Yep. I’ll be the first to admit it. I failed at the first stage of the R2AK this year.
I’m home in Seattle after a big weekend. I feel like someone’s been jumping on my chest.
As I’ve promised, I’m doing a full write up of the day. What went wrong, what went right, and what I should have done differently.
The weather forecast had had slight shifts all week; it generally had settled down to be forecast 5-15 knots out of the south east until around noon, when 15-20 knots out of the west were forecast. the tide was set to shift at Victoria around the same time as the wind, around noon, then die again at dark.
Initially, I had decided to take a conservative track, heading for Dungeness Spit, waiting out the westerly, and then crossing to Victoria. I even had gone so far as to talk it over with RaceBoss, and let him know this was my intention.
I abandoned this prudent plan, that bore success for many other teams for the riskier plan to cross the straight in one go. Let’s go into why.
As the forecast shifted, I got greedy. I did the math, and if I averaged 4.5 knots I would have made my turn off of Albert Head (35 nm out) in 7 3/4 hours, roughly hitting it at 12:45 and being close enough to shore at that point that there wouldn’t be significant fetch for the waves. Studying the canadian current atlas, This would put me right at the start of a back eddy that would suck me in towards esquimalt, and then along the Victoria harbor mouth. if i could make 5 knots, the turn came at 12:00. if i did 5.5, the turn came at 11:30. With the 1-3 knot current assist i’d have until about noon, these speeds looked realistic.
As the wind forecast shifted, the projected winds in the first half of the day grew more and more favorable. Bruce’s Briefs forecast called for 10-15 knots, potentially gaining to 15-20 knots out of the southeast by 7-9am, falling and turning from the west sometime before noon. NOAA called for 3-5 foot following seas.
The Minnow does very well in those conditions- a wing-on-wing run before winds like that with decent interval following seas in those wind ranges pushes the boat along nicely as it surfs. 5 knots without current assisting would have been believable, if not conservative. If it was anything, the bump from 10-15 to 15-20 in the south easterlies in the forecast pushed me over the edge to go for it.
The previous year, I had come in, at night, in 25 knot westerlies. the forecast called for 25-30 kn. I’ve had the boat in those conditions before, and while they aren’t ideal, I felt that even if that was what happened, I’d be fine. worst case, I’d make for Oak Bay, riding the now flowing current along to shelter.
At the time, it seemed doable. However, the weather didn’t play out exactly as it was forecast to. The south and southeasterly winds, never filled in. I doubt they got to 5 knots. The westerlies, however came in at roughly double what was forecast. The lighthouse station at Trial island reported 50 knot winds. the seas, likewise, doubled. The forecast was for 3-5 foot seas, and Trial island reported 9 foot seas. I would not be surprised if i saw more, downwind of where those measurements were taken. For those of you who don’t know what all that means, here’s a breakdown. 50 knot winds is roughly what you feel driving down the highway at 60 mph. 9 feet is the height of a single story building. The power of the wind has a crazy relationship to it’s speed. the power of the wind is equal to the cube of it’s speed. this means that the wind was not twice as powerful as expected because the speed doubled; the power of the wind was around eight times more powerful than what was forecast.
Had I known either that the forecast was overestimating the south easterlies, or that it was underestimating the westerlies, I would have taken a much different path, and headed for Dungeness Spit. As it was, my plan got hit with both barrels.
With that being said, I’m going to go into the play-by play of the events of the day.
The race began early. 5:00 AM start. Since I had issues at the start last year, I was first out of the marina, at 4, rowing to get upwind of the start line. After a little assist before the start from Thomas, (last year’s Searunners) I was set up just east of the ferry terminal, on a slow sail with the gentile current. The southeasterlies were faint, and failing. most of the trip around Point Wilson and thru the rips was current.
Once in the strait, I eyed the chart plotter. I needed to make my average speed as high as I could, and didn’t want to sit around waiting for the southeasterlies, so I decided to lock the boom down, poled out against my telescoping boat hook at a good trim,, and begin to row.
The wind, stayed faint. I rowed, giving it my all and navigating by the chart plotter in the waterproof box next to me. Rowing, combined with the faint wind, my speed was hitting 3.5-3.9 knots. Averaged with the rest of the recorded track since just before the 5:00 am start, I was averaging 3.4 knots. at this point, I was just past the no-go zone when I put my confidence in the forecast south easterlies, figuring when they showed up I would get to the speeds I needed to make my numbers to put me off Albert Head when the tide and wind switched. I called Race command on the radio and told them I was going to go for it.
