Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Day 1, The race is on

As we motored south along the Chicago Lakeshore, we encountered several Tartan-10 boats. The Tartan-10 is the largest one-design fleet in the Great Lakes, and as such they have their own 37 boat section in the race to Mackinac. The Tartan-10 boats have a slightly slower rating than the boats in our section (Section 7). Knowing that the Tartan-10’s start the race exactly 10 minutes before we do, we followed them to Navy Pier and eased ourselves into a space between some of them for the parade past the East end of the Pier.

When we were close enough to see people standing on the Pier, I called my parents to let them know to start looking for us and where to look. It was difficult to see individuals in the crowd through the fog and misty rain, but I hoped that the boat was large enough and distinct enough for them to identify. We passed once, headed south, at quite a distance. Then we lined up to head North right alongside the east end of the pier. The captains of each of the boats in the race provided the Chicago Yacht Club with a paragraph of information about their boat and crew that could be used to talk about the boats as they passed by during the parade. As we approached the pier, I could hear the announcer commenting on how he recognized certain boats and trying to read the names off the hulls of the boats he didn’t recognize. Clearly he wasn’t making use of the provided information. A few days after the race I learned that the printouts of the boat information had been destroyed in the rain, and that the announcer was doing what he could with information from the spectators near him, and what he already knew about the various boats.

As I could hear the announcer talking about the boat in front of us, I noticed my mother standing near the announcer on the pier pointing at our boat and talking to the announcer. In the background over the public address system I thought I could hear her voice excitedly asking him to talk about “Cyclone”. He made a comment about how she seemed more excited than anyone else there, and asked her if she’d like to introduce the boat. She agreed and took the microphone.

Everyone on Cyclone seemed entertained by the fact that we had our own personal announcer and that she sounded so excited as she announced our sail number “51804” and explained that this was Cyclone’s first time competing in the Race to Mackinac. My family snapped off a few pictures and a short video, as we all waved to the crowd. We turned east and received an acknowledgement from the committee boat as we made our way out of the breakwater and joined the growing numbers of boats in the starting area.

In the low visibility it took us a short while to find the markers that identify the start line, but we had it all figured out, had our watches synchronized with the race committee starting sequence, had our mainsail raised, and our engine turned off before the 10 minute warning for the Tartan-10 section. Once the Tartan-10 section crossed the start line, the starting area became far less crowded and we found plenty of room to get lined up for our start. We were surprised to hear over the radio that there were less than 5 Tartan-10 boats recalled for crossing the line early. We heard the race committee announce to each of the early boats that they were clear as they returned to the start-line.

When the 5 minute warning sounded for our section we raised our jib. Two minutes before the start we headed parallel to the start-line and checked the time as we passed beyond the floating mark that indicates the end of the line. The “P” semaphore flag indicating “prepare for the start of the race” is dropped from the starting boat flag pole along with the sounding of a horn at exactly one minute before the start of the race, and we used this signal as our indication that it was time to turn the boat around 180 degrees and head back toward the start-line. With 15 seconds until the start for our section, we sailed past the near marker of the start-line and continued parallel to the line for the next 15 seconds. I was surprised that we had such a wide open area at this time. I’m accustomed to a much more crowded start-line with our weekend club races. I suspect that we were fortunate to have a larger than necessary line for our 25 boat section to provide enough room for some of the larger sections that would be starting before and after us. I also suspect that the terribly light winds made it difficult for many of the boats to time their approach to the line. As it was, there were no boats over the line early in our section and moments after the starting gun, we were headed downwind across the line.

Once we were clearly across the line and certain that we weren’t going to run into any issues where we might need to avoid another boat, it was time to launch the spinnaker. We extend the bowsprit, reel in the tack-line to bring the tack of the sail out to the end of the bowsprit, and quickly use the halyard to raise the head of the sail up the mast. I run around to the upwind side of the boat as Holly hands me the Spinnaker sheet. Then I quickly look up at the sail to watch it take shape as it fills with air so I can trim it for the best possible speed given our current heading.

Only it doesn’t fill with air or take shape. It just dangles there like a flag on a windless day. I try pulling it in tight to stretch it as flat as possible in hopes that a light breeze will catch it. I shout to John to head further upwind in hopes that any breeze that might exist will catch it at a good angle. I try letting it out completely in case I’v got it pulled to tight to take shape. I beg for wind and I start pulling it in again. With less than 5 knots of wind and the boat moving at over 1 knot, the breeze just isn’t enough to work even this light-weight sail. After what was probably less than a minute, but felt like twenty minutes, the breeze picked up just enough to fill the sail and we worked our way down the course. Before we had worked our way north back up near Montrose harbor where we began our day, we had already passed several Tartan-10 boats (remember they started 10 minutes before us), and had others that we were catching up to. There were J/105 boats that started after us (they are rated as slightly faster) that were unable to catch up to us. This was a great start to the race, and what little wind we had was coming from the south like we had hoped.

We were aware that the weather report called for changing weather conditions before the race was over, but we were sure feeling good about our accomplishments at this point. The race continued like this as we headed north-east. After several uneventful hours of passing boats and watching the fog get thicker, and knowing that we had days of racing ahead of us I handed off the Spinnaker sheets to Nora and headed down below to get some sleep. My next shift would begin at 8:00pm.