What a wild way to end the season!  The forecast for Sunday called for about 20 kts of breeze with gusts to 25 and above.  It wasn’t blowing all that much when we arrived at the marina, but the forecast was on everybody’s mind as we started to rig and launch.  Four Lightnings — Chris & team String Theory, John & team Chessie, Will & team College Kids, and me, sailing Bob Gotthard’s boat with Piercarlo & Stefano (huge thanks to Bob!) — all launched.  We definitely saw some big breeze on the racecourse (NOAA recorded peak gusts at 31 mph at the airport!).  PRO Bob Gotthardt and his crew did a great job setting a triangle course that gave us some great blast reaches as well as good practice sailing upwind in heavy air.  It was a workout, but also a ton of fun!  Keep reading for some more of the details from the weekend.

NOAA Wind Readings (DCA)

Once we launched and got out onto the river it was clear that the forecast was accurate.  Even though the fetch across the river is quite short, there were whitecaps building as the west breeze whipped across the river.  It is a credit to the crews that sailed in this big breeze that everybody was aware of their boats and their limitations.  The College Kids boat made the call to come back to the marina after they got out into the breeze and had trouble holding the boat flat (they were sailing *very* light!).  John saw that one of his upper shrouds popped out of the spreader tip (I think this was the issue) once he got up to the racecourse and headed back home.  That left Chris (sailing with Liz & Palmer) and me (sailing with Piercarlo & Stefano) along with a couple of Albacores (Barney & Nick) and a Buc (Jeff).

With what Jeff Storck always calls the “wacky west wind” — meaning lots of shifts and swirls as the breeze comes in over the airport, gets chopped up by the buildings on shore as well as the planes and the heat rising off of the runway — Bob and his RC had their hands full as they tried to figure out where to set the windward mark.  The best you can do is take an educated guess at where the wind will be, on average, once boats get to the weather mark, and they did just that.  We saw some wild swings from the W over to WSW, and then back to NW and even close to NNW as we sailed around in the pre-start sequence.  There is not much you can do — this is sailing on the river, after all!

The RC sent  us off on a T2 for the first race, and as the start sequence rolled down it became apparent that we were in a big right-shift phase.  Most everybody on the course recognized it, so we all tried to set up down by the pin.  As it turns out, burning time is difficult in a 20+ kt breeze since you move pretty fast even with your sails luffing!  That being said, we did a good job on Anger Management (thanks again, Bob, for letting us sail your boat!) in setting up right below the pin on starboard such that we could tack over to port and literally launch off towards the windward mark.  Barney was just ahead of us, but otherwise we led the pack into that mark and around the first lap of the race.  We noticed that the breeze had moderated and steadied a bit on our reach legs, such that we were tempted to hoist the spinnaker…but we weren’t really set up to do it, so we decided that we’d give it a go on the second lap.  The wind was still in a light phase as we trailed Barney into the windward mark for the second time around, so we got set up to hoist the chute close to the jibe mark (the first reach leg was a bit too tight to carry, it, but the second leg looked pretty square to the breeze).  We hoisted and rolled into a jibe…only to be hit with the “wacky west wind” again — a shift and a puff that put the breeze on the beam in a heartbeat, making it difficult if not impossible to carry the spinnaker.  After a bit of struggling, luffing, and shouting, we decided to douse it (thankfully we were using Bob’s old sails!) because we were being driven off the mark more than we were making progress towards it.  We got the chute back in the boat, squared things away, and blasted off under main and jib to plane towards the leeward mark, round, and finish 1st of the 2 Lightnings out there.  Chris was not far behind, though, and it was great to see 14395 blasting up and down the racecourse as well!

The RC gave us some T3 courses for races 2 and 3 — probably because we were finishing the already long T2 in about 20 minutes!  As the breeze built we focused on keeping the boat flat going upwind (hike hard, ease the traveler in puffs, pull on backstay in periods of sustained pressure) and then — more importantly — having fun on the reach legs.  There were a couple of those reach legs where I think I went as fast as I have ever gone on a Lightning.  Since we were just under main and jib I handed the mainsheet over to Piercarlo in the middle and he, together with Stefano, trimmed as I tried to drive up and down in the puffs and waves.  There were moments when we were planing so fast that it seemed like we were being hit with a fire hose…and when I looked back, I saw that we were generating our own whitecaps big enough that the wind was whipping the spray off the tops of them!

Once everybody else was tired and had gone home, Barney (in his Albacore) and I were still out there and we agreed to one last one-on-one T2 race since we were all having so much fun blasting around.  We kept it close upwind and on the first reach leg he had a bad jibe at the reach mark so we managed to get inside and then round the leeward mark inside and ahead.  We extended on the upwind leg and lead at the windward mark.  As expected, Barney started to reel us in on the reach leg since the Albacore accelerates quicker and faster in the puffs.  The wind was up and down, though, such that either neither of us was planing or, with a puff, both boats popped onto a plane.  I managed to hold him high and then drive down towards the jibe mark on the inside.  A puff hit as we both went to jibe around the mark…I moved across the boat a bit too soon and we  rounded up instead of rolling through the jibe.  Barney also rounded up at the same time and swung all the way through a tack.  Next think you know, we’re headed straight at each other, bow to bow (we’re on starboard, he’s on port)!  I drove off hard to try and clear out ahead of Barney, but he just threw his helm over and dumped his boat to avoid the collision!

Once everybody else was tired and had gone home we found ourselves out there with Barney on his Albacore.  We agreed to one last one-on-one T2 race since we were all having so much fun blasting around.  We kept it close upwind and at the end of the first reach leg Barney had a bad jibe at the reach mark such that we managed to get inside, stay inside, and then round the leeward mark inside and ahead.  We extended on the upwind leg and led at the windward mark.  As expected, Barney started to reel us in on the reach leg since the Albacore accelerates quicker and faster in the puffs.  The wind was up and down, though, such that either neither of us was planing or, with a decent puff, both boats popped onto a plane.  I managed to hold Barney high and then drive down towards the jibe mark on the inside.  A puff hit as we both went to jibe around the mark…I moved across the boat to leeward a bit too soon and we rounded up instead of rolling through the jibe.  Barney also rounded up at the same time and swung all the way through a tack (I think).  Next thing you know, we’re headed straight at each other (we’re on starboard, he’s on port)!  I drove off hard to try and clear out ahead of Barney, but he just threw his helm over and dumped his boat to avoid the collision!  At certain points, a wipeout is good boathandling!

After we got sorted out and made sure that Barney and his crew were OK (the RC was there in a flash as well) we carried on to “win” the race.  Disaster was avoided…but I really wonder what might have happened if we both had managed to make that jibe.  We were both right in a puff, so both boats would have popped up onto a plane.  Barney probably would have passed us on that reach leg…but if it was close at the leeward mark we might have been able to reel him back in on the long-ish upwind segment between the leeward mark and the finish.  One way or the other, it certainly was a great day on the water!

 

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