Thursday, February 16, 2017

Bermuda 1-2 Race - how I got here

It’s official. I have been accepted as a Bermuda 1-2 skipper for the 2017 race.  How did I get here?

The Bermuda 1-2 is in its 40th year in 2017 and is a race in which solo sailors race from Newport to Bermuda, then after a break of a few days, pick up a crew member and race double-handed back. It has been my goal to participate in this race since about 2010.

I am a relative newcomer to sailing, only started sailing 10 years ago, and only really seriously for the past two years. My first attempt to sail was as a graduate student I was at the Cold Spring Harbor laboratories, and a fellow student asked if I wanted to sail. Not being one to shy from adventure I said “of course”. We got in this very small dingy and within about 10 yards we capsized. When we bobbed up he asked me how to get the boat right side up! Neither of us realized that neither of us had sailed before. It was an afternoon of trial and error. We got the boat upright, realized that piece of wood (centerboard) should probably stick through the hull, then we started trucking downwind, away from shore. Superb fun. It gradually dawned on us that sailing upwind might be different. Not knowing the words tack and jibe, nor what the procedures were, we made a turn, jibed, capsized, and got wet again. This was the repeating story of the afternoon. But we watched other boats, let them be our teacher and by the end of the afternoon had largely figured out how to sail upwind and downwind.

Fast forward about 28 years and my eldest kid was leaving for college and I realized that with my kids leaving I would have a bit a spare time on my hands. I love watersports, maybe I could start some water activity in my spare time. Kayaking was the obvious first choice.

In middle school I was a competitive white water kayaker. In woodwork and metalwork classes we were taught how to fiberglass and to make kayaks. My kayaking buddy, Tony Price and I, decided we could use this to our advantage over the summer. Not having enough cash to buy a kayak, we took pre-orders on about 10 from friends, persuaded someone to drive us to London to rent a kayak mold, returned to Swindon and proceeded to knockout a kayak a day. By the end we had enough cash and supplies to make ourselves our own kayaks for free. Of course we made ours last after we had the process finely tuned. I guess this was my first entrepreneurial adventure. 

We spent many weekends camping and racing in our kayaks that we were so proud of. Tony was a great kayaker, I was average, but we had a lot of fun. We would kayak around the upper reaches of the River Thames on weekend school trips and do insane acts of shooting down dams. One day, I had a serious accident: shot the dam, did a 180 spin at the bottom and was trapped upside down with water pinning me between the kayak and a rock. The force of the water left me unable to flip the kayak back upright. We kayaked using a buddy system – my buddy for the day Mark, came to my rescue got the nose of his boat to me allowing me to pull my head out of the water to get a little air. Slowly, I pulled myself out of the kayak. Kayaking has never been the same since. I want the rush and excitement of the white water, but I lost my edge.

So as I was thinking about what to do in my spare time I decided to try sailing, rather than kayaking, and see whether I could learn to do it properly. Living in Philadelphia at the time I took ASA 101 and 103 courses on the Delaware river with my son Dan. This is when we learned the difference between a tack and a jibe. We had a lot of fun then went to St Augustine and took ASA 104. This qualified us to Bareboat charter. I decided to charter a boat in the BVI for my 50th birthday. Rather than recounting all my sailing mishaps and adventures, there is one to share. My family came with me and we returned to Tortola a day early because Julia was sick. They insist on docking in reverse. Anyone new to sailing knows that this isn’t really what you practice. I made a total shitshow of it. But we eventually reversed in. Prop walk – ahh, I didn’t understand yet how to use it to my advantage. The next day Dan and I went for a day sail. We practiced and practiced reversing, using mooring balls to line up on. Dan did the best job so when we came back to Tortola, we decided he could reverse us in to the slip. As we approached we hailed the dockmaster. We gave the name of the boat and he said – come in bow first. Well that would have been fine, but what we forgot was that Dan had never docked bow first – I always did that. Wrong person at the helm! But we survived, lived to tell the story and to have many more exciting adventures sailing.

