2003 Regatta del Sol al Sol Report

Every once in a while, you need to just go do it.  I am flying home from the 35th annual Regata del Sol al Sol (the Sun to Sun Regatta) held every year between St. Petersburg, Florida and Isla Mujeres, Mexico (just off Cancun).  I raced on an Island Packet (what else?) 420 owned by a local surgeon, his friend, and three employees of our local dealership, Island Yachting Centre.  Ian Jarman and his staff, like many of our other larger dealers, have figured out the importance of getting involved with their customers and their lifestyles.

The Regatta this year consisted of 39 yachts, ranging from a Transpac 52 (a top speed, hi-tech sled drawing over 10 feet and weighing less than a loaded Island Packet 350) to an older Morgan 30.  Roughly half the fleet competed in the “Cruising Class” although the Island Packet was in the more competitive “Non-Spinnaker” racing division.

 The race began almost two hours late after the race committee struggled with the setting the starting line in the 30+ knots of breeze that awaited us in Tampa Bay.  Within five hours of the start, winds had increased to over forty knots, and a “perfect storm” was brewing.  A fast moving low pressure system, feeding on the warm Gulf water and taking advantage of the El Niño system, formed into a unpredicted “Meso-convective complex,” spilling 15-18 foot seas, rain, hail, lightning, and winds in excess of 50 knots onto the fleet.

Three boats turned back before the 500-mile race was twelve hours old.  Seasickness also took a toll on many crews, and another eight boats would drop out before the twenty-four hour mark.  Before it was all over, 20 boats would be listed as DNF, many of which simply gave up in the light and drifting conditions that befell much of the fleet on day three.  Like most sailing experiences, I learned a great deal about our boats, our crew, and myself during the trip.  I’d like to pass on a couple of my observations:

First, a well prepared boat (and that starts at the design process, follows through with construction and commissioning, and encompasses final equipment selection and crew preparedness) makes a big difference in the experience one will have when sailing.  Our group, and our yacht, was one of the very few that finished the race without damage of some kind or another.  Ripped sails, broken spars, crew injuries and other damage will keep several Florida shipyards and chiropractors busy over the next several months.

Next, there are different experiences to have when sailing different kinds of boats.  Although this sounds obvious, and Bob Johnson commented on this in a memo after competing in the Bermuda Ocean Race over ten years ago, the lesson is still very real.  No doubt now that the fastest way to get to Isla Mujeres was on that Transpac 52.  The boat finished the race in a little more than 48 hours, but the entire crew was basically in the cockpit for the entire trip (there is little in “below deck” accommodations).  Likewise, a J105 and J120 also competed and finished high on the leader board, but the crews for these three boats were nowhere to be found when we arrived; they had all quickly checked into a hotel for a hot shower, a hot meal and some much needed sleep.  Meanwhile, I can happily report that the crew of Reflection not only had the most comfortable accommodations once in Isla Mujeres, we also enjoyed hot showers and several hot meals during the trip, as well as took advantage of the onboard generator and air conditioning systems to make sleeping conditions as nice as possible in the humid climate.  I can also report that, despite our rather posh environment, we still finished second in class and fifth overall, a credible performance, especially when you consider we beat, boat for boat, a Farr 36, a Sabre 36, a Hinckley 42, a Pacific Seacraft 44, and a Catalina 47.  A quick summary: while the “racing boats” were all trying to dry out interior cushions and gear, and get some rest after a challenging trip, we, in contrast, arrived well rested, dry (except for our foul weather gear) and stayed up all night celebrating the finish.

Third, a personal thank you to Bob, and our boatbuilders, for doing what they do so well.  No one onboard our yacht every felt that they, or the boat, was ever in danger, a feeling not shared by some of other yachts that turned back, retired, or quit.  Even as wind gusts of sixty knots were registered onboard, the yacht was quiet, under control and never complained.

Despite the high winds and seas, the weather conditions were not particularly “well suited” for an Island Packet, or at least that is what our critics would say.  Wind was forward of the beam virtually the whole race, and we actually just drifted in whatever current there was for over thirteen hours when a high pressure system moved in and stole every breathe of wind from our area.  As much as we had the high winds, we also had the other extreme.  And at the end, all of us would rather be sailing in 50 knots on an Island Packet than drifting in no air on anything.

The roller furling mast was almost flawless, and played a big part in maintaining crew strength by minimizing time spent reefing and shaking out a fully battened main.  Even when surprised by forty knot winds at night, the sail furled up, under terrific loads, with nary a complaint.  We did manage to jam the system twice, but both were due to operator error: we had lowered the topping lift for sail shape and had forgotten to raise the aft end of the boom again before unfurling.  After a little tugging (and cursing) we got the sail back out again both times in short order.

An unusual, and unanticipated sail combination proved to be unbeatable.  We carried a 150% Mylar, light air sail for the typically light, downwind conditions experienced during this event in years past.  That sail, plus the standard 110% and a 90% jib, were changed with some regularity during the race trying to maintain optimum performance over the wide range of conditions.  (No doubt a short-handed crew would have fared almost as well with our standard sails and using partial furling.)  Nonetheless, we were caught late in the evening by a fast approaching squall line with the 150% out, and not enough time to drop it and get a smaller sail up.  As we tried to furl it up we ran out of furling line (the Harken drum was set up for the 130, but just didn’t have enough line on the spool for the big genoa) and we were left with about 100 square feet of sail exposed.  As the wind hit sixty knots, and held steady over forty knots for the next four hours, we sailed with this handkerchief of a genoa, a full staysail, and a deeply reefed main.  We sailed at over ten knots through the water for the first hour, and over eight knots for the next four, putting fifty extra miles between us and the boat closest to us before the storm hit.  I had the helm for two hours of the 40+ knot conditions, as did Ian, and neither of us ever felt the yacht was anything other than under our full control.  The long keel and the cutter rig allowed us to sail in conditions that would be unimaginable to most landlubbers.  We again thanked Bob several times over the course of our watch that night.

“The Sea is a Harsh Mistress” might be a good title for a novel (with apologies to Robert A. Heinlein) and might make for good reading, but nowhere do you learn what’s it’s really all about without getting out there and doing it.  As the third storm system moved in to overtake us just five miles from the finish line, and we all calmly donned our foul weather gear, tightened our harnesses, and braced ourselves to the lightning, rain, and 45 knot winds, I couldn’t help but think of the Far Side cartoon showing the three (?) men falling into a bottomless pit.  The first frame, entitled, “Day 1” shows the three with their eyes all bugged out, they’re screaming at the top of their lungs, and clutching for anything to hold onto, including each other.  The second frame, labeled, “Day 10” shows the same three calmly playing cards, telling jokes, and enjoying their friendship as they continue their free fall.  Experience truly is a great teacher.

Best regards,