I rowed for 6 or 7 hours, mostly on my near ideal rhumb line course, following the compass heading until the wind shifted to the west. I was in good spirits, passed a few boats, neither the first nor the last in sight. I held a 3.5 knot average course the whole time. I snacked when I needed to, although i wasn’t drinking enough fluids, as I focused on the oars, waiting for winds in my favor that would never come.
As the current slacked, I found myself past the parts of the straits where land is not all that visible, well along my path, yet still about 10 nm from where I wanted to be. My average speed under oar started to drop. first to 3.4, then 3.2, then 3.1. my observed speed was no longer 3.4-3.9 kn ; it was 1.9-2.0 kn.
About an hour after that, the faint west winds started to come. I tacked, and consigned myself to making for oak bay or somewhere in that direction. I saw Noddy’s Noggins behind me on a similar course.
I do not think anyone who was not out there can truly understand how fast that west wind and seas came in. I would not be surprised if we went from dead calm to 30 knots in less than 20 minutes. It was as if a switch turned. By the time I got a reef in, I found it hard to tack, having to backwind the mizen on the third or fourth attempt to push the bow over and get back on a northerly course. Backwinding the mizen by grabbing the mizzenboom caused the mizensheet to wrap around the end of the mizzenbumpkin, making adjusting that sail difficult. I was on a reach, trying to maintain forward momentum and pointing into the larger waves that came.
As I was screaming along, a sail was on the horizon. Team Chum was out there, ahead of me. I did my best to go astern of them, while still avoiding turning downwind, as I didn’t want these 8-10 footers hitting me on my stern.
I just barely passed astern of them, briefly our boats made contact. I yelled, asking if they were OK. They looked terrified. I continued to haul ass northbound, and when I talked to James later, He said I just disappeared, there one minute, gone after they tried to look for me after tending to their boat. by the time they turned around to look for me, I was gone, not visible with the height of the seas approaching the height of my mast. Later, over the following few days me and James talked over Facebook at lulls in my land trip home; about how terrified they’d been, what conditions were like, how both our boats handled the seas, a solidified a friendship with a shared harrowing experience that had begun months earlier when I offered advice on how to fix their donated outboard.
Soon after passing Team Chum, I managed to retrieve and extend the boat hook, using it to unwrap the mizensheet, regaining easy control of the mizen sail, using it to control the weather helm.
I continued to haul north, on a reach, pointing to take the waves as best as I could on the bow, trying to get past the edge of Vancoover island where I hoped the decreased fetch would blunt the waves and wind.
It was not to be. The intense winds blew the boat at a 45 degree angle at the crest of a wave, and I eased the mainsheet as much and as fast as I could, but the next wave broke right as it hit the boat, and rolled it on it’s side. Not even the fender I had lashed to the top of my mast prevented it from going all the way over, and I was in the water, on the windward side of the boat, with it upside down. I came up with my glasses on my face, but with one lens missing.
I’d put alot of thought into this happening. planning. building. thinking, if this happens, What do i do. What comes next. First, I remembered what SAR had said, that they’d like to know as soon as you’re having trouble that you might need help, and that most major issues happen because people delay in notifying them. I swam around to the other side of the overturned boat, and grabbed the lanyard ring that the VHF was clipped into. I pulled it over to me by the lanyard, and tried to bring up 16 to make them aware of my issues. having alot to deal with, I changed plans, and decided to just pop the DSC distress button and give details later, after I attempted my own rescue.
Swimming back around to the windward side, I tried to hoist myself out of the water to grab the centerboard. This took alot of effort. While I am not in terrible shape, The 7 hours of rowing had put a strain on my upper body, and this combined with the cold water to sap my steingth a bit below where it normally would have been. I managed to get it, and put my weight on the side of the boat, and slowly, the boat came over a bit,onto it’s side. I stood on the dagger board, holding the rail, and got it partially righted. I managed to uncleat the mainsheet and main halyard from the cabin top, and grab the mizzen sheet and pull it tight and tie it off to a dock cleat o nthe cabin top.
Standing on the centerboard, the boat slowly came upright. The tightly sheeted mizzensail caught the wind, and turned the bow towards the waves. The automatic 3700 GPH crash pump came on, throwing water in a 2 foot arc out the back of the boat. After a few minutes, the pump started cavitating, showing it had pulled most of the water from the boat. the foam mattress I lined the bottom of the cabin with kept the sloshing of the little water left in the cabin to a minimum. I swam to the stern corner and used the mizzen bumpkin to haul myself on deck. I removed the rudder from the rudder box, and shoved it in the cabin, to further exaggerate how far the mizzensail was behind the daggerboard, to promote the boat self-steering into the waves.