Cruising in Boston
When we moved to Boston we initially cruised for a season on a Sailtime timeshare. This summer told me that I was ready for a boat. It seemed the weekends we weren’t on the rotation then the weather was great. When it was our turn, the weather was awful, or we set sail, only to have to turn around to return to port in time for the end of our 3h allocation. I couldn’t stand another year of not sailing when I wanted too, especially since from our condo we look at the harbor and all the others sailing.

We purchased a boat that is a very comfortable cruiser. Yolande is less into sailing than myself so we brought a comfortable boat that I could have fun with and that she could enjoy relaxing on. For several years we have spent summers and evenings cruising around Boston, as well as up to Bar Harbor Maine and down to Manhattan. Generally these are daysails and we stop somewhere overnight. There were times, such as when we go to Maine, where we would leave Boston in the morning sail through the night and get up into Penobscot day the next morning or afternoon. Generally, Yolande would sleep through the night, except for a 15 minute break so that I could take a nap, and I would essentially solo the trip. Nights at sea are magical. Through this cruising I got to enjoy higher and higher winds, more adverse conditions and learning how to push myself.

Every time we would be near a boat, a race seemed to develop. Well in my mind at least. In the summer I would start work very early so that by 4pm I could head home to the marina and sail in the evening. Many times we got mixed up in the middle of evening races. The Constitution Yacht Club holds their evening series on Wednesday’s and it was very enjoyable to watch them sailing around in what looked like pandemonium, but what was clearly a well-orchestrated affair on their part. But I only knew one rule – starboard tack is the stand on vessel. Generally we tried to stay away from the races so as not to interfere with their fun, and perhaps to ensure that we didn’t get caught up with their boats. But it sure was intriguing.

In the winter of 2014/15 I decided to keep our boat Prairie Gold, in the water at Constitution marina. Then I saw that there was a New Year’s day race. What the heck, I decided to enter it since it seemed that it wasn’t just serious racers. This race was a pursuit race – each boat has a handicap and there is a staggered start so that if all sail equally well, all boats will cross the finish line at the same time. Well that’s the theory. With a crew of friends we started the race and had such a blast. It was a lot of fun to be trying to sail at maximum efficiency and to be looking out for other boats – at this stage just to avoid them, later to play with them and to try to legally impede their progress. We had a great sail and didn’t come last. We took that as a victory.

After this entry into racing, or should I say participating in a race, made me want for more. So we joined the CYC and entered the Wednesday evening inner harbor races. I must admit the first few starts were a little intimidating since everyone except for me seemed to know what they were doing. But after a few weeks we got more aggressive and the starts began to grow on me. I was pleasantly surprised that the racers were really helpful and happy that we were on the course with them. I quipped that they were happy because they knew that they wouldn’t come last! In all seriousness we had crew come up, welcome us and offer to help if we needed or wanted help. Heck, we can do with all the help there is.

Before racing I was concerned that being an absolute amateur would cause problems for others. But everyone has welcomed us to the club and is happy we are participating.

Our crew is a bunch of local friends with varying levels of skill. Some are from our condo association and my goal is to get people to participate and enjoy time on the water.

Now two years later we have raced several times and even placed occasionally. But I yearn for those long offshore sails. During the past year I have been doing more short-handed sailing with the goal of entering the Bermuda 1-2. In 2016 I competed in the offshore 160 out of Newport Yacht Club. This is a qualifier for the B1-2. After drifting with no wind for 10 hours I decided to abandon the race. But I had sailed sufficiently long (time and distance) to be accepted as an entrant to the B1-2 in 2017. My goals for 2017 are simple – to sail and finish, and drink at least one dark n stormy in Bermuda.

One of the elements of the elements of solo sailing that I love is the necessity to personally push oneself and manage your physiology for days on end. In my job some of my research concerns the regulation of sleep. Thus I am going to use the B1-2 as an experiment in sleep regulation and am trying to persuade a friend to write an app to measure my reaction time when I am sleep-deprived. Not only will I collect data but wish to use this as a way of providing feedback to inform me when I should nap. However, to get this all to work I need to convince my mate to get an iphone rather than an android.

