Two hundred and eighty nautical miles. Three days and two nights. Seven crew. Nothing but sailing. The 2016 Oregon Offshore Race aboard Yahtzee was an absolute blast!
But just like many things in life and sailing, the race had its distinct ups and downs, swings in emotion, and peaks and valleys. The winds and seas changed as we tacked north and then sailed downwind towards the finish. Boatspeed was key, and it took a competent and alert crew to make the boat go fast in all conditions.
Aboard for the race we had my dad, Russ, our buddy Mark (who raced Swiftsure with us last year) and our friend Cliff. None of us had done the Oregon Offshore before, and we were all in for a grand adventure — peaks, valleys and all. Here they are.
I’ll start with a couple valleys, because after sailing and racing on the ocean, every sailor coming off a boat immediately has their own tale to tell of calamity — many of which get told for the rest of their lives. Also, there were far more peaks than valleys.
A current affair: With a 7 a.m. start time set on the Columbia River Bar, we were up early at 3:30 a.m. and off the dock at 4 for the long motor out of the river. We were greeted with a little bit of a northwesterly breeze as boats jockeyed for position along the start line between red buoy #2 and the committee boat. Due to the ebbing current and decreasing wind I wanted to have us right on the line for the gun and we were on port tack sailing well as the race began. It was a good start.
But immediately after the start, the conditions got lumpy as the ebb increased and the wind died. Porter went green in the swell and though we tried to fight our way out of the current eastward towards shore, it was a futile task. At the mercy of the river’s outflow, we were swept westward offshore and spent hours just trying to free ourselves from its kung foo grip. Anyone who did the race knows that getting pushed out too far west is not an ideal strategy. For us, fighting our way out of the current was frustrating, but once we were clear, an afternoon northwesterly breeze filled in and we were finally able to make it towards the shoreline and passed a few boats in the process.
Its big its brown its wood: After racing for three days, two nights and 280-miles, we were mere minutes from the finish when I looked ahead and saw it: a telephone pole-sized log. With no time to dodge it, I yelled for my dad to turn hard to starboard and the impact was sickening. It rolled down the side of the boat as we spun into the wind and I directed the crew to get us back on course for the finish before jumping below to check for water intrusion.
Unfortunately, the impact diminished the overall excitement of the finish. After sailing that far without hitting a single thing, to do so right at the finish line was demoralizing. Fortunately, there was no damage to the boat (we checked the hull and appendages with a GoPro at the dock). It was, of course, a story that we all re-told over beverages for hours and days afterwards.
Sail on: When the engine went off shortly before the start, I hoped it wouldn’t go back on until we reached Victoria Harbor. It didn’t. We had enough wind to keep the boat moving at all times and even when we were spending days beating up the Washington Coast, it was awesome to be out under sail.
Yahtzee proved once again to not only be a great home, but a great sailing boat. Despite being loaded down with far more stuff than any other boat out there, including a dinghy and kayak on deck, a full compliment of children’s books down below and our stock of firewood in the lazarette, the boat was an admirable performer in all conditions. The best part of all the sailing, though, was when the wind filled in from the west on the Strait of Juan de Fuca and sent us rocketing under spinnaker towards the finish. With Big Blue full of wind, we bounded down the southern end of Vancouver Island before taking it down to sail under genoa through the infamous Race Rocks in 30-plus knots of breeze. Once clear of the rocks, the spinnaker went back up until just before the finish.
Gifts from the sea: The ocean continues to amaze me. It is truly a magical place that can appear to look the same, but it’s not. And this race reaffirmed that. Waves changed appearance and shape based on wind, current, clouds, sun, the moon or darkness. Whales leapt from the water in the distance in grand fashion and sea birds gracefully skimmed across the waves in the wind, much like we did with our sails.
Sailing at night is one of the most extraordinary experiences a sailor can have. Shortly after sunset, phosphorescence trailed in the boat’s wake like the tail of a comet and the moon shined off ripples on the water, creating a light that can’t be duplicated. Steering to constellations is an age old practice that makes me feel like a mariner of days gone by, and the sheer amount of stars lighting up the night’s sky on the ocean was unreal. There’s nothing like it.
The races within the race: One of my favorite things about sailboat racing, particularly over long distances, is that even though it’s technically one race, there are many smaller races going on all the time. There’s the race to get the best start and then get away from the line. And there’s the transition races as winds go heavy and light or as currents hamper the fleet.
The best race within this race was rounding Cape Flattery. Several boats had been trailing us for hours and seemed to be gaining as we neared the turning point into the strait at Duntze Rock. Every bit of boatspeed mattered and every decision was crucial. My dad and I kept Yahtzee moving in the small hours of the night. And when I returned on deck after my two hour turn off watch and the sun was coming up, my dad, Mark and Cliff still had us leading that pack of boats. Their great decisions allowed us to get by the rock and into clear air quicker and nobody behind us was able to make it past (except for the boat that turned on their engine).
The best for last, our crew: I simply cannot say enough great things about the crew we assembled for this race. We meshed in a way that every skipper hopes while in the planning stages of a the race and my ambitions were far exceeded.
Our friend Mark, who has raced with us before, is a stalwart aboard the boat and brought knowledge, a great sense of humor, and his photographic prowess. (See a great overview full of pictures on his blog here). Cliff also provided an immense amount of experience and has been on Yahtzee before for races around Seattle, too. Between him and Mark, I knew I could rest easy while off watch and trust their decision making and seamanship. That’s priceless.
It was quite a treat to have my dad aboard. I grew up sailing with him as a very little kid, which means he’s part of the reason we were in the race to begin with. He was a capable crewmember who took direction well, was eager to learn and was just flat out fun to be around. Also, whether it was lending a hand with dishes or the boys, he was always willing to help.
Once again, there aren’t enough words to describe how valuable a crewmember Jill is and was. Not only did she keep the crew fed and laughing, but she did so in the worst of conditions down below while taking care of a 3-year-old and 16-month-old. A lot of people wrongly think that steering the boat or trimming sails is what keeps a boat going, and she can do that, but what actually keeps a racing or cruising sailboat going is the person who selflessly cares for everyone else. That’s what kind of person and sailor Jill is — and I honestly don’t know a single other sailor like her.
Porter and Magnus simply continued to do their thing. The boat and sailing is what they know. Porter loves to race and even when he was getting a little seasick after the start, he was upbeat and didn’t let it phase him. As the youngest Oregon Offshore competitor ever, Magnus was himself throughout the race. Being 16-months-old, he ate, slept, played, cried and laughed just as he always does. It was part of day-to-day life for both of them, and it was fun to watch.
In the end, there truly is nothing like racing on a sailboat, and to do it over many miles and days on the ocean with friends and family made it that much more of a unique and exhilarating adventure. No matter what the peaks and valleys were, we were aboard Yahtzee for that memorable experience, and that’s what it is all about.
For full results of the race visit OregonOffshore.org.