I hauled in the radio, and cancelled the DSC call, and reached out to authorities on channel 16.
I was beat. the boat was intact, with a bit of extra weight from the absorbed water in my gear. The rowing, combined with the successful righting had worn me out. The Drysuit did it’s job, keeping me dry and while I was a little cold, I was not hypothermic or shivering. I was just totally tired.
I rested in the boat, drifting downwind. I talked to oak bay rescue and the Canadian authorities about a tow, but the current sea state made us decide that that wouldn’t be a good idea. So I drifted, with the Canadians keeping watch. Eventually, as I came up on San Juan island and the seas eased. At this point, I probably could have continued, but I opted to give up and withdraw from the race. I accepted my failure, and went on from there. Oak bay Rescue took me in tow and we had the American coast guard dispatch a tow from Vessel Assist.
Vessel Assist towed me to Roche harbor, George stayed in the boat to keep watch. I got a ride back to Friday Harbor, and spent the night in the Anacortez ferry terminal, still in my drysuit. a shout out on Facebook brought Rick Landreville to the terminal in the morning, as he had spent the night in Bellingham on his way to Seattle to fly down for the Texas 200. As he was the original builder of this boat, we had an interesting conversation with someone else familiar with the boat about the boat and conditions, and what worked and what didn’t.
After a few hour long nap in Seattle, I loaded up the trailer and spent the day retrieving the boat from Roche Harbor.
Looking back, I can say I never panicked. I never was terrified, nor had the fear of death in me. It was always always ‘what’s next’, focused on the task at hand, and what came after that. This isn’t necessarily a good thing. Tunnel vision towards a goal blinds you to alternate paths, and fear can be a good thing. This is an aspect of myself and my personality I’ll be doing much thinking on in the coming months.
So that’s it. That’s the story of how I failed the first leg of the 2017 R2AK.
What could I have done different?
I should have calculated a ‘point of no return’ and if the morning winds hadn’t filled in by that point, made for Dungeness spit.
I should have taken into account the toll the rowing would have on me and headed into the wind and drifted rather than run once the westerlies arrived, as I had plenty of sea room at that point. .
I should have deployed my canvas bucket sea anchor and parked the boat into the wind before the capsize, and just ridden it out rather than run.
I’m sure if i thought about it I could come up with many other lessons, and i’m sure in the weeks and months ahead i’ll be thinking about it and come up with more takeaways.
The final result is that the boat has zero damage; with the exception of a little water intrusion to the waterproof electrical system. It’s built like a tank. the planning I did in case everything went wrong pretty much paid off.
I’ve already had a few people ask me if I’ll be going again next year. While me and my wife have a one month moratorium on discussing the next year of an event until a month after the event happens, I can say a few things.
I still love small boats. I still love sailing. I’ve become less and less enamored with the minnow in the last year, as I crewed on other boats at CYC, sailed dinghies that are much easier to drive to weather, and got to do a number of trips on my family’s Catalina 30 (the Abendstern) that we purchased last year. The Minnow is a great boat, but for it’s size it is a lot of work and a grueling boat to sail sometimes. It’s slow, and any chop makes it point far less than ideal. I’ve also gotten to do more sailing that isn’t solo, and my excitement for solitude on the sea has become tempered with an appreciation of the camaraderie that sailing with a crew brings to the experience. I already feel that i’d proved myself with the minnow last year. I’d definitely want a little less of a shoestring than I had this year. I also am not sure the Raceboss would approve me with the same boat and plan, after the scare I gave them this year. Ditto for the wife.
So, I’d have to say, at this point if I were to return to a future R2AK, It’d probably be with a plan that does not much resemble 2016 and 2017. Probably on a different boat, and probably in a crew of other like-minded nutcasses.
Overall, I’d still say it was overall a positive experience, and it has given me a fresh face and the ‘grand reset’ a good sailing trip has always had on my personality and stress levels. I look forward to tackling the next few months of life with renewed vigor.
As I write this, George is off for a day at his favorite monkey-day spa. With extra fabric softener. He’s earned it.
So that was my ‘hot take’ of the 2017 first-year gale, written the day after I got back. If you want to hear a version of the story told after the fact with the benefit of more perspective and three beers, the Boldly Went Podcast had me tell the story in front of a live bar-room audience. You can listen to that at https://www.boldlywentadventures.com/75-backcountry-ski-canadian-rockies-race-to-alaska.html.