I am now in the stage of making many modifications to the boat (a future blog entry) to achieve the safety requirements of the race and then it will be time to try to log some polar coordinates during April and May so that I can effectively use weather routing software during the voyage. More on that later. 

Monday, January 23, 2017

Sailing SLICE

Prairie Gold has no mast at the moment while we get her new standing rigging. So this weekend Chuck asked if I would like to join him on his boat s/v SLICE. I jumped at the chance and sailed in calm conditions with Chuck and Ron. Winds were light but there was nice wind near the city. We attempted to head out on the New Year's day race course - #13, #12 and back. But when we got to #13 the wind dies. So we turned around and headed for home. On the way we picked up the wind local to the city. Sitting at the dock in the cockpit later with a beer, sunshine and watching the day go by was glorious.

Monday, January 16, 2017

2016 Summary – On the podium a few times

2016 was our second year participating in races (I was going to say competing, but participating is probably the best word to describe our efforts). It was very enjoyable and we are slowly coming up the curve. Certainly I am learning more about tight quarter sailing and boat handling. This year we even got on the podium several times in our fleet:

1st in Rumble.
2nd JFK regatta.
2nd Boston Harbor Islands Race.
3rd in the 2016 Wednesday evening CYC race series.
3rd in the ONE regatta doublehanded.
3rd Beringer bowl, doublehnaded.

We entered numerous races, which hindered our cruising. First race of the year was the Figawi from Hyannis to Nantucket, and later in the season the Round the Island (RTI) Race at Martha’s Vineyard.

In 2016 we significantly improved as a crew while at the same time continuing to maintain the spirit of enjoying a mid week break with friends. Put another way, we didn’t take ourselves too seriously.

Some really memorable races were the Beringer bowl that I sailed with a good friend Chuck Fluhr. This was from Marblehead via outer Boston harbor to Provincetown. We set off at about 7pm and arrived 3-4am. It was a blast with lots of wind. After the race was over it was fun to sit in the cockpit with a beer and watch the sun rise. Another was the ONE regatta which was doublehanded with condo neighbor friend Morgan and involved an overnight race followed by a shorter 14nm race. Finally, placing second in the JFK race second as fun since I sailed it doublehanded with Yolande.

Perhaps one night that I will never forget was when all of my crew had a condo meeting and so I raced solo in the Wednesday evening race. At the start the wind was about 15kts, but grew to 25 with gusts to over 30kts. Four or five boats retired, one broke its steering cable and my goal was to hang on and finish. I tethered myself to the boat and was glad I did since one gust knocked the boat way over on her side and I was hanging on with one hand around a winch. The adrenaline was coursing through the veins.

From the Wednesday evening racing and the RTI and Figawi it was clear that we are less competitive in conditions other than high winds. Near the end of the season we decided to remedy this, well as much as we can, by buying a larger genoa and a larger asymmetric spinnaker. Previously we were sailing with a 135% genoa, which is fine in medium to heavy winds, and with a 841 sq foot asymm. We upgraded to a 150% genoa and an ~1200sq foot asymm. This has dramatically improved low-medum wind performance with little impact on our handicap rating. When combined with other changes we have made – folding propeller, and an extra pair of winches – it will make short handed sailing more competitive.

For many years I have been quite excited by short-handed sailing. I am not exactly certain why, but perhaps it’s the personal challenge of battling fatigue and ones mind and body. I have wanted to do some long distance sails and why not combine my enjoyment of the thrill of racing with being offshore and doing it alone? My goal in 2017 is to enter the Bermuda 1-2, a real personal challenge to race solo from Newport to Bermuda and then back to Bermuda with a crew member, doublehanded.

To qualify for the race one has to demonstrate the ability to sail offshore solo. I entered the Offshore 160 organized by Newport Yacht Club. This was a great event with some excellent sailors. I was sailing for about 40h solo and managed to go through the whole process of sleep deprivation, while still keeping the boat running. Learned more about sleep schedules while sailing and the frustrations of long periods of little to no wind (150% genoa will be great for my next adventures). I even experienced sleep deprivation induced hallucinations. From this race I have qualified for the B1-2 in 2017 and have now entered and am accepted.

All in all a great season and we learned a lot about boat handling.

Stay tuned for an update on all the preparations for the B1-2.

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Third place in the ONE (Offshore New England) Regatta Doublehanded Division

Morgan and I entered the Doublehanded race at the ONE regatta to get some preparation for more long distance racing. Although I enjoy almost any form of competition I prefer the long sails where there is the additional element of navigating the waters, using weather forecasts to your advantage (or disadvantage) and managing sleep patterns and fatigue and minimizing resulting human errors.

We sailed over to Marblehead, briefly docked and picked up our race packet and scurried off to the start line for a 5:30pm warning signal. Winds were light, very light, although predicted to pick up at about 11pm and turn from the SW to NW, then later to turn to the NE. Initially the sea breeze and the offshore breeze were playing with one another and confusing the start. We had our kite ready to hoist as soon as we started, but then the wind changed 180 degrees, true to the forecast, minutes before the start, presumably as the sea breeze was declining.

Our route was the 64nm course which sent us to three marks: G1 south of the start line, then east to R2 off Gloucester, then south down to near Plymouth and then straight back to Marblehead.

This now lead to a windward first leg and in very light winds (3-4kts) we kept close to the start line and nailed the start. We were across within seconds of the starting horn. At this point we realized that our Wednesday evening around the cans racing with Constitution Yacht Club have really honed some of our skills. The start is one area that we have made major improvements. What used to be intimidating is now a lot of fun. Compared to the rest of the fleet we were initially way ahead. We slowly tacked up to the G1 mark and were passed by two infamous offshore racers – Mike Piper and Greenie (Jonathan Green). They both have rich sailing histories: Greenie won the OSTAR and both have sailed numerous times in the Newport- Bermuda race. Here is a picture taken from Jeroboam as they passed us.

Another area that our Wednesday evening racing has helped in is with spinnaker deployment. With short downwind legs you need to get the kite up (and down) quickly. As we approached G1 we were able to set the kite – first to do so in the fleet. (We chalk up any first as a victory).

By the time we rounded R2 at Gloucester we were happy that the current was heading to the east since the wind was so light we only had enough speed over water to provide a little steerage and the current was helping us get to this mark. But as we turned 90degrees to head south our heading and course were 60 degrees different. We were pointing south, making 0.2 kts over water (in the right direction) but the current was taking us to the Atlantic. For 2 hours we moved slowly. From previous races I have found there are two choices. Work your butt off to try to get an extra 0.1 kt, or use the time to rest. Previously I have done the former and then the wind gets up and you need to work and find no time for rest. So this time I chose to take rest. I attached our new cockpit lee cloth that Yolande (shore crew and joint boat owner) had finished minutes before we disembarked from Boston.

This lee cloth allows me to be held in to the cockpit and sleep and be ready to make adjustments as needed, but importantly to rest. Yolande always looking for an opportunity to use her sewing skills to advantage decided to design a solution. With the correct positioning I can see the instruments, hear alarms and then check course on my ipad without getting out of bed. Also with an alarm to wake me I can sit up “in bed” look around 360 degrees to check for other boat traffic and go back to sleep. This will be great for solo sailing. I managed to rest for 45 minutes with a few naps. The lee cloth was great. Thanks!

We continued to make slow progress and then the winds started moving to the NE and picking up to 6-7kts. Kite was deployed and were were starting to make a couple of kts. Gradually we were going faster. On radar we could see 3 boats ahead of us and were beginning to gain on them.

We have some overnight traditions in Prairie Gold. If the wind permits, that is, it's not too strong, we bbq. Tonight was a night for this. So we made bacon and cheddar infused burgers. Delicious.

In short races the kite needs to be constantly trimmed. In shorthanded racing the goal is to trim less frequently in order to minimize fatigue. In the light winds, and the dark, I was able to sit in the corner holding the sheet and just feel the pressure in the sail and whether the luff was folding. It was incredible how sensitive your sense of pressure is when its dark (and you are rested).

Morgan and I took turns sleeping/napping/resting and came through the night not too tired. Well, its easy to say that now after a good night of sleep.

Winds grew and were had 10-12kts of wind allowing us to sail at 5+ kts. As we approached the Scituate area the wind died on us. I think I blew it here as I may have taken us a little too close to land before gybing and heading back out to sea. I think the tip of land may have acted as a barrier to the light winds. I feel it's important to look at these events and see if they could be overcome. I would certainly not go so close (2-3nm) in the future. The other boats were a little further offshore and just kept going and pulled away. It was a little depressing, but I tried to keep focus on the long game: we weren’t half-way to the finish yet. Lot’s of sailing still to do.

We clawed our way down towards Plymouth to a mark and again lost the wind. This mark was close to land so we had another of those winds blocks. As we were approaching the mark we saw two boats heading back north. Initially a red mast head light, which was Jeraboam, and then we saw Atalanta, the overall winner of the regatta, just as the sun was rising.

We rounded the mark and started north. The wind prediction software we had used indicated that the wind would build, turn to the north then the north east and would then start to calm down closer to the west. Before the race the strategy that I had mapped out was to head NE, close hauled, then as the wind was turning tack across on a WNW heading and let the continued turning of the wind allow us to point up to a direct course to Marblehead.

It worked, almost flawlessly. We kept good wind pressure by being further east, the turn in the wind came, but just as we were to tack I second guessed and delayed 30 minutes. After we tacked we had a great heading and with time could point straight to Marblehead eventually the wind turned more and we got the kite out. We could have tacked earlier and saved some time but we were concerned about losing wind further to the west.

As we were nearing Marblehead we saw Chuck and Trisha on Slice as they passed us. They got some great shots of Prairie Gold.

We finished at about 1:30pm and were really happy to see that we must have really caught up on the fleet on the upwind leg. Of course we have no idea why but I will claim that our upwind strategy helped us.

We cleaned up, flew the flags, went to the onshore party and were interviewed by the local media – I think we must have looked so ramshackle that they took pity on us. Then drank maybe a little too much rum, had a great conversation with other doublehanders as well as members of the CYC and went back to the boat at about 8pm for a good night of sleep.

On Sunday we headed off to the start line. Ughh, no wind. It was sufficiently calm and warm that people were sailing off the sterns of their boats.

Start was delayed until about noon. It was a good call on their part as the winds were projected to increase. This race was around Salem Bay, a 14nm course. It was a lot of fun and we could use our round the cans skills. Another great start. Throughout the race we were neck and neck with Atalanta. She does well on direct downwind legs since she has a symmetric spinnaker and ours is asymmetric. But we have the advantage on a reach. We were faster on the initial upwind leg, but then downwind she overtook us. Then the next third of the race was a reach. We passed her. Then the penultimate section was upwind. We pulled away further. The final leg was downwind and by now the winds were 16-18kts. Up went the kite, the boat shuddered and we felt like we took off!

Overall we finished third in the doublehanded division of the regatta. It was a heck of a lot of fun. The other shorthanded sailors are a great bunch and have a real sense of community wanting to help one another.

The regatta is an event I will return to next year. Regardless of our placement we were really happy with our performance. Especially on Sunday we raced essentially a flawless race. We pushed the boat to her limits, and are beginning to understand best sail deployment under different conditions. 

Ohh, and we came third overall.

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

The Round the Island Race (RTI)

We decided to enter the RTI which is hosted by Edgartown Yacht Club. We competed last year, had a blast and wanted to incrementally improve this year. Our core crew were not available but I managed to get Willie to join me, together with two sailing friends of his. So we have a crew of four experienced sailors and they have lots of racing experience. My hope was to learn lots…..Willie sails on many boats and helps coach skippers. On Wednesday evenings he sails on Charisma 2.

Willie and I delivered the boat from and to Boston for the race in Martha’s Vineyard. We started off at 9pm on Thursday and motored through the night arriving near Edgartown by 11am Friday. As we were arriving the fast boats were coming out of Edgartown to compete in the Round the Buoy races that take place in the days prior to the RTI. It was drizzling then raining but we decided to watch before heading into the harbor. These boats race all up and down the east coast and even head to Key West in the winter for competition. These boats were flying machines. As the countdown to the first start occurred a system came in and the wind dropped to 1-3 kts. The kiss of death for us if we were racing, but the countdown continued. Incredible to watch these boats accelerate in such low wind.

The system produced so much rain that visibility was awful. The race committee boat asked for another boat to head over to the pin end so that they could help see if boats were over the start line early and to help record sail numbers! That’s how bad visibility was.

We took our mooring, had a nap then went to shore to test the local establishments, pick up our race bag and attend the skippers meeting and pre race party. Given that Mount Gay sponsors the event the rum was flowing. During the evening Lars and Dale arrived who were to join us in the race. More rum, dinner then we headed back to the boat.

Since we had not sailed together before and Willie, Lars and Dale had not sailed on Prairie Gold we set off early to have some practice (6:30am). Tacking, accelerating, hoisting the kite and so on.
That's us practicing in the distance (EYC facebook page)

Before long it was our start time (8:30). Winds were low at 3-5kts but we started going and they grew to 10-12 kts.
The start - EYC facebook page

The course was a clockwise circuit around the island. Beneath is a SPOT tracker of our course around the island.

Fortunately the current was with us (2-3kts) heading south down the east side of the island, and again with us as we came up the sound and on to the finish. Very fortunate indeed since the winds dissipated significantly. With a 2-3kt current in our favor in the sound we were making some wind just by drifting which allowed us to sail. But more on that later.
 A little refreshment helps (Dale, Willie and Lars)
 Willie trimming the kite
 It exhausted him
Dale at the helm

Heading down to the southern most mark in the Atlantic we made good pace and were able to close in on many boats. As we rounded that mark we were able to play with a CYC boat, Uncle Joe, and force them up a little. A good bit of banter between the boats. We lost ground heading west because we have a smaller "do it all sail" that doesn't give enough power in low winds. We crawled back and then rounded the mark in the SW corner of the island. Heading up the sound was torture. Current was in our favor, wind was almost non existent. About 5pm (8.5h into the race) Willie calculated that we wouldn’t be in until midnight. All eyes were on the skipper. I went down made dark n stormies to cheer up the crew. A little later the mood was somber again. I said “don’t worry, give me 30 minutes and I will work a wind miracle”. 20 minutes later the wind grew to 10 kts and we were able to finish by about 8pm. This called for a little Elvis Costello - Miracle Man. Phew, I thought we might get mutiny.

Overall we did better than last year. We beat 15 boats who made the full course (fleet 8 and 9 were allowed to have a shorter course because of the slow going). We did manage to beat our CYC competitor Uncle Joe and finished two places behind Enya (also from CYC) in our fleet.

Working with these guys was a lot of fun – they know their stuff and the team gelled together pretty quickly.

On the way home the next day I had Willie working with me on spinnaker hoist and take downs. The goal 15secs. As we sailed up Buzzards Bay we stopped in Onset, just because, then through the canal and then used the kite to sail up to Scituate then the genoa to Minot’s ledge and on home arriving at Constitution Marina at about 1am on Monday.

Willie told me the story of the Minot’s ledge light house light pattern. Apparently a newly wed’s husband went to sea and was lost. She felt he was still alive and asked the lighthouse keeper to send a signal to him in number of flashes – 1-4-3 – I love you.